Conflicts of interest abound in NYT post on Transcendental Meditation

Joy Victory is deputy managing editor of HealthNewsReview. She tweets as @thejoyvictory.

Twelve years ago, as a newspaper reporter in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County, a news release came across my desk alerting me that Transcendental Meditation (TM) followers were planning to bring their specific type of meditation to nearby public schools.

At first I thought, OK, our affluent readership will love this story, and it will be an easy one to bang out under deadline. But then I dug into the research, and quickly realized there were lots of questionable claims flying around (in some cases quite literally–ability to levitate is one made by TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi).  

MaharishiMaheshYogi-06

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of TM. Credit: Global Good News/Wikimedia Commons

Other problems ranged from accusations of cult-like behaviors to self-funded, overwhelmingly positive studies rarely being conducted using rigorous science. This research became the underpinnings of my nearly 3,000-word investigation of the TM movement.

So perhaps it felt a bit personal when I scanned the recent posts of Well (the New York Times’ health blog), and saw “Using Meditation to Help Close the Achievement Gap.” The post describes a program called “Quiet Time” that’s being offered in economically disadvantaged schools. It involves adding two 15-minute sessions of “quiet” into the school day. During this time, kids are encouraged to meditate–using specifically the TM method.

It’s worth noting that while there are many types of meditation, and most of it is free, TM is trademarked and generates substantial earnings. I tallied $65 million in income from 2014 tax records of just six major TM-related non-profit organizations. Including more than a dozen smaller non-profits in the analysis would have brought the total even higher.

Amazingly, the Times tells us, after this Quiet Time was put in place “suspensions dropped by 79 percent, attendance rose to 98 percent, and students’ grade point averages rose each year.”

Yup, I thought while reading the post, looks like the TM folks are still up to their old ways. I wondered why news outlets–especially one as prestigious as the New York Times—weren’t applying a higher level of scrutiny.

Where’s the critical scrutiny of this research?

While there’s no shortage of puff pieces about the TM movement, there’s also reporting, opinion pieces and even a documentary that take a closer look at the claims and science, including these stories from The Daily Mail, Forbes, Scientific American, MacLeans, and even the Times itself.

In other words, this isn’t under-the-radar stuff anymore, and just as with any medical study where claims of benefit are being made, meditation research deserves a hearty dose of scrutiny and viewpoints from independent experts.

‘No evidence that mantra meditation programs improve psychological stress’

A good example is this Scientific American column “Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation.” It includes these important findings from a 2014 systematic review:

“The Johns Hopkins University Evidence-Based Practice Center examined 17,801 papers on meditation and found 41 relatively high-quality studies involving 2,993 subjects. Of these 41 studies, only 10 had a “low risk of bias,” according to the Johns Hopkins team. In other words, even the highest-quality studies were, for the most part, carried out and interpreted in a manner that favored positive outcomes.”

When it came to the style of meditation that TM uses, using “mantras,” the review said “we found no evidence that mantra meditation programs improve psychological stress and well-being.”

The recent New York Times post doesn’t go there. Instead it tells us “Research shows that … Transcendental Meditation, a stress-reducing technique that involves thinking of a mantra, can reduce stress and its manifestations – for example, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.”

TM research has deep ties with TM employees

Curious, I looked up the two controlled studies specifically called out in the post, and saw this same risk for bias noted by the Johns Hopkins review. The study author on this one is on staff at the Maharishi University of Management.

And the other study included researchers who are on staff at the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, which is funded in part by the David Lynch Foundation. Lynch, a movie and TV director, is a big proponent of TM.

And the Times author is a TM follower with potential for bias

But that’s not where the problems end with this post. After closing on a very emphatic quote–”Why shouldn’t all our students have access to meditation?”–we finally get a byline: “Norman E. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist and the author of “Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life Through Transcendental Meditation.”

So, along with potentially biased research, we’ve got a potentially biased author.

If this post had been clearly labeled an opinion piece, that wouldn’t be so frustrating. But the post reads as straight news until the very end, where it closes with an emphatic opinion. And many readers will never make it down to the conflict of interest disclosure at the bottom.

If the Times wanted to pursue this topic, a better option would have been to assign it to someone without such a direct conflict of interest, and to ensure that independent expert perspective was included.

Or, they could’ve followed the Washington Post’s example and simply printed an excerpt from Rosenthal’s book. With the Post’s approach, we know right away that Rosenthal is a TM follower–and stands to gain income from selling his book about how TM can create a “Super Mind.”

Super Mind, OK. But we’re looking for super journalism, too.

Related:

The marketing of mindfulness–and why that matters

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Comments (14)

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Jim Karpen

June 6, 2016 at 2:22 pm

Thanks for your comments on Norman Rosenthal’s piece in the New York Times. You may be interested to know that TM research has received extensive scrutiny in the scientific literature. There are probably hundreds of research reviews, including quite a few systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Here are two for your consideration.
This review published in 2015 is the most up-to-date review of the cardiovascular research, almost all of which was independently funded by the National Institutes of Health. It found that TM lowers blood pressure. The authors also found that all 12 of the studies they examined were acceptable according to the rigorous Cochrane standard.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25673114
The review by Goyal that you cite had narrow inclusion criteria that left out some of the best studies. Regarding quality, Goyal found the 5 of the 7 studies they examined were medium or high quality.
This rigorous meta-analysis published in a top psychology journal in 2012 had a broader inclusion criterion and found a range of psychological benefits for TM:
http://www.thehartcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Meditation-Metta-Analysis-American-Psychologist-.pdf
Note that when a review speaks of “bias,” it’s not talking about the institutional affiliation of the researchers. Rather, it’s talking about facets of research design. If a study isn’t adequately blinded, for example, the research review will say the study has a risk of bias.
Like any area of research, the quality of TM research varies. But the best research is highly respected in the scientific community, as are the researchers themselves. TM researchers who have written top-notch grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health have themselves been invited to review grant proposals, because their expertise was recognized. Researcher Fred Travis was one of the country’s leading meditation researchers invited to speak at the New York Academy of Sciences.
Anyway, just wanted to share some comments regarding the research.

    Shlomo P Ruse

    June 6, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    Dr Norman Rosenthal addresses this issue head-on his books where he describes how he was very skeptical for decades about the claims made around TM. He was convinced by the quality of the research. Here is another good resource around this question. http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/TMResearchIssues/index.cfm

Bill Conder

June 6, 2016 at 4:45 pm

A problem is the branding of meditation by TM practitioners, and then the need to market the brand. There’s no doubt that meditation has many important benefits, especially since Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response of 50 or 60 years ago. Benson interpreted concepts from the ages old practice for our very stiff scientific language so there could be no doubt that the discussion was about real physiological changes. He even compared his technique to TM – I think he said that he thought TM was slightly more effective or more efficient. The question should not be about meditation, or TM, or research on the subject, but about business practice. And good writing – it doesn’t have to be super, just good.

    Shlomo P Ruse

    June 6, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    The branding of TM is very important when there is a failure to distinguish between techniques that use a mantra that don’t work and the TM technique which does. TM is taught in a highly standardized way so that when you go to a certified teacher you know you are getting what has been proven to work by highly trained personnel who are compensated fairly for their work. If you look at the details of those non-profits getting these substantial earnings you would see where the money goes – to giving a decent standards of living to the individual teachers who are often teaching in high cost areas like NYC and San Francisco and teaching to very distressed communities and often challenging working conditions like inner city schools and prisons. It is a full time job to do it right. You can find out more by going to the David Lynch Foundation website before making very cynical judgements about what is a tiny amount of money spent in terms of the prevention of greater expenditure and suffering in the long term. more on the comparison with a “relaxation response” – http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/ComparisonofTechniques/RelaxationResponse/index.cfm

    Tomas Ball

    June 7, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Regarding the so-called “branding” of TM, the truth is, TM defies mass marketing, commercialization, and even the Internet: thanks to the trademarked name, TM has always been and will always be taught only in-person by highly trained teachers, through one-on-one personal instruction and a series of classes with the teacher, and in this sense TM remains REFRESHINGLY human.

    Also, the difference between TM and Benson’s relaxation technique is day and night. The Relaxation Response is a concentration (focused attention) technique, and TM involves no concentration or effort, and research shows TM to have a different range of effects, including deeper rest, heighten EEG coherence, and so many wellness effects not associated with Benson’s technique. See: The Myth of the Relaxation Response: http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/tmresearch/comparisonoftechniques/relaxationresponse/index.cfm

Bill Smith

June 6, 2016 at 6:39 pm

While 40 years ago my only acid trip exposed the conflict in my mind caused by growin up as a dyslexic when not a well known condition and that started my search for a solution. Luckily only thing that appeared to offer a solution though no evidence at that time was transcendental meditation and from first meditation for me worked better than could have hoped for. Perhaps only in this decade with increase in brain research made possible by EEG scans and the like of Jon Lieff MD posts have I better understood how TM helped me lose the overactive fight or fight thoughts in brain and increase brain cohesion instead. I speculate that because my brain cohesion started from low level why the start of my TM of my pratice unusually special and one of reasons voluntary advocate TM for troubled youth especially ones with Adverse Childhood Experiences.
While others advocate other meditation techniques such as mindfulness and Buddhism I from UK journalism. on BBC Radio 4 and the Guardian that ask the question Is Mindfulness Dangerous and leads me to The Atlantic article about The Dark Night which to me much more worrying articles for troubled young than that recently appeared in New York Times.

Richard Dalby

June 6, 2016 at 9:44 pm

The National Institutes of Health have given over 26 million dollars over the past 20 years to research TM, especially in the area of cardiovascular disease. (Hardly “self-funding”). They continue funding TM studies because they are impressed with the quality of prior research. Another point is that “mantra meditations” can’t be lumped into one category. Different techniques show vastly different results even though they may each employ a “mantra”. The American Heart Association 2 years ago reviewed all meditation techniques that had been studied in the area of hypertension, and came out with a statement that in their opinion the only meditation technique that had been scientifically shown to reduce high blood pressure was TM, and that cardiologists could consider recommending TM as part of a treatment program. Another study on researcher bias showed that TM research that included authors practicing TM was significantly more conservative in reporting results than TM studies where authors didn’t practice TM.

John Burns

June 7, 2016 at 5:35 am

I have been a full time teacher of Transcendental Meditation in Ireland for almost 40 years. For about 30 of those years, I have also been the liaison between our organisation and the accountant who audits our books and therefore know exactly how much my colleagues earn. It is modest.
Transcendental Meditation is not ‘free’ because there are full time teachers renting premises, putting ads in newspapers/online. We provide thorough excellent follow up. Roughly 40% of those we instruct nowadays have tried another meditation technique—there are hundreds here in Ireland, some free, some not. Just because a technique is free does not mean it has been researched. It does not mean that it’s teachers have been well trained. It does not mean that the technique is pure.
By all means, lets have more research on Transcendental Meditation. We want this. We have nothing to hide. We are confident that as bigger research projects take place, the technique will be shown to be as effective as I have witnessed it to be over these past 40 years.

Tomas Ball

June 7, 2016 at 6:56 am

Generally, respectably-sourced news pieces on TM in recent years have been highly positive, based on facts and actual reports from schools where the TM/Quiet Time program is having such a beautiful, life-changing impact. Considering TM’s well-established track record, it’s rare when a writer with an axe to grind decides, for whatever reason, to take such an intensely negative angle. I find such cynical perspectives to be based on misunderstandings, misconstrued facts and misinformation, as with this article.

The most glaring false assertion here is that the TM organization produced a “profit of $65 million” according to 2014 tax records; the facts are indeed public record, and that is not what they say, and there is no evidence to backup for the writer’s claim. The reality is that there is no profit—and basically, there never has been. The TM organization in the US operates at breakeven, and all the funds generated by course fees go back into the organization to make TM available to more people, especially at-risk populations who cannot afford to pay a course fee. Most of the 500,000-plus people who’ve learned TM in the past 10 years have learned for free. Part of every course fee funds someone to learn who can’t afford to pay. No one in the TM organization has ever financially profited from TM, from the bottom to the top. TM is truly non-profit. Check the IRS records.

The claim that the scientific research has not been “scrutinized” is also false. TM has probably been subjected to more independent critical review boards, scientific review boards, and peer-reviewed research than any other self-development program. See http://www.truthabouttm.org The review presented above to refute claims of TM’s benefits carries little weight by itself, when you consider the selection critic used in that limited study, but I wonder if the author of this article considered such factors. As other commenters here have shown, many other larger, independent reviews have confirmed TM’s unique range of effects, including a major study (2013) by the American Heart Association, which determined that TM is the only form of meditation effective against hypertension (the report stated that mindfulness “cannot be recommended” to lower high blood pressure).

It is also blatantly false to state that most of the research studies “has deep ties with TM employees.” Look at the bibliography of over 750 studies, you probably won’t find any that were done entire by meditating scientists, and the TM organization has never funded a research study. Most of the recent funding has come from the NIH. Those few studies that did include scientists associated with Maharishi University of Management were almost always led by non-TM-related scientists from other universities, who requested that these scientists be on the team.

It is also false that Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the former 20-year senior NIH researcher and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, has any ties to the TM organization.

And finally, it’s not “Transcendental Meditation followers” bringing TM to schools, it’s the schools themselves. In almost every major city there is a waiting list of schools who have approached the David Lynch Foundation and TM program, as in the small city where I live. I have never known “TM people,” as you call them, to proselytize TM in the schools. School principles learn about the independent scientific research on TM, and they reach out, because they know they need these results, which no other meditation program has yet been shown to produce.

PS, Wild claims of levitation? Completely irrelevant—and who is claiming that anyone can levitate? Not me.

    Kevin Lomangino

    June 8, 2016 at 6:02 am

    Quick rebuttal: The post does not assert that the TM organization produced a “profit.” It mentions “income” which is much different than profit. And the post never asserts that Dr. Rosenthal has ties to TM — it states that he is an author of a book that promotes TM practices and therefore has a conflict of interest.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor

Chris Attwood

June 7, 2016 at 9:49 am

Several hundred studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals on the positive effects of Transcendental Meditation. What’s the point of peer-reviews, regardless of who funded or conducted the research? Isn’t it to ensure that the research was done in accord with accepted scientific protocols agreed within the scientific community to ensure unbiased results?

Joy, unless you believe all the scientists who reviewed these studies are also suffering from conflicts of interest, how do you justify blithely tossing aside more than 300 studies published in peer-reviewed journals?

I can understand anyone being skeptical of one or two studies that indicate benefits from a particular modality. But as you undoubtedly know, the more times results are replicated, the possibility that such results occurred by chance become infinitesimally small.

It appears you are more influenced by your own biases than by the available evidence.

Mohan R. Gurubatham PhD

June 7, 2016 at 2:54 pm

Thank you for review raising the need for obekctivety. I notice that the John Hopkin’s meta analytic review you cite may have lumped together the few trials on Transcendental Meditation , ( TM) with other meditative techniques to estimate ‘effect sizes’ and statistical significance. For the good lay readers here, this may not be the best practice as compared to say, over a hundred studies on TM ‘alone’ then performing a meta analysis on the outcomes. However , quite a few landmark meta analysis have been done on TM with supportive if not strikingly astonishing favourable results. To mention but a few, Stanford University conducted a meta analysis on anxiety reduction effects with 146 studies not just 6 trials on TM outcomes compared to concentrative and contemplative practices (Journal of Clinical Psychology 45 (1989): 957–974., Journal of Clinical Psychology 33 (1977): 1076–1078). The American Psychologist had also published a meta analysis on TM effects ( American Psychologist 42 (1987): 879–881).
Ironically the Scientific American, a prestigious scientific magazine that you mention originally published a ground-breaking article popularising published research in Science 167 (1970): 1751–1754 and the American Journal of Physiology 221 (1971): 795–799; proposing a 4the major state of consciousness or ‘a wakeful hypometabolic state ‘ (Wallace RK. The Physiology of Meditation. Scientific American 1972;226:84-90) .
This indeed is the ‘kicker’ since it both succinctly and uniquely operationalizes transcending , which goes beyond thinking to transcendental consciousness ~ a unique state different from waking, sleeping and dreaming documented in the classic vedic literature. This is important as TM offers an operational definition which hitherto was undefined and so untested, with other meditative techniques on a competitive test basis.
Overall through the decades , a critical mass of scalability is needed to be considered in making pronouncements of the benefits of TM, accruing to it as sustainable, and measurable longitudinal effects. Moreover it is an inherently effortless, systematic , and scalable practice simply because it is taught systematically . The sheer volume of research done over the decades internationally and many independent universities attest to this. Not only is it unique in its operational definition, but in its origin in terms of internal consistency documented in the classic vedic literature, and empirical research in the practice as effortless by self reports of transcending and ; showing up the external consistency by ’objective ‘ measures in terms of electrophysiological measure such as eeg, heart rates and blood pressure. These are more direct measures, but there also longitudinal effects measured in cognitive functions, personality and interpersonal relations which have also been meta analysed often with random assignments of subjects to treatments.
So overall the sheer scale of TM research is unique, it outpaces ‘mindfulness’ in scale, and other meditative techniques often involving effort and not transcending.

Shaas Ruzicka

June 7, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Re. “TM uses, using “mantras,” the review said “we found no evidence that mantra meditation programs improve”: Ridiculous how irresponsibly you draw your conclusions while mixing up TM with some undefined methods of meditation that “use mantras”.
It is like claiming: because all soccer teams of USA use a ball, they must be playing as good soccer as FC Barcelona. Come on!
Transcendental Meditation is a unique meditation that brings unique benefits. Certainly there might be other methods but their effects are hardly comparable with TM. Combined with its effortlessness and simplicity, the holistic benefits of TM make TM the best method of people of all kinds of walk of life, irrespective of their education, religion, or life style.

Joy Victory

June 7, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Thank you all for your comments. Our point is here is not to pick apart the research–but to show that this New York Times post likely should have been labeled as opinion.

Readers who were expecting an objective, balanced look did not get one.

In our reviews, we expect news journalists to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and seek out second independent opinions (ideally several), in their reporting:

https://www.healthnewsreview.org/about-us/review-criteria/criterion-6/