Thursday, November 23

Pseudoscience hurts legitimate study


A new trend has developed in the validating of religion ““
pseudoscience, the attempt to veil subjective religious beliefs
with objective scientific theory.

Intelligent design proponents have been filing lawsuits across
the U.S. to get the theory taught in high schools alongside
evolution. In October 2005, a lawsuit was filed against the
University of California, hoping to require the UC to give high
school credit for intelligent design curriculum. The movement was
stopped in its tracks, however, when a Supreme Court case
characterized intelligent design as an attempt to get creationism
into public classrooms .

Science and religion have a rough relationship. They attempt to
answer many of the same questions in different ways. While
empirical science relies on objective data, achieved through
repeated, controlled experiments, most religions focus on a
subjective truth, using such mechanisms as faith.

While scientists incorporated evolution into theories which can
be tested experimentally, intelligent design theorists have
produced no testable hypotheses. Rather than pose a question for
experimentation, the theory argues simply that no theory can
explain biological complexity.

This type of pseudoscience not only misleads people not versed
in scientific theory, but it also undermines the study of
subjective states of consciousness that do have objective,
empirical aspects.

Take meditation, for instance. A study by Richard Davidson, a
neuroscience professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed
that Tibetan Buddhist monks managed to structurally alter their
brain functions.

Davidson’s study showed that while meditating, Tibetan
monks produced gamma waves ““ which represent extremely
focused thought ““ thirty times stronger than a control
patient. Davidson also documented that normally erratic brain waves
became more synchronized during meditation and that the part of the
brain associated with positive emotions was more active.

With this study in mind, organizers for the Society for
Neuroscience’s annual conference invited the Dalai Lama as a
guest speaker. Despite the relevance of Davidson’s study, a
faction of neuroscientists petitioned against the Dalai
Lama’s presence at the conference, arguing that the
high-profile religious leader would allow religious ideas to
overshadow the other more objective and substantive scientific
studies.

In a Wired magazine article, Bai Lu, a researcher at the
National Institutes of Health, said “We don’t want to
mix science and religion in our children’s classrooms, and we
don’t want it at a scientific meeting.”

Attempts like those of intelligent design to commandeer science
to validate inherently unscientific religious principles have
soured scientific interest in subjective experiences.

Those who petitioned against the Dalai Lama’s appearance
focused not on the research, but on other unscientific Tibetan
Buddhist beliefs.

They refused to accept certain subjective experiences produced
through Tibetan Buddhist meditation as scientifically valuable
because of their association with other unscientific aspects of
Buddhism.

When the subjective consciousness has objective, measurable
qualities, it can provide important guides for empirical
experiments. Scientific studies have shown that meditation not only
affects structures in the brain, but mechanisms in the body as
well. A 2000 UCLA study suggested that transcendental meditation
helped reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and death by
reducing the thickness of artery walls.

Understanding how the subjective consciousness interacts with
the physical brain and body requires that scientific communities at
least entertain the intangible, subjective experience.

Maintaining the distinction between objective science and
subjective pseudoscience is a worthy cause to protect the progress
of scientific thought. But rejecting all subjective experiences as
irrelevant merely because they have religious associations may keep
us from finding objective answers to the hardest questions of our
existence, those still buried deep beneath the subjective
consciousness.

E-mail Macdonald at [email protected]

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