Chopra’s Argument From Authority

Deepak Chopra has been in a bit of a row with Jerry Coyne and, predictably, has been making highly illogical arguments. Coyne has rightly bashed him for pseudo-scientific blathering and Chopra has fallen back on a blatant argument from authority.

I regularly write articles and books co-authored by full professors, researchers and scientists at Harvard Medical School, Mount Sinai Medical School – New York, Duke, and Chapman University.

As a member of the American College of Physicians, I am board certified and maintain licenses in Massachusetts and California. I am annually invited to give a keynote address at the Update in Internal Medicine Conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School, Department of Continuing Education and the Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center since 1997. I also serve as a Senior Scientist and Advisor at The Gallup Organization, Adjunct Professor of Executive Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Adjunct Professor at Columbia School of Business.

Steven Salzberg points out the obvious:


When I was in the 10th grade I wrote a paper for an English class about Oedipus Rex. The teacher had lectured about how the whole point of the story was hubris, but I disagreed and wrote a paper arguing that the point was the primacy of fate. I got the paper back and on the top of the page it said “Good content, persuasively argued, C-.” When I asked her why I got a C- on a paper she admits is very well written, she told me it’s because I was wrong about the relative importance of hubris and fate to the story. And she actually pulled out the teacher’s companion to the book and pointed out that it was written by a professor from Harvard and that he says I’m wrong, so I’m wrong. I asked her how she would decide who was correct if a professor from Yale said the opposite, but I might as well have been speaking to a turnip. This is really a pathetic argument.

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  • Michael Heath

    I watched a YouTube panel a couple of days ago where Chopra tried the same fallacy and more. Sam Harris had a devastating response. I especially liked how Harris revealed Chopra’s claims violate the entire nature of the scientific method. Obviously Harris’ take-down didn’t persuade Chopra to adopt integrity given his ongoing failure.

    IIRC it was this one:

  • davem

    How come Chopra does all that stuff? Surely those organisations would see through him, and not touch him with a bargepole?

  • pacal

    Actually the idea that Oedipus Rex is about hubris comes from a misreading / mistranslation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle discusses Oedipus Rex and supposidly talks about the “tragic” Hero and his “tragic flaw”. Only the text of the Poetics really doesn’t talk about a “tragic flaw”. Aristotle did not accept the idea of the “tragic” hero destroyed by his “tragic flaw”. That is a modern idea anachronistically projected back to the Ancient Greeks.

    In fact any reading of Oedipus Rex reveals quite clearly that Oedipus’ fate is decreed before he was even born. He is destroyed by fate not by any “tragic flaw”. In fact even before the play begins he has committed the terrible acts which damn him, all that is left is discovering that he has done so.

    This idea that that Oedipus had a “tragic flaw” which destroys him is a rather common one in academia, although much less common among Classicalists. It is still wrong. Although it is amusing to read what is considered the “tragic flaw”. Generally it is some version of pride / hubris. My favorite is the notion that Oedipus’ relentless dedication to finding the truth is a sort of arrogance that destroys him. Aside from ignoring that Oedipus has already done the deeds, this ignores that Oedipus has no real choice. The Gods are afflicting Thebes with plague and disaster until the person who committed these terrible deeds is found out and punished.

    So Ed you were absolutely right and your teacher – well – simply wrong.

  • sunsangnim

    I really hate it when teachers can’t admit when they’re wrong. When a student points out one of my mistakes, what else can I do? Teenagers can smell bullshit from adults a mile away. If a student has a valid argument and I’m wrong, I admit my mistake, make the correction, and we move on. Unfortunately, it happens too often for me.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I was just about to say what pacal said in comment #3. I would also add that these misreadings of “hubris” and “hamartia” are likely due to Christian influence. I think the pagans had a more sophisticated view.

    Tragedy is bad things happening to good people who don’t deserve it for good reasons. If the hero deserves it, it would just be retribution, and if the reasons were not justified, it would be brutality. Consider Antigone: Creon’s duties as head of state are just as important as Antigone’s duties to her brother. If Creon is a monster, there is no tragedy, just brutality.

    And Ed, why did your teacher bother assigning a paper if she wanted exactly one answer? Isn’t the purpose of a paper to see if a student can interpret and argue about a subject?

  • peterh


    I would view that as, in the long run, fortunate for both yourself and your students.

  • stever

    > Francisco Bacopa:

    > And Ed, why did your teacher bother assigning a paper if she wanted exactly one answer? Isn’t the purpose of > a paper to see if a student can interpret and argue about a subject?

    But the student is supposed to get The Right Answer, and the only Right Answer is the one in the book. I wonder if that teacher was also notebook-happy. My middle-school years were bedeviled by a succession of teachers who would spend most of the class period filling the chalkboards with an outline of the textbook. Your grade depended largely on how pretty a copy you made. Some of them specified what color and even what brand of spiral notebook you had to use. Failing to turn in a complete copy, free of private abbreviations and references to material from the outside world, was a guaranteed flunk, leading to a summer-school sentence.

  • observer

    There is no “whole point” to Oedipus. That’s not how art functions.

  • The idea of Oedipus’s hubris never sat with me. It just didn’t feel like it denounced him for it. Now I know a bit more.

  • otrame

    I must have been lucky. I remember once in a huge class of required American History, the professor handed out the old “about a million people ” as the estimated population of Native Americans in North America north of Mexico at the time of Columbus. I was sitting on an aisle about half way up in the 400-person classroom. When he said that, I made a face and shook my head, because the semester before I had learned that that was incorrect. By chance he happened to see me and stopped and said, “You disagree?”

    I was utterly mortified, of course. When I could stammer it out, I explained that modern (this was in the late 1980s) conservative estimates were were closer to 10 million and that one guy thought it was closer to 18 million. The professor said, “Okay, can you get me copies of the papers that say that?” Then he said, “Jesus that makes it even worse” (i.e., the death toll from European epidemic disease). I said, “Yes.” He went on with his lecture. The next class I brought him a couple of papers. He thanked me, and I heard that he taught the higher number after that.

    But then, you see, he was a historian.

  • My son, a junior, is struggling with an English teacher like that. You have to write her paper, not yours. Her argument from authority is “I’m a published author.”

  • You should read the sequel. It’s about a movie critic who pans a movie about a guy who has sex with his mother. Oedipus Rex Reed.

    Oedipus Rex Murphy’s pretty good, too, if a little Canadian.

  • maxwell64

    Arguments like that with arrogant school teachers are legion. In eight grade, I corrected my English teacher who gave us a vocab list with the word “rodent” on it. I had to inform him that “ants” and “cockroaches” were not rodents, as he had listed along with “rats” and “mice.” He said they were, and that “rodent” was a synonym for “household pest.” I’ve never seen that anywhere else, but it was certainly a learning experience concerning student-teacher relationships. And he was one of the better ones, too! My wife and I are debating how to instruct my soon-to-be gradeschool son with the inevitable.

  • abb3w

    …he’s with Gallup? Surely Chopra couldn’t have been single-handedly behind the deterioration in their polling from their historical gold-standard quality levels?

  • jd142

    I always thought Oedipus’s problem was anger and lack of self-control. If he hadn’t gotten ticked off at that old guy at the cross roads and lost control, he would never have killed the old man. Who just happened to be his father. I suppose you can call that pride because he wouldn’t give way and thought he was more important than a king.

    But if he had just counted to ten first, the whole thing would never have happened. Of course, that’s not the point of the story at all. 🙂

  • Al Dente

    Modusoperandi @12

    There’s also PDQ Bach’s cantata Oedipus Tex, about Ed Tex, his wife/mother Billy Jocasta, and the happenings in Thebes Gulch, Texas.

  • postwaste

    I had a history teacher my sophomore year in high school who said Japan was the most populous nation, it was pretty obvious she merely misstated it. A classmate asked her if she meant China. The teacher asked what nation she said, when the classmate said Japan. My teacher said if she said it was Japan it was Japan . The question “What is the most populous nation on earth?” Was on every test afterward. Any answer other than Japan was counted wrong.

  • whheydt

    I rather like Tom Lehrer’s version of Oedipus Rex….

  • Francisco Bacopa

    if a teacher wants a “right” answer make it a short answer question on a test: “According to class discussion what was the downfall of Oedipus?” There is a correct answer. Hubris.

    When a teacher assigns a paper there should be no real right answer, though there could be some wrong answers. A paper should get a high grade if it shows a personal engagement with the topic. That’s what papers are for. and since there are plenty of research papers online that’s what college professors are looking for.

    Assignments these days are “Can you think of a case where you succeeded or failed to apply the four Kantian duties we discussed in class? Failure might be more interesting than success.” Or this: “Did you ever override the morals you were taught and justify that by a utilitarian principle? Were you right t do so? Or did you fail horribly according to utilitarianism?”

    This is the kind of shit Phil Profs eat up these days. They know that research papers are fake as shit.

  • I had a classmate ask me what I had gotten for a grade on a test given by a puffed-up dick (failed PhD candidate) of an English teacher. I told him that it was an “A”. He said, “Shit, I got a ‘D’, what did you do?”. I asked him how many bluebooks he’d filled up with his answers. He said, “One, and part of a second. Why do you ask?”. I said, “Three is the magic number, my man. Fill up three of them with (Palinesque word salad) drivel and you’ll get an ‘A'”. I was correct.

    “But then, you see, he was a historian.”

    YOU had Ray Barton in school? lucky, lucky ducky!!

    ““Did you ever override the morals you were taught and justify that by a utilitarian principle? Were you right t do so? Or did you fail horribly according to utilitarianism?””

    Excuse me, sir; do you mean ASIDE from the authorship of this paper?

  • Donnie

    I was a disaster in high school. My senior year, I decided to take AP classes in order to stay with my friends. I was a C-barely student. In one year, I learned more English than 11 previous years. My English teacher saw my difficulty, but also knew that I was trying my hardest. I consistently had the “wrong answer” to essays on poetry, short stories, and the such. However, like Ed, I always backed up my interpretation of the subject with specific lines and quotes. Thus, I pulled out As and Bs in the class. Not because I was “right” but because I could logically argue and support my case. I hated her, and the class because she was hard. However, she knew how to teach. One of the good teachers to have.