Posted by: Kash Farooq | February 7, 2013

A perfect match: Professor Brian Cox and Deepak Chopra

This morning I read this rather strange blog post: What shall we do with Brian Cox? Selling science in the 21st century. Ignoring part of the title – I didn’t realise we needed to do anything with Brian Cox – the article discusses how science could be better promoted (“sold”) to the public.

There are a few things I disagree with in the article. For example, the author suggests that Cox wants us all “to become scientists to expand our horizons”:

Does he really want everyone to join in the grand scientific quests?  Would that even be in science’s best interests?

I’m not sure that is correct. Cox certainly wants the public to appreciate what science can do for us, to find it wondrous, to be excited by it – but I don’t believe I have ever heard him say that we should all become scientists.

That’s not really what I want to go into in this post. What stunned me was this:

As a concrete proposal, I would suggest that Brian Cox team up with the San Diego-based best-selling physician Deepak Chopra, who promotes ‘quantum medicine’, in order to sell quantum physics as something in which members of the public should take an active interest.

Yes – Cox should work with Chopra. I ridiculed this a few times on Twitter. The author spotted those Tweets and challenged me:

Rather than reply in 140 characters, I thought I’d write this post. [I’ll get to what those “smears” where later].

First, if you don’t know who Deepak Chopra is, here’s a handy reminder.

Deepak – please can you tell me how telepathy/psychic healing/remote viewing/Ayurvedic medicine works?

quantum all the things!

Yes, Deepak Chopra is one of those people. He uses the word quantum to make things sound sciencey. And he uses his “knowledge” of quantum physics to sell a lot of books and what one may refer to as “woo”.

Here is physicist Leonard Mlodino having an “enlightening” conversation with Chopra about quantum physics:

Chopra even has his own Skeptic Dictionary page, which is well worth a read.

And there’s more. Tom Williamson has created a Wisdom of Chopra website (and accompanying Twitter account) that generates “quotes” by randomly sticking together words from Deepak Chopra’s Twitter stream. It is hard to distinguish between a real quote and a randomly generated one:

All this has been building up to explain why I was “outraged”. I think that suggesting that Cox work with Chopra on a quantum physics sci-comm project is…a little odd. I initially thought that the article was a spoof!  You know what?…. to be honest… erm…. I don’t believe Chopra actually knows much about quantum physics, so might not be the best person to communicate the science of it.

In fact, it’s a comedy collaboration! I Tweeted a few more comedy collaborations during the day with the hashtag #fullerlogic – I think these are the “smears” being referred to above.

So, here are some comedy collaborations. Come on – who wouldn’t want to see these happen?

  • Dr Ben Goldacre can work with homeopath Dana Ullman to ensure science-based medicine follows homeopathy’s lead and finally stops treating the symptom and gets round to looking at the cause.
  • Astronomer Dr. Chris Lintott can work with astrologer Erich von Daniken to explain how a 12th of the world’s population will be lucky in love today.
  • Evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins can work with Young Earth Creationist, and founder of Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham to finally explain why “the Creator had an inordinate fondness for beetles“.
  • Mary Beard can team up with Erich von Daniken to show how the Great Pyramids actually were made by ancient alien astronauts. (Thanks Rob!)

Are there any more collaborations that you’d like to see?


Responses

  1. I know you’re trying your best but this is not really a very good response. Think of it this way: You should start by trying to understand what the blog post was arguing and why the Cox-Chopra connection might make sense in light of that. I’m sorry if this sounds condescending but it looks like you simply looked at the author (me), noted the conclusion and then started to riff on the combination. It may be that Chopra is not ideal for what I’m suggesting, and I’d appreciate a criticism along those lines. But you haven’t provided it.

    • I thought that’s what I have done – provided reasons why I don’t think your “concrete proposal” of a Cox-Chopra collaboration is plausible.
      My reasoning is that I don’t believe Chopra is some sort of world leader in quantum physics and so isn’t the ideal choice to communicate the science of it to the public (regardless of whether Chopra is a great communicator or not).

      • Hi both

        Well, I didn’t simply look at the author, note the conclusion and riff on the combination.

        I missed all the tweets until the one with the link to this. I (mentally) face-palmed at the suggested team-up, scrolled down to see Steve’s name in bold, read that tweet first and thought:

        “Why on earth is Steve Fuller sticking up for the Deepak fan?”

        I then read Kash’s tweet and thought:

        “***ing hell! Steve ****ing Fuller IS the Deepak fan!”

        I know you’re a little, shall we say “Feyerabendish”, but this really surprised me, Chopra doesn’t strike me as a “purveyor of truth” but as a trickster: look how he brings number mysticism into the the conversation (as a diversion?) in the video Kash posted. I’ve seen videos of Dawkins pressing Chopra on quantum where Chopra’s quantum fades into metaphor only for it to reappear as solid as ever elsewhere (cf. The Bible).

        And Cox absolutely hates this. In “A Night with the Stars” he specifically disclaimed any “woowoo” implications of the “interconnectedness” of the Exclusion Principle (or are you thinking this would make “great TV”, a la “Wifeswap”/any other programme where they deliberately mixed unsuited people in the hopes of a fight)

        On Steve’s more substantive point: I don’t see Brian Cox as marketing science. I see Brian’s programmes as the end product: he tells me interesting things and gives me an excuse for a drink (http://bit.ly/14GuJ6x). He’s not doing science, or supporting science, but delivering part of what science is for: that feeling of “Wow! That’s amazing”. Personally, this “consumer” doesn’t want the “product” that he “buys” contaminated with any nasty woowoo additives.

  2. Steve, I’m a little confused here. Can I start by establishing something?

    Do you believe that Chopra is

    a) A legitimate medical scientist and healthcare professional, or
    b) A quack, a fraudster, and a charlatan?

    I don’t think I can really understand any of this until I know why you think Chopra would be relevant here

  3. Steve,

    I wonder what you would do if one of your students freely admitted that the concrete conclusion of their 1000+ word essay was not ideal.

    I hope you you would tell them to go away and do better.

    Please go away and do better.

  4. I don’t mean to poison the well, but let’s remind ourselves who we are dealing with here. Steve Fuller wrote this in defence of Intelligent Design.

  5. “If you take seriously that evolution has to do with the transition of life forms, and that life and death are just natural processes, then one gets to be liberal about abortion and euthanasia.All of those kinds of ideas seem to me follow very naturally from a Darwinian perspective– a deprivileging of human beings, basically. And I think people who want to endorse Darwinism have to take this kind of viewpoint very seriously.” Steve Fuller

    Who can argue with such clear logic?

    A child of six, perhaps.

    Sorry, I admit it looked a bit like a rhetorical question. A lot like a rhetorical question, but it wasn’t

  6. One thing that is clear from this chain of responses is the ease with which prejudice of all sorts enter so quickly into the discussion. From reading them, you’d get the impression that science is ultimately about policing the mind. In this respect, we have not moved so far from the worst aspects of organized religion…

    But now to the substantive points:

    1. Relatively unimportant for my purposes but apparently a big point for some of you: I don’t believe Chopra is a charlatan. You perhaps don’t quite understand the nature of his business, which is quite a hybrid thing, and so you immediately jump to the conclusion that he’s a quack physician/ist, whatever. It is striking that for a guy who is supposedly a quack he has had so many followers of various sorts and seems to have escaped major litigation. I know you’ll tell me that most people are stupid, bring on the Geeks, blah, blah.

    2. More important: I don’t believe that there is an absolute line to be drawn between Cox and Chopra. Two intermediate figures are Roger Penrose and Stuart Kauffman, both of them developing quantum decoherence-based views of consciousness. Penrose tries to show that it’s mathematically possible and Kauffman (in ‘Reinventing the Sacred’) tries to hook it up with some of the same Indian religious sources that Chopra does (without mentioning Chopra, who was hardly the inventor of such connections). Now none of this proves that anything Chopra says is true or gives an added boost to the quality of his medical care. But there is no denying that Chopra gets people to see how quantum physics relates to their lives, so that they become quite interested in the science. There is stuff here that an adventurous science marketer could try to understand and learn from.

    3. Tony is absolutely right that Brian Cox doesn’t see himself as marketing science, but he certainly has an effect on people that goes beyond late night entertainment, including an increase in physics applications at Manchester. So he is unintentionally marketing science. Now the question is how to focus this incipient effect in a way that actually does some good for the future of science.

    • Steve Fuller said:

      I don’t believe Chopra is a charlatan. You perhaps don’t quite understand the nature of his business, which is quite a hybrid thing, and so you immediately jump to the conclusion that he’s a quack physician/ist, whatever. It is striking that for a guy who is supposedly a quack he has had so many followers of various sorts and seems to have escaped major litigation.

      Can you just clarify that you are saying that because Chopra has lots of followers and because he hasn’t been sued (as far as we know, of course), he isn’t a quack or a charlatan?

      I know you’ll tell me that most people are stupid, bring on the Geeks, blah, blah.

      You might presume that, but I suspect nothing could be farther from the truth. Many of us here have considerable experience ‘debating’ quacks and their followers: some may be mendacious or deluded; the vast majority, however, are simply likely to have been misled by pseudo scientific language and good marketing rather than being stupid.

  7. “ (T)hough no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable.” (Burke)
    There is quantum theory, and there are some who misuse the terminology of quantum theory (and other sciences) to give a “science-y” finish to a load of vapid tosh. Even though Penrose and Kauffman muddy the waters a little and sometimes skeptics judge these intermediate cases wrong there are still vapid tosh peddlers and vapid tosh peddlers who can be identified. I wouldn’t consider it authoritarian to object to vapid tosh. If the judgment is a reasoned conclusion then it is not prejudice. As for “the worst aspects of organized religion…”: the more moderately irritating aspects of organized religion are a little worse than a bunch of skeptics (with a “k”) pointing fingers accusingly.
    “But there is no denying that Chopra gets people to see how quantum physics relates to their lives,” I’ll deny it. As far as I know (from what quantum physicists tell me) Chopra doesn’t say anything about quantum physics, he just uses the words, the sounds and letters. As the physicist in the video above said,the word “locality” used by Chopra just meant something completely different from “locality” in quantum physics.
    I know you were a witness for the Discovery Institute and, in contrast to some, I don’t think that was utterly irrational/barking mad/whatever. I don’t’ agree with it (I think that the DI are nasty and dishonest) but it was rational. There is an argument to be made and you make it. Doesn’t there come a point though when the view being advanced is so vapid, such utter tosh that, well, twilight gives way to night? If not Chopra then, perhaps, Uri Geller? Gillian McKeith? Sally Morgan? Would you stop at Sally Morgan? Would you think it ok for us to point and laugh if Sally Morgan were being defended?

  8. Thank you for taking the trouble to answer my question, Steve, and for clarifying that you don’t believe Chopra is a charlatan.

    That tells me all I need to know to understand your suggestion.

    I guess your original suggestion that Cox and Chopra should team up is probably quite a good one if you start from the assumption that Chopra is not a charlatan.

    I don’t think you will find many here who will share that assumption, so I hope you understand why your suggestion is is not taken very seriously.

  9. At the end, you have to ask whether you really want to promote science or simply protect it from various ‘polluters’. The two activities may cut against each other. If you want to promote science, you may have to accept that among the people who do it best are those who stretch it beyond its current evidence base. In the case of Chopra, that stretch may have gone too far, but then it’s incumbent upon pro-science people to reproduce his success in popularising quantum mechanics — maybe Kauffman and Penrose could be of some help here. But you really need to think of a constructive response.

    • Chopra has not succeeded in popularizing quantum mechanics.

      • Or marketing science.

        “Protecting” x “from various polluters” is, actually, an essential part of a marketing strategy.

        Consider how Findus lasagne has done recently.

  10. To Tony: You should read Nassim Taleb’s ‘Antifragile’ to relieve yourself of the idea that science should be sold like cheap lasagne!

    • I think Tony should have pointed out that it was, specifically, “Findus Beef Lasagne”, which appears to have been 100% horse meat.

      I’m reading between Tony’s lines but I believe he’s implying, and I support the implication, that any science show involving Chopra would be a lie and a deception.

  11. “War of the Worldviews: Science vs Spirituality”


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