Deepak Chopra and the attractiveness of nonsense

Via Skeptophilia

There are a variety of reasons to learn some science.  First is, it’s cool, and is the only game in town when it comes to understanding what’s actually going on around you in the natural world.  science 824_200pxSecond, there are some issues we’re facing (climate change and genetic modification come to mind) that you can only evaluate properly if you understand the science behind them.  These issues are having an increasing impact on humanity, and most of us are coming around to the idea that handling them properly will require some deep thought — deep thought that requires you to understand what the research actually says.

The third reason is that some knowledge of science will keep you from falling prey to purveyors of bullshit.

Take, for example, this article from Huffington Post entitled “Deepak Chopra On How to Modify Your Own Genes.”  The article begins thusly:

Physician and best-selling author Deepak Chopra has an empowering message: You can actually modify your own genes through your actions and behaviors.

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Purveyor of bullshit

Well, Dr. Chopra, it may be “empowering,” but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong.  Modifying your gene expression is not the same thing as modifying your genes.  Your body responds to changes in environmental conditions all the time — but that is altering the expression of the genes you already have, not making any sort of permanent changes to the genes themselves.

Alteration of gene expression happens continuously, throughout our lives.  If you hadn’t altered gene expression as you developed from a single-celled fertilized egg, for example, you would right now be an amorphous blob of undifferentiated cells, and you would be unable to read this post, because you wouldn’t have a brain.

Now, lest you think that it’s just the writer at HuffPost who got it wrong, and that the passage above was taking something that Dr. Chopra said out of context and making it sound like he believes that experience alters your genes, here’s an actual quote that proves otherwise:

“We are literally metabolizing something as ephemeral as experience or even meaning,” Chopra said in an interview this week at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California. “If somebody says to me, ‘I love you,’ and I’m in love with them, I suddenly feel great, and I make things like oxytocin and dopamine, serotonin, opiates. And if someone says to me, ‘I love you,’ and I’m really thinking they’re manipulating me, I don’t make the same thing. I make cortisol and adrenaline.”

First off, what does “literally metabolizing… experience” even mean?  Metabolism is one of those words that’s used in common parlance in a variety of ways, but for which scientists have a precise definition.  You can metabolize the protein in your dinner, but “metabolizing experience”CHOPRA is a meaningless phrase — and it’s almost funny that he put the word “literally” in front of it.

Chopra, of course, has become notorious for this kind of thing.  He once said, in a talk, “We are each a localized field of energy and information with cybernetic feedback loops interacting within a nonlocal field,” a phrase that is kind of admirable in how tightly it packs meaningless buzzwords together.  He specializes in a style of speech and writing that I call “sort of science-y or something” — using words like frequency and quantum and resonance in vague, handwaving ways that have great appeal to people who aren’t trained in science, and who don’t realize that each of those words has a precise definition that honestly has nothing to do with the way he’s using them.  In fact, he’s so well-known for deep-sounding bullshit that there is an online Deepak Chopra Quote Generator, that strings together words to create an authentic-sounding Chopra Quote.  (Here’s the one I just got: “The secret of the universe arises and subsides in descriptions of truth.”)

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