The Pollution of Good Ideas

fruits-and-vegetables-perfect-design-7-on-garden-design-ideas

It is surprising to see how easily some promising ideas continue to be smeared, tarnished and highjacked by misinformation. For example, discussions on meditation are shrouded in so much ignorance that identifying any proven benefit seems akin to finding decent music on the radio; it’s there, but only if you know where to look, what to look for, and are not immediately repelled by the sea of vacuous crap.

For every moment this distortion is allowed to continue – for every moment we allow a few to wreck it for the rest – a moment passes in which we rob ourselves ways that we can further prosper as individuals and a society. If you truly care about climate change, you should challenge those who talk about a sentient Mother Earth being and animal spirits. If you care about drug decriminalisation, you should challenge those who claim that marijuana is a miracle cure for anything from asthma to breast cancer. These faulty ideas are truly corrosive to others they become associated with.

Bertrand Russell once said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”. When the loudest and most numinous talk about the benefits of yoga involve chakras, spirits, miracle cures, and so forth, it can give the impression of being a true representation of the body of ‘evidence’.  I myself have prematurely discounted many ideas in the past, being fooled by the noise that falsely represents them. I am not alone. As scientific literacy increases, people’s ‘bullshit detectors’ improve, so it’s not surprising when ideas are wrapped in nonsense, people tend to notice and reflectively discount them.

Why are the proven scientific benefits of ideas so commonly hidden from view? One possible reason is that many did not sprout from the pastures of respectable scientific inquiry. For millennia, humans have shot metaphorical round after round into the dark in the never ending quest to hit the target of increased well-being. Most times we missed, whether it be burying children alive in the foundations of buildings to prevent them from collapsing, or prescribing sex administered by a doctor to treat a ‘wandering womb’ (or hysteria). Occasionally we inadvertently struck pay dirt (as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day). Yet with such a poverty of scientific knowledge at the time of discovery, explanations for the same were never very reasonable. Practises that originated in the sixth century tend to have explanations from the sixth century.

For example, meditation has long been a buzz word for me – but not always for the right reason. In the past, what was ‘buzzed’ in me was profound skepticism.  The world’s five major religions – Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism – all practise forms of meditation, with each drawing on specific iron-age myths, symbols, spirits and gods. When it came to explaining the benefits of meditation at the time it originated, neurons and neuroplasticity were simply not on the cards. Humans did not have the fortune of microscopes and head scans, and alas, no amount of introspection could reveal the immense complexity of the brain, with it billions of neurons and trillions of connections.

Even in modern times, individuals, including famous spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, commonly make ridiculous claims such as, “Through [meditation], we begin to realise that consciousness is a field of infinite possibilities; that it is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely creative.”  It’s no wonder that before I became interested in psychiatry – in which meditation (specifically, mindfulness) is a proven and effective mode of treatment – I simply dismissed it. However, when I did the research into the effects of meditation, I found the practise was onto something. The traditional explanations behind the subjective experience and long-lasting effects of meditation were incorrect, but the effects are there. Various studies have shown a clear link between the amount of meditative practice and changes in brain architecture, allowing faster information process. Furthermore, the alterations are in regions known to be involved in mood regulation and cognitive integration, helping to explain why meditators are popularly known to be masters of introspection, awareness and emotional self-regulation – all much needed attributes for those suffering from mood, anxiety and behavioural disorders.

When I offer mindfulness meditation as a treatment option to my patients, I am usually met with a raised eyebrow. Yet when I tell them that it has the capacity to alter the actual circuitry  of their brains, their interest immediately lifts. Indeed, I have never seen someone’s scepticism rise or interest fall after hearing such information.

Plant-based diets have likewise been dragged down needlessly. Tell somebody you’re a vegan, and you are immediately pigeon-holed as a hippy. Yet the benefits of choosing this diet are undeniable – for animal welfare, the environment and one’s health. To take health as an example, the consensus of the American Dietetics Association, an organisation of over seventy-thousand physicians, dieticians, researchers, and pharmacists, states that “well-planned vegetarian [and vegan] diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and for athletes”. Vegan diets also “result in positive maternal and infant health outcomes… are associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease… have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes, [and lower overall cancer rates] than nonvegetarians”.

Whether or not you find this evidence compelling, unfortunately arguments for a vegan lifestyle are misrepresented by quantum healers and crystals, recommended by naturopaths and homeopaths, and endorsed by those who claim that broccoli has a vibrational quality that is in-sync with our bodies. Popular arguments also commonly commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ – if something is natural it must be good, and anything unnatural is not. Modern medical advancements, including vaccinations, are generally considered unnatural and therefore resisted. Even medical recommendations for B12 (an essential vitamin predominantly found in meat) monitoring and supplements are commonly met with paranoia and scepticism on vegan internet forums. As a result, vegan philosophy tends to be viewed as lacking reason and logic, and strongly associated with anti-modern medicine sentiments.

Adopting plant-based diets and meditation in (hopefully) the first quarter of my life is pleasing, however I must feel lucky that my life coursed in the specific path that exposed me to such ideas.  I am forced to acknowledge how easily I could have lived my entire life completely unaware of some simple ways to better my well-being. Moreover, I feel cheated that the nonsense of some could have denied me these opportunities, frustrated for others who continue to be denied, and curious of what other beneficial practises I have not even considered due to poor reasons.

Imagine a team of scientists discover a new type of cosmic radiation that is penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere, and is now known to be the leading cause of cognitive decline as we age. Luckily, a simple, proven means of avoiding this can be achieved by using a thin sheet of metal, such as aluminium, as a barrier around the head – this could be easily and conveniently enclosed in stylish hats and beanies. However, what if this practise was largely known to society, not due to the actual science, but because some wear gigantic and aesthetically unpleasant al-foil hats, claiming it is protecting their brains from being hacked by aliens?

Our society would be worse off due to this misinformation. Yes, the misled few wearing al-foil hats would enjoy the fruits of their behaviour, despite the benefits being different to what they believe. However, their improved well-being would be at the greater expense of others, as their flawed rationale would be unknowingly preventing many others from adopting it. If you understood the neurological damage imparted by cosmic radiation, and saw your friends and family were unprotected whilst you were, the compulsion to correct and discredit false notions would simply reflect your basic interest and concern for their welfare. And you should.

We must protect good ideas from bad ideas. It is not strident or insensitive to do so, but actually more sensitive to our fellow creatures. We should give each other the chance of knowing the scientific facts about ideas, disassociate them from worthless nonsensical baggage, and provide ourselves the opportunity to evaluate ideas based on the correct information. Illogical claims tend to be much easier to identify than logical ones. Do not give people a free pass to put their unreason on the same shelf as reason, for the unreason may be the only thing others see when encountering an idea.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. cloud-ius says:

    good read this! 🙂
    im happy meditation seems to slowly percolate through many parts of society.
    yet some things came to mind reading your essay:

    not everyone will adopt a practice (eg meditation) for the same reason- in your case scientific evidence through exposition at your work. does it make the practice less fruitful or a “bad idea” if it is done out of a different motivation?

    i find it delighting that an age old practice, that has proven effective worldwide, is now backed by science, yet for me it doesnt put it on a completely new appreciation level, after having experienced the positive effects for myself – even before that and “shrouded” by, what you might call superstition or incorrect claims.

    i think not every person or character is equally responsive to facts and studies, yet the benefit of meditating will manifest itself for the practitioner and his/her environment nonetheless. if people with an affinity to cultural tradition, esoterics, religious zeal etc. practice meditation its just as valuable imho.

    apples have an anti-cancerogenic effect. i dont think any single-substance contained in it explains that effect satisfactory. its probably the compound of thousands of constituents which we are yet to discover or understand. so the old saying: an apple a day…was now backed up, yet we shouldnt dismiss everything as nonsense that has not been proven in rct’s or explained on a molecular level.

    just my 2cts
    whish my english was better to make my point clearer

    1. Steve Asher says:

      Thanks for your input. Of course, practicing something such as meditation for false reasons does not change the positive effects of the practice. However, the question of whether the associated incorrect beliefs can negatively impact their lives through other means still remains in each case.

      The main point of this article is how these bad ideas can prevent another from adopting the practice. People who are compelled by evidence are repelled by ignorance. Furthermore, when evidence is communicated in an understandable and accessible way, it does not tend to repel those who would otherwise be insensitive to ignorance. Therefore, overarching, metaphysical or simply incorrect claims are unnecessary when attempting to convince someone of the benefits of a practise. A preference for actual scientific evidence should have a net positive gain of adoptees.

  2. The Philosophy of 9 says:

    I completely agree with your assessment. Regarding your comment about scientific education, I have found in my personal experience that many students continue to rely heavily upon rote learning far beyond introductory science courses. Many will trade or otherwise modify their preexisting “worldview” for a corpus of mainstream scientific attitudes, but will do so in the same reflexive manner by which they acquired and utilized the beliefs of their previous social group. What I mean to say is that the scientific mentality is far more easily preached than practiced. I find this to be particularly pernicious in the domain of discipline-specific social mores (acquired from both faculty members and popular authors the students tend to read).

    For example, I conduct primate personality research, which sits at the intersection of psychology and biological anthropology. Although this field of research has grown rapidly over the last decade, I continue to perceive a general bias against anything psychology related in some of the anthropologists I have discussed my interests with. In regards to personality research, this may simply be due to the fact that researchers are publishing across an array of journals that these individuals may never have read. Once we discuss the genetic, neurobiological, and behavioral research on the subject (most assume that it must only be questionnaire studies), many will become sincerely interested–perhaps because they can now feel safe discussing their intuitions without fear of anthropomorphism. On the other hand, the general bias against psychology appears to run deeper. I recently overheard a student scoff at having to take an introductory psychology course because her professor told her that psychologists think that culture is “just” the activities of individuals. She responded to her own strawman by matter-of-factly stating that it was the other way around–culture obviously acts on individuals! In another case, I was discussing courses with a biology faculty member and asked why biopsychology courses (e.g., pharmacology, neurobiology of learning) were not cross-listed for biology majors. She responded by stating that there “wasn’t enough biology”, which is bizarre given that she had not actually reviewed any of these classes or their textbooks.

    I will be the first to admit that there are a number of methodological and theoretical issues in mainstream psychology. I think a strong argument can be made that a great deal of social science research in general lacks sufficient scientific validity. That being said, it is truly a shame to see the baby being so unabashedly thrown out with the bathwater. It is unfortunate, though perhaps not surprising, that the sort of overgeneralized skepticism you discuss can hinder scientific development at so many levels. I appreciate your humility in admitting how it has previously affected your attitudes. I certainly have fallen into this trap many times, but the best cure is–as always–to just practice as we preach and simply review the evidence!

    1. Steve Asher says:

      Sorry I only just saw this comment.
      I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, moving away from a prescriptive-manner of scientific education is needed: the key is in the process rather than the content. The famous skeptic and neurologist Steven Novella has done this extremely well in his course taught to Yale medical students. His lecture notes can be found at this link; http://anon.eastbaymediac.m7z.net/anon.eastbaymediac.m7z.net/teachingco/CourseGuideBooks/DG9344_B618F.PDF

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