Skeptic Magazine reports on a debate between Deepak Chopra and Michael Shermer entitled “The Value of Skepticism: Is Skepticism a Negative or a Positive for Science and Humanity?” Actually it’s not strictly a debate: Chopra has written a piece and Shermer answers it. Shermer responds pretty well, actually, so I won’t bother to deconstruct Chopra’s entire piece line by line, but I wanted to comment on some of it.
Just about all of Chopra’s criticisms are of a straw man skeptic he has built – the “skeptic” who just says no to everything. He buttresses this with false analogies and appeals to authority. Here he goes:
Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.
Nonsense! Most skeptics would be happy to accept changing the status quo if there was any evidence to support changing the status quo. Open minded inquiry is fine. But considering all ideas with an open mind is not the same as accepting those ideas when there is no evidence they are real, or sometimes evidence they are false. The closed minded ones are the believers who won’t accept that their particular fantasy is nonsense despite the evidence. Or as Shermer states in his response:
Skepticism has become a legitimate form of inquiry that Deepak parenthetically acknowledges (in a left-handed sort of way) as occasionally laudable, another refrain we often hear in the form of “I’m a skeptic too, but…,” where skepticism is fine as long as it is someone else’s codswallop under the microscope.
A refrain I have heard many a time.
Skepticism is the attitude of doubt, or to dress it up for the dictionary, “the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.” But in my experience skeptics are overreachers. They equate doubt with logical thinking, so that to be unskeptical makes one irrational.
Again, a straw man definition – Chopra defines skepticism as having “doubt”, so that he can point out that “doubt” is not necessarily logical. It’s not. What makes skeptics logical and rational is that they don’t make up stories to fill the gaps in their knowledge. That is, they don’t make up stories the way Chopra does.
But Keats, Beethoven, and Van Gogh all worked in irrational fields. And the line between religion and science, which skeptics defend like armed guards, isn’t so definite as they suppose, given the religious bent of Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and other scientific minds great and small.
First, false analogy. Beethoven etc may not have worked in a “rational” field, but so what? He wasn’t trying to tell us how the universe worked. Second, Chopra fallaciously appeals to the authority of Newton etc, because they were (supposedly all), religious. Again, so what? Because Newton was right about one thing doesn’t mean he was also right about religion. These are arguments any skeptic has heard and debunked ad nauseam. Isn’t it pathetic that this is the best Chopra can do?
In and of itself, skepticism has made no actual contribution to science, just as music reviews in the newspaper make no contribution to the art of composition and book reviewing falls far short of writing books.
Nonsense! The scientific method – examining evidence, testing hypotheses against external reality, not inventing explanations – are all tools of skepticism. It’s just another false analogy.
…the chief victory of skepticism — to discredit religious thinking as opposed to scientific thinking — is a battle long ago won.
If only that were true. Religious and magical thinking are as strong as ever, and are encouraged by the antics of Chopra.
But skeptics can’t wait to fight the battle again, and people like me, who discuss spirituality and science in the same breath, are vehemently accused of the same ignorant tendencies as fundamentalists waiting for Jesus to return tomorrow.
Because there is just as little evidence – ie no evidence – for Chopra’s claims as there is for those of the religious fundamentalist. The difference is that the fundamentalist doesn’t (for the most part) distort science to try to convince the scientifically illiterate that his fairy stories are true. Unlike Chopra: that is his modus operandi.
To disdainfully dismiss any immaterial phenomenon, as skeptics do, actually betrays the scientific method, which allows any hypothesis into argument in an open-minded tolerance for the next ridiculous speculation that may turn out to be true.
Yes, but then science examines this new hypothesis to see if it is true. If it isn’t, science abandons it. Or as Michael Shermer said:
By weeding out bad ideas, negative skepticism enables the good to flourish.
How many bad ideas did Chopra or any other non-skeptic “weed out”? And more importantly, how did they weed them out? What technique did they use if it was not to examine evidence skeptically?
But science is wrong if it believes it is the last paradigm or the only one that deserves credence. The nature of new paradigms, as Kuhn wrote, is that they explain more than the previous paradigm.
Fine then show us this new paradigm. And make sure it explains more than science – I mean really explain it with evidence it is real, not a fairy tale explanation such as we get from Chopra. He won’t do that though: all we get from Chopra is made-up feel good drivel.
I’ll leave the final words on what skeptics really are, to Michael Shermer (and Stephen Jay Gould), because I really can’t improve on this:
We are thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective, and we are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas in order to discover good ideas, consumer advocates of critical thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim. “Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation, not as a nihilistic exercise,” Gould concludes. “The alternate model is rationality itself, tied to moral decency — the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.”