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Nov 30 2013

How physics helps me identify and ignore woo

I feel that I have obtained a huge benefit from having studied physics, especially quantum physics. On the one hand, it has given me a sense of wonder and awe at how the laws of nature work to produce the universe we occupy. The theories are really quite beautiful, the experimental methods used to study them incredibly ingenious, and the implications quite profound.

At the same time, this knowledge prevents me from going overboard. My sense of awe and wonder is of a practical kind, not a mystical one. The appreciation of the mechanics of how things work also give me a healthy sense of what their limits are and so I am not swept away by the grandiose claims of woo-meisters like Deepak Chopra, who string together science language to create total nonsense that sounds profound.

Here is a good takedown of the nonsense that Chopra spouts. The first three minutes of this video is classic science woo that anyone who knows physics immediately realizes is total rubbish. What is astonishing is that Chopra has the nerve to do this at Caltech, of all places, where a significant number of people in the audience know this stuff. But Sam Harris, who is not a physicist either, does a good job of deconstructing Chopra.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Rob Grigjanis

    Anyone who prattles on like Chopra does, should be made to sit down and work through one of the simpler QFT calculations, like the lowest order contribution to the electron’s anomalous magnetic moment. At the very least, it would shut him up for a while.

  2. 2
    machintelligence

    I believe at the end of that debate a physicist asked Deepak a question, and then described the answer that he received as “I understand your individual words, but the way you have strung them together makes no sense.”

  3. 3
    grumpyoldfart

    The moderator gives him too much leeway at the start when he asks what evidence supports the claim that, “there is, for lack of a better term, God, or some sort of intelligence at the heart of the Universe.”

    “some sort of intelligence”.

    Chopra must laugh his head off sometimes when he collects his speaking fee.

  4. 4
    mnb0

    I couldn’t agree more and have one point to add. Physics also taught me to distrust my instincts and the importance of scrutinizing the basic assumptions my worldviews rest upon. I very cleary remember how shocked I was when confronted with the implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle the first time.

  5. 5
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    how the laws of nature work to produce the universe we occupy.

    And are part of!

    ***

    I believe at the end of that debate a physicist asked Deepak a question, and then described the answer that he received as “I understand your individual words, but the way you have strung them together makes no sense.”

    It was Leonard Mlodinow, who unfortunately went on to write a book with Chopra called War of the Worldviews – a mistake which has given Chopra and “spirituality” legitimacy and led people to think his ideas should be treated with respect.

  6. 6
    lanir

    I don’t really know physics. But I try to stay at least conceptually aware of how the universe works through reading, watching PBS, etc. So while I have a fairly shaky grasp on what quantum entanglement really is beyond it’s most simply stated effects I do understand he’s trying to refer to it in the video. And I also know that in reality it bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the confused and confusing descriptions he gave.

    I have no idea why people want to take their spiritual beliefs and insist their imaginary friends are real, the universe works in magic ways, and somehow they themselves are just so amazingly insightful and aware as to have casually stumbled upon the fundamental realities of the universe while doing the dishes or driving to work or shopping for groceries. And somehow this stunning knowledge of the workings of the universe is both simpler than and totally contradictory to the large body of internally consistent and tested science that’s the life’s work of a significant portion of the population. And largely their justifications for these things being true amounts to “if I close my eyes and don’t look at your criticisms, I don’t see anything wrong with my idea”.

    I guess we can take some comfort in the fact that the populace is educated enough that even people seeking woo feel compelled to relate it to the science that helps us understand how the universe actually works.

  7. 7
    thewhollynone

    At #6, right, and that’s why woo-sellers like Chopra are so dangerous. They know just enough scientific jargon to use it to lend legitimacy to the woo that they are selling to the yokels who know very little real science. When Chopra was delivering his initial spiel in this video clip, I was so reminded of Billy Graham– not the content, but the delivery. Both are con artists extraordinaire.

  8. 8
    moarscienceplz

    The ‘stuff’ of the Universe is not stuff.

    The British have a lovely little saying, “Stuff and nonsense”, only in this case it’s nonsense about stuff.

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