Respectful Insolence

The trouble with Deepak Chopra, part II

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgAs I mentioned on Friday, I’m in Chicago right now attending the American College of Surgeons annual meeting, where I’ll be until Wednesday afternoon. If there are any of my readers who happen to be surgeons attending the meeting, drop me a line and maybe we can get together. In the meantime, here’s a blast from the past from the past. This post first reared its ugly head almost exactly three years ago; so if you haven’t been reading at least three years, it’s new to you.

Alright, I’ll come right out and admit it up front. There was no part one to this piece. Well, there was, but it wasn’t on this blog, and I didn’t write it. PZ did in response to some really idiotic arguments from ignorance that Deepak Chopra (or, less pleasing to Dr. C, here) displayed as part of an “argument” (and I use the term loosely) that there is some mystical other quality that explains life other than genes. He paraded a litany of arguments that so conclusively demonstrated that he had no clue about even the basics of molecular biology that I as a physician cringed and hid my head in shame when I read it, given that Dr. Chopra is, at least nominally, a medical doctor. PZ did a fine job of fisking Chopra’s nonsense (with one minor quibble that I mentioned in the comments). Even the people leaving comments on Chopra’s article were in general pretty hostile to his drivel and pointed out the large number of misstatements of our understanding of genetics, logical fallacies, and credulous arguments from ignorance that flew hither and yon from Chopra’s keyboard. I thought that, having thoroughly embarrassed himself once, Chopra would slink away for a while before dropping another woo-bomb onto an unsuspecting blogosphere. I even thought that Chopra had a shred of self-respect that would prevent him from embarrassing himself again that soon.

I was mistaken.

He’s back, with The Trouble With Genes, Part II (also found here).

You know you’re in for some first class Chopra woo (or, as I think I’ll call it from now on, Choprawoo, given that Dr. Chopra has “distinguished” himself with a certain kind of credulous woo that has become his trademark and therefore deserves a word of its own to describe it) from the very beginning:

The mystery of life cannot be solved without answering one essential question. Why are human beings intelligent? In common understanding, we are intelligent because of our brains, our brains are intelligent because of the operation of brain cells, and brain cells operate because of genes. By this reasoning, either genes must be intelligent in their own right, or by some magic of chemistry, molecules that lack intelligence produce it when combined in various ways.

So, is this whole line of thinking false? To a materialist it must be true without question, and any attempt to find intelligence outside the brain–meaning outside DNA–is preposterous. Except that it isn’t.

Straw man argument. Scientists do not consider any attempt to find intelligence outside of DNA “preposterous.” It is not a reasonable inference to conclude that because our brains are “intelligent” must imply that our genes are also “intelligent,” nor do scientists make that argument. This is one big straw man combined with an argument from ignorance. It’s an astounding simplification of how organs function. Yes, at the simplest level, our brain, like our other organs, “functions because of our genes.” But the combinations of gene products and activities are staggeringly complex, even though many gene products may actually perform relatively simple functions. If we analogize to a simpler “intelligent machine,” namely a computer, it’s very clear that a set of very simple binary switches can be made to produce quite complex “behavior.” True, it is arguable whether anything that can truly be considered akin to human intelligence has been produced–yet. However, modern artificial intelligence networks and neural networks are becoming increasingly complex, and they are all built on the basis of very simple binary switches. In the mind, neurons function similarly, in that they conduct action potentials (small chemical charges) that provoke the release of neurotransmitters at the synapse (where a nerve ending connects with another nerve), thus communicating a message to another neuron (or multiple neurons) to fire an action potential of its own. Neurons network with multiple other neurons and integrate all the incoming signals, both inhibitory and excitatory, in complex ways, but it all boils down to one mechanism of action that is not that unlike that of a computer: Either the incoming stimuli are of sufficient strength to result in the neuron firing an action potential or they are not–in essence a binary system.

So, yes, Dr. Chopra, units which, individually, perform a fairly simple function, can indeed when integrated into networks result in highly complex behavior and even–dare I say it?–intelligence. Just because you cannot fathom how this might be so is not a valid justification to invoke the mystical.

The Choprawoo gets worse, though:

Consider the now-famous and much replicated studies at Princeton in which ordinary people were asked to sit in a room with a computer that generated a random string of zeros and ones.

They were asked to try and will the machine to produce more ones than zeros or vice versa. In trial after trial the subjects succeeded in this challenge (on average, the machine produced extra ones or zeros about 2% more often than random), and there was no need for the subjects to have ESP or any paranormal abilities. This is a primary example of mind operating outside the brain.

I can’t believe that Chopra’s citing that particular study. First off, when he says “2%” more often, what he really means is that the researchers claim to have detected more 1′s or 0′s by a 51% to 49% ratio, rather than the 50%-50% ratio predicted by chance alone. That’s hardly impressive and, unless the experiments were done with exceeding care and careful statistics, unlikely to be outside the margin of error. In any case, Chopra is again falling for dubious claims. Let Robert Carroll explain why (this is a long excerpt but well worth reading):

In 1986, Jahn, Brenda Dunne, and Roger Nelson reported on millions of trials with 33 subjects over seven years trying to use their minds to override random number generators (RNG)… In 1987, Dean Radin and Nelson did a meta-analysis of all RNG experiments done between 1959 and 1987 and found that they produced odds against chance beyond a trillion to one (Radin 1997: 140). This sounds impressive, but as Radin says “in terms of a 50% hit rate, the overall experimental effect, calculated per study, was about 51 percent, where 50 percent would be expected by chance” [emphasis added] (141). A couple of sentences later, Radin gives a more precise rendering of “about 51 percent” by noting that the overall effect was “just under 51 percent.” Similar results were found with experiments where people tried to use their minds to affect the outcome of rolls of the dice, according to Radin. And, when Nelson did his own analysis of all the PEAR data (1,262 experiments involving 108 people), he found similar results to the earlier RNG studies but “with odds against chance of four thousand to one” (Radin 1997: 143). Nelson also claimed that there were no “star” performers.

However, according to Ray Hyman, “the percentage of hits in the intended direction was only 50.02%” in the PEAR studies (Hyman 1989: 152). And one ‘operator’ (the term used to describe the subjects in these studies) was responsible for 23% of the total data base. His hit rate was 50.05%. Take out this operator and the hit rate becomes 50.01%. According to John McCrone, “Operator 10,” believed to be a PEAR staff member, “has been involved in 15% of the 14 million trials, yet contributed to a full half of the total excess hits” (McCrone 1994). According to Dean Radin, the criticism that there “was any one person responsible for the overall results of the experiment…was tested and found to be groundless” (Radin 1997: 221). His source for this claim is a 1991 article by Jahn et al. in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, “Count population profiles in engineering anomalies experiments” (5:205-32). However, Jahn gives the data for his experiments in Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World (Harcourt Brace, 1988, p. 352-353). McCrone has done the calculations and found that ‘If [operator 10's] figures are taken out of the data pool, scoring in the “low intention” condition falls to chance while “high intention” scoring drops close to the .05 boundary considered weakly significant in scientific results.” According to McCrone, the “size of the effect is about .1 percent, meaning that for every thousand electronic tosses, the random event generator is producing about one more head or tail than it should by chance alone” (McCrone 1994).

These data should remind us that statistical significance does not imply importance.

Furthermore, Stanley Jeffers, a physicist at York University, Ontario, has repeated the Jahn experiments but with chance results (Alcock 2003: 135-152). (See “Physics and Claims for Anomalous Effects Related to Consciousness” in Alcock et al. 2003. Abstract.) And Jahn et al. failed to replicate the PEAR results in experiments done in Germany (See “Mind/Machine Interaction Consortium: PortREG Replication Experiments,” Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 499-555, 2000).

So, basically, Chopra is taking dubious experiments that might be marginally statistically significant to the tune of a 1/1000 increase in non-random events and presenting this as evidence for psychic powers or some mystical “intelligence” that doesn’t depend upon the brain itself. Even if the effect were real, which is highly doubtful, given its small magnitude and the failure of other researchers to replicate it, it would be incredibly weak and not evidence for a nonmaterialistic cause for this phenomenon or against the hypothesis that brain activity itself somehow caused it due to very weak electromagnetic activity (which is, by the way, the basis for “thought-activated” devices being developed to help paralyzed individuals). For all we know, electrical activity of the brain could very weakly influence computer electronics in a manner related to the sheer activity of concentrating. If so, it would be worth studying, but it’s hardly evidence of some mystical “consciousness.”

Chopra then delivers another heaping serving of Choprawoo:

We also have numerous examples of patients who died after cardiac arrest–to the point of exhibiting no brain function–only to be resuscitated and tell vivid accounts of the afterlife. They had mental experiences–seeing light, hearing voices, feeling emotions– without brain activity. Are these cases to be denied wholesale?

Then there are the 2,500 children documented by researchers at the Univ. of Virginia who recall past lives in vivid detail that can often be independently verified. Or consider the entire scientific field of sociobiology founded by Edward O. Wilson of Harvard that is based on DNA’s ability to respond to the outside environment. How does a fixed, static chemical ‘know’ how to develop such complex behaviors as altruism and self-sacrifice? In short, even in the ranks of materialism there is intriguing speculation–and hard evidence–that DNA’s role in human intelligence is far more mysterious than often supposed.

Now I can’t believe that he’s quoting the University of Virginia parapsychology researcher Ian Stevenson, whose work only appears mainly in books, rather than peer-reviewed journals. One commenter points out that it’s nowhere near 2,500 cases that are the least bit convincing, but rather somewhere around 30 out of the billions of people who have ever lived and that many of these children came from India, where belief in reincarnation is widespread. Richard Rockley in his review of Stevenson’s book critically examined 14 of Stevenson’s cases of alleged reincarnation and found that in the vast majority of them the persons involved strongly believed in reincarnation. Moreover, in many of these cases, the parents believed that a specific deceased person would be reincarnated as the child who ultimately reported past life experiences. It makes one wonder whether these parents had spoken of their beliefs in front of their children, perhaps even without realizing it, and thus influenced the children to believe that they had lived a past life, doesn’t it? More interestingly, Stevenson’s own observations suggest cultural influences. For example:

Other trends are noted. For example, in cultures where:

They believe that you cannot change sex in a reincarnation, they report no cases of changed sex reincarnation. Where they do believe reincarnates can change sex, this is sometimes reported.

They believe that there is no gap between death and rebirth, they always report no gap, usually with the device of a poorly remembered “intermediate life” (see Suleyman Andary in the book review).

They believe that there is no gap between death and rebirth there are no “announcing dreams”, because rebirth is instantaneous. These dreams occur regularly where they believe there can be a gap.

They have a matriarchal society, the prior lives are more likely to be linked through the mother�s side of the family. The converse is true in patriarchal societies.

They believe the spirits reside in a “discarnate realm” between lives, the children more frequently remember these “discarnate realms”.

There’s also considerable circular logic in Stevenson’s own reasoning:

Stevenson has another view. He believes that the cultural beliefs of a person (e.g., you cannot change sex in a reincarnation), are carried over when the person is reincarnated, and this prevents the person being reincarnated in a form that conflicts with their cultural beliefs:

“If a person dies believing that he cannot in another incarnation become a person of the opposite sex, perhaps he cannot, even if he can reincarnate.”

How’s that for a nonfalsifiable hypothesis?

But perhaps the worst offense Chopra commits against science and logic is in his abuse of twin studies as he puts them in the service of his woo:

Possibly the single most intriguing research concerns identical twins. To fully understand the role of genes, one must account for certain well-documented phenomena:

–Twins who are separated at birth but later discover that they had the same life experiences, including marrying women with the same name in the same year, holding the same jobs, having extremely similar families, giving their offspring the same names, etc.

–Twins who know what the other is thinking, who feel physical pain when the other is injured (at a distance, out of sight), or who sense the moment the other is killed.

–Twins who develop different diseases from the same genetic basis.

–Twins who develop one half who is heterosexual while the other is homosexual.

–Twins who develop schizophrenia in one person but not the other (or obesity or any number of psychological behaviors that are currently theorized to be genetic in origin).

Genes cannot ‘explain’ these anomalies, and trying to backfill the argument to say that genes make us ‘susceptible’ seems only partially convincing. To be susceptible to homosexuality, obesity, cancer, and so forth begs the question of what causes these things. The common answer, as regards homosexuality, is that experience also plays a part. Does this mean that one twin’s DNA can be seduced, abused, tempted, turned on, or coaxed into deviating from the result achieved by the other twin’s DNA?

Again, one is not trying to undermine genetics, only observing that ’cause’ is a tricky business. The truth is that if experience does cause behavior A in one twin and its exact opposite, behavior B, in the other, that’s the same as doing without genes altogether. I can be susceptible to overeating, for example, without needing a gene for it.

This is no different from the same old Choprawoo from part 1 (also here) of this unfortunate series of articles. Genes are not completely deterministic. There are genetics, and there are epigenetics. Few human characteristics are completely specified by their genes, particularly when it comes to complex behaviors like homosexuality or complex diseases like cancer, there is an interaction between genes and environment. The activity of genes in these situations can be stochastic as well. For example, mutations in BRCA1 may result in up to an 50-80% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer; however, a significant minority of women with a mutation in this gene do not get breast cancer, even though they have the gene. Moreover, we can and should flip Chopra’s “logic” around on him and point out that most twin studies show a very high contribution of genetics to certain behavioral characteristics (homosexuality, for example). Indeed, whatever role upbringing and environment have in homosexuality does not imply that environment somehow “seduced” genes into behaving differently. As for the other examples (separated twins meeting and finding out that they had similar life experiences, twins recalling feeling the other’s pain) are almost certainly nothing more mysterious than confirmation bias; i.e., the remembering of events, however rare, that fit with one’s preconceived notions and the forgetting of all the other times events didn’t correspond to those notions.

Naturally, Chopra can’t resist a grand finale of woo:

In earlier posts the non-materialistic view has been stated often: intelligence is innate in nature. It gives rise to consciousness in myriad forms. The brain–and DNA–are agents of this underlying intelligence. They embody it, give it flesh and physical experience, carry out its activity mechanically, and so forth. The materialistic worldview rejects such assumptions categorically, but in doing so, it turns life into a random chemical reaction, which will never suffice. When there is a credible answer to why human beings are intelligent, we may discover that we are the means whereby DNA has learned to discover who it really is. And how did DNA come about in the first place? It came about when the universe wanted to watch itself at play. DNA has served that function for around 2 billion years and shows no sign of stopping.

No, the “materialism” of science does not change life into a “random chemical reaction.” The chemical reactions that form life are most definitely not random; if they were, life couldn’t exist. Indeed, this sort of view is the same as the frequent misrepresentation of evolution as being a “completely random” process. It is anything but. Randomness is the raw material of evolution, but natural selection is the force that harnesses that randomness in a nonrandom manner, as Richard Dawkins is so fond of pointing out. Similarly, the chemical reactions responsible for life are stochastic in nature, as is all chemistry, but few of these reactions would occur with sufficient efficiency or direction to support life without the help of enzymes, which are made by living organisms to catalyze and direct the necessary chemical reactions. And what is responsible for encoding these enzymes? Genes. Of course.

Deepak Chopra is mystified by things that can’t strictly be explained by genetics alone, such as the personality traits and diseases that affect twins with less than 100% concordance. Scientists, when faced with such questions and gaps in our understanding, look for the factors other than genes that affect whether these traits or diseases will manifest themselves using the scientific method–and usually ultimately find them. Chopra, on the other hand, behaves like just like a fellow of the Discovery Institute, except that, rather than appealing to God or some unnamed “designer” (whom, the DI and Michael Behe insist, does not necessarily have to be God), he appeals to some nonsensical and vague mysticism to explain it.


  1. #1 Matthew Putman
    October 14, 2009

    Yes it is a shame that a sham like Chopra gets so much attention. It reminds me of 19th century spiritualism. Somehow the last post enlighenment way for people to justify superstition is through faking science. Chopra makes a lot of money doing this.

  2. #2 Denice Walter
    October 14, 2009

    For biographical info on Chopra, see Quackwatch(section on “Individuals”/”Other Individuals/Index”).I think the part about his “conversion” from MD to “Guru of Woo” especially telling.

  3. #3 ennui
    October 14, 2009

    It’s almost as if Chopra is proposing a Law of the Conservation of Complexity: Intelligence must come from an intelligence source; Life must come from a life source. Nothing emerges from a less complex state, and when a complex, intelligent lifeform dies, the characters simply return to their undetectable forms outside the material plane. No intelligence is ever created or destroyed, it simply changes forms in order to watch itself play.

    But somehow, this invisible force can be directed and coaxed into helping us do stuff with RNG’s? I remain a good deal less than convinced.

  4. #4 Courtney teh Brave
    October 14, 2009

    It’s ok Deepak- epigenetics is hard!

  5. #5 Kelly
    January 22, 2010

    Deepak Chopra does not realize the Truth. Hinduism is false and reincarnation is false.

    God bless,