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Ever tried debating Deepak Chopra?

Trying to pin down the mystic maestro

Arguments can start in the strangest ways. I made a fairly average joke on twitter. Folowing the announcement of some results from the neutrino detecting experiment called Ice Cube, I responding by saying 'It Was a Good Day', to the mild amusement of about four people. You won't believe what happened next.

The field of epigenetics has been around for decades, it's an important part of an organism’s interaction with its environment: its DNA does not change, but can be modified in response to external cues, with little molecular tags that silence genes, like a dimmer switch. But it's a field and a word that has been bugging me and many geneticists for a while now. Fashion and hype have meant that it's become a buzzwordy field, and perhaps within the scientific world, scrutiny of published results has not been as high as we might wish for.

Moreover, those on the pseudoscience end of the spectrum are magnetically drawn to fashionable fields, in an almost pathological strain of Emperor's New Clothesism. They’ve done it with “quantum” and “neuro” already, as if appending a real scientific term bestows some magical sciencey-ness to whatever it is they’re selling.

In my semi-regular column in the Observer, I attempted to get the balance right between examining a real part of biology, and the hype and quackery that it attracts.

I singled out the great master of pseudoscience Deepak Chopra, a man who attracts money and celebrities, but is broadly dismissed or disparaged by scientists as being beholden to quackery.

His techniques are legion, but exemplify many of those sleights of hand and silver tongues that really grind the gears of scientists.

Saying things that sound eloquent but are vague; misusing real scientific terms (such as the aformentioned “quantum”); obfuscation, and so on.

The vagueness about epigenetics is there in an article on his website, and in plenty of other places, as he and his co-author, Harvard professor Dr Rudy Tanzi prepare to sell their latest book Super Genes.

“You are the user and controller of your genes,” says the blurb, “the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”

I challenged Tanzi on twitter to provide some evidence for their claims and he told me the results were due to be published in a journal soon.

On Monday, the Guardian published an article by Chopra and Tanzi espousing the same vague waffle, which I again criticised on twitter. Tanzi engaged again, and it was civil. Later on Tuesday night, there was the Ice Cube joke, which King’s College physicist and rap fan @RoyaShabanzadeh kindly lol-ed at.

Moments later, Deepak Chopra himself sprung into action, cosmically scything me down to size:

Ouch. Does anyone know the way to the burns unit? The whole exchange was epic, it’s been storified by @jobrodie, and there are some fun things to single out – all directed at me, but publicly so his 2.5 millon followers could see the wit and sophistication of his arguments, many typical of the quackish. Most strikingly there were repeated appeals to authority:

Tanzi is an interesting case, a geneticist who has been working since the very first disease genes were identified in the mid 1980s. His association with Chopra is puzzling, and we will only have to wait to see what their data is actually like. I expressed an anxiety that even the published papers they cite were weak and unconvincing, and Chopra played the double of appeal to authority and the fallacy that publication equates to truth.

Eventually, a fury emerged so alive that Chopra's grammar became bewildering and punctuation idiosyncratic.

This prompted my favourite response, from @pinkprimate:

And following my saying he was incoherent with rage (and having introduced Brian Cox into the exchange, someone whom Chopra appears desperate to get a response from):

Rudy Tanzi was much more polite at least, and has offered to share with me the data prepublication. I await that with interest, but remain skeptical. Yes, the environment changes how your physiology behaves, including how genes are turned on, off, or dimmed. That's how our bodies respond to existence. But why bother dressing up sensible advice on lifestyle as some mystical “science”. In the meantime, I’m writing my book on human genetics, including a chapter on epigenetics. I expect theirs will outsell mine by ten to one. So it goes.

Adam Rutherford is a recovering geneticist, now science writer and broadcaster. He presents BBC Radio 4's Inside Science, and his most recent book, Creation (Viking 2013), concerned the origin of life, genetic engineering and synthetic biology.