“We Encourage You To Think Critically”

Recently Deepak Chopra came to Vancouver to speak about his new age spiritualism involving quantum healing and other mystical healing methods like mind over matter. Chopra is well known to the skeptical community. James Randi suggested that Deepak Chopra is “the richest quack that I know of” (he said that when I interviewed him on Radio Freethinker).

But the issue of Mr. Chopra has been raised elsewhere and most skeptics are pretty familiar with him and his claims.

I’d like to talk a bit about the way CFI Vancouver decided to deal with Chopra’s visit to Vancouver.

One of the problems with confronting pseudoscience is that it can easily backfire into arrogant skeptics yelling at people and we come across looking like jerks. Another potential problem is that by confronting pseudoscience you give it the pretense of legitimacy. These were all issues about which skeptics in Vancouver were cognizant.

What we decide very early on was that we shouldn’t be out to offend people. We shouldn’t be out to lecture people. We shouldn’t be out to protest. We should be there to encourage people.

We wanted people to walk away from us with our flier aware that we think Chopra’s material is bunk, but also that being misinformed does not mean you’re stupid or gullible.

I think we achieved this.

You can read some great accounts of this. One great summary is Ian Cromwell’s blog post over at the Crommunist Manifesto, and my co-host Don McLenaghen’s take over at Radio Freethinker’s website. Also be sure to check out the positive shout-out by PZ Myers over at Pharyngula.

Highlights of this event include the sheer number of us. There were about 20 in total. Including a sizable number from the SFU Skeptics. We had a number of CFI volunteers there, myself obviously, and my co-host Don from Radio Freethinker.

Fred Bremmer, skepticism’s number one fanboy, was also there. As were several regular attendee’s from skeptics in the pub and other events. A good deal of organization was done by a very hard working physics professor and author of the Crommunist Manifesto, Ian Cromwell.

Me meeting Deepak – you can almost hear the West Side Story finger snapping…

We arrayed ourselves around the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and started handing out fliers. At one point, a large group of people walked by and I looked over at my fellow skeptics and we all realized the same thing: We just handed Deepak Chopra and his entourage a flyer encouraging them to think critically about Deepak Chopra!

We watched them go in, and then they stopped, turned around and looked back at us. Obviously they read the flier… Anyway, I waved at Deepak and he came cover with his entourage so I walked over with our skeptical entourage.

Deepak introduced a fellow who Don later nicknamed Deepak’s bulldog, Stuart Hameroff. Deepak seemed to think this guy offered him more legitimacy, as he’s a professor at the University of Arizona in the department of anaesthesiology and psychology. He started out by saying how Skeptics are chicken and refuse to debate him (though skeptics have no problem debating Deepak — Michael Shermer anyone?). I later got an email from Mr. Homeroff, which I have to say wasn’t very typical of a university professor, in which he essentially called “us skeptics” out and suggested that if we didn’t debate him, we’re chickensh*t.

“Us Skeptics”

In any case, my conversation with Chopra was quick and lacked any real substance. But it was an interesting encounter. I do hope that he took the opportunity to address the flier during his talk. Knowing the showman he is, it sounds like something he would do. If anyone was present at the talk, please let us know in the comments.

Aside from that interesting encounter the rest of the evening went great.

One by one, we handed out fliers to anyone who would take them. “Hi, are you seeing Deepak Chopra tonight?” I would ask, “Yes, well then, we encourage you to think critically about what you’re about to hear.” Yes, there were those that just outright ignored us. And a few wouldn’t even stop walking, which made it hard to hand them a flier. Overall the response was very good. People weren’t always receptive. There were a few debates here and there. But I was never concerned because everyone was very cordial.

We handed out over 300 fliers, lots of people took them, a few people gave them back. One person crumpled it up and handed it back to me (at least he didn’t litter). And also, since a few people did raise the point: Yes we printed these on paper and I realize that is not very green, but rest assured that we kept an eye out for people tossing them to the ground and I didn’t see any. It looks like people took them and hopefully properly disposed of them when they were done.

There were a few people who read a few lines and promptly gave them back. Others took them with gusto. I noticed a lot of couples where one person would scoff and the other would be quite interested. I think more than a few people were being dragged rather unwillingly by a loved one.

We had some interesting encounters. One person told me he didn’t need the flier because according to him, “Deepak makes Tiger Woods look like an altar boy.”

Sam Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver came by as well, I believe someone handed him a flier. We saw lots of well-dressed people. Many were wearing clothing that made them look like monks or spiritual people. The sheer verity of the people Chopra attracted made it clear just how he makes as much money as he does.

Overall it was a really successful event. Again, I’d like to thank the hard work of everyone who participated. It was a great experience.

If you’d like to see a copy of the flier we created, check out the CFI Vancouver event listing here (scroll down, the flier is attached to that page).

4 Responses to ““We Encourage You To Think Critically””

  1. Good job guys!

    I’m not surprised to see that Stuart Hameroff is buddies with Chopra. I remember him giving a talk about the mysteries of anesthesiology, claiming all sorts of quantum explanations, to a room full of scientists at the Beyond Belief conference a few years back. He was practically laughed out of the room.

  2. Ian Cromwell says:

    Great summary, Ethan. I just want to mention that I am not the hard-working physics professor; that honour is held by fellow skeptic Carrie Chapman. She and I did a fair chunk of the collaborating on the flier, but there was substantial input from the whole group.

  3. Kim Hebert says:

    I think the most important question is: Which group is the Sharks, and which is the Jets?

  4. Alex says:

    Using paper isn’t “green”? Come again?

    Trees are just about the greatest renewable resource we have! I encourage you to think critically about environmentalism :)

    It’s nice to hear you guys had such a great time promoting science and skepticism, though. I doubt many Deepak fanatics can be turned from the path, but it’s important to show people that there is another side to the story in a way which will encourage them to seek out more information on their own, and you guys are definitely setting a great example. Kudos!

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.