Deepak Chopra: “Skeptics trust in nothing”

The Huffington Post is a paper that I came across quite a bit in 2008.  Though it had many interesting articles during the 2008 US Election, it’s leftish slant still left a lot to be desired.  In particular, the Huffington Post has run articles and op-eds supporting a lot of junk medicine, including homeopathy and the anti-vaccination perspective.  So it was no surprise when they published an article where Deepak Chopra, a true master of “woo,” complained about how skeptics are, in essence, pathetic nihilists who’ve never been ahead of the curve.

First, it stands to reason that Deepak Chopra has a very rational reason why he dislikes skeptics: Chopra firmly believes in the New Age mystic principle of what he calls “Quantum Healing.”  Put simply, it says that the mind can heal the body.  Take no need of any medicine; you have all that you need sloshing around in your skull.  Chopra makes use of the randomness seen in Quantum Mechanics at the sub-atomic level to suggest that there is also something going on between the mind and the body which is beyond our senses.  Touting this principle has led to a fair amount of success for Chopra, who gets his fair share of recognition for his philosophical outlook.  The only catch: there is, of course, no evidence for such a thing.

It is here where the rubber meets the road.  Skeptics such as myself pride themselves in a certain standard of evidence; anyone who ignores claims with significant supporting evidence is adhering to it dogmatically, and something certainly frowned upon within the skeptic community.  Indeed, the skeptic who acknowledges strong evidence quickly is the strongest of the bunch.  Chopra, though, sees things quite differently:

It never occurs to skeptics that a sense of wonder is paramount, even for scientists. Especially for scientists. Einstein insisted, in fact, that no great discovery can be made without a sense of awe before the mysteries of the universe. Skeptics know in advance — or think they know — what right thought is. Right thought is materialistic, statistical, data-driven, and always, always, conformist. Wrong thought is imaginative, provisional, often fantastic, and no respecter of fixed beliefs.

Here I think Chopra is heading down the completely wrong path.  Practical skeptics embrace the wonder of science, and have reverence and wonder for that which is unknown.  Our sense of awe is fully engaged by the natural, empirical world without ascribing it to something undemonstrated; it is enough for me to look into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and feel an incredible sense of unity and solidarity simultaneously.  When I look into the sky, I see my connection to the universe and find it unfathomable in a way Carl Sagan might have described: I’m but a mote of dust in the wind, yet I’m made of the same starry stuff that everything else is.  There is real awe in such a moment which need not be answered by mystical claims.  I think, on the other hand, it is perfectly sufficient to give a natural account of what we know, and remain humbled by our ignorance of that which we don’t know.

Contrary to Chopra’s assertion, skeptics do not think they know in advance what right thought is: they simply believe what the strongest evidence indicates.  When the evidence changes to support a different opinion or hypothesis, the skeptic community goes along with it.  As an example, I think here of the large number of skeptics who came to accept Global Warming due to a preponderence of evidence in support of it.  Interestingly enough, the recent emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit in the UK are sparking new arguments in the skeptic community about the validity of Global Warming.  So clearly, skeptics are open to new ways of thinking about things and are, in this particular case, very non-conformist.

The problem here is not one of being ideologically driven; it is a question of standards of evidence.  By all means, a skeptic will accept a principle like quantum healing, but you must be able to demonstrate such a thing.  It is only by providing positive evidence for our claims that we are able to deduce the real from the non-real.  An idea that is wonderfully imaginative is only useful if it advances our understanding of the way the world really works; whether it is the product of fantasy or not is irrelevant.  So here comes the final blow from Chopra:

So whenever I find myself labeled the emperor of woo-woo, I pull out the poison dart and offer thanks that wrong thinking has gotten us so far. Thirty years ago no right-thinking physician accepted the mind-body connection as a valid, powerful mode of treatment. Today, no right-thinking physician (or very few) would trace physical illness to sickness of the soul, or accept that the body is a creation of consciousness, or tell a patient to change the expression of his genes. But soon these forms of wrong thinking will lose their stigma, despite the best efforts of those professional stigmatizers, the skeptics.

I hope it is immediately clear how flawed such an argument was.  Chopra feels that if he can just show one instance where people thought wrongly in the past, it can support his assertion that people are thinking wrongly now.  Yet this method of equivocation is invalid here, since there are two separate claims.  The reason physicians came to accept that the mind played a role in treatment (noticeably the placebo effect) was because the preponderence of evidence supported such an assertion.  Case studies were put forth in medical and psychological journals that showed the relationship between a positive outlook and positive outcomes.  Of course, the evidence didn’t demonstrate that one could be healed just by having the right state of mind, but that doesn’t stop Chopra.  No, it is we skeptics who hold evidence in the highest regard that are of wrong thought.  If only we would stop subjecting his ideas to the same burden of proof that allows us to ensure the highest degree of reliability in our personal beliefs, we’d get to the same “ahead of the curve” type of thinking that Chopra is espousing.

By all means, skeptics will ride the wave at the front of the curve side-by-side with Chopra, but we’ll wait until we’ve got good, reliable reasons to do so first.  It is in that which we trust: that the best evidence will ultimately rise to the top, and by proportioning our beliefs to the amount of evidence that supports them, we can be reasonably sure that our actions are justified.


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