Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Science vs. Spooks

Skepticism, scientific research and the Nostradamus effect
[revised 8.10.11]

In certain quarters here, in New Age California, it is believed that the uniquely western contribution to "spiritual" efforts will be the application of the scientific method to the eandeavor. Perhaps this is just another chapter of the age-old science vs. religion debate, or even a new path to understanding. But I would like to examine a shadier side of this undertaking, the bias of those who sponsor the research: who's buying and why, and what does any of this have to do with science? I call it “Science vs. Spooks and the Nostradamus Effect.”

In the mid to late 70's, there were a few straightforward attempts by serious practitioners to use standard tests, psychological and psysiological, to measure the effects of meditation. A second wave of this type of objective investigation was to apply standard psychological instruments to measure changes in persons who did some workshop or training -- were the “benefits” real change that lasted, or just a kind of workshop high?

And it was not long before the producers of the various trainings and workshops saw that positive results would be a great marketing tool. These were people connected to the world of psychology, some professionals and some who had transformative experiences, and they wanted to present them to a larger audience. Of course it takes money to support these projects.

I worked on staff at two human potential companies, Landmark Education and the Hoffman Institute, when “scientific” studies undertaken. I participated in the creation and execution of one.

This was the scenario: The company found money, just as drug companies do when testing a new product. Then in the case I know best, a PhD psychologist on staff shopped around university graduate psychology departments for grant-hungry professors willing to design and execute a study. The instruments of measurement, assessment of the results were negotiated. The size of the sample and a time table were set. A fee was paid. There was also a promise to have the results, if they are positive, published in a professional peer-reviewed journal.

Though the usual requirements to insure that the results are impartial and not stacked were in place, there are three areas where, in my view, the participation of the company skewed the “scientific investigation.”

The researchers were charged to look for the positive psychological results and determine if they were lasting. As a 'graduate' of the course I was one of several people who pre-tested the instrument that the researchers designed. Then, through the in-house psychologist, there were 'adjustments' in what was measured with an eye to the marketing.

The testing began. At some point, perhaps three months into the process, the researchers began to worry that the sample would not be large enough to support “significant results,” and staff members began telephoning participants, using a carefully designed script to encourage them to complete the questionnaires. Though I was not asked to make any calls, I overheard them, and to be totally honest, I did not detect any kind of coercion other than to complete and return the questionnaire. But there were also a series of support' calls to graduates at specific intervals, so the plea to return the evaluation was not extraordinary. Now if I got a support call, reinforcing my positive experience, and then, a few weeks later, another making sure I completed a questionnaire for the study, well, you get the picture.

Though this kind of action might be ethical -- falling within the conditions of impartiality -- it seems to me that if I did not feel strongly enough to send my report back to the researchers, my lack of enthusiasm indicated something.
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And the final, and most flagrant area of manipulation was in publication of the results. It bordered on out-right deception. Although the researchers themselves were to write up the final results submitted to professional journals, perhaps even a presentation at some conference (I left the company before it was complete), there were interim reports: "After six months, participants report more confident and loving conversations with their spouses and children." This assessment of initial data was written by the in-house psychologist to “report” the results of the study to graduates. But when the president of the company read the report, he claimed that this was just too much scientific “jargon.” In my view it was not the overwhelming positive result he thought he’d paid for. I actually stood around his desk with a group of staff as he reworked every sentence, striking any word or phrase that seemed too guarded, asking us as witnesses, "I think that this (his punched-up phrase) says the same thing, doesn't it?" When I asked the in-house psychologist himself about the revisions, he was non-committal, "I suppose that could be said about X," and turned the conversation to the cost of his new home in the foothills.

There is nothing criminal or even terribly important in this manipulation of scientific inquiry--drug companies do it all the time and we pay for it when you factor in the cost of their malpractice insurance. And what has this to do with our friend Nostradamus, a 17th century French seer and astrologer whose puzzling riddles have a cult-like following? In 1654 he wrote: "In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb. ... The third big war will begin when the big city is burning." Well, obviously he predicted the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.




Did that phrase about the two giants collapsing really 'foretell' the attack on the World Trade Center towers? I bet we could find a rich paranormal enthusiast to fund a study that proves--beyond a shadow of a doubt--that a certain percentage of the American public, after hearing those sentences read to them in a carefully scripted phone survey, believe that Nostradamus really predicted 9/11.

This is one way to defend against the terror of the unpredictable. I choose to remain skeptical.