Pharyngula

Deepak Chopra reviews Richard Dawkins

Shorter Deepak: “Richard Dawkins didn’t endorse my quantum bullshit, therefore The Magic of Reality sucks!”

Deepak Chopra actually sounds quite upset — his review of the book reads more like the indignant squawk of a charlatan furious that the presence of a skeptic might cut into his take. It’s largely an exercise in name-dropping and the profession of bleary, vacuous misinterpretations of science on his part, which he then turns around and uses to accuse Dawkins of error because he doesn’t share his inoculation of the ideas with pseudoscience. Like this:

What is obnoxious about Dawkins’ version is his tone of absolute authority about matters that he shows complete ignorance of. Respected physicists like John Archibald Wheeler, Sir Arthur Eddington, Freeman Dyson, Hans-Peter Dürr, Henry Stapp, Sir Roger Penrose, Eugene Wigner, Erwin Schrodinger, and Werner Heisenberg suggest a fundamental role for consciousness in quantum theory and a mental component at the level of biological organisms and the universe itself.

I notice that 56% of the people he names are dead, that none of them are biologists or psychologists, and that several of them, while authoritative in their fields, aren’t actually known for their views on consciousness. This is a common pseudo-scientific con, roping a few famous corpses into agreeing with wacky interpretations.

But even the ones who’ve pontificated on consciousness and physics, like Dyson and Penrose, don’t help. Those guys don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Quantum effects matter in that they’re fundamental to how all matter behaves, but cells are big — any counter-intuitive weird quantum effects are going to be negligible in the large-scale bulk activity of a synapse. This is a world where the laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism rule: the Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz equation doesn’t need any quantum handwaving to accurately describe the potential across a cell membrane.

Bringing these guys into the argument is as silly as if I were to charge into a discussion of how the tides go in, the tides go out by insisting that we have to take into account the effect of the presence of schools of squid. Sure, they’re real and they’re there, but they don’t affect the tides. This simply is not where neuroscience is going: if you want to understand how the nervous system works, learn math and the physics of electrochemistry, and in particular learn about biochemistry, pharmacology, and molecular biology…but studying quantum physics won’t help you at all.

I won’t even get into his absurd ideas that the universe itself is conscious. Dawkins’ book is about reality, not fantasy.

So Deepak then gets off his quantum bandwagon and tries to discuss biology. He fails.

Dawkins bypasses evidence from his own field of genetics that might upset his hobby-horse. He ignores, either willfully or through ignorance, the evidence for directed mutagenesis first put forward by John Cairns of Harvard in 1988. John Cairns showed that if you grow bacteria with the inability to metabolize lactose, they evolve that ability in petri dishes tens of thousands of times faster than would be predicted if mutations simply occurred randomly. Professor Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School further points out that mutations in the human genome do not occur randomly but cluster in “hot spots” that are hundreds of times more likely to undergo mutation.

Dawkins is not a geneticist: he’s an ethologist and evolutionary biologist. Of course, he knows far more about genetics than does Deepak, so his confusion is understandable. Deepak would have to stand awed before the depth of knowledge known by my undergraduate students in comparison to his.

The Cairns results were interesting, but I don’t know of anyone who still claims that they are the result of directed mutagenesis, other than woo-peddlers. The fact that bacteria produced viable mutations more rapidly than predicted is explained by the observation of hypermutability in bacteria under stress. Basically, if you measure the error rate of replication in normal, healthy bacteria under growth promoting conditions, and then use that same rate to predict the frequency of mutations in a population under stressed conditions, you’ll underestimate the frequency.

The observation of hotspots for mutation in the genome is also well-known. It’s not magic, it’s not because these regions are well-liked by the mutation fairy, it’s because of chemistry. Some areas of a chromosome are more prone to breakage or error because of their structure or sequence.

This does not defy the observation that mutations are random. It merely means that the probability of mutation is not uniform across the entire length of the genome. Deepak’s argument is like claiming that because, when shooting craps, you’re more likely to roll a 7 than snake-eyes, throwing two dice generates a non-random result. Deepak doesn’t understand physics or biology, and he also doesn’t understand elementary probability theory.

Dawkins does. I heard him talk about this book on Sunday, and Deepak’s baseless complaints to the contrary, he did take a moment to explain what he meant by “random”, and it wasn’t the cartoonish nonsense Deepak Chopra babbles about.

I could go on and on about the stupidity of Deepak’s review — every paragraph is like the evacuations of an elephant with diarrhea — massively feculent and slimy, of a quality that will not even appeal to the neighborhood dung beetles. But I do have to mention one more sentence that left me laughing.

One doesn’t ask for advanced genetics in a primer for young adults, but one does ask that the writer know his field before adopting a tone of authority.

That’s rich coming from a quantum quack who is demonstrably deluded about medicine, biology, evolution, physics, chemistry, and the entirety of science, yet manages to pretend to be an authority every day.

(Also on FtB)