It occurs to me that things have been perhaps overly serious here at the ol’ blog for the last couple of weeks. Don’t get me wrong. I think I done good lately, if I do say so myself. However, the constant drumbeat of quackery and depressing stories takes its toll after a while. I need a break.
And our old buddy, Deepak Chopra, was kind enough to give it to me.
So what is it this time? Chopra’s been a frequent topic of this blog for a long time, albeit nos so much lately. Indeed, longtime readers know that I was the one who coined a term—Choprawoo—for the pseudoprofound metaphysical mystical blather that Chopra lays down in such all-enveloping, neuron-neutralizing quantities, like a Gelatinous Cube enveloping you, except that instead of digesting everything Choprawoo only digests brains, leaving behind books and videos as waste. Oh, and articles like this one, The rise and fall of militant skepticism. (And, yes, of course the article is also found on that wretched hive of scum and quackery, The Huffington Post. For some reason, it’s also on SFGate.) Sure, Steve Novella might already have taken his shot at this tasty bit of Choprawoo, but there’s plenty there for everyone. Chopra is just that much of a bottomless font of woo. Sadly, it tends to be all the same. If it’s not metaphysical BS in which he proclaims a “universal consciousness” or denies genetic determinism, it’s attacks on skeptics:
Skepticism has gotten itself into a pickle – perhaps something a lot more serious than a pickle – that is undermining its good name. The credibility of Wikipedia may be at stake (see below). We live in a skeptical age, because the cornerstone of science, “Everything must be verified,” is a skeptical position. When a researcher claims to have accomplished something remarkable, such as cold fusion, his experiment must be replicated before it will be believed. The need to verify, to lay out credible facts, has become second nature, and not just for scientists.
Facts, data, information, research findings, statistics – these are woven into every aspect of our lives. Which means that skepticism is woven in, too. Hence its good name. Without accurate polls, politicians would be lost (consult Mitt Romney, who believed in skewed polls all the way to election night). But there is no reason for skepticism to become a militant crusade. Facts are facts, as the saying goes, and when a political ideology like Fascism identified Einstein as someone who conducted “Jewish science” (a term coined by the Nazis), such a label is not simply abhorrent – it misconstrues what science actually is, a universal enterprise that has no place for personal, religious, or political prejudice.
How hilarious. Chopra is representing himself, as he has so many times before, as the champion of True Science, the man who is really, truly The Real Skeptic (and you’re not) who understands that ideology has no place in science. Of course, Chopra has an ideology, a belief in a “universal consciousness” as well as mind-body dualism, that leads him to believe in pure pseudoscience, which further leads him to support all sorts of alternative medicine quackery. In any case, you know what’s coming when Chopra invokes the Nazis. If there’s one thing about Deepak Chopra, he ain’t subtle. Indeed, he seems even less subtle here than he usually is, and that’s saying something.
That leads him to complain about what he calls the “rise of militant skepticism,” whatever that is. It seems to mean to Chopra skepticism that attacks religion, although he’s gotten pretty upset in the past about skepticism that gores his favorite oxen, particularly the New Agey, airy fairy, mystical variety of alternative medicine that tells you you can meditate your way back to health, control your own genetic destiny with your mind, and that your consciousness is part of a “universal consciousness.” Inevitably, Chopra can’t seem to resist bringing Richard Dawkins into the picture. One rather suspects (actually I rather suspect) that Chopra holds a grudge against Dawkins for featuring him so prominently back in 2007 in his BBC television special The Enemies of Reason.
Cue the obligatory broadside against Richard Dawkins:
The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.
I must admit, I read The God Delusion. Well, I read most of it. I found it rather tedious going and never quite managed to finish the last couple of chapters. The book was wildly uneven, and some of Dawkins’ arguments, particularly his likening “accommodationist” evolutionists to Neville Chamberlain, were painful to read. Indeed, i’ve referred to that little tidbit as the “absolutely dumbest and brain-dead thing that Richard Dawkins has ever written.” After seven years, I still characterize it that way. Unfortunately, lately Dawkins seems to be trying to top that little bon mot from six years ago with even more tone-deaf statements.
In any case, as Steve Novella points out, Chopra’s engaging in some seriously stupid historical revisionism here, as the skeptical movement long predates The God Delusion and even Richard Dawkins. A lot of skeptics were not entirely comfortable with treating the “god hypothesis” as a strictly scientific question, although certainly it can be. However, it’s also an issue of dealing with belief in something that has no evidence to support it, which is exactly what Deepak Chopra wants us to believe in and how we as skeptics deal with that given that believers often don’t care if there’s evidence to support the existence of God. Certainly they don’t care as passionately as skeptics do about evidence. Novella is right to point out that atheism is not skepticism and vice-versa. It’s something so obvious but apparently not particularly obvious to Chopra.
While Richard Dawkins has been very important as a voice promoting evolution, opposing quackery, and speaking out for atheism, if he were to disappear off the face of the planet tomorrow, the skeptical movement and the atheist movement (the two are not the same, obviously, although Chopra doesn’t seem to realize that and is constantly conflating the two) it would not change anything. There would still be skeptics. There would still be atheists. And both would still find Deepak Chopra to be a BS-spewing New Age quack. Because Deepak Chopra is a BS-spewing New Age quack, and boy does he ever spew, accusing Dawkins of using rhetoric instead of evidence and making a statement so unintentionally hilarious that it says far more about Chopra than it says about Dawkins: “Science became yoked to the tools of rhetoric and demagoguery, going so far as to lose any trace of objectivity. These tools, once shunned by science, were useful to Dawkins, given that he had no actual scientific proof that God doesn’t exist.”
Says the master demagogue.
What seems to me to be the thing that is most burning Chopra is that the sort of mystical quackery that he so loves can’t get a break on Wikipedia anymore. For some reason, he seems to blame Richard Dawkins, even though Richard Dawkins has about as much to do with Wikipedia as Deepak Chopra has to do with science. Chopra claims accuses Dawkins of making it mandatory for “militant skepticism to practice forms of intellectual dishonesty that have only proliferated,” apparently to Wikipedia. In particular, Chopra is upset about the treatment of his friend Rupert Sheldrake, whom I just mentioned a few weeks ago. Chopra is very, very unhappy about the Wikipedia entry about Sheldrake:
Thanks to the Internet, skepticism can spread with the speed of light, carrying in its wake all forms of unfairness and bad faith. A distressing example has been occurring at Wikipedia, where a band of committed skeptics have focused their efforts to discredit anyone whom they judge an enemy. The problem has been slow to gain traction in the public arena, because Wikipedia has constructed an elaborate set of rules to minimize editorial bias. Ironically, the skeptics have turned these rules, which run to hundreds of pages, to their advantage. They have become so skilled at thwarting anyone who disagrees with their point of view that a small swarm of skeptical editors is capable of outnumbering, bullying, and even banning all those who oppose them.
You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted. He made his first splash by questioning the accepted assumptions of Darwinian evolution, and most recently he published a cogent, well-received book about the hidden weaknesses in the scientific method, titled Science Set Free. His avowed aim is to expand science beyond its conventional boundaries in the hope that a new path to discovery can be opened up.
Actually, Chopra is simultaneously correct and oh-so-wrong. There is indeed a movement afoot to correct scientific misinformation and try to keep the entries in Wikipedia scientifically accurate. Chopra mentions that as though it were a bad thing, which to him it is, because it keeps entries that have anything to do with the sorts of quackery and pseudoscience he believes in from glorifying those selfsame forms of quackery and pseudoscience—or at least from presenting them as though they were true or even just as scientifically valid points of view. To Chopra, this is not a matter of scientific accuracy or skepticism. It’s a matter of vindictive “militant skeptics” settling scores, and, of course, keeping The Truth from the pages of Wikipedia. To Chopra, skeptics are basically a manifestation of The Man trying to keep him and his ilk down, leading to an entry on Sheldrake that he characterizes as “largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics,” citing some rather—shall we say?—fanciful posts by a man named Craig Weiler, like this one, in which he decides to take his marbles and go home. Hilariously, Weiler makes it sound as though he’s tried to edit Wikipedia entries and been blocked by those evil skeptics. Tim Farley reveals that Weiler has never actually edited a Wikipedia page other than the talk pages, as shown by his edit history.
Now I won’t pretend that I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia. At least, I wasn’t in the past. I used to derisively point out that, for vaccine-related pages for instance, antivaccinationists could edit pages just as easily as real experts in vaccines. Ditto for pages having anything to do with complex scientific or medical issues. Moreover, quacks have a lot more time and energy than most real experts. I’ve learned over the years that Wikipedia is trying to do better, hence the rather complex and arcane rules about which Chopra whines as only he can whine. In actuality, on Wikipedia, skeptics were at a distinct disadvantage until Susan Gerbic and the Guerilla Skeptics changed that. They learned the arcane rules. They did the work. They continue to work to make sure that entries on topics relevant to skepticism are scientifically accurate, and that drives Chopra absolutely crazy. He hates it and them.
He’s confident, though. He’s so confident that he can’t resist finishing his post by declaring impending victory:
Dawkins and the militant skeptics are symptoms of a deeper problem that turns out to have fascinating implications. Noisy as they are, these hostile crusaders have had no impact on the everyday activity of doing science or keeping faith. But that is about to change. The deep question of what is real is one that contemporary science can no longer avoid. How this is leading to the decline of skepticism makes for an intriguing mystery story, which will be discussed in the next post.
They thought me mad, mad, I tell you! But I’ll show them! I’ll show them all! In my next post, of course.
I can hardly wait. In the meantime, I don’t think I’ve ever done a post about Rupert Sheldrake.