Friday, October 04, 2019

The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 3: Journals are the product of editors and reviewers

Read this series from the beginning.

Read the previous installment of this series (Part 2).

Recent issue of International 
Journal of Neuroscience
November 2019
Many people are easily impressed by what look like big numbers, and the organizations that offer Transcendental Meditation (TM), including the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), often use numbers in a bid to establish scientific legitimacy among non-scientists and the general public. Here’s a particular paragraph that is part of the preface to one bibliography of research on TM, produced by a TM affiliated doctor in the UK:

Scientific research on the Transcendental Meditation technique comprises more than 600 studies conducted at over 250 independent universities and research institutions in 33 countries...  These studies have demonstrated a wide range of benefits for mind, body, behavior, and society... and have appeared in many leading, peer-reviewed journals.

As I explained earlier, this frequently mentioned number of “600 studies” gets significantly reduced in practice, and that’s because, in my opinion, it includes a few hundred studies performed at TM institutions, including Maharishi University of Management, that were never published anywhere other than their own, seven-and-soon-to-be-eight volume, “Collected Papers” series. It’s also interesting to note, that at the inauguration of the so-called “Age of Enlightenment” in 1975, forty-four years ago, it was already claimed that 300 studies were performed at 200 universities.

Today, the list of studies on the website only includes studies that were published in books, journals or other scientific publications. When that list is pared down to include only original research and not other articles, only 123 studies remain, and they say they were “published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals.” Only 21 of those studies were authored entirely by people with no connection to TM movement institutions.

When the list of publications in which those 123 studies appear is analyzed, a pattern emerges: ten of those studies appeared in a single journal, eight of them over a ten year period. Another seven of those studies appeared in a single issue of another journal. Four journals each published four of these articles, and one of those journals published four articles in a single issue.

Given that there are so many journals in which researchers could publish their findings, the question arises: why is it that there are these clusters of TM research papers in a few journals? 

Here I’m going to focus on four journals, that accounted for 23 of the studies reporting on original research, on the bibliography that appears on the website. That’s over 18% of the entries included there. The journals and the abbreviations for them I’m using here:

  • International Journal of Neuroscience (IJN) in which 8 papers from this list appeared from 1980 through 1989, and then two others in 1997 and 2006. Nine of these ten were authored by individuals with TM institutional connections, seven of them exclusively so.
  • Journal of Social Behavior and Personality (JSBP) in which 7 papers from this list appeared in a single 2005 issue that was also later offered as a book. All the authors across all the papers therein, and all the editors, were connected with the TM movement. This guest edited special issue was published after the JSBP had ceased regular publication. Over half of the reviewers could be connected with TM institutions, and others clearly had a past history indicating sympathy with TM or had participated, with TM meditators, in performing research. This issue was later offered as a book, titled “Applications of Maharishi Vedic Science,” containing over two dozen papers.
  • The Permanente Journal (TPJ) in which 4 papers from this list appeared from 2014 through 2018. All four were authored by individuals with TM institutional connections. An associate editor of this journal is a TM meditator and Maharishi Ayur-Veda practitioner who, in another article, editorialized in this journal in support of TM and related products, exclusively citing research performed by TM affiliated individuals. His co-authored book promoting TM and ayurveda has been published by the affliated Permanente Press. He's also on the research staff of Maharishi University of Management.
  • Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (ATQ) in which 4 papers from this list appeared in a single issue in 1994. Three of these four were authored by individuals with TM institutional connections, two of them exclusively so. This was a guest edited special issue, and both editors were connected with TM. This special issue was later offered as a book, titled “Self-Recovery: Treating Addictions Using Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Ayur-Veda.”

International Journal of Neuroscience:  "It's hard to find the reviewers you want."

The IJN, in my view, is of particular interest when considering how TM research was published, particularly during the 1980’s, but not only because of the unusual volume of TM related papers that appeared in its pages. The IJN’s then-editor-in-chief, Sidney Weinstein, once gave a glowing endorsement of the research on TM performed by researchers connected with TM institutions including MIU/MUM, and that is still frequently quoted in TM promotional materials today, including at the David Lynch Foundation’s website:

“Over the past 10 years the editors and reviewers of the International Journal of Neuroscience have accepted several papers on Transcendental Meditation because they have met the rigorous standards of scientific publication.”

If Weinstein was dating those ten years from when his journal first accepted a TM related paper, that would place his statement at having been made around 1990, so this is in no way a new or recent endorsement. Weinstein died in 2010, having been editor-in-chief of the IJR for over thirty-five years, starting in 1975.

A cluster of 8 TM-related research papers appeared in this journal between 1980 and 1989, and then two others afterward, according to the research list on the website. Other TM related research papers were also published in this journal. According to another TM research bibliography (Chalmers, 21 September 2017), seventeen TM papers were published in this journal, with twelve from 1980 to 1990, and five afterward, starting in 1996. I’ve noticed a pattern here. Coincidentally, around the time that Weinstein likely gave his endorsement, did something happen around 1990 that might have had some effect on the volume and frequency of TM papers published in his journal?

As it turns out, there were two controversies, starting in 1989, which may have had an effect on the IJN’s editorial and review policies and procedures. The first of these concerned an alleged cure for epilepsy, published by the IJN in early 1989, reported on later that year in Science and summarized in an American Library Association newsletter as follows:

... the September 29th issue of SCIENCE reports on a "cure" for epilepsy published in Gordon and Breach's INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE. The article in question, written by two Greek researchers, is blasted by American scientists, including two who are members of IJN's advisory board. Lloyd Kaufman [a member of the IJN’s own advisory board] is quoted in the SCIENCE article as saying, "It's the worst thing I have seen in a scientific journal." The complaints come because the researchers did not describe adequately their "device," did no follow up, used no controls, and on "maps" of electro-magnetic impulses, provided no scales on before and after scans. One of IJN's reviewers, according to its editor Sidney Weinstein, believed the finding was worth a Nobel prize. He does admit, however, that with the number of issues produced each year, "It's hard to find the reviewers you want."

The Science article puts forward many of the same issues that I am raising generally, with respect to the research offered in support of Transcendental Meditation. The insistence that journals, editors and reviewers are unlikely to be wrong and that quality and accuracy of journal articles is a given - as I earlier explained, the sort of argument put forward by TM researchers like David Orme-Johnson, and that I’ve seen in recent days from meditators and former MUM students in online comments to the previous two parts of this series - is called into question by this one paragraph in the Science report:

This remarkable claim [of an epilepsy cure by way of an electronic device] - and the decision by a peer-reviewed journal to publish it - raise several troubling questions about the role that such journals, their editors, and reviewers play in establishing scientific truths. Who is responsible for controlling the quality of articles? Should standards be relaxed for laboratories outside the wealthy industrial nations? What are the dangers of lowering standards? How representative is this case of the selection process at other journals? It is apparent from the wide range of opinion Science encountered among those who know of the epilepsy "cure" article that on these issues there is no consensus.

The theme of “lowering standards” for various, sometimes vague, reasons is a common thread here across at least two of these journals I’m focusing on. One TM related paper in particular, published in the IJN in 1983, I think is of particular concern, titled “Intersubject Eeg Coherence: Is Consciousness a Field?” While it’s evidently placed on lists of research like this one on the TM website as support for the alleged individual benefits provided by TM - reduction of “stress,” resulting health benefits, and so forth - this sort of research is of an entirely different nature. This study attempts to prove one of the points of Vedic/Hindu fundamentalist doctrine, recast into scientific-sounding secular language: that the source of human consciousness is some “unbounded” field that is common to all physical existence. Attempting to show brainwave “coherence” between research subjects separated at a distance, and that they are affected by a distant group of people practicing a mental technique - “2500 students [participating] in the TM-Sidhi program at a course over 1000 miles away” - is an attempt to refute all known laws of physics and biology, in a futile attempt to validate a point of religious dogma.  

This nonsense - at least, that’s what it is from any authentically scientific viewpoint - has been a core feature of the TM movement’s academic efforts for decades. In my view, the sole reason Maharishi University of Management has existed, beyond seeking legitimacy and institutional support for Transcendental Meditation worldwide, is to endlessly work on this task of creating the illusion of scientific validation of this so-called field of “pure consciousness,” “unbounded awareness,” or the resulting “Maharishi Effect,” in which the environment and society are calmed and made more orderly by the existence of people with allegedly “coherent” brain activity brought about through the practice of Transcendental Meditation.

The existence of this paper or anything like it in the pages of this journal should have raised an alarm back in the early 1980’s, but I suppose that having one’s own university, populated with a number of educated professionals from Harvard and other brand-name schools, churning out piles of “research” in service to a religious, and ultimately political, agenda, provides a veneer of legitimacy that may make it easy for some to disregard the obvious. The unfamiliarity of Vedic/Hindu principles and other such concepts from Eastern religions on the part of many people at the time may also have played a role in the decision to publish such a study.

The second controversy involved a Russian scientist whose cause was that of good old fashioned, and familiar to Americans, Christian creationism. The paper that was published in the IJN in 1990 has a long and technical title, but the last few words of it should have been taken as evidence of some other agenda at work: “a New Criticism to a Modern Molecular-Genetic Concept of Biological Evolution.” The blatant deficiencies if not outright fraudulent nature of this paper went unnoticed for a few years, perhaps because this molecular biology paper was published in a neuroscience journal. But in 1993, when its author, Russian biochemist Dmitrii Kuznetsov, was about to arrive in Sweden for a lecture tour promoted by Swedish creationists, a creationist handed Swedish medical genetics professor Dan Larhammar a copy of Kunetsov’s IJN article. Larhammar’s critique was  published in the IJN the following yearA less technical version was published in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine  and Creation/Evolution Journal, where he wrote, and I’ve bolded one important point that shows that someone seriously dropped the ball when reviewing and editing this paper:

I am aware of only a single report in modern times in an established scientific journal that has claimed molecular data argue against evolution… [Kuznetsov’s] article apparently went unnoticed by scholars for a long time because this type of work is not within the regular scope of that journal; Dr. Kuznetsov's star has risen in creationist circles, meanwhile, because he holds an acknowledged doctorate and was winner of a Lenin Prize in the old Soviet Union, making his intellectual embrace of "scientific" creationism particularly dramatic to Western creationists. I was recently made aware of Kuznetsov's article by a Swedish creationist.

The experimental approach used by Kuznetsov is extraordinary and obscure (for technical details see my 1994 critique). None of his experiments were documented qualitatively; the report contains only tables and numbers, and the numerical results indicate experimental precision that is beyond normal accuracy for such assays. This could indicate that some of the results were fabricated.

One of the procedures that Kuznetsov used was ... cited as a technique published by researchers in "Uppsala University Research Reports" in 1974; this is the university where I work, and no such journal has been heard of here, and no persons with the names he cites could be traced. Other important aspects of his methodology were referenced to four other scientific journals. None of these journals could be found… Finally, an article ascribed to Holger Hyden, a member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Neuroscience, is unknown to professor Hyden himself (personal communication). The Scandinavian journal where the article was said by Kuznetsov to have been published does not exist. The purported article, as well as several others in the list of references, had illogical titles with grammatical errors. Taken together, this strongly suggests that many of the references were fabricated by Kuznetsov.

In conclusion, Kuznetsov's obscure experimental approach, qualitatively undocumented results and incomplete evaluation undermine all his conclusions. All key methodological references seem to be non-existent. Thus, Kuznetsov's critique of evolution has no scientific basis whatever. That his antievolutionary article was simply a bad joke is unlikely, because he does indeed include it in his list of scientific publications, and creationists at the ICR (and worldwide) take his work seriously.

There’s much more detail about Kuznetsov’s relationship with the IJN in two articles published in 2002 in the magazine published by The Italian Committee for the Control of Claims on Pseudosciences (in Italian: Il Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sulle Pseudoscienze (CICAP)), Science & Paranormal (Scienza & Paranormale). Both articles were written and translated by Gian Marco Rinaldi, mathematician, writer, and consultant to CICAP.  

The first article is a biography of Kuznetsov (original in Italian), including his relationship with various creationist organizations, including as adjunct professor at the Institute of Creation Research. The second article (original in Italian) is a complete dossier of Kuznetsov’s alleged scientific fraud over the course of at least eleven years. The first part of this second article concerns Kuznetsov’s relationship with IJR and Sidney Weinstein, where additional details are revealed.

Out of 65 references in Kuznetsov’s IJN paper that launched this controversy, “it can be concluded that, for the most part, the publications listed in the bibliography do not exist.” Rinaldi, in his 2012 English translation, revisited the question, using modern online databases, and states “that out of 65 references, I have found only 6 which surely do exist.” 

Even more disturbing is that Kuznetsov successfully had a total of 9 papers published in the IJN, the sixth of which was this paper which came to be examined and exposed as scientifically fraudulent. The relationship between Kuznetsov and Weinstein began with correspondence between them when Kuznetsov was in Russia, which resulted in Weinstein inviting him to visit his Connecticut lab, where he ended up staying in his house for seven weeks. Eventually Weinstein was so impressed by him, that he appointed him to the Editor’s Board of the journal. Rinaldi quotes from a letter from Weinstein:

As for how such nonsense got through the reviewing process of the IJN, I must sadly tell you that we have had two other instances of plagiarism during the decades of my tenure as Editor-in-Chief on the journal. (...) In my more than fifty years of experience in science I have learned that we are not entirely immune from such sociopathy. We must therefore continue to be vigilant, and I am grateful to Professor Larhammar for discovering this fraud and exposing it. Kuznetsov had been very highly recommended by professors in the USA, who were quite familiar with his former, presumably valid, scientific work and publications, and he was therefore appointed to the board. Our policy has been to allow board members to secure only one other reviewer in addition to themselves, to review any paper they submit. Apparently, Kuznetsov either found one of his nonscientist "creationist" colleagues, unknown to us, or merely avoided getting another reviewer. He was dismissed immediately from the IJN as soon as we learned of his malfeasance.

Rinaldi goes on to point out the obvious, that Kuznetsov was very skilled at gaining the trust and confidence of others, even while everything about him was completely fabricated. The weakness in science, as I see it, is that scientists may often be uniquely unprepared to be approached by people with nefarious intent, who see the scientific system as an object to be bent and harnessed for their own purposes.

How could the young Kuznetsov, just over thirty years of age, lacking an academic position and without a prestigious career, deserve to be appointed to the Editorial Board? Now Weinstein, as we have seen, justifies himself by saying that certain American professors, whom he does not name, had spoken so well of his work as a toxicologist. This may be true. Perhaps one should also consider the possibility that Weinstein, to some extent, had been the victim of what seems to be an outstanding talent of Kuznetsov: his captivating ability to gain the confidence of other persons.

The newsletter of the National Committee of Australian Skeptics also published an excerpt of a letter from Weinstein, emphasizing that he and his journal did not support creationism or similar, irrational beliefs.

I am aware of Dr Kouznetsov’s unfortunate belief in the “miraculous” creation of the universe. He is technically correct in saying that “miracles cannot be explained by science”. How can they, since by definition “miracles”, not rationally based can only be “explained” by legend and poetry, but surely not rationally. Naturally, I share your realization that this miracular dogma is absurd.

Unfortunately, the Creation Science Foundation has apparently misappropriated the good name of IJN by attempting to insinuate a nonexistent affiliation between us and religion. Therefore, I will caution him that such an implied association is inappropriate. Although he has the right to preach his religion I also hope that the efforts of the creation “science” people to proselytize by implying authorisation of a scientific journal is challenged by scientists’ awareness of its devious intent. I urge you to make our position clear: Neither this editor nor this journal supports irrational beliefs.

I believe that all of this should be viewed with a somewhat cynical eye. Though it may not have been clearly obvious to Weinstein, his editors, or his reviewers in 1983, Kuznetsov’s paper would not have been the only attempt to systematically use his journal to promote irrational, religious beliefs under the guise of scientific research. The entire basis of TM’s global aspirations to create “world peace” or “heaven on earth” rest on an idea with no rational basis, that originated in a religion: that action at a distance, measurable by monitoring brain activity, supposedly caused by mere thoughts, is not just a research hypothesis but is an absolutist, divinely delivered truth in the ideological system in which those researchers are working. Scientific and medical journals are one part of the process that they seek to use to legitimize that and similar ideas, sometimes by very indirect means, in those fields and eventually throughout all aspects of all societies.

Journals are the product of editors and reviewers, who are human, fallible, and who can be influenced by the usual methods just like anyone else may be, and given the conventions of science and the rarity of this kind of scientific fraud, many are often not as skeptical of new and novel scientific claims and lines of research as they should be. Egregious cases such as this story of Dmitry Kuznetsov’s manipulation of the IJN, unquestionably demonstrate those weaknesses. Other more subtle, though similar means may have been used to gain access to scientific and medical institutions and publications for the purpose of, what I would call, falsely promoting the underlying, unsupportable, religious belief system behind TM by harnessing the legitimacy of those institutions and publications for their own purposes, under questionable pretenses.

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