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Deepak Chopra Responds to Pseudoscience Allegations. Jerry Coyne Fires Back.

Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images Entertainment

Earlier this month, The New Republic republished a highly critical blogpost about author Rupert Sheldrake. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago professor and the author of Why Evolution is True referred to Sheldrake as a "pseudoscientist" and lampooned the allegation that Sheldrake was being persecuted by "militant skeptics." Coyne's piece also derided Deepak Chopra, the physician and alternative medicine figure who has been one of Sheldrake's defenders. Chopra responded with this letter to the editor—and Coyne, in turn responds to the letter below:

To the Editors,

I have a suspicion that readers of The New Republic aren't aware that skepticism has become a bullying, strident movement redolent of the worst aspects of the Internet. Jerry Coyne tosses around the term "pseudoscientist" as if it were a given when applied to Rupert Sheldrake and by implication to me. He, then, must represent real science, a standard that his article doesn't meet.

I can't speak for my respected friend Rupert Sheldrake, although it's typical of Coyne's slash-and-burn tactics that he refers to Sheldrake as having trained at Cambridge University while leaving out that he held respected senior positions in biology there. In my own case, to be sneeringly tagged as a pseudoscientist is an absurd allegation.

Here are a few examples of my recent participation in real science.

I regularly write articles and books co-authored by full professors, researchers and scientists at Harvard Medical School, Mount Sinai Medical School – New York, Duke, and Chapman University.

As a member of the American College of Physicians, I am board certified and maintain licenses in Massachusetts and California. I am annually invited to give a keynote address at the Update in Internal Medicine Conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School, Department of Continuing Education and the Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center since 1997. I also serve as a Senior Scientist and Advisor at The Gallup Organization, Adjunct Professor of Executive Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Adjunct Professor at Columbia School of Business.

Since 2004 The Chopra Center has offered the course Journey into Healing that is sponsored by University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, accredited by the Accreditation Counsel for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) to provide American Medical Association credit for physicians.

The Chopra Foundation co-sponsors university-level research into the effects of meditation on telomerase levels in the body (telomerase is an enzyme with intriguing connections to the aging process), along with in-depth studies of meditation and digital cardiology.

These facts should be enough to convince an unbiased reader that Coyne's pose as a defender against arrant charlatans doesn't pass even the most basic test of fairness and objectivity. He is out to tar anyone whose vision of science is more expanded than his own.  He dismisses telepathy and "immaterial mind," for example, as cockeyed notions, disregarding the truth, which is that both topics are seriously researched, written about, and argued over by "real" scientists. 

The bulk of his article is riddled with defamatory remarks, and the links he provides are to the same sort of fellow skeptics. They are proud of their underhanded tactics. They operate from the same basic ethics as their leader, Richard Dawkins: "I know I'm right, so why be fair?" No doubt Jerry Coyne will wriggle out of this embarrassing episode, but The New Republic, without being a science journal, should respect the fairness principles of accurate reporting. It owes that much to its trusting readers.

-Deepak Chopra

P.S.: Here is a link to many of my articles on the subject.

Jerry Coyne responds: 

To the editors:

It’s a time-honored custom that when a scientist is caught out saying something stupid or wrong, he responds not by defending his ideas or admitting error, but by flaunting his credentials.  “Look at all my degrees, publications, and honors,” he says. “Does that not give me credibility?”

But science doesn’t work that way.  Scientists don’t defer to authority and credentials: we defer to the quality of one’s arguments and the evidence that backs them up. 

Sadly, Deepak Chopra hasn’t learned this lesson.  Although he began life as a respected physician, he went off the rails when he encountered holistic, ayurvedic, and “alternative” medicine (the last is synonymous with “quackery”), and now he makes millions peddling questionable remedies and phony wisdom to credulous New Agers.

In the process, he’s abandoned real science completely, pushing instead a noxious brew of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, and “universal consciousness.” And yes, 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.”

He apparently sees me as part of an establishment bent on silencing his profundities—a group of what he calls “militant skeptics” who have the temerity to purge the woo from his Wikipedia page. Ours is, he says, a “bullying, strident movement,” and in response parades his credentials like thoroughbred horses before a race. In light of his education and honors, how dare we question things like telepathy, minds without bodies, and “quantum consciousness”?

We question them on two grounds: Chopra constantly makes scientific-sounding but meaningless statements that he refuses to clarify, and on the rare occasions when he does say something clearly, like his claim that Darwinian evolution is “outmoded,” he’s usually wrong.

But don’t take my word for it—read a sample of Chopra’s “scientific” pronouncements:

Consciousness may exist in photons, which seem to be the carrier of all information in the universe.

You know, the idea here is that if we quieten the turbulence in our collective mind and heal the rift in our collective soul, could that have an effect on nature's mind, if nature has a mind? The gaia hypothesis says nature does have a mind, that the globe is conscious. So a critical mass of people praying or a critical mass of people collectively engaging in meditation could conceivably, even from modern physics point of view, through non-local interactions, actually simmer down the turbulence in nature.

The moon exists in consciousness—no consciousness, no moon—just a sluggishly expanding wave function in a superposition of possibilities. All happens within consciousness and nowhere else.

Intelligence doesn't "appear" at a late stage of evolution. It seems to be inherent in nature.

Consciousness is the driver of evolution. Every time you eat a chicken or a banana it transforms into a human.

This is pseudoscience, pure and simple, and no set of credentials, however impressive, can launder it into real science. Photons do not have consciousness, nature does not have a mind, the moon is there whether humans see it or not, and intelligence is not inherent in nature, but a product of naturalistic evolution. As for chickens, bananas, and consciousness as a driver of evolution, I have no idea what Chopra is trying to say—and I’m an evolutionary biologist.

Sadly, this kind of obscurantism sells, and has made Chopra a rich man. But no amount of money can buy him respectability in the scientific community. He knows this, and so rails constantly against “bullying strident skepticism.” That, more than anything, shows his aversion to true science, for all scientific progress requires a climate of strong skepticism.

-Jerry Coyne