Friday, December 9, 2011

Chopra, positive thinking, and muddled reasoning

When the facts don't support your beliefs, best muddy the waters. This is a technique I see over and over again used by those who believe things that are either unsupported or contradicted by the evidence. One of the areas where I see this most often is among those who have believe in alternative medicine or hold spiritual beliefs. Today, I once again ran into this technique while reading a new article by Deepak Chopra on CNN. So I decided this might be a good opportunity to address not only this problem but a few other logical issues in Chopra's article.

Deepak has chosen to address recent findings that positive thinking may not help a person recover from illness in an article titled Can positive thinking make you well. Deepak actually never says what he thinks the answer to this question is and instead uses this topic as a segue into the benefits of meditation. My concern with this article isn't with Deepak's discussion of meditation, instead its with his muddying of the waters regarding the effect of positive thinking on healing as well as his confusing discussion of science.

The question of whether or not positive thinking can help cure cancer or help with other diseases is a question of evidence. Only if we have sufficient evidence that it does help should we believe that positivity cures. Deepak has taken a stab at this issue and rather than reporting the evidence he appears to be criticizing the new research not outright but with rhetoric.

Deepak cites to research that positive cancer patients do not have higher recovery rates than others. But then he points out that there are also studies showing the reverse though these studies were small and flawed. If Deepak left the issue here I would have no problem. However, Deepak dives further into rhetoric and that is where I take issue. Deepak states: "Anyone would be forgiven for throwing up their hands. This seems like another example of dueling data. . . leaving the public in a state of confusion."

He may be correct that the public is in a state of confusion, but it is not because the science is confused but because the public doesn't understand science due to poor media reporting on science such as Deepak is doing here. The problem is that the general public doesn't understand that science is an ongoing process of research where we never have an absolute answer but instead just a growing pile of evidence. In the early stages of doing studies we may often find contradicting results and it is only once a large body of studies can be reviewed together can we determine what the likely result is. Rather than educate individuals Deepak adds to this confusion by implying that Dueling Data is confusing rather than pointing out that science expects dueling data.

Deepak next states that Doctors are also confused because they used to tell patients to keep their spirits up. However, this is disingenuous. Doctors should recognize that our knowledge of how the body works is changing and that they must update their practice with new knowledge. Take Deepak's statement here and apply it to a prescription drug and you see how ridiculous it is.

Imagine hearing this: "Doctors are confused. A prescription called DangerPrescrip has been recalled due to the discovery of serious side effects. It has always been part of a doctor's toolkit to prescribe DangerPrescrip but now they are being told not to prescribe it due to dangers." This sounds absurd because we expect doctors to change their behavior when new medical evidence comes in. However, this is exactly the argument Deepak is using. Here Deepak's use of language is likely to undermine a readers belief in the new studies.

The next statement is where Deepak really puts his foot in his mouth. Remember that Deepak has just got done telling us how Doctors have always had as part of their toolkit the technique of telling patients to keep their spirits up as part of their medical practice. He then goes on to say "few (doctors) want to cross the line and support the notion that how you think can work as powerfully as 'real' medicine." Deepak cannot have it both ways, first he says Doctors support positive thinking but then states that they don't support it because it isn't real medicine. He has clearly contradicted himself here. I cannot say why he has done this, but
I can tell you the effect is to muddy the waters around science. Deepak has driven a line between what he calls "real medicine" and thinking.

Not only has Deepak contradicted himself he has asserted that there is a conspiracy among doctors to hide the fact that thinking can heal because they think that could challenge their profession. At the same time he clearly doesn't believe this conspiracy he has asserted because just directly before he invents this conspiracy he states that doctors do tell patients to keep their spirits up.

I want to move on to Deepak's driving a line between what he calls "real medicine" and thinking. Here Deepak is using a deceptive rhetorical technique called a straw man. A straw man is an argument that you allege your opponent has that is easy for you to dismantle but in fact your opponent does not believe. Deepak makes the statement that doctors don't believe thinking is "real medicine." Then sates "thinking is 'real' medicine." But a reader should note that Deepak has cited no Doctors who say this, it appears he just made up the claim that doctors don't believe thinking is real medicine.

Thus, Deepak has set up a straw man and then refutes this argument to make Doctors look wrong when in fact Doctors never argued that thinking isn't real medicine. Even worse, Deepak's evidence that thinking is real medicine is the placebo effect. The placebo effect is a discovery of science and common knowledge among doctors, thus Deepak's assertion that doctor's don't believe thinking is real medicine is clearly wrong, highly misleading and possibly dishonest because Doctors generally believe in the placebo effect.

I want to step back now and rather than continue showing issues with this article show what Deepak's rhetorical techniques have done and counter that with an explanation of how science works.

Deepak has cited a scientific study that provides actual evidence about the world around us and then attacked it with rhetoric. He first discusses how the study confuses the public and doctors and implies that this confusion is justified. What this does is make the reader wonder whether they should question the study. Next Deepak creates an imagined conspiracy that Doctors are trying to hide the fact that thinking heals. This imagined conspiracy will further undermine the authority of the study in the readers minds even though a quick reading of Deepak's own statements show that the alleged conspiracy doesn't exist.

This undermining of the study is a general technique of those whose beliefs run counter to evidence. Rhetorical techniques can undermine the public's belief in scientific evidence even when the evidence for something is strong. Thus, these rhetorical techniques move away from the real question we should be asking which is: what does the evidence tell us?

Science is a process of performing study after study of the world around us to gain a better understanding of that world. Sometimes studies are flawed and some are better thus it takes time and sometimes many studies to really understand something like whether thinking can heal. Deepak says the public is confused. Well the public shouldn't be confused, because the answer isn't confusing, the answer is: we don't fully know yet. Often "we don't know but we are working on it" is the best answer science can give. The public may want a more definitive answer but science cannot always do that. Thus, what confuses the public is when media tries to give an easy yes or no answer when all the evidence has not yet come in. Thus, it is not the science that is confusing but poor reporting of science and poor understanding of how science works.

Deepak's article contributes to this poor understanding of science by emphasizing the publics confusion rather than explaining why they are confused.

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