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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