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.


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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