Update: Due to the University of Toronto deciding to close its campus for the duration of the G20 conference in Toronto, the Deepak Chopra lecture, which was to be held at convocation hall, has been canceled — seemingly indefinitely. Nevertheless, I think it’s still important to explain why this event is troubling to the scientific and skeptical communities in Toronto. There’s nothing to stop something like this from happening again, and when it does, we should be ready.
You may have seen a letter to the Director of the Royal Ontario Museum here on Skeptic North (or over on Sandwalk or Pharyngula). Written by the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS), the skeptical wing of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, the authors of the letter* seem less-than-thrilled that the ROM has decided to invite Deepak Chopra to give a talk at the University of Toronto’s convocation hall.
At first blush, this might seem baffling coming from a group that champions freedom of speech and academic freedom above all else. However, as is often pointed out, there’s a difference (though it’s often subtle) between freedom of speech and freedom to a soap box. In this case, there’s a particular harm created by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), an organization that should be dedicated to science and education, serving as a pulpit for the famed “prophet of alternative medicine”. Why is that?
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) had invited the famed “prophet of alternative medicine”, Deepak Chopra, to give a talk in their Lectures at the ROM collection, on June 23, 2010 in the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. Charging anywhere from $25 to a mere $175, the talk was to showcase Chopra’s “latest concepts in the field of mind-body medicine”. Anyone with an appreciation for science, reason, and integrity in education should have been very upset by this.
Despite medical training as a physician, Deepak Chopra is a powerful promoter of new age, alternative medicine that is both misleading and incredibly harmful for people who are in desperate situations. He is a charismatic speaker, and, far too often, put on the same level as respected and accomplished scientists, raising his portfolio and demeaning theirs.
In April of this year, the brilliant primatologist, Jane Goodall, filled Convocation Hall thanks to the ROM’s Lecture series. At the end of May, the wonderful palaeontologist, Jack Horner, will be speaking as part of Lectures at the ROM. Is including Deepak Chopra amongst these names a valid comparison?
In an ideal world, there would be no harm in letting the Chopras amongst us speak and tell our sick and dying loved ones that if they really wanted to be healthy, they just had to want it badly enough. In an ideal world, everyone would think rationally and critically about what they were told and would ignore the Chopras amongst us and continue to seek proper medical help, even if their prognosis were grim. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which not everyone is scientifically literate, where people get desperate when they get sick and would do anything for the hope of getting better, and where people are taken in by charlatans who use big words and big credentials to convince an uneducated and overly trusting public that they have the answers they’re looking for – for a price.
By putting Deepak Chopra on the same scientific pillar as someone like Jane Goodall, who is (hopefully) a household named in science, the ROM is telling people it’s okay to mentally compare someone who has donated her life to science and meticulous observation with someone who preaches anecdotes and word of mouth anti-science “cures”. The University of Toronto should be ashamed to be supporting this event by allowing it to take place in our facilities. We are an institution that prides itself on our reputation as a strong academic facility – where does excessive jargon and “hope” fit into our strong network of research and teaching?
It’s heartbreaking to imagine the desperation that people feel when someone they love is very ill. Unfortunately, any time you have people desperate for something, there is always a snake-oil salesman waiting to sell them a “cure”. Allergies, cancer, depression – why follow the scientifically tested methods of treatment your doctor prescribes when you can just think yourself healthy again after buying a few books or attending a few programs at the Chopra Center? Oh, buying his books also fixes poverty too, go figure.
“The physical world, including our bodies, is a response of the observer. We create our bodies as we create the experience of our world… Impulses of intelligence create your body in new forms every second. What you are is the sum total of these impulses, and by changing their patterns, you will change… We are not victims of aging, sickness, and death. These are part of the scenery, not the seer, who is immune to any form of change. This seer is the spirit, the expression of eternal being. ”
- Deepak Chopra, The Essential Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Essence of the Quantum Alternative to Growing Old
It sounds nice, doesn’t it? If we learn how to focus on ourselves, get in touch with this unseen universe, we can control our bodies to the fullest extent. But what is all of this based on? Apparently, since yes, our bodies are actually capable of healing themselves in many situations (thank you, immune system), this must mean that our cells “know” how to heal themselves. This is the basic idea behind Chopra’s “quantum healing” – that, on a cellular level (not what us physicists call “quantum”, by the way), our body has an “intelligence” that we can tap into with meditation and herbs. This is no different than what any other guru or faith healer promises, except Deepak Chopra packages his message with fake science. By filling the “content” of his conjectures with scientific jargon, unfortunately borrowed from physics, Chopra relates this “cellular” intelligence to the measurement or observation problem in quantum mechanics – claiming that our consciousness affects our reality (this has nothing to do with quantum mechanics and is completely unfounded). Somehow, Chopra is so wowed by the concept of wave-particle duality that he manages to extend the idea to claiming that basically anything is possible. His ignorance shouldn’t be ours. Sorry Deepak Chopra, using the words “field”, “quantum”, and “state” in your books doesn’t mean you know anything about quantum mechanics.
By inviting Deepak Chopra to speak along side reputable scientists, it elevates his brand of anti-science to a place that it does not deserve. Desperate people, looking for answers and trusting of science, can be taken in by his brand of snake-oil. Butchering well established scientific theories, claiming the majority of physicists support his work, and charging exorbitant amounts of money for it is shameful. The University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum, for promoting this charlatan to speak on our campus, should feel complicit in the shame.
* In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was one of those authors.
This article was co-authored by fellow blogger and skeptic, Sarah Kavassalis, who writes over at The Language of Bad Physics, which you should definitely go check out. Especially if you have an interest in physics.