by Maxwell Rainforth, Ph.D.
The Skeptical Inquirer recently published an article by Robert Park (Voodoo Science and the Belief Gene (Park 2000a) which he excerpted from his book, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Park 2000b). In his book and his article, Park lampooned the scientific research of Dr. John Hagelin and collaborators (Hagelin 1994, 1999), myself included. Based on 41 previous studies, we predicted publicly that a large group practicing the Transcendental Meditation program would lower violent crime levels in Washington, DC, by reducing stress and tension in society. During the 8-week experiment in the summer of 1993, violent crimes against the person (homicides, rapes, and assaults) decreased by 23% and closely tracked the rise in the number of participating meditators. The results were published in Social Indicators Research, a respected, peer-reviewed, scientific journal (Hagelin 1999).
Park charges Hagelin and colleagues with pseudoscience, but this very serious allegation of scientific misconduct is based on a critique that is superficial, highly polemical, and seriously flawed. Park abstains from any serious consideration of the study data and the appropriateness of the statistical methodology. Neither his book nor his article contains a single statistic, and they betray no evidence that he read either the initial research report (Hagelin 1994) or the published study (Hagelin 1999).
It is surprising that Parks article was printed in the Skeptical Inquirer, as it appears to contravene its editorial standards concerning responsible scientific discourse, as set out in the magazines Guide for Authors. The Editor of the Skeptical Inquirer agreed to print a brief rebuttal, but space limitations in the magazine prevent us from responding to all of Parks false and misleading statements that appeared in his article and in his book. This web page is a detailed rebuttal of his claims, in lieu of a fair opportunity to adequately refute them in print.
The SI Guide for Authors advises writers to direct critiques towards ideas, not individuals. Yet Parks critique of Hagelins study opens by attempting to discredit Hagelin as one who has rejected the norms of mainstream science. Park claims that while holding a research appointment at Stanford Linear Accelerator, one day he simply vanished, reappearing a year later as chairman of the Physics Department at Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa. Parks book elaborates, stating that Hagelin was once regarded as a competent theoretical physicist, but disappeared in the midst of personal problems. We are glad that this and other unsupported, derogatory statements that Park made in the book were omitted from the excerpt in the Skeptical Inquirer. These statements clearly indicate that Parks evaluation of the Hagelin study was strongly biased.
The alleged vanishing act and personal problems are pure fiction created by Park. Dr. Hagelin shifted his academic appointment from Stanford University to MIU for scientific reasons. It enabled him to continue his physics research and to pursue his long-standing interest in brain and cognitive science research. He took up his new appointment directly after leaving his position at Stanford Linear Accelerator, and he remained in close contact with his former colleagues at Harvard, Stanford and CERN. These scientists, including many at the forefront of physics, published numerous scientific articles with Dr. Hagelin as he continued his contributions to theoretical physics while at MIU funded by competitive scientific grants from the National Science Foundation. Hagelin has published 74 scientific articles on unified quantum field theories and related topics, including some of the most cited references in the physical sciences, to quote Current Contents magazine, which follows such trends. By making these unfounded and defamatory statements against a well-credentialed scientist, Park clearly placed himself outside the bounds of responsible scientific discourse.
Hagelins experiment tested the following hypothesis: that a large group of meditation experts, practicing together, can reduce stress and tension in the social atmosphere, and thus reduce violent crime. Based on many previous studies on the Transcendental Meditation program® (TM), a widely practiced and thoroughly researched method of stress reduction, it was predicted that such a group would produce a measurable calming influence in the city, resulting in reduced Part I violent crime, as defined by the FBI. The predicted outcomes of the experiment were announced publicly to the media, and were lodged in advance with a 27-member panel of scientists and civic leaders.
In his book, Park advocates subjecting scientific claims to rigorous testing and carefully scrutinizing scientific evidence. He explains that science is supposed to show the way to resolving controversy, by taking recourse to experimentation. Despite his lip service to the cause of objective science, Park appears to feel the hypothesis of Hagelins study is ridiculous on its face, and that no serious investigation of the claim is necessary. Although this notion is not directly expressed in the SI article, it is explicitly stated in Parks book. There, in the context of dismissing Hagelins study, Park quotes H.L. Mencken: The most common of all follies is to believe in the palpably untrue. In other words, Park maintains that it should have been obvious at the outset that the theory being tested was false, so why bother to examine the evidence? Apparently he believes that ideas that do not tally with the current scientific paradigm can be written off without serious consideration.
What chance is there that groups practicing Transcendental Meditation can reduce violent crime? If Park had been interested in a serious scientific discussion of this question, he should certainly have mentioned that:
At the least, such previous research would indicate that the Washington, DC, study should have been carefully analyzed.
Park also does not mention that the results were published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. He ought to have been aware of this because his SI article came out over a year after Hagelins study. Parks article indicates that he was following Hagelins public activities shortly after the study was published in Social Indicators Research, during which time Hagelin repeatedly and consistently mentioned the publication.
Parks failure to mention any of these facts can be attributed to only two factors, ignorance or bias, neither of which is acceptable from a responsible scientist, particularly one who takes a strong stand.
Parks book and article put forward the specious claim that the D.C. experiment was a failure. Yet violent crimes against the person (homicides, rapes and assaults) not only decreased during the 8 weeks of the experiment, but also closely tracked the rise in the number of participating TM meditators, as predicted. The 23% drop in violent crime was confirmed to be statistically significant using time series analysis: the probability that the decrease was due to chance is less than two in a billion. The analysis showed that violent crime decreased when it usually reaches its peak during the hot summer weather, and a direct relationship between the size of the meditating group and the drop in violent crime.
The Skeptical Inquirers Guide for Authors asks those who submit manuscripts to state others positions in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner. But Parks critique is anything but even handed. He merely lampoons our use of time series analysis as technobabble, only meant to give the appearance of science. Parks only allusion to the overall study finding is to complain about the use of time series analysis, which is clearly the correct statistical tool in this type of study. He waves away the evidence and state-of-the-art statistical analysis, proclaiming in his article that It was a clinic in data manipulation, with no supporting data or analysis for that assertion, and makes not another comment about it. In his book he uses more direct pejoratives, preferring instead the phrase data distortion. He concludes, both in the book and the SI article that: This was pseudoscience [emphasis in the original]. Technobabble and pseudoscience are loaded words, which the SI editorial guidelines say should be avoided.
Moreover, in his book he writes: This . . . is not to say that those involved were not sincere in their belief. They may have believed so fervently that they felt a responsibility to make the facts support their belief [emphasis in the original]. In other words, Park makes the unfounded claim that the researchers falsified evidence supplied by the Washington, DC, police. With high-handed condescension he acknowledges the sincere belief of the researchers, while making the most serious charge of scientific misconduct. These statements amount to a charge of scientific fraud. In his SI article and the book, Park also tries to insinuate that the researchers made fraudulent scientific claims repeating the charge of pseudoscience, referring to the experiment in quotation marks, and again implying that the researchers were so biased that their beliefs were unalterable by the outcomes of the experiment. His statements are an insult to the integrity of the researchers, the Project Review Board, the editors and reviewers of Social Indicators Research, and the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Departments statistician, who provided the FBI crime data and co-authored the study.
Parks objection to our use of time series analysis is not based on any scientific argument, but merely echoes the comments of a reporter regarding the use of time series analysis to predict levels of violent crime: How could you know what the rates would have been? But, there is no mystery here. Violent crime levels are predictable on the basis of temperature a fact that is well known among criminologists, and was clearly explained at the press conference to present the research report that Park attended, and in both the report and the published paper.
This shows up clearly in Figure 1, which is a graph of the Washington data over the five years prior to the experiment (1988-1992). When average levels of temperature and average levels of homicides, rapes and assaults are plotted over weeks of the year, the crime and temperature curves are right on top of each other, if the vertical axis scales are appropriately chosen. This shows that usually the violent crime levels were directly proportional to temperature and therefore that violent crime could be accurately predicted from the previous pattern in the data. The same thing happens in the first months of 1993, but then in the middle of the experimental period (when the meditating group was approaching its maximum size) the violent crime curve drops well below the temperature curve and stays down for several weeks (see Figure 2). In other words, during the experiment in 1993, a drop in violent crime was clearly evident in the raw data, even without using time series analysis.1
Park objects to our calculation of how much violent crime dropped, but this calculation was an adjunct step performed after the time series analysis, and therefore challenging it does not contradict the main result. As our published paper clearly demonstrates, and as Park should have known, the calculated drop in violent crime was extremely robust, and not at all sensitive to the assumptions of the statistical model used.2 Therefore, our main finding stands.
Park rejects out of hand statistical modeling of the data using time series analysis, because to do otherwise would be to give credence to this main scientific finding of the study. Time series analysis is a sophisticated statistical tool for investigating whether factors other than the presumed causal variable might account for the results. Hagelins study used time series analysis to rule out a long list of alternative explanations, including weather variables, seasonal effects, changes in police surveillance, and trends and cyclical patterns inherent in the crime data.
However, Robert Park abstains from any serious consideration of the data and gives no consideration whatsoever to the appropriateness of the statistical methodology used to analyze it. This is remarkable, given his advocacy of scientific standards and careful scrutiny of scientific evidence. And despite Parks emphasis on the importance of scientific replication of experimental findings, he neglects to mention that the Washington crime experiment was consistent with 41 previous studies of the effects of Transcendental Meditation on social quality-of-life variables, many of them studied in the previously published research mentioned above.
We are baffled how Park reaches his conclusion that our time series analysis is pseudoscience. In his own writing, he has no difficulty with the use of statistical modeling to make predictions in the context of research on global warming, and does not advocate that Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve Board be sacked for their heavy reliance on time series models in economic forecasting and policy making. His conclusion is unreasonable and without scientific justification.
In spite of this evidence, Park asserts that levels of violence actually increased to record levels. He confuses homicides which accounted for only 3% of violent crime in Washington during 1993 with violent crimes in general. Park asserts that the murder rate soared during the experiment, and claims that participants in the project seemed serenely unaware of the mounting carnage around them.
It is true the murder rate did not drop during the course as we acknowledged in the initial research report and in the published study but the facts were very different. For six weeks ending the month before the experiment, from mid-March through April, homicides in Washington averaged ten per week. Beginning one week after the course and for twelve weeks thereafter, homicides also averaged ten per week. During the eight weeks of the experiment, in June and July, the average was again ten per week except for one horrific 36-hour period in which ten people died. Apart from this brief episode, which was a statistical outlier, the level of homicides during June and July of 1993 was not significantly higher than the remainder of the year.3
According to his article, Park apparently took his lead on the murder issue from a Washington Post reporter who had been impressed that the one 36-hour period had led to a sudden doubling of the murder rate that week. The reporter, and Park, did not notice that the very next week the murder rate dropped from its common rate of ten by more than twice that is, the totals went up to 20 one week and down to 4 the next. This is precisely the type of sporadic fluctuation one must account for when total numbers are small. The average incidence of murder in Washington was little more than one per day, and with numbers as low as this, as Park and all scientists know, random fluctuations can appear extremely high when listed as percentages.
Another type of violent crime with low incidence is rape, yet Park makes no mention of this, perhaps because during the two months of the experiment, rapes decreased by 58%. If Park were interested in an accurate presentation, he should surely have balanced his statistic-free assertion of a murder wave with this arresting fact. The most comprehensive measure of deliberate violence, of course, includes assaults (the most common aspect of violent crime, which accounted for 92% of the studys outcome variable) along with rapes and murders which together declined by 23%. Parks brouhaha about the murder rate is to distract the readers attention from the main issue: whether a group of people practicing meditation achieved a reduction in violent crime.
When scientists fail to evaluate evidence of scientific studies on their merits they mislead the public about science. As he is a professor at a major university, most lay readers would be likely to take Parks expert opinions at face value. In this regard, his willfully misleading statements are highly irresponsible. Ironically, Park set out to expose deliberate attempts of scientists to mislead non-experts. In attempting to label Hagelins research as an example of scientific misconduct, his book and SI article merely provide a further example of such scientific deception of an unfortunately common type: misguided attacks on novel scientific theories based on blind disregard of evidence.
Hagelin, J.S., Orme-Johnson, D.W., Rainforth, M.V., Cavanaugh, K., and Alexander, C.N. 1994. Results of the National Demonstration Project to Reduce Violent Crime and Improve Governmental Effectiveness in Washington, D.C., June 7-July 30, 1993. Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy Technical Report, ITR-94:1. Fairfield, IA: Maharishi University of Management.
Hagelin, J.S., Rainforth, M.V., Orme-Johnson, D.W. Cavanaugh, K. L. , Alexander, C.N., Shatkin, S.F., Davies, J.L, Hughes, A.O, and Ross, E. 1999. Effects of group praqctice of the Transcendental Meditation program on preventing violent crime in Washington D.C.: Results of theNational Demonstration Project, June-July, 1993. Social Indicators Research, 47(2): 153-201.
Park, Robert L. 2000a. Voodoo Science and the Belief Gene. The Skeptical Inquirer, Sept/Oct: 24-29.
Park, Robert, L. 2000b. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. New York: Oxford University Press.