Apr 22 2013

Confusing Standards for Censorship – Chopra Edition

TED is a prestigious biannual conference whose brand is, “Ideas Worth Spreading.” (TED originally stood for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” but its scope has since expanded.) It has spawned TEDx – regional independent TED style conferences that are allowed to use the TED brand as long as they strive for the same level of quality.

Deepak Chopra apparently thinks that TED’s logo should be, “Let’s throw any crap against the wall and let the audience sort it out.” Of course that is what all self-styled gurus and purveyors of pseudoscience want, no real scientific standards so that they can present their crackpot ideas as legitimate.

This conflict of vision recently came to a head when TEDx directors (Lara Stein, TEDx Director and Emily McManus, TED.com Editor) wrote an open letter to TEDx organizers giving them guidance on how to avoid accidentally promoting bad science. The letter is an excellent primer on pseudoscience and I recommend reading it in its entirety. The letter was a response to several dubious TEDx talks and the backlash that resulted. Early in the letter they make clear its purpose and their philosophy.

“It is not your audience’s job to figure out if a speaker is offering legitimate science or not. It is your job.”

The philosophy here is clear. TED is an outlet that heavily filters its content to provide only the best quality – ideas worth spreading. In this way it is like a peer-reviewed journal, or a University. It has standards. Pseudoscientists are very keen to cover themselves in the trappings of legitimate science, which means they will energetically pursue anything that can provide this for them. As soon as giving a TED or TEDx talk became a credential worth having, the cranks descended.

Deepak Chopra and others have now written an open letter to the TED organizers criticizing them for “semi-censorship.” They take exception to the partial removal of two TEDx videos by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock (I will have to explore these videos in a separate post), the ones which prompted the backlash and the subsequent letter advising how to avoid bad science. Chopra et al, after some strained and gratuitous analogy to the Game of Thrones, characterize the entire event this way:

“What the militant atheists and self-described skeptics hate is a certain brand of magical thinking that endangers science. In particular, there is the bugaboo of “non-local consciousness,” which causes the hair on the back of their necks to stand on end. A layman would be forgiven for not grasping why such an innocent-sounding phrase could spell danger to ‘good science.’”

They would have you think that legitimate attempts to maintain scientific quality is just a ploy by atheists and skeptics who are just too closed-minded to accept the cutting edge science of consciousness. The cranks have been increasing their attacks on skeptics over the last few years. Skeptics have developed a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and spend their time keeping up with the tactics and antics of the pseudoscientists, and then publicly exposing and dissecting them. Pushback is to be expected.

They continue:

“The reason becomes clear when you discover that non-local consciousness means the possibility that there is mind outside the human brain or even outside material reality, that a conscious mind is in some way intrinsic to the quantum universe, and that we all are quantum entangled.”

What is deliciously ironic is how, even in this letter, Chopra and his fellow authors trigger many of the red flags of bad science that the TEDx directors warned about in their letter. For example, one of their red flags is:

“Uses over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies and may combine with imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, to form new, completely untested theories.”

It’s hard not to suspect that they were thinking of Deepak Chopra when they wrote this line.

It gets better:

“Fearing that God is finding a way to sneak back into the kingdom through ideas of quantum consciousness, militant atheists go on the attack against near-death experiences, telepathy, action at a distance, and all manifestations of purpose-driven evolution. Like the guardians in “A Game of Thrones,” these militants haven’t actually looked over the wall, and given their absolute conviction that the human brain is the only source of awareness in the universe, you’d think that speculative thinking on the subject wouldn’t be so threatening. (Most people wouldn’t picket a convention of werewolves in their hometown. It’s not hard to tell what is fantasy.)”

First, if you are going to make a Game of Thrones reference, at least get it right. Previously in the letter they characterized the night’s watch (which they insist on calling “the guardians”) as a “hereditary” order, when in fact it is not. Now they say that the night’s watch never looks beyond the wall – that is, if you don’t count the groups of rangers who constantly explore north of the wall.

Chopra appears to be as unaware of the Game of Thrones and the Night’s Watch as he is of skeptics. But I’ll run with his flawed analogy – skeptics too range “north of the wall” that demarcates the boundary between legitimate science and pseudoscience. We explore it carefully and report back to those living comfortably south of the wall. It is a wild and untamed region, silly with magical thinking. We also defend against attempts by the denizens north of the wall to infiltrate civilization. Our warnings are often taken as seriously as the Night’s Watch’s  - those who have never looked north of the wall have a hard time believing the nonsense that goes on there.

Chopra would like nothing better than to have the wall go unguarded – meaning that there would be no effective quality control in science, or in what gets presented as science to the public. Keep in mind there is no censorship here. He and anyone are free to write as many books as they want, create web pages, organize their own conference – they seem to have no trouble distributing their nonsense without fear of any censorship.

This is about institutions that self-impose a level of quality control, including universities, journals, professional organizations, and TED conferences. There is also (or should be) certain publicly required quality control, such as what health care interventions should be covered by Medicare, or what gets taught as science in the public science classroom. These are all areas where there is purported to be some level of quality control, and the barbarians are rushing all of these walls. They want in, and one of their primary tactics is to argue that there shouldn’t be any walls at all – no quality control. Quality control to them is censorship.

Failing that, their alternate strategy is to argue that, OK, walls are fine, but we deserve to be let in because we are legitimate. To do this they try to present themselves not as cranks but as visionaries (all cranks think they are visionaries), and to do this they write:

“But TED took the threat seriously enough that Anderson’s letter warns against “the fusion of science and spirituality,” and most disappointing of all, it tags as a sign of good science that “it does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge.” Even a newcomer to science knows about Copernicus, Galileo, and other great scientists whose theories countermanded the prevailing body of accepted knowledge.”

That’s right – the Galileo gambit, one of the most reliable indicators of a crank. Notice also his clever choice of words – “prevailing body of accepted knowledge.” At the time of Galileo there wasn’t much of an “existing body of scientific knowledge,” and those who were pushing back against Galileo were not exactly scientists. The analogy here is as bad as his Game of Thrones failure.

Chris Anderson from TED wrote a nice response to the Chopra letter, in which he points out:

“No one here claims that mainstream science is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It isn’t. But it’s the best starting point we have for judging new information. Yes a modern-day Galileo may be out there with paradigm-shifting ideas that will at some point overturn huge pieces of existing science. But he or she should expect to face a robust standard of proof before their ideas take hold. And for every Galileo, there are thousands of people who just have bad, unscientific ideas.”

Cranks refuse to accept or acknowledge that, unlike at the time of Galileo, we now have a substantial body of scientific knowledge. We are not starting from scratch with every new idea, and not all ideas are equally valid. We know stuff, and we can use that hard-won body of knowledge to make judgments about new ideas. Also, science has developed an elaborate set of methods and standards, and we can judge the activity of researchers based upon those standards.

We can therefore examine and then judge new ideas on these two broad lines – are the ideas plausible based upon currently well-established science, and are the methods of its proponents legitimate and rigorous?

The authors conclude:

“But the main flaw in TED’s position has been made abundantly clear. It isn’t the organizers’ job to exclude questionable science but a job shared between them and the audience. We’re all adults here, right? Any speculative thinking worthy of the name should make somebody in the audience angry, inspire others, and leave the rest to decide if a challenging idea should be thrown out or not. Any other approach casts shame upon tolerance, imagination, and science itself.”

There it is – they do not want any standards. Let the audience decide for themselves. What, then, does the TED brand mean? Chopra and his ilk would cheapen the brand to allow in their preferred pseudoscience. They would cheapen the brand of science itself, muddy the waters, blur the lines, until it’s impossible to tell what is legitimate and what isn’t. That is an environment in which cranks and charlatans can thrive.

But it’s not good science.

Good on TED for holding the line against pseudoscience. Hopefully, in this entire affair, the Chopras of the world have revealed their hand. They do not appear to be interested in legitimate science, only giving their spiritual beliefs the appearance of scientific legitimacy, and they don’t care if they have to bring down the wall of scientific standards to do so.

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23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Confusing Standards for Censorship – Chopra Edition”

  1. eiskrystalon 22 Apr 2013 at 9:43 am

    That’s a surprisingly impressive no-nonsense list.

    Good.

    Noticeably the talks in question were brought to someones attention because the audience complained. Chopra may find little sympathy from his precious audience.

    That doesn’t mean the audience should have to decide though. The last thing I want to do is sit through tiresome babbling about Quantums or something because there wasn’t then time on the schedule for the legitimate, interesting research.

  2. cliffon 22 Apr 2013 at 9:59 am

    I do not know what I enjoy more about this article, the fact it involves the integrity of TED talks (and standards in general), or the word “ilk” was used–so rarely seen in my usual reading.

  3. Ori Vandewalleon 22 Apr 2013 at 10:16 am

    If someone invites you into their house, and you start blathering on about nonsense, and they tell you to leave, that’s not censorship. Apart from any concept of what the TED brand is, they absolutely have the right to deny any speaker the opportunity to speak at TED for no more reason than that they choose to. And it’s not censorship.

    But insofar as what the TED brand represents, the only conclusion is that TED doesn’t think Deepak Chopra’s ideas are worth spreading. Sorry, Chopra.

    Also, “militant atheists” don’t (generally) have a problem with action at a distance. Action at a distance is a standard part of real quantum mechanics, and it happens. But a certain individual does come to mind when I think of displeasure with action at a distance: Einstein. A militant atheist he was not.

    But you know what? Einstein was wrong. As brilliant as he was, he held firmly to the belief that quantum mechanics’ non-locality could not be real, and he was wrong. As strange as the concept is, physicists (like Bell) proved that it had to be true. And that’s what separates good science (worth spreading) from bad*. Einstein’s EPR paper got people thinking about non-locality, and although there was debate, an eventual conclusion was reached. While individuals might hold on to old beliefs, the scientific community moves on. As it stands now, the scientific community thinks Chopra’s ideas are baloney. Twenty years from now science will be somewhere else, but my bet is Chopra will stil believe the same baloney.

    *I’m not saying Einstein was a bad scientist. Clearly, he was a brilliant scientist, and clearly, he was revolutionary, but as it concerns quantum mechanics, he was wrong. Not wrong that there might be a better theory that could replace quantum mechanics, but wrong about non-locality.

  4. locutusbrgon 22 Apr 2013 at 10:57 am

    I love the Galileo gambit as you put it. HE was a scientific thinker railing against religious dogma not prior scientific knowledge. He was in fact building on what little previous scientific knowledge was known.
    Chopra is doing the reverse requesting that dogma be reintroduced into the equation destroying scientific knowledge.

    Maybe he is the anti-leo?

  5. tmac57on 22 Apr 2013 at 11:13 am

    Hmmm…the ‘all powerful Big Skeptic movement’ is suppressing the puny folks like Deepak Chopra from getting their message out.

    Per Wikipedia:

    Chopra has written more than 70 books, including 21 New York Times bestsellers. His books have been translated into 35 languages and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.[10] Chopra has received many awards, including the Oceana Award (2009),[11] the Cinequest Life of a Maverick Award (2010),[12] Humanitarian Starlite Award (2010),[13] and the GOI Peace Award (2010).[14]

    Poor little feller :(

  6. jt512on 22 Apr 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Want to take a peek at the world north the of the wall? Check out the so-called Skeptiko forum. You’re going to be astounded by what you find here. These people really live in an alternative universe.

  7. edamameon 22 Apr 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I’m so sick of Nature and Science censoring my papers!

  8. pseudonymoniaeon 22 Apr 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Still, TED has a fair bit of weirdness going on nonetheless. Many highly liked TED talks are just fluff, or worse, present a false view and truncated view of a complex topic.

    There’s the totally nutty stuff: take Jill Bolte-Taylor’s Stroke… http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

    Just recently I caught Thomas Insel’s talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeZ-U0pj9LI) on how the connectome project is going to revolutionize how we treat psychiatric illness. But Insel completely oversteps his game. He basically argues that if we can identify a consistent pattern of cortical volume change in childhood-onset schizophrenia, then we can identify people at risk of various psychiatric illnesses like depression, OCD and PTSD years prior due to abnormal trajectories of development. Apart from the ridiculously high cost of using an MRI-based screening method for major depression, the idea is just implausible and represents a comprehensive over-selling of this project by the head of NIMH.

    Just anecdotes, sure, but TED is full of talks that over-sell or misinform. I guess its fortunate that rank pseudoscience is out.

  9. edamameon 22 Apr 2013 at 1:15 pm

    pseudonymoniae: interesting point, but we should be clear to separate pseudoscience from speculation based on good science. The latter should be encouraged, even if such creative leaps take us to places that are presently not viable.

  10. ConspicuousCarlon 22 Apr 2013 at 1:31 pm

    TED’s tagline is “Ideas worth spreading”, not “anything anyone feels like saying”. Clearly there is going to be a screening process to determine whether or not an idea is worth spreading, or else they are not living up to their promise.

  11. Artur Krolon 22 Apr 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Wasn’t Choopra actually on some of the main TED speaks though?

  12. Technogeekon 22 Apr 2013 at 2:43 pm

    I haven’t seen a metaphor backfire that completely since Rick Santorum’s “I want to keep the Eye of Mordor focused on Iraq” brain turd.

  13. EOon 22 Apr 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Has Chopra ever clearly stated what he considers to be unethical or dangerous in terms of pseudoscience or even those who would masquerade as spiritual leaders? I have often read him defending all sorts of things from what he views as antagonistic scientists and atheists, but I’ve never heard him speak out about anything else. I’ve always found his ethical stances to be dubious at best, is there anything he has taken a stand against besides those who don’t trust his ideas?

  14. ConspicuousCarlon 22 Apr 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Chopra manages to both claim that his nonsense is grounded in science, but also makes the excuse that those stubborn scientists won’t accept his ideas because it would destroy science.

  15. edamameon 22 Apr 2013 at 8:35 pm

    EO: he was against the Iraq war back in the day.

  16. nickmPTon 22 Apr 2013 at 9:10 pm

    If he really wanted to use the Game of Thrones reference to his benefit, he should have said something like this:

    “We are wildlings (pseudoscience), and you are watchers (science) with your wall (standards). We have had our quarrels throughout the years, but now is the time for you to let us over the wall, because an ancient evil has risen, the white walkers (x). And we must stand together as one to defeat it.”

    For x they can insert any sort of terrible disaster on the horizon, i.e. climate change, financial collapse/chaos, robot rebellion, or Justin Beiber.

  17. Davdoodleson 22 Apr 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Mr Chopra really needs to consider why it is that his arguments always require that he mischaracterises both his, and his opponents’, concerns.

    He is ‘Galileo’, you see. Skeptics are “scared” and censorious, and so forth.

    But the unvarnished fact is that he doesn’t want his claims to be critically examined, and his opponents want them to be held to the same standards as any other claim.

    He can spin and whine all he likes, but there’s his problem.
    .

  18. rocken1844on 22 Apr 2013 at 11:30 pm

    in addition to the excellent TED letter for scrutiny, I always liked a statement in Michael Shermer’s book: Why People Believe Weird Things: “Scientific progress is the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and nonuseful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge.” Chopra may sell acres of books, but what is the value of that to humanity, but endless speculation.

  19. Hwandon 23 Apr 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Mr. Chopra has been quick to reply (again):

    TED Relents, But Whose Hash Has Been Settled?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/ted-relents-but-whose-has_b_3135309.html

    Again Chopra makes a point of addressing Dawkins’ militant Atheism, and even “apologizes” (without saying sorry) for stooping to his level. He then makes an argument that science, and TED’s science board, “makes the mistake of separating the observer and the observed”, which now seems to be his focus for gaining validity. He finishes with an anecdote contrasting atheism, religious fundamentalism, and spirituality, seemingly (to me) to say that wise men can smile down on the bickering between atheism and religion.

  20. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 24 Apr 2013 at 8:18 am

    I shall take no wife, hold no lands… ;)

  21. leo100on 24 Apr 2013 at 8:55 pm

    The point is that naturalism is accepted assumption that is never questioned. So when parapsychologists challenge this assumption skeptics such as PZ Myers one of the individuals for removing Rupert Sheldrake’s youtube video from the Ted’s conference. Parapsychologists just want a fair platform is that asking for too much?. It seems like it is what have you naturalists have to be afraid of?. Oh I know losing some of your supporters. They want over this wall (standards) because they deserve it the evidence in my view at least is strongly supportive of an afterlife and psi.

  22. ccbowerson 24 Apr 2013 at 9:50 pm

    “Parapsychologists just want a fair platform is that asking for too much?. It seems like it is what have you naturalists have to be afraid of?. ”

    People are not “afraid.” That suggestion implies that you just don’t get it. What is unfair about the platform? By definition, standards must discriminate, although the discrimination should be one that distinguishes by quality. Fairness does not mean that crap is considered the equal of good science. The ‘evidence’ for psi and the afterlife is extremely flimsy, and I think I am being generous when I write that.

  23. leo100on 25 Apr 2013 at 10:03 am

    People are not “afraid.” That suggestion implies that you just don’t get it. What is unfair about the platform? By definition, standards must discriminate, although the discrimination should be one that distinguishes by quality. Fairness does not mean that crap is considered the equal of good science. The ‘evidence’ for psi and the afterlife is extremely flimsy, and I think I am being generous when I write that.

    What I meant by that is there is a lot to lose for naturalists if their worldview is proven wrong. Which I think it has. I would love to know who the five scientists are who are on the science board at Ted. So scientists with a strong leaning to naturalism should be the deciders on what is crap and what isn’t?. Even scientists that are not parapsychologists have been vocal on this matter about Ted.

    For example

    http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/goertzel20130420

    Just like to quote what Brian Goertzel had to say.

    “I wonder if the TED administration is aware that there is a substantial community of serious scientists — including many, like myself, who have contributed to TED events — who

    1) disagree with the evaluation of the work of Sheldrake, Targ etc. as pseudoscience, and believe the removal of their videos was a suboptimal decision

    2) believe it would be to the benefit of TED and the world at large, if wide-ranging scientific explorations into the nature of consciousness and its relation to the world, were among the permitted topics at TED conferences

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