Science

Marianne Williamson Isn’t Anti-Science As Much As She’s Pro-Feelings

Also, she shouldn’t be president.

Marianne Williamson, surrounded by her books.
The problem with Marianne Williamson is that, in extending the cozy affirmativeness of the self-help world to a broader sphere, she ends up overprioritizing feelings.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paula Lobo/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images, Amazon.

First there came the Marianne Williamson adoration. When the presidential candidate closed the second night of the first Democratic debates by explaining that she was “going to harness love for political purposes,” the internet couldn’t get enough (myself included). But by the end of the night, Williamson criticism was also in full force. Jezebel rounded up some of her past tweets, many of which are truly bizarre. There’s a directive to “visualize angels dispersing [nuclear radiation] into nothingness,” and another suggesting we ought to “pour God’s love on our immune systems” to avoid swine flu. The Daily Beast criticized her for claims that we can manifest our own realities and called her “an anti-vaxxer before anti-vaxxers were anti-vaxxers,” noting that she said at a campaign event in mid-June that requiring kids to get vaccines is “draconian.”

We’ll get to see Williamson onstage again on Tuesday—though she’s polling at just half a percent, she’s gathered enough unique donations to make it back in an overcrowded field of candidates. In light of her viral moments during the first debate, and my own boosting of her candidacy, I felt compelled to revisit her work and positions, since, well, recent history suggests it is worth it to understand the positions of even long-shot presidential candidates with no political experience. I wanted to see whether her beliefs, particularly those about science, should give us pause. What I found about her positions was not straightforward. To call her a “wacko,” as the Daily Beast does, or “just a skip and a hop away from a 14-part tweet thread about chemtrails,” as Jezebel does, is to ignore a more complicated—and, I think, dangerous—force. She’s not necessarily against science, she’s just willing to prioritize feelings, hers or yours, over science or facts. Which, frankly, seems to be part of her appeal.

Williamson has weathered the recent criticisms by publicly insisting that she is “not anti-science” and has “never suggested to anyone they should pray away their illness & not see a doctor.” Indeed, her policy plans (yes, despite mocking the concept of plans at the debates, she does have some) are generally pretty science-literate. She notes that climate change deserves dire attention; that we should appoint an environmental scientist as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; that we should have a health care system that allows us to have longer visits with our doctors. She wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have more data on gun ownership. She says, in a full bold and all caps sentence, that she is pro-choice. On the issue of vaccines, she claims that she misspoke, noting that she did not mean to “question the validity of life-saving vaccines.”

Her very language is also imbued with that of biology. Money’s influence on politics is “the cancer that underlies all the other cancers,” she told a Now This reporter recently. The human race has been “infected by a malignant consciousness” that makes us each self-centered, “so now it’s time for the immune system to kick in,” she told Spirituality and Health magazine last fall. In her debut book, A Return to Love, which catapulted her to notoriety as a self-help author in 1992, she wrote, “the world needs healing desperately, like a bird with a broken wing.” In her latest, A Politics of Love, published as part of her campaign rollout, she notes that “to push back against assaults on our freedom” is in our “characterological DNA.”

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She uses scientific language to give emotions, personality, and intentions a physicality. The analogies help convey that she thinks these abstract concepts are as serious as the concrete ones she’s invoking. This central reverence for the mind is what makes her a top-brass self-help author. It’s what draws me to her—the idea that we should prize and tend to our emotional state is helpful, particularly in a world where such actions are so often devalued.

This is visible in her priorities for what she’d do in office. We need “to take all mental health issues as seriously as physical issues,” she notes on the health care page of her campaign website. White supremacy is “poisoning the blood of our collective psyche,” she writes in her latest book; we need to amend the damage it’s done with cold hard cash (this specific proposal explains how she came to be known as the reparations candidate). She also plans to establish a U.S. Department of Peace; what that would entail exactly is unclear, but I can get behind the idea of creating an arm of the government explicitly structured around this goal. In a section on youth (whom she calls “angels”), she argues that “we should help our children develop the emotional and psychological skills to navigate life.” Yes, absolutely.

But the problem with Williamson is that, in extending the cozy affirmativeness of the self-help world to a broader sphere, she ends up overprioritizing feelings. On her reproductive rights page, she notes that “abortion is a moral issue” that everyone should make for themselves, with nary a mention of the fact that it’s often a medical choice, too. In her vaccine mea culpa, she noted that “public safety must be carefully balanced with the right of individuals to make their own decisions.” That sentiment is not wrong on principle but does seem to gloss over some of the factual problems with vaccine refusal and hesitation.

Then there are the examples that really do get the science wrong—situations where Williamson just has a strong feeling that things aren’t as the scientific community sees them. She lists genetically modified organisms as a source of corruption in our food system, which seems to stem from a distrust of large companies. But scientists contend that GMOs are perfectly safe. In her 2010 book, A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight, she writes that fat “is a repository of twisted, distorted thoughts and feelings that didn’t have anywhere else to go.” Fat and how much one has are actually, in large part, just a feature of one’s body, in the same way that height is, coupled only to some extent with what one eats and how one works out. She’s suggested that antidepressants and even research into the biological factors of depression exist just because of the industry. In Tears to Triumph: Spiritual Healing for the Modern Plagues of Anxiety and Depression, she writes about the “practical application of love and forgiveness as medicine for the soul”; yes, exactly what you’d expect from a self-help author. But she also explains how she’d been diagnosed with clinical depression and refuses to treat it with any kind of medicine, as if that’s the goal to which everyone should aspire.

All of this is unsurprising, if unproductive, coming from a self-help author—her job thus far has largely been to convince people that she can help them via little more than advice on how to think positively. The problem is what happens when these ideas, and this way of thinking, are unleashed onto a national stage, by someone who has never held a political office of any kind: We all end up taking another little step on America’s long journey toward prioritizing feeling over fact in detrimental ways.

We have long demanded that our politicians be skilled at “connecting” with us—able to give speeches that make us feel warm and fuzzy, able to present us with an appealing vision board of the future. In Williamson, as in Trump, we have the extreme of that, which is part of why she sucked me in in the first place. After the past three years, I sure wish America’s woes could be solved via the harnessing of love. And yet if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the job of president is a highly technical one, perhaps even something we might want to elect an actual politician with evidence-based policy experience to do. Which might be why I think that if we want to fix this mess, we need someone who approaches the problem with a bit more rigor than Marianne Williamson. Honestly, it’s just a feeling. But I suspect it’s correct.