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Medical Scientists Bridle at Lecture Plan for Dalai Lama [NY Times]

  1. Oct 20, 2005 #1

    hypnagogue

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    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/19/national/19meditate.html?incamp=article_popular
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 21, 2005 #2

    DocToxyn

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    I say, let the man talk! I would certainly attend the presentation, if I were going to the meeting, and view it against the same criteria for sound scientific process that I view all such issues. It is a very interesting topic and is sure to spark some good debate. As the article states, this is a new area of research and one can't expect it to be perfected before one starts sharing the obervations with the neuroscience community as a whole.

    I admit I dabble in Eastern philosophy and mediation on occasion and it does strike certain cords that rail against my science training. It's similar to the dogma of animals not being capable of complex emotion/human behaviors and the anaethema of anthropomorphizing animal behavior if one is doing such research.
     
  4. Oct 21, 2005 #3

    Moonbear

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    Now I somewhat wish I was going to the conference (I decided not to attend this year since I'll already be attending a pre-conference workshop that will probably leave me burnt out for the rest of the week). I agree with DocToxyn, let him speak, and the audience can judge for themselves whether there is scientific merit. If there isn't, they can challenge him directly. It would be pretty boring to attend a conference where only the old tried-and-true research was presented; the whole point is to learn about new things that are not as proven and that are open areas to investigate.
     
  5. Oct 22, 2005 #4
    I must admit to a sense of sadness that scientists are, once again, behaving so unscientifically. Based on the linked article (which of course is incomplete) it seems the only 'valid' objection is that the research carried out so far is inconclusive.
    Wow! That has to be headline news.
    "Research generates more questions than it answers."
    "Research does not provide all the answers."
    "Preliminary research leaves room for improvement in methodology."
    And on this basis 544 scientists take off their lab coats and don their petty primate minds long enough to bring into disrepute the very science they claim to be protecting. Yes, I am definitely saddened.
     
  6. Oct 22, 2005 #5

    Moonbear

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    When you consider that this conference usually has attendance of over 20,000 scientists, that you can find 544 of them (about 2%) that have a knee-jerk reaction like this is not overly surprising...there are bad scientists out there too who may have a political agenda other than science in mind. I think we need to keep in focus that the fact that the Dalai Lama was invited to speak, and that means that the scientists most held in esteem by our society who have been elected as officers and to the programming committee do think this subject has merit, whether because it opens up some interesting questions that do remain inconclusive and warrant further study, or because a high profile speaker will raise public awareness of the society and neuroscience research in general. That 2% of the membership is too short-sighted to appreciate this does not overly concern me, nor does it surprise me.
     
  7. Oct 22, 2005 #6

    PerennialII

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    Yes, more than anything feel envious towards the lucky ones able to attend and listen to the lecture. In addition to being a huge awareness & relations boost think many of the attending scientists will gain a lot from the lecture themselves, as such the event in the end turning out as a "big plus" for the society.
     
  8. Oct 23, 2005 #7
    Ah. That sounds much better. I did not appreciate the size of this conference (I'm a simple geologist by training and an engineer by profession). Your clarification certainly puts this in perspective.
     
  9. Oct 23, 2005 #8

    Moonbear

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    Yes, it's a shame the news story didn't point that out as well, as they give the impression of much more controversy than there really is. I'd also be curious to know if those petitioning against it are even attending the conference. There are of course far more members of the society than actually attend the conference every year.
     
  10. Oct 24, 2005 #9
    Against Dalai Lama's Lecture at SfN2005 Petition

    It’s good to know that the Society for Neuroscience is against entertaining any serious investigation into reincarnation. Like they say, this is the wrong forum for the Dali Lama to present his views.
     
  11. Oct 24, 2005 #10

    Moonbear

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    The topic he is presenting is not reincarnation, it is meditation. Those who are opposed and claiming his conclusions are incorrect are not offering any counter-evidence to refute this. I saw no studies cited to refute the claims. Thus, while the topic is controversial, there is nothing wrong with presenting to a group of scientists a topic that is open for debate; indeed, it makes for much more interesting discussion than the majority of presentations at the conference which too often include work that has already been published sometime between the April abstract submission and the late October/early November meeting. I got fed up last year with attending talks that presented NO new data, only findings from already published studies. The entire purpose of a scientific conference is to share new ideas and raise awareness of areas that remain unstudied, and to present the newest data that may still be in preliminary form. If you want to get information on fully completed experiments that are totally uncontroversial, you can read old journal articles. I want to know what the latest, cutting edge news is, the stuff that scientists know is preliminary and conclusions are tentative, because that's the exciting part of science, the discovery side.

    Having read the full petition, it is even more clear now that this is entirely politically or religiously motivated, and has nothing to do with the actual topic of the talk. If the talk does turn out to be a bunch of nonsense, do you want to know the easiest way to tell? There will be no questions. If there is no scientific merit to the presentation, the scientists will grow bored and restless and walk out. If there is an inkling of a good idea, even if the first studies are flawed, as they often are when beginning investigation into something totally new (it's difficult to control for all the variables when you're still trying to identify those variables; initial studies are typically observational, not experimental), there will be a flurry of discussion and debate, and you'll hear murmurings and discussion all throughout the meeting. If someone wants to challenge the current studies and thinks they are poorly designed or flawed, they most certainly should design a better study and justify their claims with data and evidence, not just baseless assumptions, or else they are not being scientific in their approach. Starting out with a closed mind on a topic is a poor way to approach science. Would they be able to conduct any less flawed of a study if their initial bias is so strong against a neural effect of meditation? There are a lot of people in the world who practice meditation and claim it helps them remain more relaxed or positive; isn't it worth finding out if those claims have any basis?
     
  12. Oct 24, 2005 #11
    Yes, I know the topic has to do with meditation, but I was expressing a point of view that has to do with a whole other level of influences, namely that much of eastern meditation makes references to such things as prana and charkas, and mentions the separation of mind and body. To be honest I’m neutral to whether meditation has positive effects or not, that’s not what I or the scientist petitioning this are opposed to. The Dalai lama is a very well known religious figure, and the message this sends to the public may be one that says neuroscience favors a particular brand of religion. This can only undermine the integrity of the organization.
     
  13. Oct 24, 2005 #12

    Moonbear

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    And wouldn't prohibiting his lecture also say our opinion is prejudiced by the religious affiliation of the person speaking? If I give a talk at the meeting, is the society saying they favor atheism? If what he has to say is relevant to neuroscience, then his religious affiliation should not be of significance. Perhaps they should just attend his talk and see what he has to say before judging it? If he is talking about meditation and its influence on the brain, without regard to the religious reasons for the practice of meditation (one can meditate without believing in religion, but simply as a way of calming their thoughts), then there is no reason it would not be acceptable. I didn't hear of anyone protesting when Christopher Reeves spoke a few years ago even though he is no scientist either; it was simply a "pep rally" of sorts promoting the need for more spinal cord/spinal injury research. I wouldn't expect much different of this talk by the Dalai Lama, except the topic would be meditation and the need to address mind and brain issues, very much as this forum here was started to address the converging disciplines of biology, philosophy and psychology, the field of neuroscience as a whole is recognizing this direction as a very open area of inquiry.

    The way I predict the lecture will go is that the Dalai Lama will issue the challenge, and it will be up to the scientists to meet the challenge of finding ways to study these mind/brain issues.

    Also, note that the lecture topic is listed under the category of "Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society." It is not billed as a "pure science" talk. Here's the SFN website with the list of featured lectures, including the description of the one by the Dalai Lama. http://web.sfn.org/am2005/index.cfm?pagename=featured_lectures
     
  14. Oct 25, 2005 #13
    Apart from being a religious figure he is also a political figure, I’m not sure his intentions are solely the interests of science, but his own religious/political agendas.

    What if we viewed science as a whole, as an individual person, with the scientific method being way of looking at the world? Wouldn’t it already seem to be very much an atheist? So I wouldn’t say they favor atheism, rather that science in itself as it pushes the boundaries of knowledge, strips away all religious beliefs.

    While spinal cord injury is an important area of research to promote, the claims made for meditation at the moment seem to be largely unsubstantiated. The Dalai Lama’s presentation would go a long way to promote research into meditation, however it would be better to promote another field of research with a more valued and serious goal.
     
  15. Oct 25, 2005 #14

    hypnagogue

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    What unsubstantiated claims do you mean, and who is making these claims?

    Who decides what is to be valued? And what is a 'serious' goal?
     
  16. Oct 26, 2005 #15
    From the link I gave above and stated in the link Moonbear gave:

    Why the SfN of course.
     
  17. Oct 26, 2005 #16

    Moonbear

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    But here you're confusing scientific method/science with the people who do the science. Scientific method should not include any "beliefs," whether they be for or against the existence of one thing or another. One has to accept whatever the data tell you. It is just as bad to assume something does not happen as it is to assume it does happen. Since it is impossible to completely remove human bias, the next best thing is to have dissent among the scientists, so that both sides challenge the ideas from two different perspectives, until balance is found.

    Actually, I heard a lot of criticism of Chris Reeve's talk, mainly because the scientists viewed it as "preaching to the choir." There was nothing new, exciting, controversial, or challenging about being told we need more spinal cord research. Of course, it wasn't that long ago that much of what we now know about spinal nerve regeneration was thought to be unsubstantiated nonsense. Had nobody dared to put forward the incredible claim that nerves could regenerate, we wouldn't know very much of what we do know now.

    If meditation can have an influence (positive OR negative) on brain structure and function, why would that not be important to study given the large percentage of the population that engages in some form of meditation? What if some methods are harmful? We don't even know that much. Just because the Dalai Lama is likely to present an argument that there are positive effects of meditation, it doesn't mean that's the only possibility. Many people who don't believe in meditation probably take the stance that "well, it doesn't hurt," but if it can lead to actual physical changes in the brain, then what if it can hurt if not done right?

    If something has an impact on human physiology and/or health, why is that not a valued and serious goal? It seems you may be injecting some of your own bias against meditation into this argument. Too often people want scientists to all focus on curing diseases, no matter how rare, and ignore the work that may help simply promote health, or add to our understanding of what is normal and healthy.

    Keep in mind, this audience will be packed full of scientists. This isn't going to be a case of someone preaching to the believers, but more of someone who will need to provide a convincing argument to a lot of non-believers and skeptics. If everything he speaks of is complete nonsense, this is the audience to challenge it. I would challenge those 500 or so people signing the petition to attend the talk and raise their criticisms there, for the whole audience to hear, with all the claims on the table, rather than trying to censor the talk without ever hearing what there is to say. They could be wrong, and if they aren't open to the possibility of being wrong, then they don't belong in science.
     
  18. Oct 26, 2005 #17
    Okay, it’s unclear what benefits meditation has on its subjects, for instance, from reading the Dalai Lama’s statement, I gather he’s saying significant neurological changes occurs over months or years. But from my own personal opinion, I would say that meditation is similar to a hypnotic state, or moving through different brain frequencies. Something very different from producing significant permanent neurological changes.

    But then, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published on the subject of meditation.

    But once again, meditation is not the real issue here, his presence alone suggests an endorsement by the SfN of a particular brand of religion and worse helps him promote his crazy beliefs associated with the separation of mind and body.
     
  19. Oct 27, 2005 #18

    hypnagogue

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    I hope you appreciate the circularity of that response. You argue that the Dalai Lama's presentation will promote meditation research, but that research should be focused on 'valued and serious' goals. But if the SfN (and in general, researching neuroscientists as a whole) is what decides what is a valued and serious goal, and if these scientists would take up the task of researching meditation further, then by your own criterion meditation research would be validated as a 'valued and serious' goal.
     
  20. Oct 27, 2005 #19

    hypnagogue

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    Moonbear has already explained why this view is nonsensical. In this situation, it doesn't matter what the man's beliefs are; all that matters is what he claims in his prospective talk. When Reeves gave his talk, did that constitute a tacit SfN endorsement of Superman movies, or horseback riding, or whatever? I realize that analogy is a stretch, but hopefully it goes a ways towards illustrating what is wrong with your objection.

    More generally, if scientist X gives a talk and X is religious, does the fact that X is allowed to speak constitute an endorsement of X's religion? Of course it is the case that the Dalai Lama's belief systems will be more conspicuous than some random scientist, but that should not be held against him. The basic idea is the same, and the standards should be the same.
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2005
  21. Oct 27, 2005 #20
    This is why it’s so controversial. The Dalai Lama is a spiritual man, which means at the end of the day he’s going to be preaching his beliefs about reincarnation, body and mind separation and whatever else is part of his religion. (Not part of his lecture hopefully, but then again he might choose to do so) It matters very much what his beliefs are, for if you haven’t noticed this is neuroscience, and you could say that he has his own ideas about “mind” that don’t necessarily fall into this particular field of science, which means he really has no interest in science, especially neuroscience.

    Similarly, do you suppose it would be appropriate if the SfN invited Pope Benedict XVI to give a talk about the positive power of prayer? How praying daily produces significant changes in ones compassionate behavior and love for all? Hypothetically, say such a situation occurred, would the Pope be contributing to science valuable research to do with the neurological changes induced by praying, or would he be encouraging people to pray more? You might say the Pope is contributing to science, but at the same time encouraging people to still pray which in effect dose absolutely nothing in the whole scheme of things, but then you might say it has the same effect as meditating, and thus considered valuable research, but at the end of the day he’s still going to be preaching the wrong things about mind, brain and philosophy.
     
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