Deepak Chopra and his Choprawoo translated: “Skeptics, take my ill-informed speculations seriously!”

He’s baaaack.

Deepak Chopra. Remember him? It’s been a while since I’ve said much about him and him alone. True, I’ve gone after him this year when he joined up with three other major league woo-meisters Dean Ornish, Rustum Roy, and Andrew Weil to try to try to help Senator Tom Harkin hijack the health care overhaul bill currently before Congress. However, given that a couple of years ago, Chopra was the man for whose abuses of quantum theory, evolution, and “universal consciousness” ideas I coined the term “Choprawoo” and the only response ever needed to Choprawoo, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a true example of Chopra exercising his anti-skeptical chops outside of medicine.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), Chopra’s back and badder than ever (as in really bad, not baaad) when it comes to critical thinking. This time, he’s very unhappy. What’s he unhappy about? He’s most displeased with us nasty, reductionist skeptics, because we’re such a bummer, maaaan. Showing absolutely that has learned absolutely nothing about science or critical thinking since I last took him to task for his attacks on skeptics and skepticism way back in 2005, Chopra recently posted a brand new screed against skeptics. Whereas his last such screed was entitled Gadflies Without a Sting: The Downside of Skepticism, his new screed is entitled, most unoriginally, The Perils Of Skepticism. And where, you ask, did Chopra post this latest bit of Choprawoo? Where else, but that repository of all quackery, medical pseudoscience, and New Age mystical woo, The Huffington Post.

One thing that I was interested to learn is that Deepak Chopra is apparently sufficiently into himself that he has Google Alerts set up so that he knows when someone criticizes him:

If you’ve ever used Google Alert, you know the jolts it can deliver. Whenever anyone in the blogosphere decides to blow a poison dart your way, Google is happy to deliver the news, along with the more positive mentions, of course. Most of my stinging darts come from skeptics. Over the years I’ve found that ill-tempered guardians of scientific truth can’t abide speculative thinking. And as the renowned Richard Dawkins has proved, they are also very annoyed by a nuisance named God.

I can only hope that my post here pops up on Chopra’s Google Alert tomorrow so that he can partake of the insolence laid down by this particularly “ill-tempered guardian of scientific truth.” As usual, Chopra’s so wrong that he’s not even wrong, and he’s still got a bug up his butt about skeptics.

It’s not speculative thinking that skeptics and scientists dislike, nor is it speculative thinking that brings the contempt of skeptics down on Deepak Chopra. Really. We speculate all the time; I speculate about my research, about science in general, and about specific areas of science and skepticism that I’m interested in. What we don’t like is “speculative thinking” that is related to thinking by coincidence only. We can’t stand “speculative” thinking that demonstrates an incredible ignorance about science; for instance, Chopra’s attacks on evolution in which he tries to imbue DNA with intelligence, or at least portray it as an agent of the “consciousness” of the universe, and misrepresents some very basic aspects of genetics and molecular biology as he tries to argue that DNA can’t account for human intelligence. There’s informed speculation, which can be fascinating, educational, and fun, and there’s pulling it out of your ass. Guess which of these is what Chopra favors? It’s also interesting to note that, even now, three years after he attacked Richard Dawkins for The God Delusion, Chopra still seems to have a bug up his butt over atheists as well.

First, Chopra feigns concern for our health:

Statistically, cynical mistrust is correlated with premature sudden death from cardiovascular disease. Since the skeptics who write venomous blogs trust in nothing, I imagine that God will outlive them. In the interests of better health, these people should read scripture, or at least a poem, twice a day. Doctor’s orders.

Apparently Chopra really, really resents the skeptical bloggers who have taken him to task. I count myself among them, of course, which is why I resent Chopra’s claim that we skeptics “trust in nothing.” That is, of course, pure nonsense. We are human beings like anyone else. We trust in our friends; we trust each other; we trust the scientific method. What Chopra clearly appears to be doing is confusing trust with faith in the supernatural or just faith. Of course, he’d be wrong there, too, as I have faith in the scientific method. What I don’t have faith in is the sort of mystical New Age brain farts that Chopra and his ilk discharge with distressing regularity. Brain farts like this:

I’ve debated skeptics, including Richard Dawkins (I spoke with Dawkins for over 90 minutes on camera in Oxford. He extracted 30 seconds from the dialogue and dubbed me the enemy of science.) and I am amazed that they mistake self-righteousness for happiness.

I’m even more amazed that woo-meisters like Chopra mistake pseudoscientific mystical fantasies for actual science, but he never fails to bring the woo home. Chopra’s also far too modest. Dawkins didn’t paint him as an enemy of just science. He painted Chopra as an enemy of reason, and so he is, even as he sees himself as being science-based when nothing could be further from the truth, as this next passage demonstrates:

A sort of bitter satisfaction is what they reap. No skeptic, to my knowledge, ever made a major scientific discovery or advanced the welfare of others. Typically they sit by the side of the road with a sign that reads “You’re Wrong” so that every passerby, whether an Einstein, Gandhi, Newton, or Darwin, can gain the benefit of their illuminated skepticism. For make no mistake, the skeptics of the past were as eager to shoot down new theories as they are to worship the old ones once science has validated them.

Here we go again. Chopra appears to be confusing cynicism with skepticism. He really seems to think that the only joy out of life skeptics get is to tear down people like him. True, there is some fun to deconstructing particularly bad, logical fallacy-laden screeds such as this one by Chopra, but it’s even more fun to find good science, to explain to patients how science can change how we practice medicine or to try to make it comprehensible to readers (as I did with the recent USPSTF guidelines). In fact, I’ve been thinking about a comment one of our readers made yesterday, and I very well may base a post on it tomorrow. (I haven’t quite figured out how to respond yet, but it’s a discussion worth having; or my viewpoint is at least worth explaining. How’s that for a cryptic plug for tomorrow’s topic?)

I also find it profoundly insulting that Chopra apparently really thinks that no skeptic has ever made a scientific advance or advanced the welfare of others. True, he includes the weasel word “to my knowledge.” That may save Chopra because his knowledge base is clearly pretty thin, but it’s insulting nonetheless. Let me tell Chopra something: Each and every scientist who won the Nobel Prize was a skeptic! Every scientist who makes a major discovery is a skeptic! Indeed, Einstein, Newton, and Darwin were all skeptics! Why? Because major discoveries in science come from finding out something that significantly changes our understanding of a scientific issue. Such discoveries do not come from just accepting current science. They come from testing current science, finding areas that it does not explain very well, and then trying to fill in those gaps. They come from questioning the status quo.

In other words, they come from skepticism, fused with the scientific method to test hypotheses and to separate the wheat from the chaff. They most definitely do not come from Chopra’s fuzzy, woo-ey, mushy thinking, and they most definitely does not come from scientists who accept science as it is. As usual, Chopra is trying to conflate being so open-minded that your brains fall out with science. In reality, science requires open-mindedness, but too much open-mindedness leads to accepting pseudoscientific nonsense.

It leads you to becoming like Deepak Chopra.

It also, apparently, leads you to thinking that you have to accept woo to have a sense of “wonder”:

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.

No sense of wonder? Come on! Wonder at the marvelous complexity of the human body and biology was part of what led me to become a physician and a scientist. Grudging awe at the seemingly indestructible complexity of cancer is what led me into cancer research. Moreover, skeptics’ don’t think they know what right thought is, at least not in terms of what that thought is. We do, however, recognize errors in how to analyze data and come to conclusions. We recognize where reason goes wrong. Chopra seems to think that anything goes when it comes to thought. Maybe it does, but all thought is not equal. In science, conclusions based on sound evidence and reasoning trump conclusions based on a self-proclaimed sense of wonder that probes no more deeply than what the woo-meister wants to believe. In art and poetry, the fantastic and creative can trump data. Chopra seems to think that it should be the same in all realms, but science is not art or poetry. Science is a means of understanding the principles by which the universe functions.

Of course, like all good cranks, Chopra concludes by a confident prediction that he will be vindicated, that the slings and arrows of those outrageous skeptics will bounce right off of him:

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.

They thought me mad! Mad, I tell you!

Really, though. The problem with this statement is that it, like so much of alt-med and what alt-med boosters say, appropriates science, labels it “alternative,” and then charges with it straight into woo land. Just like alt-med practitioners represent diet and exercise for health as being somehow “alternative,” Chopra’s trying to lay claim to being “vindicated” about the mind-body connection because we understand more about how the brain affects health and vice-versa than we did 30 years ago. Then he goes straight off the cliff into a sea of woo by trying to claim that the body is a creation of consciousness, whatever that means, and that we can change our gene expression just by thought. It’s nothing more than mystical, magical thinking like The Secret wrapped in a flimsy veil of scientific-sounding jargon. Chopra thinks it’s science and views himself as a holy warrior against the “perils” of skepticism, but in reality he understands nothing.

Looking back at all I’ve read by Deepak Chopra and written about his nonsense over the last four years, one thing that amazes me is the utter consistency of his attacks on skepticism. For instance, read the post I fisked above, and then go back and read Chopra’s four-year-old screed against skepticism. Consider this sentence from the latter:

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

And there’s Chopra’s problem. He thinks that questioning the status quo is a good thing, and so it often is. However, he does not understand that just questioning is not enough. Anyone can come up with a half-baked “challenge” to the status quo. I could make up a half dozen challenges to various scientific theories in the next couple of minutes without breaking a sweat. Does that mean my speculations should be taken seriously, particularly if I have no evidence to back them up and little understanding of the issues involved? No! But Chopra engages in nothing but special pleading, apparently thinking that his views and those of woo-meisters like him, should be held to a different standard of evidence and taken seriously because they challenge the status quo. He thinks his pseudoscientific or even unscientific views of medicine and science should be considered on par with science-based medicine and existing science because…well…because he does.

I’m happy to diasbuse Chopra of that notion. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even see it on a Google Alerts.