Deepak Chopra misunderstands skepticism

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgThings are crazy now for me, both at home and at work. I mean really, really crazy. So crazy that even I, one of the most verbose bloggers out there, am forced to take two or three days off from my little addiction–I mean habit. Consequently, having foreseen that this time would come around these dates, I, Orac, your benevolent (and, above all verbose) blogger have thought of you, my readers. I realize the cries and lamentations that the lack of fresh material inevitably causes. That, I cannot completely obviate. However, I can ease the pain somewhat, and I can do this by continuing my longstanding project of migrating old “classic” (depending upon your definition of the word) posts from the old blog over to the new blog. These are all at least two years old, and thus the vast majority of my readers are unlikely to have seen them. Only the longest-standing readers will recognize these, and it is sincerely hoped that they will enjoy seeing them again. (This particular post first appeared on October 11, 2005 and just goes to show that some things never change.) Truly, Orac is a benevolent blogger, his arrogance, long-windedness, and cantakerousness notwithstanding.

Why, oh, why, do I still occasionally check out the Huffington Post? It’s been full of antivaccination conspiracy-mongering almost since the day of its very inception, and it’s the first place I ever encountered Jay Gordon, the pediatrician whose “skepticism” about vaccines is laced with insinuations that the results of any study that is any way supported by pharmaceutical companies should be ignored (regardless of the quality of, oh, the actual study design and data) and that any investigator who accepts funding from big pharma must be hopelessly compromised. It’s been a booster of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s dubious and unfounded conspiracy-mongering regarding vaccines and autism.

So I gave it up for a while. But, for some reason that I can’t figure out, occasionally I can’t resist going back. I must be a glutton for punishment, you know, reading things that make me want to tear my hair out.

So it was today, when I came across an article by resident advocate of Aruveda and New Ager Deepak Chopra, entitled, Gadflies Without a Sting: The Downside of Skepticism, which is in essence an extended rant against skepticism. Michael Shermer has already answered some of his charges with a lovely, positive essay entitled The Power of Positive Skepticism. What more could be said, after the master skeptic himself has responded to Chopra’s attacks? Well, at the risk of the hubris of incorrectly thinking myself in Shermer’s league when it comes to defining the nature of modern skepticism, perhaps a bit more. For, in an apparent desire to remain unrelentingly positive and thus not fall victim to the very charges against skeptics that Chopra made, Shermer has let some of Chopra’s charges slide more or less unanswered.

Dr. Chopra starts out with five main complaints about skepticism. He begins:

I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.

Dr. Chopra seems to be confused about what skepticism means. I would agree that unreasonable or unrelentingly negative skepticism is not a desirable trait. I would also agree with Michael Shermer that there does exist a variety of skeptic that is unrelentingly negative, but in my experience such skeptics are in the relative minority, albeit a vocal minority. However, distinguishing healthy from unhealthy skepticism doesn’t appear to be what Dr. Chopra has in mind:

Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:

1. I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.

Interesting. I have come across many “nonskeptics” who are quite eager to launch ad hominem attacks. Indeed, I’ve come across a number of believers in alternative medicine who even launch pre-emptive ad hominem attacks in order to try to poison the well and discredit skeptics in advance. However, I rather suspect that Dr. Chopra is being somewhat disingenuous here. He seems to be confusing attacks on what one says or what one advocates with attacks on one’s person. Sometimes they are one in the same. More often they are not. Michael Shermer himself took pains to point out how he insisted that no personal attacks be made on Dr. Chopra in an issue of The Skeptic. He only insisted upon a skeptical evaluation of Chopra’s ideas on quantum consciousness and healing. I try to do the same when examining unsupported claims. True, when irritated at having to point out the same straw men and fallacies used by alties and “intelligent design” advocates over and over again, I can get a bit testy, but I usually try not to.

2. Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.

Well, actually, no. Most of us don’t “leap” to that conclusion. We read Dr. Chopra’s own writings and then arrive naturally at that conclusion based on his own words. For example, PZ Myers (whom Dr. Chopra would no doubt accuse of ad hominems) took what Dr. Chopra recently wrote about evolution apart point by point on science and the facts when he was indiscrete enough to wander into writing in support of intelligent design. True, PZ did throw in a bit of dismissive and insulting language, which was probably not strictly necessary, but, even if you leave aside the dismissive language, PZ showed in excruciating detail that Dr. Chopra did not know what he was talking about with regards to evolution. I probably wouldn’t have done it in quite as sarcastic a fashion, but PZ was correct on the science and Dr. Chopra was not. PZ was also rather testy at having to refute the same fallacies yet again.

3. Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.

Give me a break. The very nature of skepticism is to examine the assumptions of one’s own position. That is also, not surprisingly, the very nature of science. As for whether those assumptions are “shaky,” certainly nothing Dr. Chopra has written have demonstrated that to be so.

4. Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience.)

Doubt is a positive attribute for many things. For example, doubt is positive when dealing with a real estate agent or a used car salesman–or other situations in which claims are made that may not be true. I doubt that even Dr. Chopra would disagree. Of course, it depends on what Dr. Chopra means by “doubt.” “Doubt” is not the same thing as “skepticism.” There are rational doubts and irrational doubts. Skepticism, in my view, is doubt that is based on reason, evidence (or lack thereof), and with good foundation, rather than fear, negativity, or other irrational reasons. Skepticism is rational doubt. As many credophiles do, Dr. Chopra equates rational with irrational doubt and tries to equate irrational doubt with skepticism. Rational doubt in science prevents scientists from accepting obviously implausible or impossible explanations for natural phenomena.

Besides, believers in pseudoscience actually like skepticism, as long as it’s skepticism about the “right” things, such as big pharma, drugs, or current “scientific dogma.” However, they don’t like it quite so much when skepticism is turned on their beliefs, or, as Michael Shermer put it, they like to say “I’m a skeptic too, but…,” where skepticism is fine as long as it is someone else’s codswallop under the microscope. Those of us in the science biz, however, are used to having our ideas and hypotheses challenged, sometimes strongly or even brutally. It’s part and parcel of the give-and-take of ideas. You have to have a thick skin. Believers like Dr. Chopra tend not to have such a thick skin.

5. Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.

This is the point where Dr. Chopra is most incorrect, at least in science. There’s a saying popular among scientists: “Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.” Open-mindedness is essential to science, but it must be tempered with rational skepticism based on knowledge of has gone before.

Let’s take a look at a recent example that is being trumpeted by “intelligent design” creationism advocates like William Dembski and other advocates of pseudoscience as “mavericks” showing how screwed up the establishment supposedly was. The example is the recent award of the Nobel Prize to Robin Warren and Barry Marshall for showing that the bacterium H. pylori is the cause of most duodenal ulcers. To hear it from the alties and ID advocates, this is an example of how how bad conventional science can be. It’s even been presented as an example of science not being about “consensus,” of how mavericks are often scorned. Yes, Marshall and Warren’s ideas were severely criticized when they first presented their hypotheses about the cause of ulcers being bacterial in many people. Then a funny thing happened. They did experiments. They gathered more data. The data was convincing. Other investigators started to wonder if maybe Marshall and Warren were correct. Curious, more investigators started looking into the possible connection and finding the same thing. Over a decade, momentum gathered, until, by the early 1990’s, there was a paradigm shift and a new scientific consensus developed. Warren and Marshall’s observations and skepticism about prevailing dogma about peptic ulcer disease led to a revolution. But it was a revolution based on data and experimentation. The vast majority of “mavericks” turn out to be wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. When they are right and ultimately vindicated, however, they are sometimes spectacularly correct, like Warren and Marshall.

If Deepak Chopra thinks that scientists don’t value questioning the prevailing dogma, he should read the Nobel Prize Committee’s comments regarding Warren and Marshall, in which the Committee praised their tenacity and willingness to challenge existing prevailing dogmas. Scientists do value those who challenge existing dogma–if they can deliver the evidence to support the challenge convincingly. In fact, it was for questioning scientific dogma and proving to be correct that Warren and Marshall won the Nobel Prize! In the meantime, those who would challenge existing science have to be able to run the necessary gauntlet of skepticism that keeps incorrect conclusions from taking root for long. Most of that skepticism is rational skepticism. Some of it, admittedly, is irrational. (Scientists are human, too, and can become more enamored of their own ideas than they should be or too entrenched in dogmatic thinking.) But, if the scientist challenging existing dogma has the goods, eventually he or she will be acknowledged as being correct, and a new scientific consensus will emerge. It’s messy, yes. It can sometimes take decades or even longer. It’s occasionally brutal. Sometimes scientists don’t live long enough to see their ideas accepted. Most challengers will not be Galileo. Most will be incorrect and ultimately forgotten by history. (To paraphrase a saying, it is not enough to claim the mantle of Galileo. One must also be right.) But those who turn out to be correct and thereby radically alter or overturn existing theory to produce a new and useful theory earn fame that lasts long after their deaths. Even more importantly, they achieve the satisfaction of unraveling a mystery of nature or developing a new treatment that can help millions. And no scientist ever achieved this without expressing skepticism about existing dogma.

Science and critical thinking, properly applied, are forms of positive skepticism. Dr. Chopra only fears and attacks them because they are an impediment to his way of thinking. However, it is only by passing through such impediments and challenges that ideas prove themselves worthy of long-term acceptance.