Tying up loose ends from 2009: Deepak Chopra versus Michael Shermer

Over the holidays, I stayed at home for a combination of some relaxation and some grant writing. (I know, weird.) As I was perusing some of the links I saved during that time, it occurs to me that I totally forgot about one particularly amazing bit of hilarity, courtesy of our old “friend” Deepak Chopra. Given that it was over a week ago, it’s probably not worth going into the full Orac mode on it any more, old news and all, but I couldn’t let it go completely unremarked upon because it’s just so amazingly, hysterically funny. Appearing two days after Christmas, Chopra’s post was entitled Woo Woo Is a Step Ahead of (Bad) Science.

You know, I think Chopra’s feeling a bit of the heat of the criticism of his woo. I’m only disappointed that he didn’t direct his wrath at me. After all, I’m the guy who coined a term for Chopra’s special brand of woo, namely “Choprawoo.” I know either he or someone close to him knows about it, because for a while every time I linked to Chopra’s personal blog I attracted a defender who appeared to be associated with it. But, hey, I’m just a piker in the skeptical world compared to Michael Shermer, and a pseudonymous one at that. A master of woo like Deepak Chopra wouldn’t find me worth his effort. But Shermer. Oh, Shermer. Somehow, Shermer has really gotten under Chopra’s skin:

It used to annoy me to be called the king of woo woo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “woo woo” is a derogatory reference to almost any form of unconventional thinking, aimed by professional skeptics who are self-appointed vigilantes dedicated to the suppression of curiosity. I get labeled much worse things as regularly as clockwork whenever I disagree with big fry like Richard Dawkins or smaller fry like Michael Shermer, the Scientific American columnist and editor of Skeptic magazine. The latest barrage of name-calling occurred after the two of us had a spirited exchange on Larry King Live last week. . Maybe you saw it. I was the one rolling my eyes as Shermer spoke. Sorry about that, a spontaneous reflex of the involuntary nervous system.

Wow! Such nastiness! Poor Chopra. Shermer was so mean to him! Just look at the podcast! Baically, it’s just the same old dualist woo about “consciousness” mixed in with the woo about “near death experiences.” He even goes on about “choices,” “insight,” and “intuition” as being somehow not a product of our brain. It’s nothing we haven’t heard from Chopra before. Meanwhile, Dinesh D’Souza blathers on about people with near-death experiences (NDEs) being still alive and asking, ignorantly, if their brain died then how did it reconstitute itself? The obvious answer is that the brain didn’t die. They even invoke the same old quantum nonsense beloved of Chopra, such as “hidden dimensions” and “other realms” and universes.

Personally, I don’t know why Shermer bothers, but in a way I’m glad that he does, especially when it enrages Chopra so:

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.

Ah, yes. Claiming victimhood, the Galileo Gambit, and the “science was wrong before” gambit, all in one paragraph! Ya gotta love it, particularly this part:

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.

Well, I keep up with the latest finding in medicine, genetics, and evolutionary biology at least. Or at least I try to. From my doing so, it’s clear to me that Deepak Chopra does not understand any of it on other than the most superficial level. Indeed, he mangles the hell out of it, as I’ve explained time and time and time again over the last four years or so. He takes quantum physics, abuses it and the findings of scientists like Einstein, Pauli, and Heisenberg, and lumps the result together to claim that there is some sort of “universal consciousness,” claiming that the physical world is an “illusion.” Too bad for Deepak that quantum physics has not proven that the “physical world is an illusion.” Quantum mechanics, despite the counterintuitive observations produced by it, is quantifiable, verifiable, and measurable by science. If quantum mechanics were otherwise, it wouldn’t have persisted as a key part of modern physics. Not that that stops Chopra from laying the woo down fast and furious, all the while whining:

In light of a few of the comments I would like to clarify something. I hold great value and trust in the scientific method when practiced honestly.

Except that Chopra wouldn’t recognize the scientific method if it bit him in the…well, you know where. His technique is to take a scientific observation and turn it into some sort of bizarre metaphor for whatever he wants it to mean, implying that the science supports his assertion when anyone who actually knows the science knows that it does not. He’s not even all that clever about it.

Also, I have nothing against healthy skepticism which retains an open mind to future possibilities in science.

As I’ve said more times than I can remember, being “open minded” is great. It’s a prerequisite to doing science, but being so open-minded that your brains fall out, not so much. That is the path to woo. That is the path to…Choprawoo.

What I am really addressing here is the brand of professional skepticism that Shermer stands for that borders on cynicism and which leads to a rigid attachment to materialist science. It is the cynicism and prejudice that refuses to explore the new frontiers of neuroscience, genomics, epigenetics, information theory and the understanding of consciousness that I am speaking to.

Science. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means, Chopra.

Moreover, if anything, Shermer is among the more polite skeptics. I’ve never seen him throw insults the way Chopra claims; indeed, he’s probably far more tolerant of woo than I am. Of course, Chopra is parroting a common claim among woo-meisters, an easy mischaracterization of skepticism as cynism. It is not. any good skeptic, if provided with compelling evidence that contradicts his viewpoint or current science, will reconsider his position. Show me evidence for homeopathy, for example, that is even within an order of magnitude of the quality and quantity as the mountains of evidence that show homeopathy to be incredibly implausible, if not downright impossible, based on physics, chemistry, and biology, and I’ll start to have doubts about my position. Likewise, if Chopra could actually show hard evidence and science to support his views, rather than whining and embarrassingly bad handwaving and misrepresentations of quantum theory, I’d start to take him seriously. He doesn’t, and I don’t.

Instead, Chopra loves to throw around “science-y” words to make it sound as though he knows what he’s talking about and then contorts them into word salads that mean nothing of substance, all the while appealing to the quintessensial “god of the gaps.” Only he doesn’t appeal to God to fill in what science does not yet know. He appeals to quantum woo or “universal consciousness” or wild claims. Indeed, P.Z. Myers posted a perfect example of just such word salad by Chopra, and I’m going to steal it for my own nefarious purposes:

The essential nature of the material world is not material; the essential nature of the physical world is not physical; the essential stuff of the universe is non-stuff.

Western science is still frozen in an obsolete, Newtonian worldview that is based literally on superstition — and we can call it the superstition of materialism — which says you and I are physical entities of the physical universe.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding – that perception is in the brain. It’s not in the brain; perception is in consciousness. All our thoughts are in consciousness, all our imagination is in consciousness, all our cognition is in consciousness. Everything that we call reality is in consciousness. Everything! There’s nothing outside consciousness. And no one can find this consciousness. And the reason they can’t find consciousness is because they are looking in the wrong place.

Past, present and future are actually one phenomenon, one picture, one reality, one consciousness.

Every cell instantly knows what is happening in every other cell, in fact, in the whole universe.

Like, wow man. Like, every cell, maaan, knows what, you know, like, every other cell is doing, like, what’s happening in the whole universe! Why can’t I see that? it must be because I’m not so open-minded that my brain fell out, like Chopra. Maybe exposing the brain to the outside air allows it to experience everything that’s going on in the entire universe better, freed from the blocking of the woo rays by the skull. He’s also just plain wrong. Every cell doesn’t instantly “know” what is happening in every other cell, much less the universe. At least, there’s no good evidence to support such a contention. Not even Chopra’s word salad science supports his bold assertions.

The bottom line is that there’s nothing in Deepak Chopra’s latest wooful whine that he didnt’ say over four years ago and continues to say right up to a month ago. He falsely paints scientists and skeptics as “defenders of the status quo” when nothing could be further from the truth, as looking at the roster of who won the Nobel Prize in science will show. (Here’s a hint for Deepak: You don’t win the Nobel Prize by confirming known science; you win it by challenging existing paradigms and finding something new and very important.) Chopra conflates criticism of his poor understanding of science with personal attacks by skeptics, even though over four years ago Michael Shermer made a special request that no personal attacks be made on Dr. Chopra in an issue of The Skeptic. He insisted only upon a skeptical evaluation of Chopra’s ideas on quantum consciousness and healing, but Chopra apparently can’t tell the difference between a skeptical evaluation of his ideas and ad hominem attacks. Even though Shermer is about as easy-going a guy as can be imagined and never anything more than a perfect gentleman in any public appearance I’ve ever seen him in, Deepak sees him as a demon because he isn’t impressed by Chopra’s word salad science and abuse of quantum physics.

I think Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth summed up Chopra quite nicely in Futurama:

For those who can’t watch the video:

But as Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means that anything can happen at anytime and for no reason. Also, eat plenty of oatmeal, and animals never had a war! Who is the real animal?

The real animal is the one without consciousness–except that everyone and everything has universal consciousness. And in Chopra’s world, anything really can happen at any time for no reason at all.