Deepak Chopra misunderstands skepticism

Why, oh, why, do I still occasionally check out the Huffington Post? It's been full of antivaccination conspiracy-mongering almost since the day of its very inception, and it's the first place I ever encountered Jay Gordon, the pediatrician whose "skepticism" about vaccines is laced with insinuations that the results of any study that is any way supported by pharmaceutical companies should be ignored (regardless of the quality of, oh, the actual study design and data) and that any investigator who accepts funding from big pharma must be hopelessly compromised. It's been a booster of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s dubious and unfounded conspiracy-mongering regarding vaccines and autism.

So I gave it up for a while. But, for some reason that I can't figure out, occasionally I can't resist going back. I must be a glutton for punishment, you know, reading things that make me want to tear my hair out.

So it was today, when I came across an article by resident advocate of Aruveda and New Ager Deepak Chopra, entitled, Gadflies Without a Sting: The Downside of Skepticism, which is in essence an extended rant against skepticism. Michael Shermer has already answered some of his charges with a lovely, positive essay entitled The Power of Positive Skepticism. What more could be said, after the master skeptic himself has responded to Chopra's attacks? Well, at the risk of the hubris of incorrectly thinking myself in Shermer's league when it comes to defining the nature of modern skepticism, perhaps a bit more. For, in an apparent desire to remain unrelentingly positive and thus not fall victim to the very charges against skeptics that Chopra made, Shermer has let some of Chopra's charges slide more or less unanswered.

Dr. Chopra starts out with five main complaints about skepticism. He begins:
I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.
Dr. Chopra seems to be confused about what skepticism means. I would agree that unreasonable or unrelentingly negative skepticism is not a desirable trait. I would also agree with Michael Shermer that there does exist a variety of skeptic that is unrelentingly negative, but in my experience such skeptics are in the relative minority, albeit a vocal minority. However, distinguishing healthy from unhealthy skepticism doesn't appear to be what Dr. Chopra has in mind:

Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:

1. I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.
Interesting. I have come across many "nonskeptics" who are quite eager to launch ad hominem attacks. Indeed, I've come across a number of believers in alternative medicine who even launch pre-emptive ad hominem attacks in order to try to poison the well and discredit skeptics in advance. However, I rather suspect that Dr. Chopra is being somewhat disingenuous here. He seems to be confusing attacks on what one says or what one advocates with attacks on one's person. Sometimes they are one in the same. More often they are not. Michael Shermer himself took pains to point out how he insisted that no personal attacks be made on Dr. Chopra in an issue of The Skeptic. He only insisted upon a skeptical evaluation of Chopra's ideas on quantum consciousness and healing. I try to do the same when examining unsupported claims. True, when irritated at having to point out the same straw men and fallacies used by alties and "intelligent design" advocates over and over again, I can get a bit testy, but I usually try not to.

2. Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.
Well, actually, no. Most of us don't "leap" to that conclusion. We read Dr. Chopra's own writings and then arrive naturally at that conclusion based on his own words. For example, PZ Myers (whom Dr. Chopra would no doubt accuse of ad hominems) took what Dr. Chopra recently wrote about evolution apart point by point on science and the facts when he was indiscrete enough to wander into writing in support of intelligent design. True, PZ did throw in a bit of dismissive and insulting language, which was probably not strictly necessary, but, even if you leave aside the dismissive language, PZ showed in excruciating detail that Dr. Chopra did not know what he was talking about with regards to evolution. I probably wouldn't have done it in quite as sarcastic a fashion, but PZ was correct on the science and Dr. Chopra was not. PZ was also rather testy at having to refute the same fallacies yet again.

3. Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.
Give me a break. The very nature of skepticism is to examine the assumptions of one's own position. That is also, not surprisingly, the very nature of science. As for whether those assumptions are "shaky," certainly nothing Dr. Chopra has written have demonstrated that to be so.

4. Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience.)
Doubt is a positive attribute for many things. For example, doubt is positive when dealing with a real estate agent or a used car salesman--or other situations in which claims are made that may not be true. I doubt that even Dr. Chopra would disagree. Of course, it depends on what Dr. Chopra means by "doubt." "Doubt" is not the same thing as "skepticism." There are rational doubts and irrational doubts. Skepticism, in my view, is doubt that is based on reason, evidence (or lack thereof), and with good foundation, rather than fear, negativity, or other irrational reasons. Skepticism is rational doubt. As many credophiles do, Dr. Chopra equates rational with irrational doubt and tries to equate irrational doubt with skepticism. Rational doubt in science prevents scientists from accepting obviously implausible or impossible explanations for natural phenomena.

Besides, believers in pseudoscience actually like skepticism, as long as it's skepticism about the "right" things, such as big pharma, drugs, or current "scientific dogma." However, they don't like it quite so much when skepticism is turned on their beliefs, or, as Michael Shermer put it, they like to say “I’m a skeptic too, but…,” where skepticism is fine as long as it is someone else’s codswallop under the microscope. Those of us in the science biz, however, are used to having our ideas and hypotheses challenged, sometimes strongly or even brutally. It's part and parcel of the give-and-take of ideas. You have to have a thick skin. Believers like Dr. Chopra tend not to have such a thick skin.

5. Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.
This is the point where Dr. Chopra is most incorrect, at least in science. There's a saying popular among scientists: "Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out." Open-mindedness is essential to science, but it must be tempered with rational skepticism based on knowledge of has gone before.

Let's take a look at a recent example that is being trumpeted by "intelligent design" creationism advocates like William Dembski and other advocates of pseudoscience as "mavericks" showing how screwed up the establishment supposedly was. The example is the recent award of the Nobel Prize to Robin Warren and Barry Marshall for showing that the bacterium H. pylori is the cause of most duodenal ulcers. To hear it from the alties and ID advocates, this is an example of how how bad conventional science can be. It's even been presented as an example of science not being about "consensus," of how mavericks are often scorned. Yes, Marshall and Warren's ideas were severely criticized when they first presented their hypotheses about the cause of ulcers being bacterial in many people. Then a funny thing happened. They did experiments. They gathered more data. The data was convincing. Other investigators started to wonder if maybe Marshall and Warren were correct. Curious, more investigators started looking into the possible connection and finding the same thing. Over a decade, momentum gathered, until, by the early 1990's, there was a paradigm shift and a new scientific consensus developed. Warren and Marshall's observations and skepticism about prevailing dogma about peptic ulcer disease led to a revolution. But it was a revolution based on data and experimentation. The vast majority of "mavericks" turn out to be wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. When they are right and ultimately vindicated, however, they are sometimes spectacularly correct, like Warren and Marshall.

If Deepak Chopra thinks that scientists don't value questioning the prevailing dogma, he should read the Nobel Prize Committee's comments regarding Warren and Marshall, in which the Committee praised their tenacity and willingness to challenge existing prevailing dogmas. Scientists do value those who challenge existing dogma--if they can deliver the evidence to support the challenge convincingly. In fact, it was for questioning scientific dogma and proving to be correct that Warren and Marshall won the Nobel Prize! In the meantime, those who would challenge existing science have to be able to run the necessary gauntlet of skepticism that keeps incorrect conclusions from taking root for long. Most of that skepticism is rational skepticism. Some of it, admittedly, is irrational. (Scientists are human, too, and can become more enamored of their own ideas than they should be or too entrenched in dogmatic thinking.) But, if the scientist challenging existing dogma has the goods, eventually he or she will be acknowledged as being correct, and a new scientific consensus will emerge. It's messy, yes. It can sometimes take decades or even longer. It's occasionally brutal. Sometimes scientists don't live long enough to see their ideas accepted. Most challengers will not be Galileo. Most will be incorrect and ultimately forgotten by history. (To paraphrase a saying, it is not enough to claim the mantle of Galileo. One must also be right.) But those who turn out to be correct and thereby radically alter or overturn existing theory to produce a new and useful theory earn fame that lasts long after their deaths. Even more importantly, they achieve the satisfaction of unraveling a mystery of nature or developing a new treatment that can help millions. And no scientist ever achieved this without expressing skepticism about existing dogma.

Science and critical thinking, properly applied, are forms of positive skepticism. Dr. Chopra only fears and attacks them because they are an impediment to his way of thinking. However, it is only by passing through such impediments and challenges that ideas prove themselves worthy of long-term acceptance.


  1. Very well said. I think it took me about a week to delete my Huffington Post rss feed.


  2. "I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks."

    Isn't that an ad hominem attack? It bears no relevance to skeptics arguments and attacks their personalities instead.

  3. You're correct. It is an ad hominem attack. I preferred to let the irony of Chopra's comment stand on its own.

  4. Beautiful post, Orac!
    Yes, there is a tendency for established science to become dogma, but if the evidence is good enough, it will be overturned.

    An indicator that a group is not worth your time: they encourage skepticism about everything except their own claims. Those are somehow exempt.

  5. Anonymous said...
    "'I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.'" (Deepak Chopra)

    "Isn't that an ad hominem attack? It bears no relevance to skeptics arguments and attacks their personalities instead."

    Right. Not only is it an ad hominem, but Chopra follows it up with:

    "Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience."

    That sounds a bit .. oh, I don't know... personal? As if we've left the area of scientific evidence itself and gotten around to abusing the characters of individuals.

    It always amazes me when New Agers look around at a planet where virtually every culture is awash with belief in souls, gods, spirits, magic, paranormal forces and the supernatural as a matter of course -- and then they go on to explain that scientific materialists simply can't "think outside the box" due to a presumed lack of imagination, daring, and curiosity. Unlike those who parrot and reinforce the spiritual truths of the majority.

    As metaphors go, wouldn't "the box" we're all in have to be what everyone KNOWS is true, no skeptical naysaying necessary?

  6. Warren and Marshall were quite remarkable actually in many respects. For those curious, they won against 'the man' or 'the estabishment' or whatever you want to call it (the evil alliance of peptic ulser gastroenterologists?) by one very convincing piece of data.

    Essentially, one of them (forget who) drank an entire culture of Heliocobacter pylori. Sure enough, he started to have all the classic signs of disease associated with peptic ulsers. They then reisolated the organism from his tissues and grew it in pure culture (establishes Kochs postulates). To seal the deal, he drank down some antibiotics and completely cured himself of further infection.

    As anyone can clearly see, unlike the garbage ID advocates shovel out consistently, this battle was won on pure weight of empiracle evidence. Not in courts. Not by 'changing' science or any other such nonsense.

    This doesn't mean that the gastroenterologists who didn't believe them were wrong or similar. Their skepticism was very well founded on empiracle evidence as well(Eg: virtually no bacteria can live in the stomach due to the immensely low pH). The difference here is that it was the party proposing the hypothesis (Warren and Marshall) who had to prove it. Notice the difference between that and alties. Alties demand that the OTHER side (Evolutionists, Pharmacists etc) prove them wrong, not that the alties/IDists have to prove themselves right.

    That is the distinction between science and nonsense.

  7. The understanding of what constitutes ad hominem attack is curiously perturbed in pseudoscientists.

    When somebody demonstrates that Peter Duesberg selectively and misleadingly references data to support his personal view he was accused of using cheap ad hominem.

    Dean then demands to see his CV. Hmmm. Is that an ad hominem attack?

    Chris Noble

  8. Why would one take an AIDS-denier like Dean serious? Or debate with him?

  9. Well, this is the same sort of debate that goes on about whether we should debate intelligent design advocates. It's a tough question. Ignoring them leaves them the floor to spout their nonsense. Engaging them gives the impression that there really is a legitimate debate.

  10. Wonderful!
    I, too, loved Shermer's response but felt it didn't get detailed enough.

  11. At the risk of derailing the topic, There's a considerable amount of myth around the Warren/Marshall discovery of H. pylori as a cause of peptic ulceration.

    1) Warren (a histopathologist) was not the first to demonstrate the presence of spiral bacteria in the stomach mucosa - this dates back to the early 20th century. He was probably the first to raise the idea that they may be pathogenic. He set Marshall the task of investigating it further. That's pretty much where his involvement ended.

    2) H. pylori was cultured by accident. Somone forgot to check the Campylobacter culture plates over the Easter holiday - when they came back and opened the jars on the Tuesday, it was growing. It would never have have been isolated had someone done their job and checked the plates after 48 hours (no-one was looking for a bug that took 5 days to grow in microaerophilic conditions). A truly magnificent example of scientific serendipity.

    3) It was Marshall that skolled the culture of H. pylori to demonstrate Koch's postulates applied to H. pylori and peptic ulceration. In fact, he only developed gastritis (a condition casued by numerous insults other than H. pylori), but one of his colleagues who did the same thing developed a painful duodenal ulcer. An interesting side-story is that Marshall allegedly performed the gastroscopy and biopsies on himself- which in my opinion is considerably more heroic than necking a beaker of bugs!

    4) How do I know all this? I work in the same lab where Helicobacter pylori was first cultured back in 1982. At the time, we all thought it was interesting work, but unlikely to change the world. It was Marshall's youthful tenacity that brought this discovery to the world, but skepticism that kept him on the scientific straight and narrow.

    If Barry Marshall is ever in your neck of the woods, it's worth listening to him talk. He always shows a sobering slideshow of his numerous rejection letters from various conferences and journals regarding his early work with H. pylori. Gives hope to all us stuggling researchers out there.


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