Steven Novella is a well-known freethinker, debunker of cults and a neurologist on the faculty of Yale University's School of Medicine. He has enjoyed a career as a leader of the New England Skeptical Society, producer of "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" podcast and as an activist with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). I've enjoyed his work for many years. Recently, a good friend urged me to read his latest commentary at "The NeuroLogicaBlog" website. The title of the piece looked promising: "Magic Man - Deepak Chopra." I could hardly wait to read it.
Novella summarized his opinion of Chopra (i.e., the guy thinks he is magic, that he can affect reality with his thoughts alone) and then quoted a remark Deepak made about his own power in referring to the magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Baja CA. Here is Deepak's Twitter comment: "Had a powerful meditation just now - caused an earthquake in Southern California. Was meditating on Shiva mantra & earth began to shake. Sorry about that."
Novella basically had a fit. He wrote that he wondered if Chopra was kidding or seriously claiming he caused the quake in Baja? Then he added, "Either possibility is disturbing." Then he described why either possibility was disturbing, at least in his opinion.
If kidding, it was callus and confusing, a bad joke or poor judgment or "an expression of supreme arrogance from someone who thinks he is a master of the universe."
If serious, it suggests Chopra believes he can affect reality with his thoughts, which is what his writings about "achieving god consciousness" suggest. Novella ends concluding that Chopra sells what people "want to buy - magic."
Well, even though I have never written a kind word about Deepak Chopra and more than a few unkind words (see Deepak-related essays at this site), I thought in this case the good Dr. Novella was way off mark. What's more, I commented at the website exactly why I thought so, as follows: http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1822#comments
I loathe the woo woo of Deepak and his spiritual ilk. But, I have little patience with political correctness, sanctimoniousness and, most of all, humorlessness.
This is a first for me—defending Deepak, and in opposition to a position taken by a giant of the freethinker school.
Lighten up, Steve. Sheesh. The take on Deepak's remarks is prissy, humor-impaired and an embarrassment for free speech champions.
Sure, Deepak Chopra probably does think he has magical powers. He probably "thinks he can affect reality with his thoughts alone," and these assumptions barely break the surface of the man's delusions. But, the criticism here is of Deepak at his best—actually being funny, making fun of himself for a change.
Deepak's comment on his phony baloney magic is "Saturday Night Live" worthy! This is hilarious: "Had a powerful meditation just now - caused an earthquake in Southern California." What a hoot. Good on ya, Deepak! And then this: "Was meditating on Shiva mantra & earth began to shake. Sorry about that." Also hilarious. Come on - does a skeptic have to take everything literally? Are we freethinkers going to be labeled enforcers of piety?
Could there be a "Colbert Report," "A Daily Show, " a "Real Time" with Bill Maher, George Carlin, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" with Larry David and so on down the irreverent and outrageous lines if Chopra's version of "humor" is forbidden or fairly deemed out of line. Who wants "bounds," anyway? Is this a case of reverse blasphemy by someone who surely cringes at the concept of censorship?
Chopra should be encouraged for exercising his sense of humor, not pilloried by free speech advocates and champions of liberty. The use of humor is not disturbing. People use it at funerals, for heaven's sake (just an expression). Humor serves many functions. Support it, even when you are not amused.
The comments that Novella criticized were in fact the best of Deepak, in my view. He was spoofing his own woo woo. That's delicious. Go Deepak.
I urged Dr. Novella to revisit this commentary and offer a second opinion—one the opposite of his first take on the humor of Deepak on earthquakes.
As noted, I commented on this blog, and got a response from Dr. Novella. Here it is:
"Donald - I appreciate your perspective, and I admit that I considered it prior to writing this blog. I don't want to be in the position of deconstructing something said in jest.
But in this case, it is not a stretch to argue that Chopra thinks he can change reality to that degree with his intention. This episode reflects that, whether or not it was a joke. So partly this is just an excuse to criticize Chopra for his mystical guru money-generating beliefs.
And further, while I am NOT a defender of reverence or even good taste, I think it is arrogant on the part of Chopra to joke, soon after a quake that claimed lives, that he was responsible through meditation.
I was quite deliberate in writing that this may have just been a joke gone wrong, and that is exactly why I prefaced my criticism as 'less charitably.'"
A couple others responded. One wrote this: "I'm with Donald here. It's pretty apparent the comments were meant in jest. Even delusional woo masters are capable of cracking jokes and I also doubt that he was thinking about the loss of life when he tweeted. Pulling Chopra on this seems to be a bit opportunistic and if something similar happened in reverse I'm certain most people here would be complaining about how humorless the other side was. I don't like Chopra or his brand of woo but he's entitled to make bad jokes. And I'm also sure that lots of famous skeptical folk, especially the comedians, have made jokes that some people would find in bad taste. Chopra isn't alone in that regard and like Donald suggests I get the impression it was meant to be self-deprecating rather than a claim for metaphysical responsibility.
Bob Ludlow, a big fan of Dr. Novella, wrote:
"Okay, so I'm more on your side, from the standpoint that it was a somewhat gratuitous cheap-shot. On the other hand, Chopra is a deluded and dishonest con artist, a profiteering gasbag who has not earned the benefit of the doubt. The arrogant crap he preaches, partly under the cloak of pseudoscience and pseudo-medicine is deserving of the highest scorn and opprobrium. So when he smugly tweets that his meditation caused the earthquake, I'm assuming he's addressing an audience of true believers. What if odious Pat Robertson 'joked' to his listeners that he was praying for the defeat of Satan when the Haitian earthquake struck? Or something like that -- you get the idea. Or what if Rush Limbaugh made a pseudo self-deprecating joke. You know where these hate-mongering assholes are coming from, so they just aren't funny. So I guess I won't concede that what Chopra said was funny, even if so intended, because he was saying it in a context that assumed he has magical powers. If someone imitating Chopra had said it on SNL, then it could have been funny.
Still, I like to think if I were in Novella's position, I would have passed on that blog.
Finally, one last comment:
"I think this was one of your less inspired posts, Steve. Useless even. I don't even think it was tasteless. The earthquake was tragic but living in Southern California, you grow accustomed to small shakes. A big quake from far off feels the same as a small one close by. I think the tweet would have been funny under the circumstances, even if Chopra is a lunatic."
OK, there you have it—my defense of Deepak and comments on the whole matter. Now for the important part of this. What do YOU think? Please write in—I'll quote a few of your comments in a future essay on Deepak sense of humor. Or not.