“It’s certainly not bareknuckle:” Comments to a journalist about a critique of mindfulness research

We can’t assume authors of mindfulness studies are striving to do the best possible science, including being prepared for the possibility of being proven incorrect by their results.

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I recently had a Skype interview with science journalist Peter Hess concerning an article in Psychological Science.

Peter was exceptionally prepared, had a definite point of view, but was open to what I said. In the end seem to be persuaded by me on a number of points.  The resulting article in Inverse  faithfully conveyed my perspective and juxtaposed quotes from me with those from an author of the Psych Science piece in a kind of debate.

My point of view

larger dogWhen evaluating an article about mindfulness in a peer-reviewed journal, we need to take into account that authors may not necessarily be striving to do the best science, but to maximally benefit their particular brand of mindfulness, their products, or the settings in which they operate. Many studies of mindfulness are a little more than infomercials, weak research intended only to get mindfulness promoters’ advertisement of themselves into print or to allow the labeling of claims as “peer-reviewed”. Caveat Lector.

We cannot assume authors of mindfulness studies are striving to do the best possible science, including being prepared for the possibility of being proven incorrect by their results. Rather they may be simply try to get the strongest possible claims through peer review, ignoring best research practices and best publication practices.

Psychologists Express Growing Concern With Mindfulness Meditation

“It’s not bare-knuckle, that’s for sure.”

There was much from the author of the Psych Science article with which  I would agree:

“In my opinion, there are far too many organizations, companies, and therapists moving forward with the implementation of ‘mindfulness-based’ treatments, apps, et cetera before the research can actually tell us whether it actually works, and what the risk-reward ratio is,” corresponding author and University of Melbourne research fellow Nicholas Van Dam, Ph.D. tells Inverse.

Bravo! And

“People are spending a lot of money and time learning to meditate, listening to guest speakers about corporate integration of mindfulness, and watching TED talks about how mindfulness is going to supercharge their brain and help them live longer. Best case scenario, some of the advertising is true. Worst case scenario: very little to none of the advertising is true and people may actually get hurt (e.g., experience serious adverse effects).”

But there were some statements that renewed the discomfort and disappointment I experienced when I read the original article in Psychological Science:

 “I think the biggest concern among my co-authors and I is that people will give up on mindfulness and/or meditation because they try it and it doesn’t work as promised,” says Van Dam.

“There may really be something to mindfulness, but it will be hard for us to find out if everyone gives up before we’ve even started to explore its best potential uses.”

So, how long before we “give up” on thousands of studies pouring out of an industry? In the meantime, should consumers act on what seem to be extravagant claims?

The Inverse article segued into some quotes from me after delivering another statement from the author which I could agree:

The authors of the study make their attitudes clear when it comes to the current state of the mindfulness industry: “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed,” they write. And while this comes off as unequivocal, some think they don’t go far enough in calling out specific instances of quackery.

“It’s not bare-knuckle, that’s for sure. I’m sure it got watered down in the review process,” James Coyne, Ph.D., an outspoken psychologist who’s extensively criticized the mindfulness industry, tells Inverse.

Coyne agrees with the conceptual issues outlined in the paper, specifically the fact that many mindfulness therapies are based on science that doesn’t really prove their efficacy, as well as the fact that researchers with copyrights on mindfulness therapies have financial conflicts of interest that could influence their research. But he thinks the authors are too concerned with tone policing.

“I do appreciate that they acknowledged other views, but they kept out anybody who would have challenged their perspective,” he says.

Regarding Coyne’s criticism about calling out individuals, Van Dam says the authors avoided doing that so as not to alienate people and stifle dialogue.

“I honestly don’t think that my providing a list of ‘quacks’ would stop people from listening to them,” says Van Dam. “Moreover, I suspect my doing so would damage the possibility of having a real conversation with them and the people that have been charmed by them.” If you need any evidence of this, look at David “Avocado” Wolfe, whose notoriety as a quack seems to make him even more popular as a victim of “the establishment.” So yes, this paper may not go so far as some would like, but it is a first step toward drawing attention to the often flawed science underlying mindfulness therapies.

To whom is the dialogue directed about unwarranted claims from the mindfulness industry?

As one of the authors of an article claiming to be an authoritative review from a group of psychologists with diverse expertise, Van Dam says he is speaking to consumers. Why won’t he and his co-authors provide citations and name names so that readers can evaluate for themselves what they are being told? Is the risk of reputational damage and embarrassment to the psychologists so great as to cause Van Dam to protect them versus protecting consumers from the exaggerated and even fraudulent claims of psychologists hawking their products branded as ‘peer-reviewed psychological and brain science’.

I use the term ‘quack’ sparingly outside of discussing unproven and unlikely-to-be-proven products supposed to promote physical health and well-being or to prevent or cure disease and distress.

I think Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer deserves the term “quack” for her selling of expensive trips to spas in Mexico to women with advanced cancer so that they can change their mind set to reverse the course of their disease. Strong evidence, please! Given that this self-proclaimed mother of mindfulness gets her claims promoted through the Association for Psychological Science website, I think it particularly appropriate for Van Dam and his coauthors to name her in their publication in an APS journal. Were they censored or only censoring themselves?

Let’s put aside psychologists who can be readily named as quacks. How about Van Dam and co-authors naming names of psychologists claiming to alter the brains and immune systems of cancer patients with mindfulness practices so that they improve their physical health and fight cancer, not just cope better with a life-altering disease?

I simply don’t buy Van Dam’s suggestion that to name names promotes quackery any more than I believe exposing anti-vaxxers promotes the anti-vaccine cause.

Is Van Dam only engaged in a polite discussion with fellow psychologists that needs to be strictly tone-policed to avoid offense or is he trying to reach, educate, and protect consumers as citizen scientists looking after their health and well-being? Maybe that is where we parted ways.