About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Deepak Chopra defends Oprah while committing endless logical fallacies
Ok, Deepak, here we go. Chopra complains that Newsweek adopts “the same tiresome blend of gotcha journalism and selective fact-reporting that fills tabloid coffers,” which is a stunning case of the pot calling the kettle black if you go on and read the remainder of Chopra’s own piece in the Post. Be that as it may, we then find out that “[Oprah’s] intention to improve women's lives on all fronts is so obvious as to be almost above criticism.” Really? I have no reason to doubt Ms. Winfrey’s intentions, but surely Deepak has heard that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, no? But you see, “the fact that she has celebrity guests who have causes and crusades in the area of health, such as Jenny McCarthy or Suzanne Somers, is not the same as Oprah herself endorsing what they say.” Well, if you actually watch Oprah (which I sometimes do while working out at the gym) she is strongly endorsing McCarthy and Somers, as it is made clear by the continuous nodding and words of encouragement that Winfrey utters every time these quacks are on her show, or by her sometimes vehement dismissal of their critics.
A major argument deployed by Chopra is that “[Oprah] brings up creative solutions to problems that medical science is baffled by, such as the healing response itself and the role of subjectivity in patient response. ... Do subjective changes affect healing? Obviously they do, or we wouldn't have the placebo effect, which comes into play at least 30% of the time in illness.” He then goes on to show proof of what he is saying by citing a study (conducted by mainstream medical researchers, incidentally), showing that “on average, acupuncture patients received twice as much benefit as those on standard treatment [anti-inflammatory drugs or a massage]. The kicker is that some of the patients received fake acupuncture — they were pricked superficially with toothpicks — and received the same relief.”
Now let us stop for a moment and analyze the above. First off, Chopra does not seem to understand the placebo effect. As Harriet Hall explained in a recent issue of eSkeptic, the 30% figure (which is actually 35%) derives from a 1955 study published in the (decidedly non “alternative”) Journal of the American Medical Association, and authored by Henry Beecher (a non-alternative MD). But the figure of 35% refers to the cumulative effect of everything that is not treatment, which includes not just the actual placebo effect, but more importantly a large component deriving from the body’s natural (evolved, not mystical) ability to heal itself. Indeed, a more recent study by Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche published in 2001 in the New England Journal of Medicine properly compared the improvement achieved with no treatment to the improvement due to the placebo effect, and found little measurable effect of the placebo. This doesn’t mean that the placebo effect doesn’t occur, just that it is much more limited than the “30%” figure mentioned by Chopra, who apparently doesn’t bother reading the medical literature before making his spectacularly misinformed pronouncements.
Moreover, a rational person would conclude from the study of “real” and “fake” acupuncture that there is no such thing as real acupuncture! If pricking patients with toothpicks has the same effect as inserting needles, wouldn’t you surmise that the whole thing is in fact the result of placebo and natural healing, no acupuncture required thank you very much?
Chopra criticizes the “medical establishment” for being slow to explore new treatments, and cites the case of American doctors who have finally begun considering lumpectomies in place of the much more drastic mastectomies in cases of breast cancer. I am no fan of the health industry, and particularly of the pharmaceutical industry, especially as they are run in this country. But, please notice that the increase in interest in lumpectomies was the result of rigorous studies published by European researchers in peer reviewed journals. Nothing whatsoever to do with “alternative” medicine, whatever that means.
One more example, which perfectly embodies Chopra’s “logic,” such as it is. The mysticism that he promotes (and handsomely profits from) needs “mystery,” as in things that official science doesn’t understand. Otherwise he couldn’t sell his quackery as an “alternative.” So he cites, predictably, the mind-body connection, as in the following stunning passage: “So let me offer a typical finding that comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other official sources. It concerns the effect of child abuse and other adverse circumstances on later health. Is it ‘soul talk’ to believe that a child raised around parents who abuse substances, who suffer from mental illness, or who outright abuse the child will suffer health risks later in life? According to the CDC study, covering 15,000 HMO members in San Diego between 1995-97, the risk of contracting an autoimmune disease as an adult is increased from 70% to 100% if you happened to be abused as a child or grow up with adverse home conditions. ... This study suggests a human connection rather than a biological one.”
A human rather than biological connection? What does Chopra think human beings are, if not biological organisms? And notice, again, that the source of the study is a perfectly mainstream organization, the federally funded CDC. And no, no scientist in his right mind would dismiss this as crazy ‘soul talk,’ because the idea of a connection between stress and health has been accepted and explored experimentally by biologists in both humans and other animals for decades. Indeed, if you are a dualist (as in “mind-body”) like Chopra you actually have a hard time explaining exactly how is it possible that the mind and the body are thus connected (a much bigger mind, Rene Descartes, tried and miserably failed). But if you are an old-fashioned materialist scientist you actually expect a connection between “mind” and “body” because they are both the results of biological functions.
I’m sorry, Mr. Chopra, but that little “struggling news magazine” actually did something that takes gall these days: they questioned the nonsense sputtered by a celebrity with no medical training whatsoever in the name of protecting the public’s health and welfare. It may be tiresome journalism, but it is the only kind of journalism worth reading.