Nov 04 2013

Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses

Deepak Chopra apparently has no love for organized skepticism. This is not surprising and his particular brand of spiritual pseudoscience has been a favorite target of skeptical analysis. He is also not the only one who has decided to fight back against the skeptics – if you cannot defend yourself against legitimate criticism, then shoot the messenger.

In a recent article Chopra renews his attack against what he calls “militant skepticism.” This is a blatant attempt, of course, to portray skeptics as extremist and on the fringe, a strategy that has been used against “militant atheists.” Chopra also uses his article to conflate skepticism with atheism, almost as if he is completely unaware of the internal discourse that has been taking place for decades within the skeptical movement.

Chopra writes:

The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.

This is an interesting bit of historical revisionism, although I think it probably just reflects Chopra’s complete unfamiliarity with his subject matter. The modern skeptical movement predates Dawkins by decades. We have had a clear philosophy and scope long before Dawkins appeared on the scene.

Dawkins is a highly respected figure among skeptics because of his powerful writing, his popularizing of science, and his unflinching criticism of pseudoscience. Most skeptics are atheists, and we also respect his defending science from the intrusion of religion and spirituality.

Where many skeptics, myself included, disagree with Dawkins is precisely in treating “the God hypothesis” as if it were only a scientific question. I say “only” because certainly it is possible to treat any supernatural hypothesis as if it were in the realm of methodological naturalism, and there is general agreement among skeptics when approached in this way the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no credible evidence to support the conclusion that any god exists, or that the laws of the material universe need to be extended to account for any alleged supernatural phenomena. If you frame God as a scientific hypothesis, it can be scientifically refuted. Looked at another way, the psychocultural hypothesis is a far better and more parsimonious explanation for belief in God than the actual existence of such a being.

The big “but” is that not everyone believes in God as a scientific fact. Some people choose to have faith in an unfalsifiable god, one that resides outside the realm of science. Once someone’s faith has retreated outside the realm of science, then science is no longer the tool by which one should address such faith. Logic and philosophy are now more appropriate, but you cannot say, by definition, that an unfalsifiable God can be scientifically proven to not exist.

In practice most people blur the line between an empirical God and an unfalsifiable God, in which case I believe the best approach is to point out the self-contradiction, and force them squarely either inside or outside the arena of science. Once completely outside the arena, they must surrender any pretense to actual knowledge and admit their beliefs are solely personal faith. If any part of their belief dips into the arena of science, however, then it is scientific fair game.

This is the debate, at least, that has been raging ever since there has been a modern skeptical movement. There are two basic camps, loosely referred to as the atheists and the skeptics (yes, there are lots of permutations and subtleties, but that’s the basic picture). Over time the relationship between these two camps has waxed and waned. At times we predominantly celebrate our intellectual overlap and common cause, at others our philosophical differences come home to roost.

Chopra appears to be aware of none of this. This would not be a problem as he is not part of the skeptical movement, but then he should not presume to write on a subject about which he apparently has such complete ignorance (not typically an obstacle for Chopra).

After setting up and knocking down a couple more straw men, Chopra writes:

The God Delusion, aided by a handful of other best sellers attacking religion in the same vein, did have one decisive effect, however. Science became yoked to the tools of rhetoric and demagoguery, going so far as to lose any trace of objectivity.

I have no idea what Chopra is referring to here, but I can guess, based on his previous writing. Now that he has conflated skepticism and atheism, and then falsely accused atheism of demagoguery, he concludes that scientific skepticism is also about demagoguery. Every link in that chain of thought is incorrect. This all serves Chopra’s purpose of attacking skepticism – which really is nothing more than a scientific and logical criticism of his nonsense.

Chopra, however, does not want to have a war with science, because he wants to pretend that his new age spiritualism is science. So he needs a villain, something to blame other than the complete scientific bankruptcy of his ideas. Skeptics are his convenient villain, but skeptics are just scientists or science promoters who are bothering to apply scientific reasoning to his claims. This is something with which most mainstream scientists will not sully themselves (which I think is a mistake, but that’s another post). So he conflates skepticism with atheism, and he has created his villain.

Chopra’s skeptical villain is a complete fiction, but that is a realm in which Chopra apparently feels comfortable.

Chopra finally gets to the specifics of his current boogeyman:

A distressing example has been occurring at Wikipedia, where a band of committed skeptics have focused their efforts to discredit anyone whom they judge an enemy.

He is correct in that there is a project within skeptical circles to keep Wikipedia scientifically accurate. Chopra would like his readers to think this is “militants” attacking their “enemies.” From the skeptical point of view, of course, this is simply a project for Wikipedia to accurately present scientific information about controversial topics. The goal is to prevent promoters of nonsense and pseudoscience from using Wikipedia for free advertising and spreading propaganda.

The more neutral perspective is that Wikipedia is a common battle ground for ideological opponents. This is a serious issue for Wikipedia, as they have to deal with editing wars. They partly deal with this by labeling certain entries as controversial, and also allowing different sections within an entry for the various perspectives. I guess Chopra would like to have free reign in Wikipedia without any opposing opinions being expressed.

For example:

You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted.

Chopra would have you believe that Sheldrake in an “impeccable thinker” wrongly targeted by “militant skeptics.” The most generous characterization, rather, is that Sheldrake is a highly controversial figure. He is trying to actually change the nature and scope of science. He should not be shocked that there is pushback. Sheldrake is also, in my opinion, completely wrong, and is a very sloppy thinker who is trying to erode scientific standards in order to admit his particular brand of supernaturalism.

Of course, that is the debate. Let’s have it.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the big picture here is that Chopra is desperately trying to avoid actually engaging with science and skepticism. If he thinks he and Sheldrake and others he would consider his intellectual allies have a point, then make it. Bring it on.

The best way to promote your ideas, especially if you have the hubris to think they are revolutionary, is to engage with your critics. There are many careful and thoughtful public intellectuals (Dawkins included) who have put forward very cogent philosophical and scientific arguments against what Chopra is selling. If Chopra wants to promote his ideas he should try to understand and engage with those critics.

Instead, Chopra is building a cardboard villain to rail against. In so doing he is exposing his intellectual shallowness.

You will notice what Chopra has not done is address any of the actual intellectual pillars of scientific skepticism. If he wishes to do so, I would be happy to engage with him on this issue.

 

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20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses”

  1. oldmanjenkinson 04 Nov 2013 at 8:34 am

    Chopra has a problem differentiating reality from fantasy so his position regarding skeptics is no surprise.

  2. Lukas1986on 04 Nov 2013 at 9:05 am

    The argument that Wikipedia is under attack by skeptics is used by woo promoters like Craig Weiler and others:

    In October 2013 Weiler published a blog post titled “The Wikipedia Battle for Rupert Sheldrake’s Biography” in an attempt to stir up a controversy over Rupert Sheldrake’s Wikipedia article. In the post he demonstrated a decided lack of comprehension with regard to basic Wikipedia policies, which do not allow the promotion of pseudoscience on Wikipedia. He also drew upon several conspiracy theories about how Sheldrake is supposedly being oppressed by skeptics. Weiler believes all kinds of woo should be included on Wikipedia without critical or skeptical coverage.

    Among the conspiracy theories was one that was immediately debunked just by looking at the source. He claimed that there was a “Wikipedia mafia” that had attempted to intimidate him on Wikipedia. He provided quotes from his Wikipedia user page as evidence. However a simple check of the page reveals that no such intimidation occurred. On the page he was simply asked to look at Wikipedia’s “real name” policy because he was using the name “Craig Weiler” on Wikipedia. The policy’s purpose is to prevent impersonators, and everyone using a real name should follow the policy (for example linking from his blog to his Wikipedia page would satisfy the policy). Furthermore, his user page on Wikipedia reveals that he acknowledged and thanked those who brought the policy to his attention. A comment was posted on his blog describing this state of affairs (screenshot), which was approved and appeared on his blog for a few hours, before he deleted it.

    Taken from: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Craig_Weiler

    This is just a example on the mind-energy forum/Skeptiko forum the forum of Alex Tsakiris. There is more out there – they are monitoring every parapsychologist and taking a look into it if it was changed into a more skeptical view like Dean Radin wikipedia page etc..

  3. Kawarthajonon 04 Nov 2013 at 11:59 am

    Why shouldn’t sceptics be militant? There are a lot of pressing issues that sceptics address, including a lot of issues that could have a significant and positive effect on many people (i.e. vaccines, global warming, unsafe consumer products, etc…)! While I realize that Chopra is being manipulative by using the word “militant”, I think that sceptics should take it as a compliment that even big name pseudoscience peddlers are feeling the sting of sceptical activism. Sceptics are up against some very passionate and militant foes – anti-vaccers, con-artists and manipulators. Some militancy is a necessary counter to the pseudoscience peddlers.

  4. ConspicuousCarlon 04 Nov 2013 at 12:11 pm

    “his unflinching criticism of pseudoscience”

    Minor correction: he flinched for Bill Maher.

  5. Tim Farleyon 04 Nov 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Another aspect of Craig Weiler – he gives the impression in a comment on the Chopra article, and in his blog posts, that he personally was involved in editing the Sheldrake article, and complains of almost being banned.

    But here’s the thing – Craig Weiler’s editing history, like everyone else’s, is public information on Wikipedia. Since he joined Wikipedia on September 14 of this year, he’s made about 64 edits to 6 distinct pages. Every single one of those 6 pages is what Wikipedia calls a “talk page” – in other words, meta-discussion about editing.

    Let me reword that for those not familiar with Wikipedia: Craig Weiler has never once in his life made one constructive edit to the content of Wikipedia.*

    And so, anyone who thinks he has any real knowledge of what goes on in Wikipedia is fooling themselves. He’s an outside observer who doesn’t understand the rules, and has made no effort to try.

    The reason skeptics like myself, Susan Gerbic and the rest of her skeptic Wikipedia team have been successful in our edits is because we HAVE actually taken the time to learn the rules, abide by them, and apply them in practice. Unless and until Weiler, Chopra, Sheldrake and the rest of them put in that effort, they are always going to be whining about Wikipedia.

    * Not sure if links are allowed here, but if they are, here’s Craig Weiler’s editing history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Craig_Weiler

  6. Steven Novellaon 04 Nov 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Lukas and Tim – thanks for the extra info. Chopra promised follow up on the whole Wikipedia thing, so I was planning on tackling the issue then, but your info is very helpful.

  7. tmac57on 04 Nov 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Seems to me if they can’t follow the rules that Wikipedia has established,they should go the route of Conservapedia,and create their own reality…call it Wookipedia perhaps?

  8. Tim Farleyon 04 Nov 2013 at 2:51 pm

    @tmac57: I somewhat expect a move like that, because Weiler’s last blog post about Wikipedia is essentially “I give up”. It’s happened several times before – not only is there Conservapedia, but chiropractors have their own Wiki, and so on and so forth.

    Of course, setting up your own wiki is NOT a real solution. The reason Wikipedia is so interesting to edit is because of its unique visibility both in search engine results and in the culture itself. No special-topic Wiki is going to achieve that visibility.

    I will say that Wikipedia is not without problems. The rules are voluminous and arcane, the culture is hard to learn, and it’s easy to get slapped down and become discouraged as a newbie. The Wikimedia foundation is aware of these problems and continually strives to do better. But the answer isn’t to whine in an op-ed about it, the answer is to knuckle down, learn the rules, and do the work.

    P.S. FYI, Weiler is continuing to argue on the Chopra piece at SFGate. It’s somewhat entertaining, as are his blog posts. For one thing he saw my handle “krelnik” and referred to me as an anonymous commenter – apparently it’s too much work to type 7 letters into Google to figure out who someone is.

  9. FacelessManon 04 Nov 2013 at 5:09 pm

    @Tmac57 “…call it Wookipedia perhaps?”

    Not to be mistaken with Wookieepedia (Star Wars wiki), also belonging to the fantasy genre, but with a better plot.

  10. ccbowerson 04 Nov 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I wish I could understand the appeal of this type nonsense. It is so jarring to hear someone spouting off this type nonsense that I often feel the need to remove myself from the situation (as a way to remove painful stimuli), while others gather ’round and listen intently.

  11. ConspicuousCarlon 04 Nov 2013 at 8:20 pm

    ccbowers on 04 Nov 2013 at 7:22 pm
    I wish I could understand the appeal of this type nonsense.

    I think some people (maybe all of us to some degree) have a natural tendency to think that everything can be understood in terms of things we already know and understand. In a way I suppose we kind of have to do that, since it is not really possible to think about a new subject in terms of concepts we don’t understand yet.

    As crazy as Chopra’s nonsense sounds to people who have the slightest knowledge of the subjects he hijacks, to a total layperson with some excess pride it might sound more appealing to hear a sloppy false metaphor than to be told you have to actually learn a whole bunch of stuff. I think our first impulse is to deny that second possibility.

    “Those scientists aren’t as smart as they think! Quantum strangeness is just a manifestation of the conflicting feelings in our minds! They make things complicated because they refuse to open their hearts and accept that we are all one with the universe!”
    –”I don’t know exactly what that means, but now I feel smart because I can recite a few sentences which sound like some kind of answer.”

  12. BillyJoe7on 04 Nov 2013 at 9:36 pm

    SN: “The big “but” is that not everyone believes in God as a scientific fact. Some people choose to have faith in an unfalsifiable god, one that resides outside the realm of science”

    How many is “some”?

    Does anyone personally know of anyone who believes in a unfalsifiable god?
    An unfalsifiable god is one who has no interaction within the universe he has presumably created.
    IMO, the “big butt” is a “vanishingly small butt” of no practical consequence.
    In other words, Richard Dawkins is, for all practical purposes, correct.

    Do faeries and hobgoblins also have big butts?

  13. zaphod900on 05 Nov 2013 at 12:37 am

    Steven,

    This is a great topic for discussion. Wikipedia is very misunderstood by the general public and shunned by far too many academics.

    I would suggest having Susan Gerbic on the SGU to expand on the rules and regs of editing Wikipedia. She is a great resource, and has wrangled many, many people to become the “Army of Skeptics” better known by it’s real title, The Guerilla Skeptics of Wikipedia.

  14. Lukas1986on 05 Nov 2013 at 2:35 am

    Here is the info about stalking on wikipedia where a user with the name Dan the Skeptic changed Dean Radins page into a more skeptical tone:

    “It would look like “Dan skeptic” is going to town destroying Dean Radin’s reputation.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php…action=history
    Pretty laughable that he claimed to be new to Wikipedia, yet he immediately knew all the ins and outs of Wikipedia. He’s yet another pseudoskeptic who obsessively follows this board and has probably been banned before. Here’s another proponent that was perhaps unfairly banned years ago:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Martinphi
    They say he revealed personal info about another Wikipedia editor. But isn’t that what a number of the pseudoskeptics, including Dan Skeptic and Lucky Louie, did to Tumbleman?”

    Its from: http://forum.mind-energy.net/skeptiko-podcast/5799-wikipedia-tumbleman-ban-investigation-thread.html

  15. Lukas1986on 05 Nov 2013 at 2:36 am

    Its seems that pseudoscience promoters are not happy that their “stars” receive criticism and therefore they stalk those who write a normal view on the subject..

  16. Mad Vertexon 05 Nov 2013 at 7:14 am

    @Kawarthajonon
    > Why shouldn’t sceptics be militant?

    Because in this case it’s to a misnomer, implanted only for the purpose of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_emotion.
    I wouldn’t really classify skeptic activism in any way as being correctly described with any meaning of the word “militant” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/militant)

    It is very similar to when it’s used to describe outspoken atheists, since in the context of religion, “militant” takes a much stronger meaning. “militant christians”, “militant jews”, “militant muslims” all refer to (quite horrible) violence, which then makes it very unfair for the term to be used as a synonim for “outspoken” or “vocal”.

  17. 123FakeNameon 05 Nov 2013 at 9:23 am

    The crazy thing is that for all his talk about the evils of skepticism, there’s no doubt that if he did have any legitimate science on his side he would point to it and insist on its importance. The only reason for someone to deny the value of evidence and criticism is if they know that their ideas aren’t supported by it.

  18. ccbowerson 05 Nov 2013 at 9:44 pm

    “Does anyone personally know of anyone who believes in a unfalsifiable god?”

    In a difference sense, a lot of people do, but from their own narrow perspective only. The problem is that you are looking for a coherent concept of such a being, in which people come to believe through logic and continue to test this idea. People do not usually treat their religious beliefs in this fashion (like a scientific question). The more common treatment of religious belief to make it ‘unfalsifiable’ in a person’s mind is for individuals to refuse to attempt to falsify it. Taking the idea of their god(s) as a given, they use special pleading, compartmentalization, etc – whatever it takes to keep the beliefs that they want, plus acknowledge the reality that they want or can’t deny.

    In fact, the people that don’t do this I would call fundamentalists. These people stand out because they hold onto their beliefs much more strongly than the obvious realities around them.

  19. rocken1844on 06 Nov 2013 at 1:18 am

    Hearken back to Dr. Novella’s post of May 02/2013 HIV Cure Close?

    “Regardless of which researchers cross the finish line first, this is a great victory for science. In one generation we have gone from the discovery of a new frightening infectious illness, to figuring out the viral cause and working out its entire life-cycle, and designing targeted treatments that improved to the point that we are now able to essentially put the infection into remission. We are still working on developing a vaccine, and now also on eradicating the virus entirely.

    That is a dramatic success for reductionist science. Nothing in the “alternative” world can even come close. Science works. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors.”

  20. Bill Openthalton 06 Nov 2013 at 3:54 am

    BillyJoe7

    Does anyone personally know of anyone who believes in a unfalsifiable god?

    Probably not when stated like this, but I personally know excellent scientists who are deeply religious, and have no problem holding two conflicting models of the world almost simultaneously.

    It would seem that if, for whatever reason, people establish a “personal” relationship with a $DEITY, this personal experience trumps rational arguments against the existence of this being. The good thing is they do realise it is a personal belief, and do not see it as universal. If only all religious people were like this…

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