On Friday, June 4th, Vancouver was the recipient of Dr. Deepak Chopra – quantum mystic, magic thinker, and purveyor of high-quality woo. In the interest of promoting the cause of evidence-based science and thought, skeptics from Vancouver’s chapter of the Center for Inquiry were on hand to engage the audience on their way into the event. We were armed with flyers (which can be seen here), and voices of reason. For more background on the event, you are invited to read the pre-event coverage from this blog.I thought better of my tut-tutting and offered to put together a new flyer that might have proved more effective. I was supposed to do this over a month ago - but hey, better late than never, yeah?
Firstly, we need to consider two things:
- Who is the intended audience?
- What is the intended purpose?
Who is the intended audience?In this case, knowing our audience is very easy. Our audience is also Deepak's audience. The key point is that the people attending Deepak's talk are the very people that like the taste of Deepak-brand Woo Kool-aid.
This immediately tells us a few things about the audience members.
- They are not critical thinkers (yet)
- They respond to appeals to emotion and character
- They respond to the appearance of science and reason
The second point should be obvious. For all the shortcomings we skeptics might view in Chopra, we should be quick to acknowledge the strengths of both Chopra and his message.
And what a message! Using the hidden powers of the universe to get healthy, look young, lose weight, and attract wealth and success? Who doesn't want that?
Then consider Chopra as a speaker. He speaks calmly, at a good pace, with just the right amount of an accent to make him seem exotic and interesting. His voice is deep and reassuring, and he speaks at a measured pace. He appears clean, respectable, and exudes just the right amount of success - not so much as to make him an 'elite' (perish the thought!) but still more than enough to establish his character in the mind of his audience members as an authority figure. Chopra comes over as everything he needs to be to engage his audience and make them feel comfortable and at ease.
This then ties into the third point. Chopra likes to salt his message with high-level scientific vocabulary. However, it is not required for the audience to understand what any of these words mean in order to grasp the points he's making. And they want to grasp that message, they really do. So Chopra - and his audience - can gloss over the complicated science-ish terminology, giving the argument the appearance of scientific credibility. The audience buys into the appearance of credibility because they want to.
This is also going to be a hint of the Dunning-Kruger effect in play. We can be confident that most of Chopra's audience are unskilled in the scientific arena. This can contribute to the false self-assessment that they are skilled, especially under the influence of Chopra's lilting seduction.
Consider for a moment how good it must feel to have a trusted authority take your most cherished intuitions, tell you they're scientific, and then convince you that you now understand the implications of science in a way that most trained scientists don't. Those stuck-up science teachers when I was in highschool? Yeah - what did they know? They never could have understood that the moon only exists because we observe it! Thanks Deepak for showing me the truth about the universe - now I know more than those smarty-pants scientists! You're the best!
What is the intended purpose?Given the assessment above, what are we trying to accomplish with this audience? Why are we trying to achieve it in the first place?
For those like me, Chopra is really, really annoying. Seriously. I just want to claw his face off every time he drops the word 'quantum' and gives that beautific, knowing, vacant smile. Deepak is laying honey traps of the mind to draw people down into a shiny, fluffy abyss of woo. The distress this causes manifests as grimace, a twist in the belly and a tensing of the hands. I don't like it.
So there's definitely an element of schadenfreude in play. I take pleasure in the thought of convincing people to move away from Chopra's syrupy drivel, because I want to see Chopra fall. Those like me will no doubt feel the same.
It's a valid and justified emotional response. But in this particular arena, acting on those emotions directly can only work against us. This audience is self-selected to have a membership that like and respect Deepak Chopra. Attacking Chopra directly - or revealing an emotional bias against him - will not endear our message to this particular audience.
So there's two reasons we need a different motive. Firstly, schadenfreude is doomed to failure. Secondly - it's not exactly noble, which should bother us of itself.
The attention should be on what's best for the audience rather than the best way of wiping the smile of Chopra's face. Given the analysis of the audience above, the motive should be clear. The audience lacks critical thinking skills, and Chopra is feeding into that. The goal should be to encourage critical thinking in the audience, and present them with the information they need to arrive at an informed conclusion.
So we have our purpose: Encourage the audience's capacity for critical thinking.
Encourage the audience's capacity for critical thinking: How?So we have a noble goal. But what are we going to do about it?
It's an old problem: How do you convince someone to accept a critical argument when they don't find critical reasoning persuasive in the first place?
We have to find a way to hook into the audience in a way that suits them. We need to communicate on their terms - not ours. So - what are their hooks?
We only need to look at Chopra. What Chopra does, they like. Ergo: Do as Chopra does.
I know, I know. I didn't throw up in my mouth a little bit when I typed that, but I feel like I should have. Fact of the matter is: If we want to achieve something, we have to take a good hard look at the weapons of our opponents so we can learn to wield them ourselves. We should always rest everything on a foundation of critical reason, of course. But if critical reason appealed to the people who fall for shills like Chopra, they wouldn't be shills in the first place. Critical reason alone isn't going to win this battle for us.
So, if we're going to emulate Chopra - how, exactly, does Chopra do what he does?
Deepak Chopra - A Case Study (Not Quite)I add the term (Not Quite) because I'm not familiar enough with Deepak's methods to give a definitive overview of how he does things. I couldn't stomach it. I can force myself to slog through Kant, but there's only so much sugary nonsense I can stomach. I just don't have the endurance to sit through Chopra. I really, really don't. But it would be a very, very useful resource for the skeptical community if someone else could.
That said, I do have a superficial impression of how Chopra does things. Chopra makes appeals to people's intuitions and emotions. He makes them feel safe, secure, smart, powerful. We need to find a way to do the same. I need to emphasize: This is hard. I'm not trained in this, I'm just stumbling through. Others can in all likelihood do a better job than I can.
I've attached a .pdf of my sample flyer - and now is a good time to open it up and have a look. For all the words above me in this essay laying out my thought process, the end result is rather simple.
Pretentious DeconstructionThere's two flyers - in my head, I've labelled them the solipsism flyer and the quack doctor flyer. Each flyer has the same basic structure, however. Hopefully the principles I've outlined above should shine through.
First, there's an opening line. Some advice a work colleague once gave me was that when people are skimming, they're most likely to take in a sentence with the structure of subject - action - thing. So the opening sentence sets the topic. Subject: Deepak Chopra. Action: gives us an interesting view of. Thing: the world around us/healing and personal health.
Key word in the opening sentence is 'interesting'. The opening sentence is almost positive about Chopra. It's easy to see through after engaging with the flyer for a few minutes. But that's the point - you have to engage with the flyer, take it in, and think about it before you realize that it's a negative critique. That's all the flyer really has to do. Opening on this note gives the flyer the best possible chance of not being dismissed by the reader on the first sentence.
The opening sentence is followed up by a quote from Chopra that indicates his position on these topics are less than conventional. Some space and bold on the quote gives it a prominence on the page that draws the eye. Chopra's turn of phrase is engaging and eye catching, regardless of the truth of his claims. I'm very happy to quote him so as to use that eye-catching quality for my own purposes.
Then we have three hook statements, each beginning with 'We all'. The idea here is to do as Chopra does - tie into the intuitions of the reader, make them see themselves as part of a collective with a collective wisdom that Chopra is challenging. Yeah, it's a dirty trick. Deal with it. Sure, I could make a logically sound argument for the cause. Hell, I could do it in logical form with numbered premises if I thought that would work. It wouldn't. Deepak uses rhetoric to keep his message coming. We have to fight fire with fire. So long as we can back up our arguments with critical reasoning, we're ethically in the clear... But I'll grant that it's a dirty, cheap move, and it's morally suspect enough to require an ethical defense to be on-hand and ready.
The hook statements are there to draw the reader in, get them on side and engaged, feeling safe and secure in their communal wisdom. The hooks are followed up with a curiosity prompt. Chopra's view is briefly contrasted against the common wisdom, and then the question is asked: How can we know if this is true? Does this sound too good to be true? The idea is to prompt critical thought and reasoning, after all. We want people to be engaged enough to determine the answers for themselves. It also puts the flyer on a slightly higher footing. The flyer isn't telling anyone what to believe outside of some very common wisdoms that will appeal to everyone. All it does is question Chopra. They establish that it is Chopra that is making the outlandish claim about reality. We should be curious - but we should also be critical.
Finally, the CFI Vancouver logo that I lifted from the original flyer.
The back page to each flyer contains a large, opening sentence that relates directly to the subject on the front. Each one ends with a demand for real answers - real answers in bold. This is the only snark that I permitted myself in the flyers, and it does go against the grain of my earlier reasoning about the best approach. But I think it's just subdued enough that it works. I don't want skepticism to lose its edge altogether, no matter what.
Finally, I copied over the url references from the previous flyer. I messed around with fonts and whitespace a bit to make the flyers easy to read without feeling empty. I'm pleased with the end result.
I have the source document (2007 .docx) available on request if anyone from the Crommunist Manifesto wants to make any alterations to the .pdf.
I hope this humble submission is met with approval. ^_^