8. The fundamentals of a fundamental disagreement

photo of street signs called Faith and ReasonLet’s make a long, long story very, very short. What was going on in the total disconnect between scientific definitions of energy and New Age definitions was not connected to poor scholarship, misunderstandings, lies, duplicity, ignorance, delusions, or fraud. What I had stumbled onto was not just a personality clash between differing viewpoints – no.

This was a complete and fundamental disagreement about how the world worked and why.

In this disagreement, New Age and spiritual communities supported one set of ideas about the spiritual world and supernatural reality – while scientific and skeptical communities supported another set of ideas about the physical world and natural reality. And the twain not only did not meet; they didn’t even live in the same universe. And they certainly didn’t use the same tools of scientific inquiry.

For instance, when many New Age researchers study meditation, they will often test long-time meditators and then release glowing studies about the benefits of meditation (the same is true for prayer). I had always questioned those studies (even though I prayed and meditated) because they didn’t correct for any variables by testing other, non-meditative stillness-inducing activities* such as reading, resting, drawing, daydreaming, or walking in nature.

*One study from 1999 finally tested meditation against knitting and found that both produced similar improvements in heart rates, blood pressure, breathing rates, and subjective reports of relaxation.  I laughed at the time, because if I had been one of the knitting subjects, I would have disproved the benefits by cussing profusely at my needles.  I can’t knit!  However, the study had legs, because in May of 2011, a Google search of “meditation and knitting” returned over 3.5 million results (up from 2 million in August of 2008), including knitting meditation groups, Buddhist knitting groups, Yoga knitting groups with special knitting poses, spiritual knitting groups for men, knitting meditation blogs by the dozens, and numerous books on using knitting, prayer, and meditation together.  Favorite title: Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry.

As I read these New Age-approved studies, I wanted to know – were the reported benefits of meditation linked to stillness, quiet, introspection, or solitude — or to the self-confirming bias that meditation and prayer work because It Is Written that they do? The researchers never seemed to ask those questions. In fact, I hesitate to call them researchers, because they broke a cardinal rule of scientific research. In competent research, you don’t create a protocol to support your pet theory (such as the theory that meditation is beneficial), because then, all you’re doing is confirming your confirmation bias!*

*In a confirmation bias, you selectively and often unconsciously pay attention to facts that support your beliefs, and ignore the ones that don’t. For instance, if you believe that pit bulls are the most dangerous breed of dog, you will remember reports about pit bull attacks, but ignore or downplay information about mellow pit bulls (or attacks by, for instance, golden retrievers). It can be very difficult to rid yourself of a confirmation bias, because you will often have years or decades of carefully gathered data that support it. You will also rely upon another cognitive blunder called motivated reasoning to support your confirmation bias. For instance, if you read about another breed of dog being more vicious than the pit bull, you will scrutinize the data with all of your critical faculties and you will handily prove it wrong, wrong, wrong! No amount of dis-confirming data can stand up to reasoning that is motivated by an unconscious confirmation bias!

No, in proper research, you do everything within your power to weed out any biases or pet theories you might have. In proper research, you do everything you can to prove yourself wrong. You set up a control group that is similar in age and general health to your study subjects, but who do not meditate. You find controls who dislike meditation and do everything to avoid it. You create a control group that sits quietly for the same period of time as the meditators, but doesn’t meditate. And, if you’re interested in other stillness-inducing activities such as the ones I mentioned above, you create control groups for each one.

In competent research, you question your underlying beliefs about energy, healing, and (especially in prayer studies) the existence of God or gods. You leave no stone unturned.

In competent scientific research, you don’t just study meditation because you like it and want to share it with the world. In competent research, you try to prove yourself and your theories wrong in as many different ways as you can. And most importantly, in competent research, when you get to the end of your well-designed study and, for instance, find something special about meditation, you never say that you have proved the benefits of meditation.

No, all you’ve done is to discover that there is something special about meditation given the study you’ve designed. Another researcher could very easily come along and notice aspects that you’ve completely overlooked. This means that your study will stand until someone else (or you, if you’re more devoted to inquiry than you are to your pet theories) can prove it wrong.

If you work hard to create a robust experiment, where you’ve done everything you can to root out your own underlying beliefs, confirmation biases, and motivated reasoning, then you might be lucky enough to create an elegant study that will become deservedly famous.

Elegance — not just for ballrooms any more

One of the most wondrous things I discovered in research is the concept of the elegant study. When a researcher successfully controls for all variables and biases, and does everything he or she possibly can to ask and answer all pertinent questions, and then presents the data in a clear and concise way, the study is deemed elegant. Even if the results of the study are later supplanted by new data, the study will continue to be lauded as an example of excellent scholarship, and it will become one of the esteemed building blocks in that area of science.

As I was trying to organize my thinking about the New Age, I had not yet returned to college, and I didn’t know where to find the truly worthwhile and elegant scientific studies that are, sadly, hidden from the general public (at the time, you could only find them at university libraries, or sometimes at public libraries through online databases such as EBSCOhost or PubMed).

At that time, the studies I could find didn’t even stop to ask why meditators became meditators in the first place! Could it be that people who benefit from meditation (not everyone does) are both high-strung and highly reactive people who respond positively to anything that slows them down – or could they be naturally slow-moving people whose bodies respond powerfully to stillness? I couldn’t find out, because those studies’ authors didn’t challenge their own confirmation biases about the allegedly positive effects of meditation.

In those studies, there was a presupposition that meditation and prayer were valid God-and-cosmos-supported activities. Those studies focused on subjects who already enjoyed meditation or prayer, and then created research protocols to prove their authors’ assumptions and presuppositions.

With those built-in preconceptions and certainties about the existence of metaphysical concepts of gods, energy, and healing, those New Age attempts at science were remarkably (and horrifyingly) similar to the kind of self-affirming science that allows Christian fundamentalists to posit (and vociferously promote) a six-day, biblically-supported creation that occurred just a few thousand years ago.

This kind of science would be amusing if it weren’t being injected into psychology, medicine, and society – or forced into schoolrooms. As a lifelong purveyor and unwitting supporter of this kind of shoddy science, I wondered: What had I done here? Had I helped my readers become more hopeful, yet less functional? Had I helped people to become or remain suggestible and gullible? Had I contributed to the lack of understanding that so endangers our social and political landscape?

I had worked so hard — and for so many decades — in my attempt to correct the many problems I saw in the New Age, but what had I truly done? Had I inadvertently supported ideas about consciousness and enlightenment that, perversely, avoided or even condemned the very questioning and critical thinking that full consciousness and enlightenment demand?

What had I done?

Next post: 9. Unraveling



Filed under Cognitive Biases, Metaphysics, New Age, Skepticism, Sociology

3 responses to “8. The fundamentals of a fundamental disagreement

  1. Pingback: The Reality of Atlantis, part 2 | Missing the Solstice

  2. Frank

    After reading this blog post, the last one, and your Inquirer article, I am struck by your talk about which culture appreciates mystery more; while reading this post the concepts of divergence and convergence (as creative thinking models define them* came to mind. It seems to me, that to do proper science, to create an elegant study, you need both. You generate hypotheses and often inventive ways to test them properly (divergence). But you also do a lot of work to weed out biases, selecting the appropiate methods and falsifying hypotheses (could say that’s convergence).

    The interesting thing about the new age community, is I think they focus a lot on divergence: the generation of ideas (all the cures and concepts you’ve mentioned) and much less on weeding out the bad ones (convergence)**.

    To me it seems that this should be a match made in heaven. Scientists specialize in weeding out bad ideas, but might be more conservative in the generation of ideas (working often from an established framework or discipline; often iterating on existing theories as that’s a good method of generating testable hypothesis), and the new agers specialize in generating ideas. As you’ve shown (thanks, awesome concept) some of those ideas like auras could have logical explanations. I would love it if people well versed in ‘new age’ concepts would partner up with scientists to really test their beliefs; but if I were a scientist I would definitely look to new age as a potent source of hypothesis to test.

    You’ve said new age culture has no tolerance for mystery, contrary to the skeptics. I think both cultures might have a different association with mystery. Mystery in new age is more of a “divergent” one: being open to formulating lots of different ideas as to the nature of reality, but not being open to the insecurity that comes with not knowing if these ideas are a proper answer to anything. Mystery in skepticism is less one of openness to formulating lots of different ideas (ideas perhaps, but often ones closer to established/scientific frames of reference) but much more to not knowing. As someone raised by new age parents, what I disliked about the skeptic community was not so much their vocabulary, but what seemed to be an automatic (and to me unscientific) disavowel of anything out of the ordinary (except within astronomy), as demonstrated by the large number of atheists (which confounds me; agnosticism seems to be the more scientific route to go) and the hostile approach to new age theories (argumentative; working to disavow and discredit them instead of structuring them so they become testable). Though as a teen my first encounter with skepticism was that one of the more prominent dutch ones found humour in the death of the great philosopher Ivan Illich when he had cancer, which he refused to treat.

    So yeah, that as a bit of an underedited brain dump triggered by your posts. Maybe not useful to anyone, but maybe it’s an interesting way to look at it.

    To leave with a question, you’ve said:
    “When I understood fully that, no matter how good my intentions, the mere mention of things like auras, chakras, and “energy” brought with them a host of truly unsafe and untested assumptions”

    I wonder what you meant by that? Not the untested assumptions bit; I get that one, and an untested assumption could automatically be a dangerous one. But I wonder about the truly unsafe ones, and if you could mention a few; since to me the chakras are an interesting metaphor to structure my thinking about psychology.

    * http://collaborativetransformation.ca/wp-content/themes/striking/cache/images/876_DivergeConverge-e1342532518195-628×250.png
    ** I know firsthand the harm that comes from it, not intending to be apologetic

    • Hello Frank. There have been some good studies of paranormal skills and they generally come up with interesting alternative explanations. A number of the books I list on the Cool Resources page cover them. At this point, most mainstream researchers really aren’t focusing on them because the questions have already been asked and answered, to a certain extent. A very good book is Bruce Hood’s Supersense, coupled with Don Cupitt’s After God. I like the way that both explain perception and language and their effect on cognition. They’re very good reads.

      I agree about the skeptical approach and the lack of tolerance for mystery. I moved away from the skeptical community pretty quickly and became a researcher, which is where my real interests are. I’m really not interested in certainty any longer, and I’m very happy to be unable to explain things! There are certainly things we can explain and understand, but there are also real head scratchers.

      The idea of chakras themselves isn’t dangerous, but the entire atmosphere around these idea tends to be sketchy, and filled with superstitious ideas about health, and especially mental health. But chakras can be a very interesting metaphor for different aspects of the self. They’re actually pretty fascinating.

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