Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Anatomy of a Comment Thread, part 1

(First of a few parts.)

Since I think we're approaching another round of mentions of Transcendental Meditation online - and, a likely presence of TM supporters in comment threads following those mentions - I thought I'd resurrect, for preparation, examination and commentary, a comment thread from a while back, in which I engaged in some verbal repartee with those supporters.

This thread, from examiner.com about two years ago, followed an interview with a Tucson TM teacher regarding the introduction of the Transcendental Meditation program into schools there. As it turns out, the interview subject was no random TM teacher, but the co-author of The TM Book, from about thirty-five years ago, which was handed out free to new TM meditators around that time.

It's important to keep in mind that there's an organized group of TM bloggers who actively work to add their comments on such threads, to counter and displace critics and others who disagree with the TM movement's "party line" as presented by themselves and the David Lynch Foundation.



There are a few obvious things in this thread, which ran over several days. One, the TM supporters who show up in these online exchanges are almost always self-admitted members of a certain demographic, of a group that started TM back in the early 1970's when TM was briefly popular, up through the very early 1980's, and are very often current, active teachers of TM. Two, many of the claims made by TM supporters are interchangeable and are frequently, repetitively seen in such comment threads. Three, attacks made on TM critics, often personal in nature, are likewise interchangeable and are also frequently, repetitively seen in such comment threads. Four, there appeared to be a few instances of sockpuppetry, where individuals who claimed to not be meditators, or connected with the program, but who were almost over-the-top in their backing of TM supporters and their claims, were present; I believe these personalities were actually creations by these or other TM supporters. (You are welcome to prove me wrong about this last point.)

As for my responses, I also went into some detail about my past personal history with TM and with TM criticism, and discussed some of my motivations for presenting my views about the practice, and the organization, online.

I've edited the flow of the comments so that my replies are matched up with those of the individuals to whom I replied. Links to each original comment, and to the sources to which I'm referring, have been added; comments that were not part of an exchange with me were omitted.

The original article, and the start of the comment thread, begin here. My comments to add clarity and minor corrections are [in brackets].


Mike Doughney:

Hi Wayne [the author of the article],

I was kind of hoping you'd be able to track down someone other than a TM organization rep to talk about whatever was going down in Tuscon. I've heard very little about these school programs other than the publicity generated by the TMO; next to nothing from the school districts, administrators or teachers themselves.

As usual, if this is such a big deal - to listen to the TMO, you'd think TM was as safe, effective, studied and accepted as aspirin - I'd expect to hear an enormous chorus of support for these programs from the school end, not just a few hand-picked talking heads. We're forty or fifty years into watching this dog-and-pony show, and I still haven't found a real dog and pony in there somewhere.

It's also worth pointing out that Denise, the Maharishi University faculty member who you talked with, is also known as Denise Denniston, the co-author of "The TM Book" which dates back to [1975]. Are there any young people promoting TM today?

I also find it interesting that in an informal conversation with a longtime TM teacher the list of benefits from TM magically inflates. Here, "sleep apnea" somehow got added to the list of things fixed by TM. There is, of course, no scientific research to support this, and as far as I know even the organization doesn't claim this. Besides, a (proven safe and effective) CPAP machine is quite a bit cheaper than TM initiation.

Likewise, I can't find a source for this alleged study involving the University of Connecticut on meditating students. Sounds like a poster presented at a convention, which is about as preliminary and non-authoritative as anything gets in science. Again, after over forty years, including a period where TM was popular among students who could have been studied (and in some cases in fact were), why is this all you can come up with when talking to a reporter and presumably putting your best stuff forward?
Golden Choir Boy:

It's hysterical, archaic, witch-hunt mentality to bash TM as "goddess worship" or "pseudoscience," not to mention absurd & hilarious. The "Pall" post was obviously written by one of those fanatical anti-TM activists who, few in number, are very vocal & spread misinformation simply because they believe that TM threatens their belief system. But they misunderstand TM...

Mike Doughney:

Er, "Choir Boy," I can't speak for Tom [Pall, a previous commenter] but I don't think TM is all that much of a threat. But there is the principle of separation of church and state and how that applies to public schools, certainly here in this country, and I think that should be defended.

One of my favorite recent TM videos can be found at maharishichannel.in, in the archive, dated 9 April of this year. This is video produced by the TMO on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti, celebrated in India to commemorate the birth of Hanuman, the monkey god. Now TM devotees like Denise above will quibble over whether what they're doing is "Hindu" or "Vedic" in nature, but pretty much everything in that video is clearly religious in nature, and the TM organization's attempt to cast these things as somehow "scientific" is simply laughable.

I encourage people curious about TM to download and view this video. I think there's a clear truth in labeling sort of issue here.

Don Klapp:

@Mike Dough-nut:

If TM is as ineffectual as you would have us believe, then why are you so obsessed with opposing it? Don't you have anything better to do? If TM was really no good, then it would go away of its own accord, but after 50 years it is still going strong. I suspect you have some personal grudge against TM, or you are one of those people who always has to find something external to blame for your problems. I suggest you find a life for yourself beyond your obsessive opposition to meditation.

Mike Doughney:

Don: I think the ineffectualness of TM is already well known. Almost a million people were instructed in TM in the U.S. during the 1970's, and as many former TM teachers will admit, most gave it up after a short time. I was initiated on the last day of 1977 - and within a few years many local centers closed and TM pretty much went into hiding, where it's stayed except for an odd bit of news now and then.

Perhaps I'll address the perennial points you and others raise against critics at length at the TM-Free Blog. But I hold no personal grudge about this. As I've done with numerous other subjects, not just TM, this is a matter of getting independent information about TM out there, as I have for over 15 years, in the face of the TMO's inability to accurately describe what it's offering (many other products, mostly quackery with zero scientific backing) and what its goals are, which generally involve growing and sustaining what's at its core is a particular Hindu/Vedic sect.

Paul Stokstad:

Anyone who really understands Indian culture would know that there IS NO RELIGION in India. India just doesn't fit nicely into the nice Western categories of religious versus non religious. Religion is for people who are seeking God. That's not what India is about. It's about enlightenment, full realization of the individual. And if you are fully enlightened and God happens to show up, so much the better. Even what we call Hindu "gods" are really just representations of principles in nature. It's comforting to have a physical representation or embodiment of the principle, but these representations are as if analogies to explain the whole thing to the unsophisticated, or to children.
Mike Doughney:

Hi Paul (who's yet another operator of a TM center) [and Director of Marketing for Maharishi University of Management],

You say, "what we call Hindu "gods" are really just representations of principles in nature." Sorry, but I think the odds of avoiding outright laughter at that one are pretty small. Despite the obvious differences between Hindu/Vedic practice and thought and what we're used to calling "religion" here in the West, there is nothing to support this semantic substitution that the TM organization has been attempting for the last few decades. It quacks like a duck, it's still a duck. Or should I say, if it's flying like that monkey god I pointed everyone to [up]thread, it's still a monkey god.

Personification of aspects of nature is one of the things religion does - not science - and you agree that's what the TM organization is doing. Then, why maintain that what the TMO is doing is not a religion? What purpose does that serve, except perhaps permanent cognitive dissonance?
SteadyEddie:

I think this is a beautiful program. All the costs covered by scholarships from the TM group and that movie star foundation. Most schools would jump at the chance to have a program already researched that shows it helps kids to learn, increases IQ and calms them down. Its voluntary, the principal, the parents and students all give consent. In a country full of violence, drug use and young adults that can't name George Bush's vice president or the capital of Brazil, this program is a breathe of fresh air. Forget your petty philosophical objections to a 10 minute ceremony of incense and flowers. I've seen stranger ceremonies at frat houses, military schools and football parties. It works and the school wants it. So back off and let em be.
Mike Doughney:

Anybody here from Tuscon? Anybody? Anybody?

Or even Arizona, for that matter.

I see Cedar Rapids is in the house!

How 'bout Fairfield?

As I already reported elsewhere, a team of TM teachers has been tasked with getting on threads like these and spouting all the usual TM marketing soundbites that I've heard for decades:

tmfree.blogspot.com/2009/07/welcome-to-world-of-tm-blogging.html

Looks like they're hard at work, capitalizing on the fear and loathing of the "blackboard jungle" to push TM into schools.

As for Eddie, yes, I think separation of church and state is not a "petty philosophical objection" to religious supremacy and control of the state, whether that proposed interference be Christian or Vedic in nature. You wanna market TM, perhaps you should pick on some rubes more your own size, and not school kids.

Ondine Constable: 

Hi, I don't live in Tucson but your conversation came up in my Google alert. I practice Transcendental Meditation (TM) and am interested in getting accurate info out in the public because it has benefited me so much.

Firstly, the reference to improving sleep apnea was in answer to the interviewer's question about anecdotal experiences reported by the school teachers who learned TM. She wasn't claiming scientific data.

Secondly, the church and state issue is a political philosophy aimed at preventing the government from imposing a state religion and protecting personal freedom to practice a religion. TM doesn't require any religious observance or beliefs. The students, parents and teachers have the option to learn TM. There is no tax payer money used to support the program.
Mike Doughney:

My misspelling of Tucson was unintentionally ironic; I'm on the opposite coast.

A little Googling places previous commenter Ondine Constable in Asheville, NC, quoted on the website of the TM center there, the same one run by Tom Ball who has a starring role in my piece about TM teachers attempting to flood comment threads like this one.

Two Asheville TM websites appear on her Blogger profile.

Even her non-TM blog [since deleted?] features Nancy Lonsdorf and Maharishi Ayurveda, another set of products sold by the same syndicate that sells TM.

It's obvious to me that most if not all commenters praising TM on these threads have a close relationship with the organization that sells it. For an outfit that's supposedly healthy, growing and has initiated what must be more than a million North Americans into its flagship program over the past few decades - what happened to all those people?

It looks like most of them quit, and now they're down to recruiting schoolchildren to stay alive.
Kim Sinton:

I am delighted to see Transcendental Meditation going into schools. I was diagnosed as being hyperactive as a child and was given Transcendental Meditation instead of drugs like Ritalin. It worked, it worked, I was able to focus, and by age 22 I was president and part owner of a software company.

There should not be any worry that TM is a religion. It's not and was never intended to be. To say so would be like saying Karate is a religion!?

TM is a relaxation technique that reduces stress and improves your daily functioning. TM is not part of Hinduism, most Hindu's don't even know what Transcendental Meditation is! TM requires no belief system, and many Christians actually have reported that it helped them stay rested and make better decisions.

I am spending the time to write this because I don't want to see something that could help the worlds youth get over looked. Transcendental Meditation helped me to stay off ADHD drugs, and so I want to spread the word.
Gerard Owmby:

So what's wrong with a benevolent religion, anyway? Is it dangerous just because it might be different from yours? Are you afraid it will be apposed to the Christianity that fuels wars in our present day religious wars? TM hasn't done any harm to anyone, no matter what it is called. If your religion doesn't give you the experience of God, or for that matter doesn't give you the ability to think, abandon your religion. Taking a vitamin for a few days doesn't help anyone, and neither does practicing TM for a few days or weeks. After fifty years of growth, many of those who practice the TM technique are having experiences of God in their meditation. It's their direct experience and no one can argue with it.

Mike Doughney:

I step away from this thing for an evening, and even more of the TM astroturfing tag-team shows up. A little Googling, and:

"Kim Sinton 1995 graduating class of Maharishi High School" and also completed courses at Maharishi University. [His] resume appears on the site of a web consulting firm in... you guessed it... Fairfield, Iowa, US headquarters of the TM organization. [He] might not be a teacher of TM, but [he] can sure drop soundbites like one.

Gerard Owmby: Another recertified teacher of TM, holds another one of those MERU PhD degrees in "World Peace" from the desk in the TM movement's hotel in Switzerland, you already know the drill... and learned TM in March, 1969. Now lives in Tennessee.

Anybody willing to post here who learned TM after 1980, who isn't obviously second generation like Kim? Anybody?

Anybody in Tucson? Arizona? Anybody?

*crickets*

Gerard Owmby:

I did not say TM was a religion; I implied that there would be no harm if it were a religion since it helps so many people. Religions require belief; TM does not. LIke any other technique, it works even if you believe it won't. Religious leaders have no reason to decry it, since people of all religions practice it without changing their religion. I know many who have not. So far as "forcing beliefs on public school children" goes, as the article clearly states, their quiet time involves other options, some reading, some praying. The children cannot learn the technique without choosing to do so, and the parents must approve. It cannot be otherwise. If schools can teach a technique for speed reading to improve grades, there is no reason not to teach a technique for creating brain wave coherence to improve grades. If eating spinach improves health enough to provide a spiritual experience, there is no reason why mental techniques should not be used for the same purpose.

Mike Doughney:

Gerard says, "Religions require belief; TM does not." I disagree; again, this is a (re)definition of the word "religion" that serves the goals of those who promote TM. In fact, other traditions, like that which TM comes from, require *practice* and not necessarily belief.

The whole point of the Vedic sect that sells TM and over fifty other products is to get people to practice certain things that they believe are described in the Vedas, and thus bring about "Satya Yuga," the "Heaven on Earth" utopia sort of outcome which a number of diverse religions hold is the result of mass adherence to their traditions. In this case, no belief is required - but (among many other things) they want everyone to live in cities and buildings built like Vedic temples to bring this about.

TM is just the first of many practices that are obviously Vedic in nature that the TM organization sells today. The problem is their unwillingness to properly label these products for what they are.

--------------------

To further document what I wrote in my last comment - that the whole point of the TM organization is the creation of "Heaven on Earth" by getting the masses to buy their Vedic-based products - I encourage you to visit the TM category at Wikileaks, at wikileaks.org/wiki/Category:Transcendental_Meditation and download the "Governors Resolution 18 April 2005" where this paragraph describes what the whole point of being a "Recertified Governor" (teacher of TM, in the toy-government language of the TMO) is:

"Having undergone this recertification program I will take all these steps so that... my city will welcome the descent of Heaven on Earth — the descent of Satya Yuga saying bye-bye to Kali Yuga."

That doesn't sound very scientific to me. If anything, it sounds like the kind of thing the members of a run-of-the-mill Millenarian cult would be saying.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millenarianism

Allen Crandell:

To Mike Doughney: I have practiced the TM technique for many years. Having learned it and benefited from it, I might be more qualified to say what it is than you. Over 600 scientific studies, most published in peer-review journals, verify the good results of the practice of TM. Those are independent studies. The MERU Ph.D. is an award from Maharishi to those who studied with him for over forty years. No one with a Ph.D. in physics and no one who has won the Nobel Peace Prize has that kind of knowledge. It's a changing world we live in now, and some people resist new things they don't understand. The troubled children who are now practicing TM in the schools are being transformed into ideal students -- that's inarguable. You are fighting it with prejudice and ignorance.

Mike Doughney:

Allen: I was initiated into TM on December 31, 1977 and practiced it fairly regularly for about ten years. I stopped when I realized it was providing me no particular benefit at all - like most people who learned TM at some point and then stopped.

So if the MERU PhD is just an award from the TM movement for one thing or another, I've got two of those "Maharishi Awards" with my name on them, one of them even has a big gold seal and a blue ribbon on it. Just a piece of paper with a lot of words on it, not recognized by anybody outside the movement as having any meaning or conferring any particular status - just like that MERU PhD.

Your claim to special knowledge about the universe just because you've been around some guy claiming authority from an ancient holy book sure sounds like the kind of thing a religion would claim. It's laughable to try to put that kind of thing in scientific terms, or that that experience is more important than a PhD in physics.

------------------

Allen says: "Over 600 scientific studies..."

Tom Ball in his "30 Blogging Tips" for TM bloggers says: "...it may be better not to proclaim “there are over 600 scientific research studies,” because not all of the 600-and-some studies were published in peer-reviewed journals — it’s indefensible to say that all 600 reflect the highest caliber of research."

So the backpedaling has begun!

Meanwhile, there is no significant research supporting any benefit of putting TM into schools. A survey of ten middle-school students who learned TM in a highly charged environment with admins, teachers, a number of researchers and the financier of the study all being meditators doesn't count for anything.

Even internally, TM teachers know the studies are deficient but that's OK to them, since they still attract the media. From Wikileaks: "Sarina’s (recent ADHD) research study only had 10 subjects, yet garnered lots of press."

In the field of science, 600 studies on one subject is nothing.
Beli Rubb:

I don't do TM, but since reading about it, I'm going to learn it and have my children learn it, especially after reading this article. What a shame the closed-minded, right-wing Christian fanatics like Mike Doughney are so bent on destruction. Like his psychotic friends on Fox news, they'll never get it.
Mike Doughney:

It's always fascinating to watch the supporters of TM go into fits of rage against critics like me, after awhile they start spewing the same outrageous falsehoods I've heard for decades.

Like this one: "the closed-minded, right-wing Christian fanatics like Mike Doughney"

I am not a Christian, and a brief Googling of my name would reveal that I've actively worked against (in physical space, not just online) those same people you might call "right-wing Christian fanatics."

I work with the documented facts, you call me ignorant.

I show you I'm not a Christian fanatic, and inevitably someone shows up and again insists... that I'm a Christian fanatic.

I generally don't agree with Christian critiques of TM either.

"Beli Rubb" claims not to practice TM, but I'm sure in a few years, if he follows through on his alleged intention, he'll fit in quite well with the rest of you.

(to be continued)

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