The Power of Positive Skepticism: A Reply to Deepak Chopra

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • Michael Shermer Founding publisher, Skeptic magazine; editor,

"Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue."
--Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structures, 1962

In Matthew 7, verses 1-2, Jesus admonishes his listeners: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged." This is a warning against self-righteous severity, as elaborated on in the Talmudic collection of commentary on Jewish custom and law called the Mishnah: "Do not judge your fellow until you are in his position" (Aboth 2:5).

Deepak Chopra's attitude toward skepticism is a common one we hear at Skeptic. Skeptics are said to be rigid, dogmatic, hypercritical, and closed-minded. We are accused of adding nothing to the fund of knowledge and wisdom, while we lurk in the shadows waiting for the opportunity to douse the flame of hope that resides in the belief in unlimited human potential and alternative realities.

Applying Jesus' Judgment Principle, I begin by acknowledging that there are some skeptics who do indeed fit this description, and no doubt Deepak has encountered them in his very public crusade on the borderlands of science. (Big targets are easy to hit.) When I first became involved in the skeptics movement I met not a few grumpy old white guys complaining that the world was overrun with pseudoscience and superstitions, pronouncing the end of Western Civilization if we didn't don our debunking caps and make the world safe for science and reason. Fair enough. There is some hyperbole there.

But the Jesus' Judgment Principle cuts both ways. Skepticism has become a legitimate form of inquiry that Deepak parenthetically acknowledges (in a left-handed sort of way) as occasionally laudable, another refrain we often hear in the form of "I'm a skeptic too, but...," where skepticism is fine as long as it is someone else's codswallop under the microscope. When we made Deepak our cover story for Skeptic in 1998 ("Deepak's Dangerous Dogmas," Vol. 6, No. 2), I instructed the author, Phil Molé, to ignore the negative publicity in the news at that time about Deepak's personal life, and instead focus strictly on his theories of quantum consciousness, health, and healing. There wasn't a single line in the article that I would consider to be ad hominem. So there is a way to do positive skepticism.

This brings me to the larger issue of two forms of skepticism, negative and positive. Stephen Jay Gould began his foreword to my 1997 book, Why People Believe Weird Things, by noting: "Skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities -- like garbage disposal -- that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration." Deepak has identified the negative form of skepticism, debunking, but let's be honest, there is a lot of bunk in the world. Members of the "bunko squads" of police departments are debunkers, and we do not bemoan their service to society in busting scams, schemes, swindles, and stings. Gresham's Law -- bad money drives good money out of circulation -- applies to ideas as well. By weeding out bad ideas, negative skepticism enables the good to flourish.

Positive skepticism, however, involves much more than the negative disposal of false claims. In fact, the word "skeptic" comes from the Greek skeptikos, for "thoughtful." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "skeptical" has also been used to mean "inquiring," "reflective," and, with variations in the ancient Greek, "watchman" or "mark to aim at." What a positive meaning for what we do! We are thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective, and we are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas in order to discover good ideas, consumer advocates of critical thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim. "Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation, not as a nihilistic exercise," Gould concludes. "The alternate model is rationality itself, tied to moral decency -- the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known."

Rationality, reason, science, skepticism -- all are synonyms for activities in our quest to understand how the world works. The why of it all -- the meaning, purpose, and spiritual fulfillment behind our quest -- is a related but ancillary activity. Positive skepticism is a way of thinking that leads to deeper understanding, and it is a vital tool in the science kits of practicing scientists. In this sense I define science in a very pragmatic way: Science is what scientists do.

Deepak wants to bridge the schism between science and religion, which he says skeptics believe must be kept separate. We believe this because when scientists are doing science -- collecting data, running experiments, testing hypotheses, building theories -- we have nothing to say about religion, unless claims are made that scientific evidence supports some particular religious belief, such as that the Earth is only 6,000 years old or that intercessory prayer heals the sick. In that case, the ultimate result of applying the tools of science to religious claims can only be the disappearance or naturalization of the deity. Science deals with only natural causes. Any supernatural (or paranormal) causes, when examined closely, either disappear entirely or are incorporated into the natural sciences.

I think what Deepak is after here, however, is something broader and deeper than religion, and that is spirituality, a theme that comes up often in his books and public appearances. This past summer I was invited to teach a seminar at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the New Age Mecca on the Pacific coast. I called it "Science and Spirituality." As it turns out, Deepak also once taught a seminar there under the same title, so either my students (mostly scientists) and I all sat around staring at the walls with nothing to say, or there is more than one way to be spiritual in this world. In my seminar, I defined the spirit as the pattern of information of which we are made -- our genes, proteins, memories, and personalities. In this sense, spirituality is the quest to know the place of our spirit within the deep time of evolution and the deep space of the cosmos. Although there are many paths to spirituality, I believe that science gives us the deepest possible sense of grandeur and wonder about our place in time and space.

To which Deepak would probably proclaim "Me too!" (He writes quite positively about the harmony of science and spirituality in his books.) So I shall conclude by noting my epigram from Robert K. Merton that "science makes skepticism a virtue." The science embraced by Deepak is much broader than that allowed by the evidence. Skeptical science is cautiously conservative. Deepak's science is wildly speculative. In skepticism we have two canonical sayings: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and "Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."

The skeptical fences are there for a reason -- to keep the borderlands of science from shading too far into pseudoscience, non-science, and nonsense. For every Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, there were a thousand cons, cranks, and quacks with their revolutionary theories that turned out to be flummery and flapdoodle. Scientists don't have the time or resources to shilly-shally with every new idea that comes down the pike. That is what the skeptics do, and as part of the scientific process this is the power of positive skepticism.