The Guru Fallacy
@DeepakChopra: Critical Thinking. You’re Doing it Wrong.
His tweets, my tweets and the fallacies in-between.
Since I am involved in promoting Critical Thinking as both concept and set of abilities, I thought that a short analysis of the recent small interactions between me and Deepak Chopra that took place on Twitter may be a good example on how to deal with manipulation and pseudoscience by means of reason.
I will not go into a full he said/she said kind of thing (Whoever is interested in reading the stream, can visit my account or his account and read the full conversation), but I will only point out several main things that I think are important when considering that he is trying to pass on random messages as scientific fact and that many people seem to blindly rely on what he says.
I encounter the effects of pseudo-scientific information so often in my personal life, training contexts, my psychotherapy and clinical psychology practice and I know that learning to identify cognitive distortions, dissonance, bias and fallacies represents a first step toward dealing with them and breaking the circle of irrationality, manipulation and dependence.
After starting to follow Deepak Chopra’s account (a Twitter recommendation), my “Critical Thinking alert button” started blinking almost right away. I was able to ignore it until I realized that he almost never lets his followers know that some of the things he so casually passes on as fact are actually just opinions, thoughts, interpretations, metaphors. Basically everything that we would call pseudoscience.
My intention (for this blog post at least) is not to debunk Deepak Chopra’s perspective on life, science, consciousness or spirituality. We are all entitled to our beliefs, but using them to mislead (intentionally or not) by means of obvious manipulation techniques and just defy logic in order to try to impose one’s perspective as valid and scientific, it’s a problem that I believe permeates society in a way that blocks overall evolution. The general public seems to be less and less encouraged to use Critical Thinking and therefore, is more inclined to following alleged authority figures that present themselves as professionals and leaders.
There are several things that I find worth mentioning as a result of a short critical analysis of his tweets, attitude and way to interact with me in particular and people in general, especially those who are not his supporters.
I was surprised to see how blind to cognitive bias he is and how fallacies seem to be a way of dealing with problems when he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. He claims he knows things about the mind, the brain, consciousness, etc and yet, in my opinion, he fails to prove basic understanding of psychological dynamic.
Here are my basic observations that apply to Deepak Chopra in particular, but may be extended to other spiritual leaders or public figures who display the “guru” aura. Critical Thinking and Assertiveness Tips follow each segment.
* He rarely answers any question. Instead, he asks another question, recommends a reading list or insults the interlocutor. A combination of Manipulation – Avoidance – Aggressiveness. This is not assertive, but mainly aggressive behavior. No answer would be better than an aggressive one.
Critical Thinking Tip: When you ask for a specific piece of information, make sure that your interlocutor keeps the discussion in that same framework. Shift of subject decreases your chance to receive the information you are interested in.
Assertiveness Tip: Shifting or avoiding a subject in discussions is usually sign of manipulation.
* My tweets challenged the content of his messages (for example, I asked how would he know that the ultimate cause of things is “a thinking non-stuff”; Non-stuff is his term.), he replied with insults addressed to “the new atheists”. Obviously an ad-hominem fallacy that, to my surprise, was not properly identified by some of his followers who joined the discussion.
Even though some of them seemed to know what this fallacy implies, they were not able to include his statement in this category, just because they thought he didn’t directly address the insult to me. Well, if the “@LuciaGrosaru” didn’t do it, the simple fact that “atheists” are persons and that the insult was in reply to a message dealing with an idea, should be enough to say it was “ad hominem” (“to the person”). They just thought I took it personally when the content was not directed at me. Well, I didn’t take it personally, he can say whatever he wants about me, atheists or anybody else, we are free to express our opinions (myself included by the way), but his remark definitely included me in the category he was referring to. For some reason, although the discussion was not about God or a divine entity and I never stated I was an atheist, he decided to turn to his old nemesis, “the atheist” or “pseudo skeptics” – as he basically calls scientists. Shifting the subject itself, shifting the object from an idea to persons, insulting, once again avoiding to answer… How is that scientific? How does that help the advancement of human knowledge? How is that the supportive attitude of a “guide”?
Critical Thinking Tip: Learn to spot cognitive distortions, dissonance, bias and fallacies. It’s a first step in improving your thinking process and in bettering your relationships. You can find some resources on this very blog.
Assertiveness Tip: If you want to keep it professional, academic and assertive, don’t insult others. Challenge the idea, not the person. Being aggressive won’t defend you, it will make you come out as rude, frustrated and mean. Not a sign of inner balance. Of course we experience anger, it’s a normal human feeling. And yes, at times we may become verbally aggressive – ranging from irony, sarcasm to maybe directly offending people. Some remarks spice up a discussion and do not offend, but the line is thin, size up your context. I do not promote “the perfect behavior”, that would be impossible to achieve, but self-awareness and mutual respect are within our reach.
* Deepak Chopra had to deal with controversy and criticism from the scientific community basically his whole professional life, so one of the defenses he developed is the association of his image and/or messages with that of bona-fide scientists.
Name dropping and that kind of association is what contributes to the resulting authority bias. The information that comes from a trusted source is usually not questioned, but just accepted as being true. Critical Thinkers, however, will question everything and assess information and source altogether, not just the source.
Critical Thinking Tip: Just because a person presents a (usually pompous) professional or job title (M.D., Ph.D., CEO, manager, leader, guru, guide, facilitator etc), it does not grant validity to their words, recommendations or decisions. It’s the information itself that is valid or not and we should always make our own decisions regarding the truth value of that data.
Assertiveness Tip: Name dropping is not endorsement, nor proof of honest association. It’s usually manipulation and it leads to a false image of the person using this technique. Also, an assertive person will rather use “I statements”. They will talk about themselves and their experience, rather than about others.
* Pompous and “sciencey”-sounding random words don’t make for a valid scientific information.
Deepak Chopra and other spiritual mentors (by the way, do we actually need that?) often throw messages that contain words pertaining to valid scientific fields (physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, medicine, neuroscience, psychology, etc), bend their meaning so that they would fit the “spiritual paradigm” promoted by the guru and we are expected to buy it as fact. It’s usually not. It’s not. He specifically uses “quantum” or “consciousness”/”awareness” and he dabbles in the fields of hard problems, but all he does is to generate random statements that at their best become good metaphors or motivational affirmations.
Critical Thinking Tip: Make sure that your source of information uses concepts and terms in the proper way. If the emitter has his or her own way of referring to a concept, they should make that clear.
Assertiveness Tip: Again, we deal with manipulation. Assertive persons will have to learn to resist this kind of charisma and take their time to assess the facts for themselves.
* Deepak Chopra and others tend to place most things in their own paradigm.
From what I understand, he believes in an ultimate non-material conscious thinking entity and therefore tends to consider scientists -or “materialists” as he calls them- believers in something else, “matter” or “science” itself. His rigidity says that one supreme being, if rejected, must be replaced by something similar in significance. He substitutes Cosmic Consciousness (his term) with Matter/Science. I do believe in science, but it’s not the same kind of believing as that in a supreme supernatural being. The laws of physics have direct effects on my life, the supernatural does not. And even if he likes to consider himself a neuro-skeptic, a matter-skeptic and independent from “rigid” scientific frameworks, he is not matter-independent. I believe he still eats in order to survive. Perhaps he even does physical exercise in order to maintain a healthy body … and mind. That’s physics, and chemistry, and neuroscience.
At some point he wrote to me the following: “@LuciaGrosaru You need to overcome the superstition of materialism to be an authentic radical skeptic [..]”. This is just a part of a tweet he later deleted and replaced with “@LuciaGrosaru Materialists are pseudo skeptics frozen in an obsolete model. Radical skepticism requires you lose faith in matter “.
Scientists may have what he calls “faith in matter”, but it is not blind faith in matter. Matter provides proof. Also, I do not worship matter, nor do I feel attacked if someone insults my alleged “faith in matter” or matter itself. Thus, I would also refute the pseudo-skepticism approach, but that is his opinion, and I accept it as such.
Critical Thinking Tip: Do not label, be flexible and be aware that everything is open to discussion and criticism.
Assertiveness Tip: Understand that other people may have different opinions than yours and do not adopt a versus position. Your opinions may be in opposition, individuals are not.
I would like to also explain the image you see at the beginning of the page. It is a (once again deleted) tweet by D. Chopra, in reply to my tweet in which I was trying to say that the hard problem of consciousness does not only imply thinking. Thinking is a process we start to understand through studies in neuroscience and psychology, but consciousness is more than that. It’s the sense of being and thinking “from the inside”, it’s what makes us be ourselves, what gives us the sense of identity, the subjective “I”.
I do understand that perhaps he wanted to say “Your statement makes no sense” or “Your statement is nonsensical”, but still, he did not choose to correct and re-post, but just deleted a tweet that was making him look bad. I think it’s an interesting conclusion and a clue regarding his overall attitude and manner of doing things. He jumps at pointing out other people’s flaws and yet he fails to see, accept, challenge and/or correct his own.
To an existence guided by reason and “the poetry of science”!
Thank you for reading.
P.S. I am not a native English speaker obviously, so please bear with me and my phrasing and grammar. Learning never stops.