[asa] Woo and Response on KUNC

From: Rich Blinne <rich.blinne@gmail.com>
Date: Thu Apr 03 2008 - 10:49:10 EDT

One of the problems of critiquing Intelligent Design is the implied (or
inferred) conclusion that we are attacking their Christian faith. One of my
biggest issues is how the rhetoric proceeds from the Intelligent Design
Movement. Nevertheless, when in the context of ID the conclusion above is
often reached that we are siding with the atheists over our Christian
brothers and sisters. Then the last couple of weeks the following spots
showed up on my local NPR radio station. The pieces have absolutely nothing
to do with ID which gives us a chance to look at this more objectively. Yet,
the contours of the debate itself are surprising familiar to anyone
observing ID. In particular, note the ad hominem and highly personal
attacks, the straw man of "scientism", claiming greater compassion, and
raising a scientific debate but when the challenge on the details is
accepted to give a hasty retreat.

Buddhist MD Marc Ringell has a regular commentary program on KUNC based in
Greeley Colorado. Every once in a while he pitches a bit of Woo including
his book the "Zen of Science". He recently did another foray into Woo until
he had a rebuttal by Dr. Jennifer Nyborg, a biochemistry professor at
Colorado State University. Here is what happened:

The Science of Woo Woo
Marc Ringel, M.D.
BRUSH, CO (2008-02-25) The Science of Woo Woo
by Marc Ringel, M.D.
KUNC February 25, 2008

Surprisingly, the spiritual tone of KUNC pieces I've done about healing has
provoked some of the biggest negative reactions from listeners. Outraged
critics, self-anointed representatives of pure science, criticize me
aggressively from a viewpoint that wholly denies the possibility of healing
occurring any way but via the material world described by modern physics as
we currently know it. This piece, which describes a mind-blowing study, will
certainly, once again, get the goats of my scientific detractors.

The authors recruited eleven healers who claimed to establish some sort of
connection between themselves and patients that could promote healing at a
distance. Each healer paired herself with one person to be the recipient of
her mind outreach efforts, someone with whom she already felt a special

The receivers were placed in a machine called a functional MRI, a device
that teams a huge magnet with a powerful computer to generate a detailed
picture of brain activity. ( MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging.) The
recipients were told to relax as much as possible, in itself quite a feat
with their heads stuck into a loud multi-ton machine that generates a
magnetic field about half a billion times stronger than the earth's.

The healing partners were nearby, in the MRI control room, physically and
visually isolated from the test subjects. They were instructed to project
healing intentions in twelve random two-minute segments. Neither subjects
nor experimenters knew the on-off sequence prior to each session.

The functional MRI ran continuously during the 24 minutes that the subject
was in the scanner. A sophisticated set of computer programs that analyzed
the data uncovered highly significant differences in the brain activity of
subjects between when their partners were concentrating on reaching them and
when they were not. The areas that lit up during the intention-to-contact
intervals were the same as those that have been related in other studies to
decision-making, information processing and, most interestingly, to response
to painkillers, both opiates and placebos.

The chances of finding such anatomical differences on the MRIs between 24
intention-to-contact and non-intention-to-contact intervals among 10 pairs
(one pair was disqualified because of irregularities in the MRI), for a
total of 240 trials, are about 10,000 to 1.

There are no known biological processes that could account for these
results. The healers came from a variety of traditions, so there is not even
a singular non-biological woo-woo explanation either. The one thing that the
healers did have in common was that none of them claimed to actually heal,
but only to serve as a conduit of some spiritual source of healing.

I do believe in healing. The report I've described may lend some scientific
credibility to my belief.

One view of what makes science science is that it is falsifiable, meaning
that every one of its claims is open to examination and discredit. So, for
you skeptics, here's the reference: Achterberg, et. al. Evidence for
Correlations Between Distant Intentionality and Brain Functions of
Recipients in The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, volume
11, number 6. Please study it, then, if you feel you've found important
flaws, send me an email about it, care of KUNC. I welcome the dialog. After
all, I'm a scientist too.


Marc Ringel, M.D.
BRUSH, CO (2008-03-24) Scientism
by Marc Ringel, M.D.
KUNC March 24, 2008

Perhaps you recall the commentary I did to usher in this new year. The theme
was compassion, a quality that I've come to believe is a cornerstone of my
own happiness.

Fundamentalists pose some of the biggest challenges to my skills at
compassion. I'm liable to lose my emotional cool when a religious dogmatist
drops the first hint that I'm damned to an eternity of suffering because I
haven't embraced his particular path to joy and salvation. How dare you, I
say (usually to myself), claim a monopoly on the truth? Don't you understand
how complicated and varied are we humans and the world we inhabit?

Gradually, by force of insight, will, and meditation, I've made myself less
knee-jerk negative in the face of such narrow-mindedness. So I was surprised
when I ran into my old anti-fundamentalist, kick- em-in-the-gut reaction,
provoked this time by a scientist who had responded vehemently to a
commentary I did a month ago.

My piece was about a report that raises the possibility of direct
mind-to-mind communication. The study, which no doubt has its flaws (all
studies do), appears to show a statistically valid correlation between the
intentionality of a spiritual healer and the brain state of a subject, as
recorded on a functional MRI brain image.

Before I proceed, I need to pause to apologize for starting that commentary
with reference to the self-anointed representatives of pure science, whom I
dared to criticize me. That was not a very compassionate way to speak. And
I'm sorry for it.

One listener did take up my challenge, a professor of biochemistry and
molecular biology who wrote, I lose respect for KUNC nearly every time I
hear one of Marc Ringel's commentaries. But this morning's was over the top.
She went on to state she was considering pulling [her] support from KUNC .
She also said, Marc Ringel, you are not a scientist .Your words are
insulting to this listening audience and an embarrassment to KUNC.

Rather than address the exact things my irate correspondent said or to
engage in a defense of the particular experiment (which, though I am a
scientist, I do not feel qualified to defend on a technical level), I'd
prefer to respond to the tenor of that listener's comments. Why is her
reaction to my 4 minutes on air every other week so strong as to provoke her
to threaten withdrawing her support from this admirable radio station that,
in the same fortnight, broadcasts 20,156 minutes without me?

Here's why. Because she's a fundamentalist whose worldview acknowledges but
one way to the truth, which is, in her case, by science, narrowly construed
and ferociously defended.

Who can argue with the huge triumphs of materialistic science in explaining
how the Universe works and in spawning technologies that have allowed humans
to construct a whole world for ourselves, including the sphere of medical
science in which I work? Not for lack of trying, there still are all sorts
of sticky, human problems, that we're not even close to addressing via
science, things like ethics and healing and beauty and intuition.

Nevertheless, some people cling dogmatically to an exclusively scientific
worldview. It's called scientism, a not-so-distant cousin to religious
fundamentalism. Scientism perceives an extreme threat in any study,
especially a rigorously scientific one, that dares even hint at a reality
outside of the currently accepted and very imperfectly understood
fundamental forces of Nature. Impure ideas must be discredited, as well as
the researchers who generate such ideas and even the explicators like me who
put them forth.

Yearning for truth lies at the base of all science, art and religion.
Claiming to have an exclusive path to the truth is where things get ugly.

I've got a new task cut out for me, to hone my compassion for people who are
stuck in scientism, even when they attack me directly. That's a tough one.
What that listener said stung. She accused me of not being a scientist. I am
a scientist. A compassionate one, I hope.


Rebuttal to Dr. Marc Ringel
Dr. Jennifer Nyborg
FORT COLLINS, CO (2008-03-31) On Feb. 25th, Marc Ringel aired a commentary
called "The Science of Woo Woo" that seemingly had two objectives. First,
Ringel praised a study that he said provided "mind blowing" evidence for
supernatural "healing from a distance." Second, he both began and ended his
piece by challenging scientists. He encouraged "self-anointed
representatives of pure science" to examine the study, and to email him with
their concerns.

I had two immediate reactions to Ringel's commentary: I felt both skeptical
of the study he praised, and provoked by his challenge.

First, the "healing" study has numerous flaws that violate most tenets of
the scientific method. It was irresponsibly carried-out, it did not have a
control group, was poorly interpreted, and the results were not reproduced.

I encourage interested listeners to read an outstanding critique of this
study by Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, at
Norvig.com/prayer.html. Norvig outlines five warning signs in both the
Design and Interpretation of the "healing" study.

Carl Sagan once said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,"
a mantra that is shared by all good scientists. If the study Ringel promoted
was solid, I would be delighted. It would represent an entirely different
and absolutely fascinating new area of research. However, Ringel latched
onto an ill-conceived study that made extraordinary claims, yet lacked the
voracity of the scientific method to support the claims.

I took up Ringel's challenge and emailed KUNC with my concerns. I explained
how Ringel's endorsement of such a dubious study undermines what we, as
scientist, teach our students: the skills to think deeply, and to critically
evaluate how well scientific data support the researcher's claims.

Every student is trained to read the scientific literature carefully - with
an open, yet critical mind. If scientists did not embrace this way of
thinking, science itself could not progress. Scientific research is a search
for truth (and predictability) about how nature works, and the scientific
method must be uncompromisingly adhered to. If we are gullible, we cannot
distinguish solid science from pseudo-science.

So how did Dr. Ringel respond to me taking up his challenge? Unfortunately,
he did not embrace an on-air scientific dialog on the flaws of the "healing
study", as he promised.

He instead resorted to name-calling in an offensive commentary that aired
last Monday. He called me a fundamentalist. He went on to imply that I am
not compassionate. Apparently, identifying flaws in a shoddy study is
evidence for a lack of compassion.

He accused me of scientism; an offensive characterization defined by Ringel
as someone who perceives "an extreme threat in any study, especially a
rigorously scientific one, that dares to hint at a reality outside the
imperfectly understood fundamental forces of Nature."

This characterization is astonishing, since Ringel has since admitted that
the "healing" study is, in fact, flawed. In an email to me, Ringel stated,
"if you measure enough different things some of them will simply by chance
come out positive." Ringel further stated that he does not "feel qualified
to delve into the validity of the methods employed," as if his
self-proclaimed credentials as a scientist have now evaporated, removing him
from any accountability.

To me, this indicates that he was not truly interested in a dispassionate
discussion of the merits of the healing study, but was instead advancing an
agenda. A clear disservice to the public radio listener.

I am disheartened by Ringel's irresponsible characterization of science, and
the tactics he used to distort my invited concerns. There is much we don't
understand about the natural world... but we also don't carelessly invoke
the supernatural. We think harder, and do another experiment. This is the
message that KUNC listeners need to hear.

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Received on Thu Apr 3 10:50:42 2008

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