Thursday, October 20, 2005

Are Studies of Meditation Junk Science?

Wonkette blogged a recent New York Times story about the controversy surrounding plans for the Dalai Lama to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on the topic of generating compassion through meditation.

Apparently, 544 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture, because, according to the petition, "it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity."

Later in the article: "As the public face of neuroscience, we have a responsibility to at least see that research is replicated before it is promoted and highlighted," said Dr. Nancy Hayes, a neurobiologist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey who objects to the Dalai Lama's speaking. "If we don't do that, we may as well be the Flat Earth Society."

The article goes on to suggest that some recent studies support the topic on which the Dalai Lama plans to speak, while also noting that other scientists believe the research is flawed and should not be considered valid. I've read some of these studies, and while they do have flaws, they also present compelling evidence that research in this area should be encouraged rather than dismissed as "woo woo."

Wonkette, being a good liberal blog, sided with science on this issue. The entry's author, Michael Weiss, implicitly suggests that the studies in question are no more valid than "intelligent design" and should be accorded just as little respect. Kudos to the post, however, or I might have missed the Times story entirely.

The Real Issue

The truth of the situation, once all the trivialities are dropped is that science fears further encroachment into its domain by religion. With the intelligent design trial still underway in Pennsylvania, science feels assaulted by religion. Being scientists, and therefore unable to acknowledge anything other than physical reality, they have a turf to protect. In many cases, they are right to do so.

However, there is a difference here. ID, and its shadow, creationism, do not hold themselves up to scientific testing. They demand faith without evidence. There can be no "truth test" to disprove their beliefs.

Those who would promote Buddhist meditation are more than willing to conduct studies, test hypotheses, and then refine the studies to get more accurate results, good or bad. Whether or not meditation practice can increase compassion over time can be tested. Perhaps the tests that have been conducted so far were not solidly deigned, but that doesn't mean they cannot be refined.

Science must learn to use its own logic to form partnerships with those who would test the veracity of claims by spiritual practitioners. Otherwise it will be at war with all religions.

We are evolving as a species. With that evolution will come the reintegration of spirit and matter (the current separation is really only perceptual, not actual). Science can be on the leading of the research in this area, or it can put its head in the sand and refuse to move forward.

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