Blowhard Dept.


Bad Astronomy is great any day of the week, but of particular note is a current post wherein Phil Plait pillories Deepak Chopra for an article in which Chopra slaps at "skepticism". "Skeptic" is apparently Chopra's word for "someone not gullible enough for me".

That the latter piece was written for the Huffington Post is all the more depressing; over the last several years they've turned into a breeding ground for alterna-"science" nonsense of all stripes (anti-vaccination being one of the most prominent and blatantly offensive).

Chopra blows awful hard on the trumpet of Wonder, the idea that having a cold sterile scientific worldview kills your sense of joy in life, an idea only slightly dumber than wrapping your noggin in tinfoil to keep out the alien radio waves. Plait himself is a beautiful example of how science evokes a sense of wonder: most every week there's a picture of the surface of another world, or the depths of the cosmos — images that cry out to be captioned with Douglas Adams's quote "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

I had a parallel discussion of sorts the other day, about (of all things) the Large Hadron Collider. No matter what happens, the results are bound to be interesting. If we don't discover the Higgs Boson, that's as monumental as if we do — either way, science moves forward, and everyone on both sides will gain something. Truth is not a zero-sum game — unless you're Chopra, and can only support your worldview by picking and choosing. (Anything with the word "quantum" is good, because you can fuzz up your definitions aplenty by simply attaching it wherever needed, even when it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Anything with "evidence" or "skeptic" is bad, because it's that much harder to pull the wool over your own eyes when you have good experimental controls.)

Maybe it's the wording that's the biggest problem. One of the commenters put his finger on this:

A skeptic is not someone who says “It is not true”–that’s just another flavor of dogmatic. A skeptic is someone who says “How can I be sure it is true?” and lives honestly according to that fundamental uncertainty. This is why science is so closely associated with skepticism. It is not the handing down of dogmas about what does exist (NOR about what does not exist). It is a method for trying to attain certitude in a universe wherein certainty might not be possible.

Or maybe not. Saying things like this does not keep the woo-meisters (I love that word) from attacking the concept of science's perpetual inquiry itself as another kind of dogmatism — the dogmatism of uncertainty. At which point the word "dogmatic" has been redefined to encompass every possible stance, and the nature of the argument has been revealed to be nothing more than whoever can score the most points with whatever audience is looking on.

I go back to Holocaust denial a great deal as a reference point for this sort of thing, because I see the same mechanic there in a different form. It isn't about finding the truth. It's about gaining and keeping an audience who will support you, and by doing anything — lying, distorting facts, smearing opponents, stabbing your own people in the back — to get there. It's the other guy who's dogmatic and closed-minded, not you. It's the other guy who's Suppressing The Truth. It's the other guy who's Keeping You Down.

You never see Chopra grousing about how, say, aviation engineers need to have more of a sense of wonder and trust in the quantum unity of the cosmos, &c. Maybe because he really doesn't feel like having the plane he's flying in spontaneously depressurize at 37,000 feet while he's on his way to his next lecture gig?


Tags: science




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