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Confusing Standards for Censorship – Chopra Edition

by Steven Novella, Apr 22 2013

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 mean 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.

Recommended Reading

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

  1. Archie Clebberdale says:

    “Let’s throw any crap against the wall and let the audience sort it out.”
    Well, admittedly there are a number of TED talks that fall squarely into this category.

  2. Riccardo Battilani says:

    Woo gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no excuse, hold no stupid notions, father no crazy ideas. I shall wear no mystic jewelry and win no “pinkest aura” contest. I shall live and die at my post. I am the keyboard in the darkness. I am the watcher on the web. I am the vaccine that inoculates against homeopathy, the light that blinds magical thinking, the horn that wakes the transcendental meditators, the shield that guards the realms of science. I pledge my life and honor to the Skeptic’s Watch, against this woo and all woos to come.

    -Oath of the Skeptic’s Watch

  3. Daniel says:

    I always found TED to be a little cheesy myself. Something about those hands free microphones perhaps.

    Just to be the contrarian, maybe the deal one could make with Chopra, et al, is that if he wanted to appear on TED, he would have to face questions from people that know what they’re talking about.

    • Bill says:

      Not a bad idea, Daniel, but Chopra would have slick, sciency-sounding (would that be ‘scientish’) answers for any question that would come up. He’s done it before in countless debates and on countless stages, and has his patter down too well to get tripped up in a TED Q&A session.

      • Daniel says:

        Better than nothing I guess.

      • tmac57 says:

        If I recall correctly,he also gets irritable and dismissive when challenged,and tries to talk over his opponents in bulldozer fashion.This probably works to his advantage if the audience is stacked his way,which probably is more often the case because of his popularity and celebrity.

      • Dark Star says:

        Watch the interview of Chopra that Richard Dawkins already did, even a Biologist gets him to admit ‘Quantum Healing’ is just a metaphor and then 5 seconds later he’s back to his same pseudoscientific-schtick with Quantum-this and Quantum-that, meaningless drivel. It’s not a metaphor for anything but ‘Quantum-I’m-making-money-off-this-thanks-for-the-free-press’.

        It would be irresponsible to give such people access to any respectable platform out of some ridiculous notion that all voices must be granted scientific credibility.

      • Daniel says:

        It isn’t so much about “equal access” as it is subjecting your claims, no matter how crazy, to critical analysis.

        True, some people will be believers no matter what, and will see to it that their views are reinforced whatever happens. Chopra not allowed on TED and other venues, it’s obviously because the scientific community doesn’t want to be challenged. Chopra allowed on TED, obviously a sign that there is a mainstream scientific validity to what he’s saying. It’s not these people you ought to be worried about with this sort of thing. There are a lot more people than you think though that, scientifically illterate as they might be (i.e. 95 percent of the population), that are fair minded and will come to see Chopra for what he is when he faces just a little bit of sunlight.

        I understand that it isn’t so simple. There is something to Dawkins position that he doesn’t debate creationists because there is nothing to debate. Perhaps a good dividing line is to think what kind of claims might have some appeal to fair minded people that are actually interested in how the world works. I think intelligent design (to the extent I understand what it actually is) falls into this category. There is an intuitive appeal to the idea that life is so complex that something has to be behind it. More people than you might think are interested to hear what an actual scientist has to say about it. If you have to share a stage with a kook every so often, it’s not the end of the world.

      • Halidom says:

        An intuitive appeal to the idea that life is so complex that something (?) has to be behind (?) it.
        Have you ever read a book with the word science in it? Have you no knowledge of how long the world has been evolving? Do you know what evolving means? Lets get to basics like we make vaccines to kill germs. The germs evolve and are immune to are vaccines. So we evolve the old vaccine into something that will stop the new evolved germ. This is an ongoing war between them and us. Now that just explains life through a microscope. Now on the bigger side, we have learned or adapted to living in almost all of the extremes that this planet can throw at us. Why would you think a thing made us so great and still throws so many curve balls at us?

      • Daniel says:

        @Halidon:

        The point is is that most people have, at best, a rudimentary understanding of evolution. They understand the basic concept of natural selection and understand that scientists say the world is really old, but that’s about it. (And no, this is not the sign of some giant failing of the education system, since the vast majority of people do not even need to know that the earth revolves around the sun). A lot of people watch a nature show, see how intricate biology can be, and conclude — INTUITIVELY — that there has to be something behind it. Hell, a lot of very smart people before Darwin felt that way also.

        I know it’s difficult for some people to actually try and understand the mind of others without being condescending jerks. Maybe if you could, you might actually be able to get some people to appreciate what you’re saying.

    • Max says:

      His Q&A at Caltech after debating Michael Shermer was funny. One quantum physicist in the audience suggested he sit in on a quantum physics class.

      • Beelzebud says:

        I wish that physicist had been the one debating him, because frankly Shermer did a lousy job during that debate.

  4. Max says:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_says_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes.html

    “Elaine Morgan is a tenacious proponent of a theory that is, ahem, not widely accepted. The aquatic ape hypothesis lays out the idea that humans evolved from primate ancestors who dwelt in watery habitats. Hear her spirited defense of the idea — and her theory on why science doesn’t take it seriously.”

    • Pete says:

      Well, the Aquatic Ape theory may be *wrong* but it’s not pseudoscience

      • Tobias says:

        Hmm… The aquatic ape theory assumes humans lived in a aquatic environment at one stage, then sets out to list physiological traits along with erroneous interpretations of these in support of the theory.

        Borderline at best.

    • Harry Phillips says:

      Have you heard the Brian Dunning episode on the stupid that is called the aquatic ape theory?

      Smashes it to pieces in 10 minutes.

  5. Alan says:

    “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” is very very widely attributed to Richard Feynman

    “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” :quote attributed to Niels Bohr.

    And Chopra does? Pffttt….

    • Martin says:

      Well, the only thing I know about quantum mechanics is that sh*t gets weird. About the only thing I know about Deepak Chopra is that his sh*t is weird.

      So I’m left with two possible conclusions:

      1) Our chum Deepak is weird enough to understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics or,
      2) Our chum Deepak talks a lot of sh*t.

      • Brian says:

        Sh*t get’s weird but in a very well defined way. It’s weird because it’s not what we experience daily, but there are very strict rules. It doesn’t mean anything can happen.

        Therefore Deepak is full of sh*t. QED. I’m pretty confident this follows. ;)

  6. Evan Castle says:

    Gotta love the “science doesn’t know anything but I’ll toss ‘quantum physics’, a well known sciencey phrase in to sound smart… But science is wrong!” approach.
    I wonder if this Chopra character has any idea how silly he sounds, some cranks are aware but push on through the snow knowing the majority won’t notice.

  7. Harry Phillips says:

    My response to people that use the “Galileo” fallacy:

    “Quick show me your independently verifiable scientific evidence before the church puts you under house arrest for threatening their power because of an idea that goes against their dogma”

    • Mike says:

      I just go with the old Sagan standard: “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

  8. Pat in Monrteal says:

    I have to admit that I unsubscribed from all the TED youtube channels after a few too many talk laced with way too much woo and pseudo science for my taste.

    I enjoyed the various flavors of TED talks for their high standards. I expect a quality product from their brand and I think the TEDx directors hit the nail on the head when they said it’s not the viewers job to have to decipher good from bad science.

  9. Max says:

    “Let the audience decide for themselves. What, then, does the TED brand mean?”
    May as well rename it Coast to Coast AM.

    • tmac57 says:

      Looks like a replay of the Discovery Channel/TLC et al descent into the appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    • Max says:

      The thing is, the TED brand is about “paradigm-shifting ideas” and pushing the boundaries, so it’s bound to cross some boundaries into pseudoscience.

  10. MEC says:

    Get over yourselves…please.

    An “oath”? Seriously?

    Only gods require holy warriors. Set your self esteem and need for identity aside for a moment and think about that.

  11. Wscott says:

    @ MEC 10: I’m guessing you’ve never watched Game Of Thrones, or you would recognize that as a brilliant paraody of the Oath used by the Night Watch in the show.

    Glad to see TED tightening their standards a bit. They have some truly brilliant talks. (And they’ve had a huge impact on how people give professional presentations, in favor of narrative over “Death By Powerpoint.”) But the amount of nonsense creeping in over teh past couple years has really dilluted the brand.

  12. Padma says:

    It’s a bit silly of TED to discourage the “fusion of science and spirituality”. Both are investigations into Truth. Truth is as-it-is, and if truth is truth then it should be the same whether one arrives at it via outer materialistic investigations, or via inner meditative scientific research.

    The skeptics really don’t have much to say about quantum non-local theories of consciousness, nor their implications, do they?
    The book “Tryptamine Palace” has an excellent few chapters on the subject which include excerpts by actual quantum physicists (the kind who know the math too).

    • Halidom says:

      The idea of the “fusion of science and spirituality” is not a way of avoiding any kind of truth. Science is a fact based reality open to anyone that can prove or oppose the facts. Spirituality has no facts to prove. I could form a religion about a teacup circling Mars. No one could disprove my beliefs. What is “inner meditative scientific research”? Is that the teacup that I saw? I do hope I get my PHD soon for all the research I’ve done.

  13. Luara says:

    Sometimes the “cranks” really are visionaries. Alessio Fasano, a medical researcher on celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, has given interviews where he talks about the “leaky gut syndrome” ideas of alternative medicine, and patients’ reports of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as “visionary”. One such interview: http://chriskresser.com/pioneering-researcher-alessio-fasano-m-d-on-gluten-autoimmunity-leaky-gut
    It’s not a simple matter of black and white, of the “galileos” almost all being cranks – or (I’ve also heard this) all alternative medicine being right. As Dr. Fasano discusses, reality is more complicated than that.
    Really doing a good job of being an “alternative practioner” is extremely demanding. Much more so than being “science-based”. The “leaky gut syndrome” thing seems to have been a brilliant intuition and observation.

    • Dr Derek Syal says:

      Well first of all….the “leaky gut”, is a hypothetical response that I was taught in medical school a long time ago, in realtion ti IBD. So its not a new idea per se. As far as alternative medicine is concerned, its never a question of does it work. The question is “how” does it work. Or, does it work, when the placebo effect is removed as a confounding factor.

      • Mud says:

        You’d think that after all these years people would stop using the word “effect”.

        Now that is confounding that medicos still use it…Not really.

        What would Neil Tyson would say of the above sentence?

        Apart from the success rate of medicos in his Physics classes…

  14. Brian says:

    My adviser frequently pulls me slightly back from going too far north of the wall. It’s not so much magical thinking as it is logical leaps that are not justified. It is a difficult quest, but a journey well worth the rewards along the way. We all dwell slightly north of the wall, but we must not forget our roots.

  15. Mud says:

    I’ll take fries with that philosophy Mr Chopra.