Sunday, November 24, 2013

The pseudoscience of Deepak Chopra

by Felipe Nogueira

If I had to choose a person as the icon of pseudoscience that would be Deepak Chopra. Everytime I listened to Chopra, he made a lot of misuses of scientific terms - it looks like quantum can't stay out of it - combined with religion/supernatural ideas. When it's possible to extract any meaning from what he is saying, it usually has scientific errors.

Chopra has propagated the notion of "quantum healing" or "quantum medicine". The word quantum came from quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of matter on microscopic scales. In other words, quantum mechanical effects are significant on very small scales, but on a much bigger scale than the atomic one, quantum effects disappear and we don't notice them. Therefore, there is no such thing as "quantum medicine".  

Recently, the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins debated with Deepak Chopra. The debate is on Youtube. It's very impressive how Deepak Chopra cannot properly answer a single question or make a comment about a specific issue, without changing the subject, without using scientific terms out of their contexts. Dawkins mentioned that several times throughout the debate and highlighted one of Chopra's recurrent misuses of the word quantum: 
You have used the phrase "quantum leap" to apply to the origin of language, to the origin of life and jumps in the fossil record. Now, this is a pure metaphorical usage of the term quantum leap. All you are using it for is a change that ocurred in the world for which we have yet no explanation. On the other hand, you have used the word quantum in the proper physicist sense. You talked about digital information going to satellite. In that case, you're talking about quantum theory in the true sense of quantum mechanics. You are bamboozling people, by using quantum in two completely different senses, giving them the impression that there is something about modern physics, something about the spooky aspects of modern physics, to things like the origin of language or the origin of life or breaks in the fossil record. Those three things - the origin of life, origin of language, breaks in the fossil record - are scientific problems to the extent that we don't yet have answer to them, we're still working on them. They have nothing whatsoever to do with quantum in the physicist sense.
Other scientists have criticized Chopra too. Just a few days ago, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne made the following comment about Chopra:
he’s a pseudoscientist, showing all the characteristics of that genre, including the use of meaningless jargon that sounds profound, a refusal to discuss serious criticism of his views, and a deep sense of persecution by “the establishment.”
On a debate at Caltech, psychologist and Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer and neuroscientist Sam Harris debated against Chopra (and writer Jean Houston). Shermer said the following about Chopra's way of speaking:
Stringing together, at a rapid pattern, a bunch of scientific sounded words sprinkled in with some spiritirual New Age doesn't mean anything. 
One of the interesting things about this debate at Caltech is that Chopra asked for a physicist in the audience to speaks out on his support. In the Q&A session, the debate moderator recognized the theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow in the audience and invited him to make a question. If Shermer and Harris critics weren't enough for that day, Mlodinow settled the issue down very clearly (video available here):
Would you [Chopra] like to take a short course in quantum mechanics sometime so we can straight out your slightly misuse of quantum notation?*   
Mlodinow was not the only physicist who criticized Chopra. In a Scientific American column, the renowned cosmologist Lawrence Krauss called Chopra one of the worst abusers of quantum mechanics for profit. Krauss puts the following about Chopra:
I have read numerous pieces by him on why quantum mechanics provides rationales for everything from the existence of God to the possibility of changing the past. Nothing I have ever read, however, suggests he has enough understanding of quantum mechanics to pass an undergraduate course I might teach on the subject.     
Chopra's nonsense goes beyond that. He also says that the universe has purpose and consciouness. According to Chopra, even atoms and subatomic particles have consciousness; evolution is driven by consciousness. Of course, saying all those things doesn't make it true and Chopra offers absolutely no evidence for his claims. In the recent debate, Dawkins explained some organisms have purpose, for understood evolutionary reasons, but that doesn't mean the universe itself has a purpose. Some organisms also have consciouness, but this is not true for atoms, photons, electrons and the universe itself, because consciouness originates in the the brain. And evolution gave origin to consciousness, then evolution can't be driven by consciousness.

I think the following contradiction is pretty clear. When a scientist claims there is no evidence for the supernatural (God, after life, souls and ghosts, etc) some religious/spiritual people, Chopra included, say science doesn't have and cannot have all the answers, because science methodology is incomplete. However, that doesn't stop them from using scientific terms. It looks like having religious beliefs and praying for their God aren't enough: they desperately insist that their religion is supported by science, when it's not.

The importance of stretching these things out is because scientific understanding is at stake; Chopra is giving wrong explanations, and people fall, buy and propogate this kind of nonsense ideas. For example, quantum mechanics is, indeed, highly non-intuitive and strange things happen all the time, but they happen, as I said, on microscopic scales. However, a lot of people believe quantum mechanics is assoaciated with religion, supernatural, spirituality, meditation, or mysticism. These people are just wrong**. On a interview about pseudosciences related to quantum mechanics, Krauss is very clear:
quantum mechanics, for better or worse, doesn't bring any more spiritual benefits than gravity does.
Letting false claims, such as those made by Chopra, spread without critics is a disservice to science and failure to recognize the importance of scientific understanding in our society. The "willful obscurantism" Chopra has done is exactly what Dawkins said in the end of the debate: "the enemy of truth and science".

* The discussion between Shermer, Mlodinow and Chopra didn't end there and they were at Chapman University in another debate. The "clash" between Mlodinow and Chopra gave origin to the book The War of WorldviewsScience vs Spirituality co-authored by both.  When I heard this book is going to come out, I thought it could give a credit to Chopra he didn't deserve, although I presumed Mlodinow would show the confusion Chopra does so often. Indeed, Mlodinow's part of the book is very good and I recommend the book when I want to show someone how a scientist thinks and some contradictions between science and religious (or spiritual) ideas.

** If you are one of these people, you should consider to improve your scientific knowledge. For example, if you want to know a little bit more about quantum mechanics, you can try the excellent explanation by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll available here. Also, try to read the article about quantum pseudoscience by physicist Victor Stenger here.


No comments:

Post a Comment