Why do medical conference organizers keep inviting Deepak Chopra to speak?

Way, way back in the day, before I took an interest in pseudoscientific medical claims, I knew who Deepak Chopra was. Back then, though, like most doctors, I didn’t pay much attention to him and didn’t know much about him other than that he was some sort of alternative medicine guru, a physician who had embraced Ayurvedic medicine and blathered about “quantum” consciousness. It didn’t take long once I embraced skepticism to run face-first into the utter woo that s Deepak Chopra’s message, in part thanks to other skeptical bloggers introducing me to his woo. Indeed, back in the early days of this blog, Chopra was a frequent topic, so much so that I coined a term for the sort of quantum drivel that he regularly laid down. The term was “Choprawoo,” and I think its definition is pretty self-explanatory for anyone familiar with Chopra, but for those who are not, I’ll briefly explain. You know how Star Trek had “technobabble,” science-y-sounding terminology that even within the fictional world of the science fiction TV show didn’t make much, if any, sense? Woo babble is the same thing. It all sounds really impressive, but it doesn’t take much of a look beneath the surface to realize that it’s nothing but complete and total bullshit. Indeed, so hilariously nonsensical is Choprawoo that it’s even been studied as pseudoprofound bullshit. Right now he’s pushing his latest book, Supergenes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being, which asserts that you can control the activity of your genes, which is appealing but based entirely on a misunderstanding and misuse of the science of epigenetics typical of quacks. In fact, Chopra arguably “pioneered” that particular use and abuse of epigenetics, in which epigenetics is presented, in essence, as magic that allows you to change how your genes work however you want, either with diet or just by thinking about it.

Unfortunately, far too many people find Deepak Chopra’s combination of mystical sounding pseudo-profundity, his invocation of “cosmic consciousness” and rejection of genetic determinism, and his advocacy of “integrating” all manner of quackery into real medicine (a.k.a. “integrative medicine, formerly “complementary and alternative medicine,” or CAM) to the point of getting actual legitimate medical school faculty to assist him with an actual clinical trial compelling. He is, alas, one of the most influential woo peddlers out there. Worse, he was once a legitimate MD; now he’s a quack. Indeed, as I’ve described before, of all the quacks and cranks and purveyors of woo whom I’ve encountered over the years, Deepak Chopra is, without a doubt, one of the most arrogantly obstinate, if not the most arrogantly obstinate.

So why is it that he gets invitations to speak from respectable medical venues? Why? Here’s one recent example, described in an article in The DO entitled Deepak Chopra on the future of medicine: It’s already here. The DO is a publication of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), and the article describes a talk Chopra gave to OMED 2016, the yearly AOA conference. Now, I frequently defend osteopaths, at least in the US, because I’ve worked with a number of them and recognize that, in general, their training is the equivalent of most MDs and that most of them don’t actually use any of the spinal manipulation they’re taught in osteopathic school. Basically, it’s scienced out of them when they graduate and go on to do a standard residency. Seeing Deepak Friggin’ Chopra at the AOA’s yearly conference almost makes me have second thoughts. I mean, seriously. If you want the DO to be considered as rigorous as the MD, inviting Deepak Chopra to give the keynote to your yearly meeting is not a good strategy, especially when he lays down a heapin’ helpin’ of Choprawoo:

“People are now beginning to look at systems biology as a single process,” Dr. Chopra told a crowd of DOs and medical students gathered in Anaheim Saturday evening for an OMED 2016 general session focused on renewal.

Taking note of the osteopathic medical profession’s emphasis on preventive, whole-person care, Dr. Chopra described the future of medicine as precise, participatory and process-oriented. “I think we can say the future is already here,” he said.

A person’s physical, emotional and mental health make up a unified process in perpetual flux, according to Dr. Chopra. “Don’t think of your genes and microbiome as static—they are constantly going up and down in their activity and regulating your body with only one idea: total balance,” he said.

“Total balance”? What the heck does that even mean? I’ll tell you what it means: Nothing, at least nothing that one can measure. It’s basically a traditional Chinese medicine precept, in which there needs to be “balance” between the five elements (between damp and dry, for instance). It’s also no different from ancient European medicine, otherwise known as the theory of the four humors, in which the various humors must be balanced for their to be good health.To that end, he invokes—you guessed it—epigenetics:

According to Chopra, approximately 95% of a person’s genes can be influenced by what he’s termed the five pillars of well-being: sleep, movement, emotions, nutrition and meditation. Healthy behavior in these pillars can lead to a higher state of consciousness that transcends mental and physical discord, he said.

After leading the audience through a guided meditation exercise, Dr. Chopra shared that, in his experience, adding a small amount of simple meditation when you start your day can go a long way toward achieving balance.

“Setting the right intentions, allowing your body to settle into its most fundamental state of awareness, which is just being, begins the body’s process of self-regulation,” he said. “If you carry that presence with you wherever you go, you won’t allow stress to overshadow your experience of life. Otherwise, we become biological robots.”

When I see a statement like this, my first thought is: Citation needed. Actually, a whole lot of citations needed.

Obviously, too much stress is bad. No one denies that. Meditation might be useful for relaxation. However, even if it’s true that “95% of a person’s genes” can be influenced by sleep, movement, emotions, nutrition and meditation, that doesn’t mean that we can consciously control our gene expression, and it especially doesn’t mean that healthy behavior in these areas can lead to a higher state of consciousness.

It’s not just osteopaths, though. A few days ago, I learned that Chopra will be the keynote speaker for the Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton’s Annual Conference in January. My first reaction when I learned of this was: What the hell does Chopra have to do with autism? I mean, seriously. Look at the description of his talk:

Join Deepak as he creates a roadmap for “higher health,” based on the latest findings in both mainstream and alternative medicine,

Are we in the midst of a major paradigm shift in science?

  • Is there an ultimate reality?
  • Does consciousness conceive, govern, construct and become the physical universe?
  • Is the universe becoming self aware in the human nervous system?
  • Is the next stage of human development conscious evolution?
  • Do we have the ability to influence the future evolution of the cosmos?
  • How does our understanding of consciousness as pure potentiality enhance our capacity for intuition, creativity, conscious choice making, healing, and the awakening of dormant potentials such as non local communication and non local sensory experience?

How does our understanding of consciousness also enhance our capacity for total well being (physical, emotional, spiritual, social, community, financial and ecological)?

Deepak will address all these questions as well as practical ways to experience higher consciousness, transformation and healing. Please mark your calendars to join us at the intersection of autism treatment, and personal well-being. This will be a must attend event not only for those in the autism community, but for all Edmontonians interested in improving their quality of life.

Basically, it sounds like the same talk he gave to the osteopaths. It’s chock full of a number of tropes that Chopra has been promoting in the more than a decade that I’ve been paying attention to his woo, namely that:

“Consciousness” is the universe.
We can control our own evolution with that consciousness.
That this “cosmic consciousness” allows non-local communication and sensory experience; that is, communication across vast distances with the mind. You might ask, quite reasonably: WTF does any of this have to do with treating autism, helping autistic people, or assisting parents and careggivers who take care of them? The answer, of course, is nothing. It’s just feel-good drivel, directed at a community that is so often subjected to quackery and pseudoscience, in particular antivaccine quackery. (At least, as far as I can tell, Chopra has never espoused antivaccine views, for instance:

That’s good, but it doesn’t excuse him from the other quackery he lays down. Let Tim Caulfield explain:

“He’s like the great de-educator. He legitimizes these ideas that have no scientific basis at all and makes them sound scientific. He really is a fountain of meaningless jargon,” said Caulfield.

“This is a community — the autism community — which is often subjected to treatments that don’t have science behind them, that are portrayed as if they are scientific. This is a community that is struggling with a profound issue, so I would I like to see a more scientifically informed person in that place.”

The “great de-educator.” Nice. I’ll have to remember that one for future use.

So what was the rationale of the organizers of the conference for inviting someone like Chopra to be the keynote speaker, especially given that Chopra certainly don’t come cheap? Take a look:

Terri Duncan, executive director of Children’s Autism Services, a non-profit organization which provides services to children with autism and other developmental disorders, defended the group’s decision to hire Chopra as its keynote speaker.

Duncan said the talk will provide the audience with new insights on health and wellness.

“We choose special event speakers who bring a variety of views on a variety of issues. In this case, our goal was to raise awareness of issues surrounding wellness,” Duncan said in a statement to CBC News.

“Deepak offers a unique perspective, a mix of traditional and alternative views, which some may disagree with, but there is no question it will raise awareness of wellness, and kick-start a conversation.”

“Kick start a conversation”? Give me a break! It’s admirable to want to give the audience new insights into health and wellness, but not so much if those new insights are based on mystical pseudoscience coupled with the wholesale appropriation, misuse, and distortion of quantum mechanics, epigenetics, and basically any science that Chopra can torture beyond recognition to justify his mysticism and quackery. Caulfield is right. Autistic children deserve much better.

So why do ostensibly respectable medical organizations invite Deepak Chopra to give keynote addresses at their conferences? I’m tempted to say: Damned if I know, but I think I do know. Chopra sells. People want to see him. Also, organizers of conferences hiring Chopra can oh-so-piously make idiotic statements like Duncan’s, painting themselves as progressive and open-minded, while painting critics as close-minded and behind the times.

It’s how Chopra works, and it’s why his pseudoscience persists as such a profitable business.