Last week, everyone’s favorite woo-meister, the man whose woo is so strong that I even coined a term for it way back in the early mists of time (at least as far as this blog is concerned), was woo-fully whining about all those allegedly nasty skeptics on Wikipedia. Yes, Deepak Chopra was clutching his pearls and getting all huffy because, according to him, a group of skeptics known as the Guerilla Skeptics was actually applying science and reason to the Wikipedia entry for his good buddy Rupert Sheldrake. The only problem was, he totally missed the target in that the Guerilla Skeptics actually had nothing to do with the Wikipedia edits for Sheldrake’s page, and the person who brought this “atrocity” to Chopra’s attention had never actually done an edit of Sheldrake’s actual Wikipedia page. None of this stopped Chopra from throwing himself headlong into a tirade against “militant skeptics” like Richard Dawkins as the source of all that skeptical nastiness on Wikipedia, even though, as I pointed out, Richard Dawkins has as much to do with Wikipedia as Deepak Chopra has to do with science. Chopra finished his post with a great big, “To be continued.”
And today the continuation has appeared.
Yes, there is now a post entitled The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 2) (also published at SF Gate), with the promise of at least one more post. Unlike the Star Wars trilogy, however, in this case the second part is most definitely not the best part. Rather, Chopra’s sequel is like most other sequels, chock full of either more and bigger special effects and/or more of what producers thought made the original popular in the first place but not as good as the original. In this case, we get more of Chopra’s “quantum consciousness” and attacks on science, but even less intelligence, if that were possible! As with many sequels, Chopra even brought in another screenwriter, so to speak, in the form of someone named Jordan Flesher, who is advertised as having a BA in Psychology. Here’s a hint: If Chopra’s trying to impress with credentials, this ain’t the way to do it. In academia, if it’s not an MS or a PhD, no one really cares. In fact, listing a BA looks rather desperate and will generally provoke disdain among scientists, and this scientist is expressing that disdain. Better not to have listed it at all.
But enough beating on a poor, hapless co-author. Well, not quite. My advise to Jordan Flesher would be that, if he ever wants to be taken seriously as a psychologist and get into a good graduate program, writing opinion pieces with Deepak Chopra attacking science is not the way to go. And, make no mistake, that’s exactly what Chopra does, because, well, it’s what Chopra does. But first, he claims to lecture skeptics about the nature of skepticism and science, which is always good for a laugh, ever since I first took notice of Chopra, lo those many years ago:
As an attitude, skepticism is a natural part of the scientific method. It calls for solid proof and verification. As an agenda, however, the story of skepticism is quite different. The way that strident atheism has clothed itself in science seems convincing to people who are skeptical about God in the first place. But there’s no scientific basis for atheism, since God isn’t subject to experimentation. As the dust has settled, the agenda of militant skepticism has come to light – it’s basically another symptom of the blogosphere’s culture of personal attack, unfounded allegation, and a reckless disregard for the truth.
Once again, Chopra conflates atheism and skepticism, as though the two were the same thing. They aren’t. At the very least there are quite a few atheists out there who are not skeptics, such as Bill Maher, who is antivaccine, doubts germ theory, has supported cancer quackery, and seems to think that he can protect himself from the flu just by eating the right diet and living the right lifestyle to the point that he was once mocked by one of his guests for it. It’s also particularly annoying how Chopra repeats the same old tropes without realizing that he’s contradicting himself. He’s actually the one claiming to wrap himself in the mantle of science, and then he goes on to say that “God isn’t subject to experimentation.” It all depends, of course, on what you mean by God. If you mean some ethereal being who never does anything, then maybe Chopra has a point, but there are a whole lot of testable claims associated with religion, and there’s no reason why science shouldn’t test them. The problem for Chopra is that when such claims are tested the results usually aren’t what he’d like to see.
Thus warmed up, Chopra then drops this howler on us:
The fate of militant skepticism, whatever it may be, will drift apart from the serious business of doing science. After all, no scientific discovery was ever made by negative thinking. There has to be an open-minded curiosity and a willingness to break new ground, while the militant skeptics represent the exact opposite: they are dedicated to the suppression of curiosity and protecting rigid boundaries of “real” science.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
The very essence of scientific discovery might start with open-mindedness, but to nail down the discovery and demonstrate its validity very much requires what Chopra dismisses as “negative thinking.” It requires an utterly ruthless attitude that enables scientists to subject their pet hypotheses to rigorous testing and then reject them if they don’t hold up. This is why Chopra can never be considered a scientist. He has fallen in love with several airy, New Agey ideas, and he simply can’t subject them to rigorous testing and reject them when they fail. It’s far easier to dismiss criticism as being due to “militant atheists” and “militant skeptics,” which Chopra mistakenly views as the same thing.
It’s not surprising, then, that Chopra gets it so wrong about skepticism. Properly applied, skepticism is not solely about being “negative,” although that’s how Chopra characterizes it. In fact, Chopra is making the same old mistake of confusing (or conflating) skepticism with cynicism. Cynics do indeed mistrust most information they they see, particularly when the new information challenges their belief system. Cynics often do become intolerant of other people’s ideas. They often are inflexible. As has been pointed out many times before, attributing traits associated with cynicism to skeptics is a common method of attack by woo-meisters. It’s also a trope that Chopra’s been repeating for a very long time.
Skepticism, on the other hand, is not inherently negative, as the caricature promoted by Chopra would have you believe. Chopra will never believe this, because, quite frankly, he strikes me as being as cynical as the picture he paints of skeptics, but I and a lot of skeptics would be more than happy to accept the ideas that there is some sort of “universal consciousness” and that we can powerfully influence our health through our thoughts, two key ideas promoted by Chopra, if there were compelling evidence to support the ideas. There’s the rub. Whenever Chopra is asked for evidence for his claims, he can’t seem to produce anything resembling persuasive scientific evidence. Show us the evidence, and if it passes muster we’ll provisionally accept your hypotheses as likely true, subject to further testing. That’s how science works. The process, of course, is a lot messier than that, with fits and starts, hypotheses that seem to pass muster and then don’t and vice-versa, as well as hypotheses that are clung to longer than they should be based on the evidence. Science is not neat. However, it’s better than the appeals just to believe, which is what Chopra’s woo-ful whine boils down to.
Well, that and lame arguments like this, in which Chopra posits four “mysteries” or “problems” that “undercut skepticism” and “demolish militant skepticism”:
Also from quantum physics, the Uncertainty Principle undercut the notion of solid, tangible atoms and molecules existing in fixed locations. No one is sure about the implications for the human brain, since it is composed of atoms and molecules whose status is tied into the mystery of consciousness.
The emergence of time and space, either through the Big Bang or at this very moment, remains mysterious. The pre-created state of the universe is a deep mystery.
The whole issue of consciousness, long ignored because of science’s aversion to subjectivity, has become a major concern, principally for two reasons. The assumption that the brain is the producer of the mind has never been proved; therefore, it presents the possibility of being wrong. Second, if consciousness is more like a field effect than a unique human trait, the universe itself could be conscious, or at least possess the qualities of proto-consciousness, just as DNA possesses the possibility for Homo sapiens even at the stage when life forms were only single-celled organisms.
These four mysteries or problems, whatever you label them, undercut skepticism – and more or less demolish militant skepticism – because they make science question its belief in such things as materialism, reductionism, and objectivity. That’s too many “isms” for a non-scientist to really care about, and there’s no doubt that the everyday work of science proceeds as usual without regard for issues that many would dismiss as metaphysics. But such an attitude is the same as accepting a dead end. For without asking the deepest questions about what is real and how do we know the truth, the current state of physics and biology will be mired in speculation and doubt.
Regular readers will recognize that the Choprawoo is near black-hole density here. Very dangerous for the untrained. You might inadvertently slip past the event horizon, be swallowed by the black hole of woo that is represented there, and lose your critical thinking skills. I also can’t resist mentioning that Chopra is about as arrogant a bastard as there is. He seems to be implying, with his swipe at skeptics here, that only he and his fellow woo-meisters ask the “deepest questions about what is real” and “how we know the truth.” Nonsense! In fact, it is skeptics and scientists, not airy fairy New Age woo-meisters like Chopra who ask the real questions of what is real and how we know the truth. Chopra assumes that he knows the truth to a close enough approximation, no further investigation necessary. We do not.
None of his “four problems” are actually problems, at least not in the way the Chopra presents them. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is not, as Chopra would have you believe, an excuse to make stuff up, nor is it an infinite improbability drive that allows anything to happen. Ditto quantum physics, which Chopra has abused with abandon for decades, using it as an excuse for virtually every claim he makes, as in “Because quantum.” Although it is true to say that we have not “proven” that consciousness is the product of the brain only in the sense that it is impossible ever to “prove” anything with absolute certainty, the evidence from neuroscience is overwhelming that consciousness, or mind, is the product of the brain is overwhelming, as Steve Novella has pointed out many times. As for the emergence of time and space, yes, that remains mysterious in the way that all phenomena not yet explained by science remain mysterious. Proclaiming it so is rather akin to arguing that water is wet.
Chopra concludes his post with:
In the next post we’ll consider how irrelevant and misguided the skeptical agenda is proving to be by offering specific examples from the work of two popular skeptics, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose intention to keep science pure and objective has led them into blind alleys and rigid thinking – the very things science should avoid at all cost.
Oh, goody. Of course, unlike Chopra’s caricature of a “militant skeptic,” I’m not a big fan of Sam Harris; so this next installment might actually test my skepticism. Somehow, given that it’s Deepak Chopra, I doubt it, though.