The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Deepak Chopra Goes Off the Deep End of the Woo-Pool

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 3, 2010

One of the kings of New Age nonsense, Deepak Chopra, has written a widely read article at the Huffington Post (yet another reason to no longer take HuffPo seriously), and I felt that it deserved a bit of analysis.  The piece, titled Woo Woo Is a Step Ahead of (Bad) Science, is an interesting rant on the part of Chopra about why all things about the modern skeptical movement, “western” science (science is science folks, wherever it’s practiced), and Michael Shermer are off base, wrong, and just plain mean & nasty.  Chopra really seems to have had something stuck in his craw, and I suppose this was his way of getting it out…

There’s plenty of silliness to cover in Chopra’s article, so we might as well get started…

In reference to a recent discussion he had with Michael Shermer on Larry King Live, Chopra states:

Afterwards, however, I had an unpredictable reaction. I realized that I would much rather expound woo woo than the kind of bad science Shermer stands behind. He has made skepticism his personal brand, more or less, sitting by the side of the road to denigrate “those people who believe in spirituality, ghosts, and so on,” as he says on a YouTube video. No matter that this broad brush would tar not just the Pope, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, Buddha, and countless scientists who happen to recognize a reality that transcends space and time. All are deemed irrational by the skeptical crowd. You would think that skeptics as a class have made significant contributions to science or the quality of life in their own right. Uh oh. No, they haven’t. Their principal job is to reinforce the great ideas of yesterday while suppressing the great ideas of tomorrow.

Right off the bat, Deepak Chopra gets the whole endeavor of modern skepticism wrong, and I think he does so intentionally.  I think he is both creating a straw man to fight in his characterization of Shermer (and the “skeptical crowd”) as well as poisoning the well by attempting to turn all “spiritual” people against the skeptical movement.  He’s not making any kind of rational argument here, he’s simply making a blatant appeal to people’s base emotions in an attempt to create a false dichotomy: Chopra is on the side of “good”, while Shermer and the “skeptical crowd” are on the side of “bad/evil” – thus, by extension, he and the other “good guys” must be right.  How silly.

And here’s the biggie: Chopra states, quite incorrectly, that all skeptics summarily dismiss all paranormal claims (such as the kind made by Deepak Chopra all the time) out of hand in a very nasty & cynical fashion.  I will admit that while some people in the skeptical movement do that, most (like Shermer) do not; most skeptics are genuinely interested in having rational discussion with those who make such outlandish claims as made by Chopra.  We are interested in having a reasoned discourse on these topics, but before we can accept the claims we have a standard of evidence that must be met – in keeping with the scientific method.

For example, as a physicist I’m perfectly willing to give Chopra’s claims of “quantum healing” some serious consideration, if he would 1) display that he has even a basic understanding of the accepted science of quantum physics, and 2) would be willing to put his claims to the test.  But instead he and numerous other New Age gurus would rather just talk (using a lot of flowery & pseudoscientific language in the process), and when people like Shermer and me refuse to accept his claims just on his say-so, he throws a hissy-fit.  Wah.

In short, charlatans like Deepak Chopra want the validity & respect of modern science, they just don’t want to do the work to earn it.  Let’s continue analyzing Chopra’s tantrum, after he challenges Michael Shermer to a public debate…

The rules will be simple. He can argue from any basis he chooses, and I will confine myself entirely to science. For we have reached the state where Shermer’s tired, out-of-date, utterly mediocre science is far in arrears of the best, most open scientific thinkers — actually, we reached that point 60 years ago when eminent physicists like Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger applied quantum theory to deep spiritual questions. The arrogance of skeptics is both high-handed and rusty. It is high-handed because they lump brilliant speculative thinkers into one black box known as woo woo. It is rusty because Shermer doesn’t even bother to keep up with the latest findings in neuroscience, medicine, genetics, physics, and evolutionary biology. All of these fields have opened fascinating new ground for speculation and imagination. But the king of pooh-pooh is too busy chasing down imaginary woo woo.

I bolded the most relevant part of Chopra’s screed to point something very important out: he’s dead wrong.  Dead frakking wrong. First of all, he royally screws up when he states that Albert Einstein was somehow applying quantum theory to anything – Einstein actually rejected a fully-developed theory of quantum physics, and he spent the better part of his final years trying to do serious theoretical work without quantum physics.  The result: in the evolving physics community, he was seen as somewhat of a failure for ignoring the new (and undeniable) physics.  If Deepak Chopra knew anything about Einstein, he should know this, shouldn’t he?  I suppose Chopra was too busy sticking pins in his Michael Shermer doll to take the time to actually – gasp! – read up on the history of physics.

Secondly, Chopra’s claim about the actual quantum physicists – Pauli, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger – somehow applying quantum mechanics to the deep, spiritual mysteries of life is total B.S.  Chopra makes it sound like the entire motivation of these scientists was to answer the questions that he is attempting to “answer” – nothing could be further from the truth.  These scientists were interested in developing a physical (not spiritual) model of the world to explain what they and their contemporaries had observed about the universe.  Of course, if you are interested in spouting meaningless, non-sensical, and flowery language in an effort to empty people’s wallets (like Chopra), then why not throw in some false claims and crap you made up about quantum physics?

In the next section, Deepak Chopra sounds like a creationist right out of the Discovery Institute:

Skeptics feel that they have won the high ground in matters concerning consciousness, mind, the origins of life, evolutionary theory, and brain science. This is far from the case. What they cling to is 19th Century materialism, packaged with a screeching hysteria about God and religion that is so passé it has become quaint. To suggest that Darwinian theory is incomplete and full of unproven hypotheses causes Shermer, who takes Darwin as purely as a fundamentalist takes scripture, to see God everywhere in the enemy camp.

… I won’t go into detail about the absurdity of such rigid thinking. However, the impulse behind dogmatic materialism seems intended to flatten one’s opponents so thoroughly that through scorn and arrogance they must admit defeat, conceding that science is the complete refutation of all preceding religion, spirituality, psychology, myth, and philosophy — in other words, any mode of gaining knowledge that arch materialism doesn’t countenance.

Wow, yet more ranting business about materialism, God, blah-blah-blah.  First off, Chopra is ignoring the fact that there are many skeptics who also consider themselves religious.  Secondly, he seems to want to have a philosophical argument about “God vs. materialism” while also mixing up things with evolutionary theory – a scientific notion.  This is the same thing that creationists do all the time in an effort to muddy the waters: they scream and rant about “godless materialism” while in an effort to replace well-founded science with their half-baked, non-scientific ideas.  If Chopra wants to have a philosophical debate, he should just say so and stick to philosophy/theology, but he won’t do that because – as I pointed out earlier – he, like many other pseudoscientists, want the label of science without having to do the hard work for it.

Lastly, he (again, like creationists) creates a straw man argument by implying that skeptics somehow see Darwin’s work as a kind of religious dogma – that’s hilarious, as pretty much every skeptic I know acknowledges that there were plenty of things that Darwin got wrong or didn’t figure out in his time.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that evolutionary science is incorrect, it simply means that it has moved on (140+ years on) past Darwin.  Contrary to what he writes, it is Deepak Chopra who is stuck in the 19th century – I suppose it’s easier for him to stay there, fighting old battles, as opposed to staying current with modern science.

Deepak Chopra admonishes those who criticize him to “have an open mind”, and I agree.  Just don’t have a mind that is so open that your brain falls out ;)

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5 Responses to “Deepak Chopra Goes Off the Deep End of the Woo-Pool”

  1. J Nernoff III said

    One can’t help encountering many more practitioners of pseudoscience and “woo” than real scientists (who bother to get involved in pitched battles between twits and wits). Chopra and his kind are master wordsmiths who compose highly attractive hopeful and comforting material that appeals to the gullible and ignorant, who do not want to be bothered by thinking and analysis. That’s why holy books, rite, ritual, prayer and sermons are endlessly attractive.

    But while they rail against evolution, science (or rather scientism), cold materialism and naturalism, favoring grand syntheses of “God” and endless spiritual entities, and the supernatural, they somehow forget all their castigations against the world when they gladly use the internet for their own propaganda. Isn’t science grand then, when satellites, electronics, atomic theory, quantum mechanics, computer chips, hard drives and word processors are all at their service? Isn’t modern medicine just great when testing and therapy uses radioactive materials with precisely calculated half lives, which are strangely all erroneous when applied to fossil dating? And so on for hundreds of 21st century essentials when the spirits are somehow out of service!

    I have always seen a lot of wisdom in this: “The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a person only tells them with all his might.” –Mark Twain

  2. The Very Rev. Canon Daniel Beegan said

    As Dr. Nernoff will confirm, I am a priest, in fact an honorary prelate. I believe in the scientific method and have no use for Chopra and his ilk.

    • J Nernoff III said

      I solemnly do confirm, as per my long-standing interactions, mostly pleasant and agreeable, with the “Father” Beegan. (What’s the difference between the “Very Rev.” and the plain vanilla “Rev.”?)

  3. [...] The Skeptical Teacher has a trifecta of posts: winter is not proof of global cooling (for FSM’s sake, deniers are stupid), two steps forward and one step back in US science education, and on Deepak Chopra’s further decent into craziness. [...]

  4. Shannon said

    Shermer and Chopra will be debating each other, “Does the Mind Exist Apart from the Brain” March 14th at Caltech in Pasadena, CA

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