Deepak Chopra attends The Chopra Well Launch Event at Espace on July 18, 2012 in New York City. Photo: Getty Images
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Deepak Chopra doesn't understand quantum physics, so Brian Cox wants $1,000,000 from him

Sometimes, when it feels like putting your money where you mouth is feels like it can't fail, it's worth stepping back and reconsidering. Just in case.

Last week something of a kerfuffle broke out on Twitter between physicist-slash-TV presenter Brian Cox and self-help guru Deepak Chopra over the issue of quantum physics. Chopra made a particularly ill-advised offer of a large amount of money to anyone who could prove his understanding of the issue was incorrect, to the delight of those who are well aware that his understanding of the issue has long been incorrect.

For those unfamiliar with Chopra, he is one of the world's best-selling authors - a respected endocrinologist who, in the 1980s, discovered mysticism, and philosophies of healing and consciousness. He has authored dozens of books, founded his own "Centre for Wellbeing" and, after appearing on Oprah with his friend Michael Jackson, became a bona fide celebrity in his own right. His acolytes think him a genius, or even a prophet; his detractors believe him to be a danger to public health for pushing alternative medicine (with no experimental proof of effectiveness beyond the placebo effect) as an option for dangerous diseases like cancer or Aids.

The former magician James Randi has made debunking paranormal and pseudoscientific claims - which he calls "woo" - into a career, and famously offers a $1m prize for anyone who comes forward with such claims so they can be proven under experimental conditions. Since it began in 1996, hundreds have entered, and nobody has won. To that end (and fed up of what he sees as disrespect towards the world's ancient belief systems from "militant atheists"), Chopra issued his own "one million dollar challenge to the skeptics" last month:

Before you go around debunking the so-called paranormal, please explain the normal. How does electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three-dimensional world in space and time? If you can explain that you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable and you get the prize."

He also penned a column for the Huffington Post, going into more detail about his issue with Randi and his "cronies":

Skepticism, as a gadfly movement, consists of angry people who play "gotcha," adopt an air of smug superiority, and generally alienate anyone who comes close to them.  So why confront them in the first place?

As one of the major confronters, I'd say that my primary goal is to defend the truth of spirituality. The world's wisdom traditions are just as precious as science. To lump them together as arrant charlatanism (as if Buddha and Jesus stand on the same level as a stage magician or con man) is grossly misleading. To dress up this hostile attitude as scientific and rational only deepens the deception. In the familiar metaphor of Elmer Gantry, the fire and brimstone preacher who was a greater sinner than those he preached to, the skeptical movement is much more close-minded and blindly irrational than anyone they expose.

...

Sane people stay away from dogfights, and for years I stayed away. But it turns out that a positive good can be achieved by going after the skeptics. Let's leave aside the whole question of God, faith, miracles, and the so-called supernatural. These things have been incendiary for a long time and arouse stubborn resistance on both sides. The real issue is exactly what my offer focuses on: What is consciousness, how does it create reality, and how far does this reality extend?

It is worth stating here that I actually agree with Chopra when it comes to big-A Atheism, which has become more than merely a rational response to a culture of evangelical anti-science Christianity - instead it is now a vociferous and furious anti-religious movement, and often a home for those with anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views. I also, as an atheist, do not deny that there is value in spiritual belief and practice.

But come on, you're fooling nobody here.

Chopra's long believed that the universe as we perceive it is really just a manifestation of consciousness. That is, consciousness existed before anything else, and it creates reality through the act of seeing. He calls it "Cosmic Consciousness", and it comes about because Chopra is fervently anti-reductionist - he believes that reducing human brains to their constituent cells, or even atoms, and understanding their structure and how they interact, does nothing to explain the mind. It is a dualist approach, a separation of body and soul, spirit, mind, whatever you wish to call it. We could build a computer that recreates the physical reality of a human brain exactly, but it would not be simulating consciousness because that is an essence that is anti-material.

Descartes had this problem in the 17th century, settling on philosophical dualism because he refused to accept the impossibility of the non-existence of the Christian soul; Chopra, similarly, believes that consciousness creates matter because it then means that consciousness is a thing beyond the physical world, and therefore a belief in the paranormal and the mystical can be justified. He's written in defence of this belief many, many times - as in a follow-up column in HuffPo:

If the materialists are correct, there has to be a way for matter to learn to think, which has never been proven. If the consciousness camp is right, mind has to find a way to create molecules. The reason that the second position makes sense is that our thoughts are creating molecules all the time - the chemical makeup of the brain is altered with every thought, feeling, and sensation. That is indisputable. But the bias in favor of materialism is strong, upheld mainly by inertia. Why bother to re-examine the entire creation when it's obvious, we are told, that we live in a physical universe?

The answer is this: We don't live in a physical universe as defined by rocks, trees, mountains, and Chinese porcelain. The quantum revolution long ago unmasked the illusion of physicality, proving with exact mathematical certainty that matter consists of waves in an infinite quantum field. How these waves transform into material objects remains one of the two greatest questions facing physics. (The math is there, but not the actual process.) The other great unsolved mystery is to find the biological basis of mind.

Or here, on his own website, when defining Cosmic Consciousness:

Quantum theory has reached the point where the source of all matter and energy is a vacuum, a nothingness that contains all the possibilities of everything that has ever existed or could exist. These possibilities then emerge as probabilities before “collapsing” into localized quanta, manifesting as the particles in space and time that are the building blocks of atoms and molecules.

...

The entire universe is a matter of transformation whereby something is available to be turned into perception. We’ve proposed that consciousness is that something - if there’s another candidate, we’re not aware of one that can pass the acid test: Make it turn into thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. Science isn’t remotely close to turning the sugar in a sugar bowl into the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare. Randomness will not give you any of that. Your brain converts blood sugar into words and music, not by some trick of the molecules in the brain, since they are in no way special or privileged. Rather, your consciousness is using the brain as a processing device, moving the molecules where they are needed in order to create the sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell of the world.

Quantum physics's observer effect - whereby observing an event at the quantum level changes the outcome of the event - is taken by Chopra to be proof that he's right about consciousness, and in turn that then lets him get away with describing lots of other banal phenomena as imbued with mystical meaning. He looks at a brain, sees molecules being moved and changed during thought, and interprets it as consciousness "turning into" thought; quite why he thinks that thought couldn't just be what happens when molecules move around inside the brain is never interrogated. By his definition, food breaking down in the stomach and intestines is also consciousness manifesting as mind - though of an altogether different sort.

Which brings us to Brian Cox, who couldn't stand by and say nothing as Chopra tweeted about #CosmicConsciousness last week:

Eternal inflation is one of many theories that seek to explain the Big Bang, its cause and its aftermath. Cox is well aware that Chopra is cobbling together a nonsense belief system from half-understood fragments of actual science, and that there is science out there that explains what Chopra considers to be a mystery.

Eventually Cox gets bored, and goes for the coup de grace:

...which Chopra studiously ignores, instead switching tactic and going for Cox's ego, passive-aggressively retweeting a funny video and asking him to come speak at his upcoming conference:

Eventually, Cox and Chopra left it - or so it seemed, because today Chopra couldn't help but get one final subtweet in:

...and neither could Cox:

Chopra will probably be able to get out of paying Cox any money because, technically, what the physicist did was show that the premise of the question was incorrect, not provide a solution - but it would be cute to see him try.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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