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Jun 07 2010

CFI Vancouver Skeptics ‘welcome’ Deepak Chopra

On Friday, June 4th, Vancouver was the recipient of Dr. Deepak Chopra – quantum mystic, magic thinker, and purveyor of high-quality woo. In the interest of promoting the cause of evidence-based science and thought, skeptics from Vancouver’s chapter of the Center for Inquiry were on hand to engage the audience on their way into the event. We were armed with flyers (which can be seen here), and voices of reason. For more background on the event, you are invited to read the pre-event coverage from this blog.

Why were we there?

To answer this question, I think it’s worthwhile to mention a couple of things we weren’t there to do.

We were not there simply to tell Dr. Chopra he is wrong; while he undoubtedly is wrong, it’s not exactly productive to shout that at people who are willing to part with $100+ dollars to hear the man speak. Besides, why should anyone believe us just on our say-so?

We were not there to smugly tell people that they are stupid for going to see Chopra speak; people are often willing to listen to leaders who sound like they have answers. If nobody challenges those answers, or the leaders are convincing enough, it’s easy to get caught up. Most likely the people who attend Dr. Chopra’s shows aren’t any more stupid than your average cross-section of humankind.

We were not there to ‘convert’ anyone to skepticism, or convince them to abandon their tickets and do something else; most people are skeptics in one sphere of their life or another – it’s how we discern truth from lies. The problem is that people don’t necessarily apply the rules of skeptical inquiry to all aspects of their life, and are happy to accept some things on faith rather than looking for evidence.

What we were there to do is to try and engender a little bit of cognitive dissonance in members of the audience. What we were there to do is try and encourage people to keep their thinking caps on while listening to Dr. Chopra’s ideas, and to ask “does this really make sense?” What we were there to do is demonstrate bodily that it is not okay to invent supernatural explanations for the important questions in life and then sell those as snake-oil cures to people who honestly thirst for knowledge and answers to the mysteries of the universe, and that there will always be people who will insist that claims about the world must be substantiated by evidence, not circular reasoning and invocations of unobservable phenomena.

What did we do?

An hour before the show was scheduled to start, members of CFI Vancouver, UBC and SFU Skeptics, and a few skeptical friends met at the Vancouver Public Library to gear up for the event. We had printed about 800 flyers, and had a few choice quotes wherein Dr. Chopra made specific claims about the natural world, the human body, or other physical phenomena that were demonstrably false. Dressed in our finest skeptical attire, we hit the sidewalk outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, site of Dr. Chopra’s presentation.

Skeptics congregate at Schroedinger's plant at the VPL

Skeptics congregate at Schroedinger's plant at the VPL

Since there are a number of possible entrances to the theatre, and we didn’t want anyone to miss out on the chance of getting a flier, we spread ourselves out along the sidewalk in small groups.

Happy skeptics, ready for action

Our strategy was simple: ask people if they were on their way to the show. If they were, we asked if they wouldn’t mind talking to us for a couple of minutes before going in. We put a flier in their hands, and briefly explained what we were doing there – namely, asking them to think very carefully about some of the things they were about to hear.

More happy skeptics

We were careful to be as respectful and polite as possible, wanting to avoid the association of anti-choice activists protesting outside of abortion clinics. Nobody was harassed, intimidated (as if anyone was intimidated by a pack of nerds) or assaulted – merely annoyed for a moment.

How did it go?

It’s hard to say definitively what impact, if any, we made on the crowd. We didn’t hold out any great hope that we’d cause a wholesale changing of minds, or cause a surge of skeptical thought to bloom in the audience on the weight of our hastily-assembled fliers with cherry-picked quotes and facts. To be perfectly honest, we were half expecting to be instructed to leave the premises by angry security guards. What we instead saw was that most people, when handed a flier, took one and glanced over it.

People reading the CFI flyers!

Some people gave it a cursory look, folded it up and put it into a pocket or a purse. Some laughed derisively (“don’t these fools realize that there is more to the world than what can be observed and measured with evidence?”) and threw them away. One particularly offended young woman tore hers into pieces. Some handed them back to us with a disgusted look – I had a couple immediately turn and walk away the moment I said the words ‘think critically’. A very small subset of the audience members took the time to enter into a dialogue with us about the things we were saying.

An audience member engaging our team

Again, we were very careful to be deferential and respectful of people, even though we disagreed with their ideas. There is a time for polemic, and this probably wasn’t it. Most of those who spoke to us were very smugly dismissive of the idea that science could be based on observation of real-world phenomena. I foolishly took the bait with my first interlocutor when he asked me if I thought that was solid ground I was standing on. I foolishly allowed him to take me down the quantum path (and what are molecules made of? Okay, and what is energy?) until I wasn’t able to give him a satisfactory explanation of the fundamental components of the universe, at which point he smirked and said “so there you go” and walked off. My moment to be smug came a few minutes later when I directed him and his wife to the entrance – the fact that matter is mostly empty space isn’t much of a consolation when you can’t transport yourself through a locked door. What I should have said was “it doesn’t really matter what I believe I’m standing on. Let’s look at the evidence and see what it says.”

I was more prepared for my second encounter with a man who immediately accused us of raping Native people and destroying the land on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies. I pointed out to him that not only were we not there representing any large corporation or business interest, but the very fact that we were alive to have the conversation was at least in part due to the fact that disease and disability are no longer widespread concerns in this country. This is not a picture of him, but of someone else who was talking to us because he didn’t have a strong opinion for or against Dr. Chopra and wanted to know what all the fuss was about:

Talking to the audience before the show

I’d like to share a couple of my favourite moments from the event. For some reason, I was wildly unsuccessful in giving away fliers. Everyone I tried to give one to either handed it back or, once they found out what it was, refused to take one. As a result, I spent most of my time checking on morale and observing what was going on. I saw a woman tearing up her flier, at which point her husband made a dismayed sound and ran back to a CFI team member and asked for another one – we think he didn’t want to be there to begin with.

The highlight of my evening was probably meeting Chris, a young (~25 y) Deepak fan who decided to figure out what we were all about. He asked us to produce a quote where Dr. Chopra said anything even remotely close to what we were claiming he represented. Our quote sheet was immediately thrust into my hand, and I supplied him with a line from Dr. Chopra in which he claims that all cells are immediately aware of every other cell in the body, and the universe at large (a gross misrepresentation of cell-cell signaling pathways). Chris immediately demanded that I prove that it was 100% false, and that it couldn’t possibly be true. This time, however, I was prepared. I asked Chris is anything could be 100% true to his satisfaction – Chris immediately informed me that it was impossible to know anything. I asked Chris to give me all of the money in his wallet, since he didn’t know if it was there or not. When Chris balked, I suggested that maybe a more reasonable standard than 100% certainty was possible and believable. It was very refreshing to converse with someone like Chris who was, despite their extreme rarity, one of those people who may believe in woo but is willing to concede a logical point. Where we left the conversation (so Chris could get to his seat before the show started) was that in cases where it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong – is there an underlying consciousness in the universe that we can’t understand? – then it was maybe not the worst thing in the world if you make up supernatural explanations; however, in matters of life and death, we deserve evidence to back up any claims. Chris said that he’d attend our next “Skeptics in the Pub” meeting and we’d pick up the conversation there.

Of course, the highlight of everyone’s night was when Deepak Chopra himself took a flier on his way into the theatre, read it, turned around, walked back over to the group and engaged in a pseudo-friendly discussion with our chapter head, Ethan.

Deepak's people read the flier

Say what you want about the man, but Deepak Chopra is not a coward – an intellectual midget definitely, but he was happy to come and talk to us without being angry or trying to drive us away… although he did suggest that skeptics were “too chickenshit” to debate him. I suggested that he cancel his talk and we would debate him in front of the audience; he didn’t seem to think that was a particularly good idea.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, it’s hard to say how the event went. We gave out almost all of the fliers, the majority of which were read and not immediately destroyed. I’m sure a kung-woo master like Dr. Chopra was able to immediately paint us as angry malcontents stubbornly standing as obstacles on the road to scientific progress. It was for this reason that we didn’t carry protest signs and picket, and that we happily and politely answered questions. Most people don’t know skeptics, especially in a woo-friendly city like Vancouver. It was important, therefore, that they see us as we’d like to think we are – a bunch of nerds who are fundamentally happy people, but who believe that tough questions deserve real answers.

I don’t know if there was a Q&A session, or if anyone in the audience piped up with a skeptical query. I doubt it. Again, our purpose was not to immediately change minds or “debunk” Dr. Chopra. Our goal was merely to put the tools for skepticism – facts and cognitive dissonance – into the hands of the audience. I hope at least some people walked away from the show thinking “I need to check the answers against facts.” Meeting people like Chris – people who are reasonable enough to accept a logical argument even if it doesn’t completely change their minds -  gives me hope that maybe there can be progress made against even the woo-master himself.

UPDATE: Thanks to PZ Myers for posting this on his blog.

36 comments

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  1. 1
    pedro

    This is great, keep up the good work!

  2. 2
    Joseph

    Good on ya mates! Cheers from a CFI Portland member. It sounds like you did some good up there!

  3. 3
    Your Mighty Overload

    Sweeet! Good work guys. Sounds like you did a stellar job. While guys like Chopra aren’t such a big problem here in Japan, we still have our fair share of crazies – the other night I was debating my friend (a Japanese) about the existence of “ki / chi / qi” energy. Quite the little believer she was…

  4. 4
    rocket stegosaurus

    Hello. Good work. Perhaps time will tell that you were able to really reach a few people and begin the process of them changing their minds about supernatural fluff-n-stuff.

    For further encounters in the future, you might want to practice debating, since it’s difficult (for at least myself!) to think quickly and thoroughly on one’s feet. Perhaps a friend or two could take up the unsavoury task of immersing herself in New Age-y thinking to properly simulate an “opponent.”

    Congratulations on the effort–and catching the attention of PZ Myers. That’s always a publicity coup. ;)

  5. 5
    Jesse

    Hey Crommunist, the link to the actual flyer seems to be broken. There’s a pdf up at the same location now at this link:
    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/Deepak_handout.pdf

    Maybe toss that up there as a more universally accessible format, and it’ll satisfy PZ at the same time. ;)

  6. 6
    crommunist

    Thanks Jesse. The link now goes to the .pdf. For whatever reason, the .doc worked for me, but pdf is much more friendly.

  7. 7
    Daniel Schealler

    Good work guys. Plant dem seeds!

    ^_^

    That said, I think the pamphlets are a little off-putting for the intended audience.

    Don’t get me wrong – it is correct to call the things Deepak says confused nonsense, because that is what they are. This is a point that needs to be said, loudly and frequently. Making this point is justified and valuable, and it should be made more often.

    However, in this particular setting I think the wording of the pamphlets are too harsh. I can all too easily see the minds of Deepak’s audience snapping shut after the first sighting of the word ‘nonsense’.

    That criticism aside, you guys are still doing more for skepticism in a day than I’ve done this month, so please regard my finger-wagging above as suggested improvement. It’s all very good work. Keep it up.

    Hmm…. Screw idly tut-tutting from my armchair. I’ll write up my own version of these flyers this weekend and send them in to see what you think of them.

  8. 8
    john

    Gosh, how difficult it must have been for Ethan’s brilliance to condescend to converse with this “definitely intellectual midget!!”
    And what intellectual genius do you rely on in your little group of young egomaniacs that enable you to spot a “pseudo-friendly” discussion?”
    A little woo here?
    If this little bit of adolescent, self-congratulatory tripe is what CFI offers, I’ll go elsewhere to back up my skepticism.

  9. 9
    crommunist

    We’ll miss you. Won’t you reconsider?

  10. 10
    john

    sorry, my ego couldn’t bear up under the humiliation

  11. 11
    Your Mighty Overload

    John said
    “And what intellectual genius do you rely on in your little group of young egomaniacs that enable you to spot a “pseudo-friendly” discussion?””

    Probably someone who actually tells the truth. Of course, I am not suggesting that Mr Chopra is lying. He could just be very, very stupid.

  12. 12
    Daniel Schealler

    DNFTT

    (Man, I tut-tut way too often these days. What the hell happened to me?)

  13. 13
    crommunist

    Perhaps it would help if you learned to separate your ideas from your sense of self-worth.

  14. 14
    Karyn

    I agree with this comment 100%. I know you guys didn’t have a lot of time to put the pamphlets together, but I think this could lead to making a very effective pamphlet for groups to hand out at all his shows.

  15. 15
    john

    “…Comment by Your Mighty Overload…”

    For once, an intellectual insight.

  16. 16
    crommunist

    I can’t speak officially on behalf of CFI, but I think it’d be great to get input on how to make the handouts more effective. We had a week between the time when we decided to do it and the actual doing of it, so there’s lots of room for improvement. It’d be great if Dr. Chopra had to dodge paper-waving skeptics everywhere he went :P

  17. 17
    john

    What a great, worthwhile idea.
    I’d run it by some adults at CFI HQ first. While gays are being bashed, science education threatened with fundie crap, girls having their genitals mutilated and getting acid in the face for getting an education, thousands of youngsters getting raped after Mass, oily coastlines getting the wink from greedy neo-con Christians and mothers opting not to inoculate their kids due to trendy new age holistic sh*t, and you’re gonna chase a “very very stupid” “lying” and/or “definitely intellectual midget” Chopra from coast to cost.
    PS. THIS, you self-inflating morons, is a “pseudo-friendly” discussion.

  18. 18
    crommunist

    Not so much “pseudo-friendly” as “deeply disturbed” and not so much a “discussion” as a “diatribe”.

    You’re free to spend your time and energy on the things that you think are important. I think it’s a bit revealing that you cited holistic shit (you’re allowed to swear in comments, I don’t care – although I did clean up your grammar and spelling a bit) as a problem, but don’t seem to have a problem with Deepak Chopra who advocates exactly such shit-based medicine.

    You’re also making the assumption that this is the only thing we do, ever have done, or ever will do. You’re free to make that assumption if you like, but it’s in fact not true.

  19. 19
    crommunist

    Also, it’s clear you’re a newcomer to this blog, since I have recently posted about gay bashing, Catholic abuse, and yes even FGM and acid attacks. You’ve chosen to make up your mind before looking at the evidence – not exactly the hallmark of a good skeptic.

  20. 20
    john

    I am well aware what CFI stands for and does. In fact, I’m very much a supporter of it and other groups like it.
    You, on the other hand, are self-delusional and an embarrassment to inquiry, forgivable only because of your age. From your dissertation here, I’d say editor of your high school paper.
    We can call Chopra many things, depending on our point of view, but NOT an intellectual midget. Your use of the term reveals one of two possibilities: 1. You know nothing of the man and have neither heard nor read anything of his.
    2. You HAVE heard and read the man but are so narcissistic that your towering view of your own intellect is simply self-delusional.
    Either way, you should not be representing CFI (In print)
    And just for your curiosity, I’m just as wary of Mr. Chopra’s excesses as most. I simply recognize brains when I see them–or not, as in your case.

  21. 21
    crommunist

    I’m sorry you don’t like me, John. I’m sorry you disagree with my assessment of Dr. Chopra’s intellectual abilities. I’m especially sorry that you’ve decided to judge me based on one sentence from one blog post (although that one says more about you than it does about me).

    As sorry as I am for all of these things, I won’t be losing any sleep over them. I’ve had people whose opinions I actually care about say far worse.

    You’ll notice that this is my personal blog, and not an official CFI publication. You’re free to contact CFI Canada, or even CFI Vancouver and complain about my actions if you like; however, since they are not officially represented here they don’t really have much say about how I state my opinion.

    As tempted as I am to play along and make a bunch of unsubstantiated claims about your age, your level of education, your intellect and your psychological idiosyncrasies, I’ll simply thank you for your comments, file you under “people who disagree with me”, and go back to enjoying my life.

  22. 22
    Fred

    I see that this blog post was linked/discussed on a massage professionals website:

    http://www.massageprofessionals.com/forum/topics/critical-thinking-in-vancouver

  23. 23
    crommunist

    Yeah I was curious about that too. Saw some hits trickle in. I’ll keep an eye on it and see how the discussion goes.

  24. 24
    crommunist

    Another person who was there has written up his experience of the event.

  25. 25
    john

    good ’nuff. bye bye and grow up.

  26. 26
    ThorGoLucky

    Thanks for confronting that babbling Newage (rhymes with sewage) double-talker.

  27. 27
    crommunist

    You mean the bearded guy? Yeah he was a bit out there…

  28. 28
    Intrachresodist

    I wouldn’t call Deepak Chopra an intellectual midget; he might be a very smart man – but what he says is definitely made-up make-believe nonsense.

    Let’s see the evidence for Dr Chopra’s claims. Until then, it’s just snake-oil.

    Thank you for posting this report. It’s a pity you couldn’t reach more of the true believers.

  29. 29
    crommunist

    He may in fact be intelligent, but the hallmark of intellectual insight is the ability to discern good ideas from bad ones, and to be able to reasonably justify those ideas. Dr. Chopra is highly sensitive to criticism and refuses to provide justification (in the way in which all other things in life are justified – by comparing them to some agreed-upon standard) for his claims. It is for that reason that I call him an ‘intellectual midget’, but perhaps I should have used a better phrase than that.

  30. 30
    Matt

    Nice work. We at the Portland State Atheists and Agnostics support you too.

  31. 31
    Daniel Schealler

    Hi again

    Okay, so I’m about a month later than I said I would be. My bad. I’ve been busy. ^_^

    I’ve had a go at analyzing the problem to come up with a plan of attack. I used the plan to re-write the flyers.

    I hope you like them.

    Analysis Post:
    http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/2010/07/deepak-chopra-flyers.html

    Flyers .pdf:
    http://sites.google.com/site/disrespectfultone/ChopraFlyer.pdf

  32. 32
    Peter

    “…We were not there simply to tell Dr. Chopra he is wrong; while he undoubtedly is wrong, it’s not exactly productive….”

    With all respect, what you are stating here is YOUR OPINION, not a fact, not the truth, just an opinion that´s all! Wouldn´t expect any other point of view in this place of course!:-) What I actually wanted to ask: have you ever asked yourself, why you can´t convince one single spiritual person? (they´re all too stupid and/or uneducated for your clear insight eh? :-)

    Has one or the other of you ever considered to TRANSCEND the limitations of materialism instead of taking a stand AGAINST people like Deepak Chopra? It´s really quite easy to see what´s going on here: scientific reductionalism has replaced the part of your being, that was once and through all ages meant to be a spiritual quest! In my estimation there is something very unhealty about that, it smells like ceaseless intellectual tension, narrowmindedness, poverty in imagination, annoying assertiveness, and on and on!

    Don´t mean to critisize you skeptics, just telling my impression. Your trying to lock life up in your left-brained ideas, what a deplorable state to live in! (just my feeling) If you knew what I know you could never think like that, you´d know all of this dry materialism is just on side of the coin! Therefore you could never convince really spiritual people! It was a real pleasure for me to interrupt this one-sided mutual approval here, that really stinks! How could anyone of you EVER expand his thinking when your all surrounded with same type of color-blind people telling stories about the black-and-whitedness of life?

    Just a little favor, please don´t try to convince me of your “religion” (you could never succeed at this!). Just think over very privately if there isn´t one single thing in this wide field of spirituality, that would possible appeal to you! Give it a shot and let your soul finally take a deep in-breath! Sorry if didn´t manage to convey everything the way I wanted to, English is not my native language!

  33. 33
    Crommunist

    [deleted]

  34. 34
    Crommunist

    My initial response to this comment reflected my frustration and irritation at having to deal with such empty and worthless foolishness on my personal blog. A reader pointed out to me that while this may be my personal writing, it is also representative of an entire movement, and that I should show a bit more maturity and restraint. I have chosen to delete my reply to his comment.

  35. 35
    coreyrobey

    Is it just me or is the incessant replacing of one’s first name with the word “Doctor” a sure sign that you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know what their talking about? For some reason, I don’t tend to hear real scientists call themselves “Dr so-and-so.” Seems like a substitute for rationality, an alibi for intellectually lazy social climbers.

  36. 36
    Crommunist

    I work with a lot of scientists. It’s just you. Use of the honorific is completely normal when talking about another academic and hir work. It commonly gets dropped in face-to-face conversations when you have a personal relationship, but its use can’t be used as a barometer for the competence of the scientist.

  1. 37
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  2. 38
    Show notes for Episode 66 « Radio Freethinker

    [...] The Crommunist [...]

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