Jun 6, 2016

Conflicts of interest abound in NYT post on Transcendental Meditation

June 6, 2016

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).

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.

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