The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 4: When "peer review" becomes "meditator review"

Read this series from the beginning.

Read the previous installment of this series (Part 3).

Cover of the final volume of the
Journal of Social Behavior and Personality.
Does this look like a legitimate, independent scientific journal to you?

As I’ve discussed in earlier parts of this series, the organizations that offer Transcendental Meditation (TM), including the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), have long claimed scientific legitimacy and validity for all the claims they regularly make for TM on the basis of scientific research. They imply that the fact that this research has “appeared in many leading, peer-reviewed journals” is as good as a formal stamp of approval, for the accuracy and legitimacy of everything they say in support of TM.

But what do they really mean when they use the phrase, “peer-review?” Earlier, I quoted David Orme-Johnson, the retired psychology department chairman at the TM movement’s university, Maharishi University of Management (MUM), who is currently a promoter of TM by way of his “Truth About TM” website:

Moreover, one purpose of the peer-reviewed process is to screen out studies that may have been biased by the orientation of the investigators. The numerous published studies on the Transcendental Meditation program have met the high standards of peer-review.

In the course of sorting through many of the research papers often cited on lists of TM research that appear on the website and elsewhere, I came upon an important detail, in a paper written by David Orme-Johnson and two other Maharishi University of Management staffers. This is in the context of a critique of two National Research Council (NRC) reviews of the research on meditation published in 1991 and 1994. Their critique is largely centered on their opinion that the NRC’s reviews did not include certain studies that would have supported their position that TM produces beneficial physical and mental effects that do not occur with other forms of meditation, and that TM provides greater relaxation, greater improvements in human performance, and other benefits compared to other methods, that went unreported in the NRC review.

Near the end of their critique is this statement, which I think is a rather extraordinary demonstration of a basic ignorance or outright avoidance of the scientific method, that I also think contradicts his earlier comments on the bias of investigators, with emphasis added by me:

How can we insure objectivity in future reviews of technologies from non-Western cultures or from radically new scientific paradigms that may be outside the knowledge and experience of the reviewers? We suggest that half of the membership of review committees for new or controversial research be comprised of researchers from different universities or research institutions who are practitioners of the technology in question, who have published research in the field, and who are well conversant with the theoretical frame that informs the research.

So there you have it in their own words. They are suggesting that half of the people who review research on Transcendental Meditation should be meditators themselves; that is what they mean by “practitioners of the technology,” because another name for Transcendental Meditation is the “Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field.” I suppose the phrase means very little if, as is true of most people, including scientists, you aren’t familiar with the background on Transcendental Meditation to recognize that reference. The “Unified Field” pseudonym for TM was frequently used during the early 1990’s in various TM related publications, and it’s defined that way on page 26 of the first, 1987 edition of Bob Roth’s book on TM. (It doesn’t appear in later editions of that book, but it’s mentioned in numerous other publications around that time.)

… we only need to restore the natural connection – through the practice of TM – between the active thinking mind and the source of thought; between the active mind and the unified field.

When we make that connection we develop creativity and intelligence, reduce stress and fatigue, and enjoy greater progress and achievement in life. We gain the support of nature in everything we do.

And this is why TM is called the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field.

When, as Roth does in this excerpt, they start talking about getting the “support of nature” because meditators have connected with the “unified field” or “source of thought” or “pure consciousness” or the “field of all knowledge,” they are expressing a religious concept rooted in the Vedas, which they will insist is not religious at all, but is simply an expression of fundamental reality. Much as they desperately try, they’ve failed to demonstrate by way of scientific research that this is true, that might be viewed as valid by anyone other than themselves. They also claim that this process that occurs through TM also creates the effect of “spontaneous right action” – that the TM meditator “gains the spontaneous ability to think, speak, and act correctly, in a way that brings the best response from one’s surroundings.”

In my view, what this all means, when strung together, is that they believe that only meditators, who are practicing TM which they believe allows them to contact the “field of all knowledge,” will be able to “act correctly” with respect to evaluating and reviewing scientific research on any aspect of the TM program, or for that matter, any aspect of the “Vedic Science” which they attribute to Maharishi. By insisting that half of scientific committees that review TM research be meditators, their definition of “peer” evidently deliberately favors those individuals who practice TM; it is not based on knowledge or expertise, but instead implies that a specific internal experience or “state of consciousness,” that they believe may only be brought about through the practice of Transcendental Meditation, is necessary to “objectively” evaluate research on TM. Many of the rest of us would identify this as a requirement that reviewers have demonstrated, through prior personal experience, a likely bias in favor of positive reviews of anything that, in their view, might support a claim of TM’s effectiveness and uniqueness.

There is, of course, no precedent in science that would support the rather ridiculous idea that only the people who practice this kind of mental technique would be qualified to evaluate scientific research on, or related to, that technique. If anything, that is a veiled expression that a certain kind of “satisfied customer” bias, that only happy users of a product are qualified to scientifically evaluate it, is preferred among such reviewers, given the doctrines that are delivered with instruction in Transcendental Meditation and its subsequent advanced lectures and courses. The absolute unqualified insistence that the benefits that Roth enumerates (“creativity,” “intelligence,” “reduce[d] stress and fatigue,” “greater progress and achievement”) allegedly accrue in every case for every person who regularly and properly practices TM are not just claims, but are core tenets, doctrines that have been put forward for TM since shortly after its founding. A demand that those who are satisfied if not very impressed with their experiences of TM practice (as evidenced by their continued practice and involvement with the TM organization for years if not decades), who have heard those doctrines over and over since learning TM, be uniquely privileged in the process of scientific review, is what David Orme-Johnson and his Maharishi University of Management colleagues have proposed here.

We know that Maharishi University of Management has published its own journals, including “Modern Science and Vedic Science” and “Journal of Maharishi Vedic Research Institute,” that have been entirely written, edited and reviewed by meditators. But given that Orme-Johnson’s proposition is an apparent statement of intent – that they would prefer that any research on TM only be reviewed by TM meditators, or by a near-majority, or more, of meditators among reviewers – has there ever been any instance where a seemingly independent scientific journal published research on Transcendental Meditation, that was almost exclusively authored by TM meditators, that was edited by meditators, and where documented meditators were at least half of the reviewers of those studies?

This has occurred at least once; in this case, one entire volume of what would appear at first glance to be an independent scientific journal, contained 26 papers which show TM in a favorable light, that are frequently cited as “peer-reviewed” research in independent journals by TM promoters. These 26 papers were authored by 47 TM meditators and two individuals whose affiliation, or not, with TM could not be determined, and were reviewed by a group of “consulting reviewers,” 56% of whom could be documented as being TM meditators. That the “peer review” of these papers was accomplished primarily by people with obvious connections with the TM program, whose confirmation bias could lead them to overlook the obvious flaws in research methodology or even basic plausibility of the studies they were examining, was never disclosed in the journal or elsewhere. Seven of those studies appear on the research list currently on the website.

Journal of Social Behavior and Personality: The last gasp of a defunct journal

The Journal of Social Behavior and Personality (JSBP) shouldn’t be confused with another similarly titled journal, Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal. Its publisher, Select Press, was co-owned and managed by Rick Crandall, who, among other interests, wrote a number of books on marketing, selling, management and customer service, some of which were, at least initially, self-published by his firm. The JSBP was the only journal published by Select Press.

There is no online index of articles or past issues of the JSBP, unlike most influential and commonly available scientific journals. Library indexes like this one show that the JSBP was regularly published from 1986 to 2001. This roughly corresponds to the description of the JSBP that’s on Crandall’s personal website, where he states that the JSBP “stopped publishing after about 13 years in 1999 due to family demands on the publisher.” But apparently, that wasn’t the final end of the JSBP.

In the academic publishing industry, there’s what’s called a “guest-edited special issue.” This is when a set of articles covering one particular topic of interest is produced by guest editors instead of the journal’s usual staff editors.  Four years after the JSBP ceased regular publication, a rather curious special issue was published by Select Press, and while the name of the journal appears on the volume’s spine, it doesn’t appear on the front cover. Instead, the title is “Applications of Maharishi Vedic Science.” This is the kind of subject matter that usually only appears in the journals and publications directly produced by the Maharishi University of Management (MUM). As with those MUM produced publications, all of the journal’s guest editors are MUM faculty and staff. With the apparent exception of two individuals, all of the authors have an institutional connection with the TM movement, most often as MUM faculty and staff.

There’s a list of “contributing reviewers” in the back of the volume, and more than half of the reviewers – at least 23 out of 41 – have an easily documented connection to TM institutions. Some of the others have some less formal connection with TM research, as co-authors of, or having been credited in, some TM research studies primarily authored by TM meditators.  Even the front cover was designed by MUM’s design director.

There are also reviewers who have interests that overlap with that of the TM movement, such as Roger Nelson, who has created experiments that attempt to detect the existence of some “Global Consciousness,” which of course is a concept espoused by TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, as part of the TM movement’s points of Veda-based, religious and unscientific doctrine.

Since the journal does not indicate it, we have no way of knowing which papers were reviewed by which reviewer(s). It would be reasonable to assume though, given Orme-Johnson’s statement (which actually appears in a paper contained in this journal volume), that reviewers would have been selected so that they would view the papers containing material with which they were already familiar, and whose hypotheses they would not immediately dismiss. Reports of research quite similar to the more conventional and well-known studies advanced by the TM movement claiming benefit of TM practice for the previous few decades, inconclusive and preliminary as they may be, are included in this same journal, along with papers putting forward the more controversial aspects of TM advocates’ claims. 

One such claim in particular is that people practicing the TM and TM-Sidhi program in groups have had a calming effect on cities or regions of the world by means of the so-called “Maharishi Effect” (ME). Two papers in this volume report on their attempt to demonstrate this alleged effect in Lebanon, and the resistance to outright dismissal that they have encountered from policymakers to their propositions, which they attribute to “stereotyping and prejudice.” Other papers attempt to show that a building’s orientation, the direction in which its doors or windows face, has an effect on the quality of life of its occupants, in support of “Maharishi Vedic Architecture,” or that the traditional classical music of Northern India has similar beneficial and unique effects on listeners, in support of “Maharishi Gandharva Veda” music. Though a number of such ME papers have been infrequently published in various journals in the 25-30 years before the publication of this volume, I believe it’s very unlikely that these papers would even be considered for publication today by any reputable scientific journal, given the past publication history of such studies and the resulting criticism of the published ME papers, and the basic implausibility of the claims which defy all known science, and paucity of evidence in the rest. As is true of so much of the TM research that exists outside of the realm of “prestigious journals,” a brief glance through some of these papers suggests major and obvious issues with respect to methodology, use of controls, unwillingness to consider and control for other, sometimes obvious, factors, and a reliance on self-reporting by research subjects.

Experiment described in “Can a Building’s Orientation Affect the Quality of Life of the People Within? Testing Principles of Maharishi Sthapatya Veda.” No mention is made as to whether or not the researchers surveyed Fairfield to determine what proportion of homes had entrances facing in particular directions, or that they considered any other confounding factors.

Given the easily-noticed anomalies with respect to this journal volume, it’s worthwhile to consider how well-known scientific and academic publishers handle the production of a guest-edited special issue of a journal, and how that contrasts to the production of this volume. For example, a major scientific publisher, Elsevier, has a formal “Guidelines for Guest Editors” that clearly defines how such an issue is produced, including, specifically, that the same criteria apply for articles in both special and regular issues:

Guest Editors take the primary responsibility for liaison with contributing authors and peer reviewers. The same review processes and criteria of quality and originality apply to articles in Special Issues as to regular issue articles. Paper submitted by a GE must be edited by another GE, or if that is not feasible, by another independent party, e.g. the Editor-in-Chief or another handling Editor on the journal. All papers accepted for publication (except Editorials) should be peer reviewed by at least two independent referees.

What authority a guest editor might have had when producing a special issue of the journal of a small publisher that might have been in the process of shutting down its operations would not be as clear, and in this case, this is a special issue that was published almost fifteen years ago. In searching online for clarification of how other journals handled these situations, I found some discussions at the online forum of The Chronicle of Higher Education that suggest that editing standards and authority may vary widely from journal to journal. Here’s one example, a bit of advice offered to someone who was offered the opportunity to guest edit, with my emphasis added:

Typically, as a guest editor, you make the final decisions about which manuscripts the journal will publish.  The power (such power!) comes from being able to both solicit and accept work from colleagues you particularly admire, whether you know them personally or not.  In other words, the issue you guest edit will have your personal stamp of approval (or whatever) on it.

You should ask more specific questions of the regular editor, or managing editor, now.  For instance: will the regular readers or editorial board be screening [manuscripts] and sending them to you, or is everyone taking a sabbatical and dumping everything into your lap?  Will it be your job to send [manuscripts] out for reader reports, or will the managing editor continue to do this?  How much material can you, yourself, solicit for the journal–all of it, or only part of it? How much, if anything, are you authorized to say that the journal will pay (information you should provide up front in your solciitation letter, especially if you are soliciting bigwigs in your field).  What sorts of deadlines are you on, official or unofficial?

Since TM proponents often insist that “peer review” is some gold standard of legitimacy and quality, while one particular TM authority figure has admitted that they’d prefer that research reviews be conducted primarily by meditators, how are reviewers selected for journal special issues? Indications are that those reviewers are selected by the guest editors.

Once the papers come in, typically, you will [manage] the review process.  That will mean skimming or reading the papers to make sure that they fit within the scope and quality expectations of the journal and special issue.  Once you determine a paper is ready for review, you must make sure it is blinded for review and prepare reviewer document forms. You need to find reviewers and request their participation (you will need to contact many more than you need).  You need to send out the paper to reviewers. You need to follow up with reviewers to make sure they return their reviews.  You then need to read over the reviews and more carefully read over the paper. You make a decision. Then you followup with the authors and manage the process again if it ready for second submission.  

In any other active field of research, this process is not considered suspect; reviewers should be familiar with and competent to review what they’re reading. While TM proponents make claims about hundreds of studies, the field of TM research is actually very small and is of interest to a relatively tiny number of academics and scientists, many of whom have an unusual, ideological and emotional interest in promoting their preferred practice and products. Given the outsized role that each study on TM may serve to advance the interests of TM organizations – backing claims of TM and Maharishi-branded products in the absence of any more general scientific consensus supporting most of those claims – every published paper in a journal that they don’t own or control directly adds to their desired image of scientific legitimacy, which is essential to their efforts to market TM.

In this case, seven papers in this one volume of the JSBP are currently on a list of 123 papers describing research on TM that appears on the website; clearly, this one volume made a significant contribution to their “scientific” image.  This is true despite the fact that out of over 1,100 articles published in the JSBP over its entire history, only 8 of its articles are indexed in the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed – only 3 of those with more than just an article title – and its SCImago page, for the six years for which it could be ranked there, has a lot of orange and red, indicative of a journal with little to no scientific influence

This “scientific” image is then promoted in news coverage of these articles, because reporters seldom mention or consider the quality of a journal in which research is published when reporting on such studies, and of course these factors have mattered little in the bibliographies and lists of TM research studies that have been generated on the TM movement’s behalf as part of its promotional efforts.

How then, did this volume of the JSBP get published? All that can be gleaned from this volume’s pages is that it was edited by meditators, and mostly reviewed by meditators. There is no mention of the JSBP’s former editorial board or anyone else who could be associated with the journal, only the owners of Select Press, Rick Crandall and his wife Carolynn. 

Crandall had a rather contrarian view of the academic publishing business, as is obvious from the page describing the JSBP on his personal website. There he broadly uses the word “unethical” twice to describe the editorial process of journals, first in a paragraph titled “Our Approach:”

We are mounting a crusade to improve editorial and review procedures. Existing procedures of current journals have been shown to have an unethical lack of timeliness, reliability and validity. We are using an unusual set of procedures to provide editorial decisions in five weeks and publication in an average of four months with courteous and tested procedures. In return, accepted papers share some of the costs of publication—but this is independent of editorial decisions!

Crandall admits he’s on a crusade, doing something he says is “unusual.” But, what’s this? “Accepted papers share some of the costs of publication” – but a paper can’t pay. He’s indicating that, to some degree, the author pays to be published, and the expedited publication process raises the obvious question. Was the JSBP a “pseudojournal,” a journal that had all the trappings of a legitimate scientific journal, but in fact was something similar to a vanity press? 

To my eye, the language in Crandall’s screed describing the JSBP is combative, and centers on getting papers published that would otherwise be rejected by other journals. Any discussion of a standard of quality or accuracy is rather vague and left unclear beyond Crandall’s personal assessment. This thread runs through his entire description of the journal, as if to indicate that authors who couldn’t be published elsewhere may be published in the JSBP, as long as those papers adhered to Crandall’s alternate standard of quality.

This tone continues in another paragraph titled “Our Editorial Philosophy:”

We believe that the standard editorial process combines the efforts of many people with good intentions into an unethical system. It is an unrecognized tragedy of the commons. It is in no one’s personal interest to improve the process. The ethics codes of professional associations would rule against any test publisher who sold tests with as little evidence for reliability and validity as their own journal review processes have.  Journals with 90% rejection rates need to find reasons to reject papers just to keep their loads manageable. We’re more interested in facilitating the publication of information that can be of value. Whether accepted or rejected, we generally specify how papers can be improved for publication.

Even more explicit is the section titled “Types of Papers Encouraged,” where I’ve emphasized one passage:

Particularly encouraged are:

  • controversial papers that provoke debate (papers criticizing published papers will be subsidized)
  • new theoretical work or integrations across fields
  • papers on important real areas which are under-researched such as marriage, sex, and quality of life
  • true interdisciplinary topics which most journals might say were good papers, but not for their readers
  • new applications of basic research
  • papers (with reviews) which have been turned down by other journals for bad reasons
  • replications, including negative results

Because of our ongoing crusade to improve the editorial and review process, papers in this area will be subsidized by the Journal.

This is not the only statement of Crandall’s views on academic publishing, as his commentary has been published in various journals and publications over the course of years. One such commentary came to my attention because it was quoted in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Creation, a Christian creationist publication that advances young earth, six-day-creation views. This is how he was quoted, from Crandall’s article published in another journal in 1982:

The editorial process has tended to be run as an informal, old-boy network which has excluded minorities, women, younger researchers, and those from lower-prestige institutions … Authors can feel that they’re dealing with hostile gatekeepers whose goal is to keep out manuscripts on picky grounds rather than let in the best work.

The problem with this sort of seemingly well-intentioned “crusade,” in my view, is that depending on the circumstances, it may provide an excuse to publish pseudoscience, which might satisfy such a publisher’s desire to print studies that would not be published elsewhere. Whether that was the publisher’s intent, or not, is irrelevant; this situation may benefit others with an ideological agenda, perhaps one that is rather well concealed and unfamiliar to many.  Those who wish to redirect scientific institutions to support anti-scientific organizations may take advantage of such sentiments to advance their cause.

If we were discussing, for instance, research papers supporting Christian young-earth six-day creationism being promoted by fundamentalist Christians, there would be little argument that material of that nature would not belong in a credible scientific journal. The situation with TM has historically been quite a bit different, with its proponents having actively denied the significance of TM’s religious origins at every possible opportunity. The movement’s establishment of an accredited university, Maharishi International University, now Maharishi University of Management, in the 1970’s served to obscure the underlying agenda of the promotion of “Vedic Science,” particularly since their university is populated with credentialed individuals who studied at recognizable universities. 

The fact that organized opposition to TM, and a legal verdict against TM, initially came from groups of fundamentalist Christians also helped create a sort of role reversal relative to that of Christian creationism. Thus a thin veneer of scientific legitimacy around TM was created through their university, its researchers, and the fact that initial opposition to TM came from a subculture long perceived by many as being hostile to science. In my view, that has been sufficient to allow proponents of TM to gain entry to realms that would have been denied to any group or movement with an agenda culturally understood to be of a religious nature.

As I concluded in the previous installment of this series, 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. Many are often not as skeptical of new and novel scientific claims and lines of research as they should be, and may be vulnerable to being compromised and used in the promotion of an unusual agenda or ideology, such as that which underlies Transcendental Meditation. Since the publication of this particular volume in 2005, obscure journals with questionable or nonexistent editorial standards, which may not even review papers before publication – “predatory journals” –  have become much more numerous, particularly with the simultaneous growth of “open access” online journals in recent years.  There are now many more opportunities for researchers to publish in such “journals,” and to then claim that their research was published in a journal, when in effect they merely paid to have their paper placed on a website without any of the usual processes of editing or review.

One TM research paper which appeared in a questionable and now defunct journal of this nature will be a point of discussion in the following installment of this series.

Laurie, another contributor here at the TM-Free Blog, assisted with editing this article. Thank you!

Continue to part 5 of this series: “The bottom of the barrel of published TM research articles.”

Read this series from the beginning.

Read the previous installment of this series (Part 3).

The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 4: When "peer review" becomes "meditator review"” target=”_blank”>”The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 4: When "peer review" becomes "meditator review"”