More on the AHRQ report and health research on meditation

The most comprehensive of the "no benefits" reviews is the AHRQ paper (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality). Experts in meditation research note that the review is methodologically flawed, laden with errors and grossly amiss in its conclusions.

Faulty research design: Scientists who conduct research on exercise, meditation or other behavioral health modalities have developed rigorous and widely accepted ways to determine effects. As a result of using such established methodologies, much of the research on the Transcendental Meditation technique is considered to be on par with the highest quality pharmaceutical research. However, if the research criteria used by this review, such as the double-blind experiment, were used for all scientific studies, there would be no acceptable research showing that cigarette smoking is harmful or proper diet and exercise are good for you. (The double blind experiment would require you to study smoking without the smokers knowing that they are smoking cigarettes—which is obviously not possible. Similarly, you cannot do a double-blind study on meditation whereby the subjects would not know whether or not they are meditating or practicing a particular technique.)

Yet, we know that cigarette smoking is bad for one’s health, and that a balanced diet and exercise are good for you, and that meditation does have many beneficial effects. How do we know this? Because scientists have ways other than double blind studies to identify effects.

Questionable conclusions: Based on its faulty approach, the review concluded—using unusually strong language—that all research on meditation is of “poor quality.” One can say “unusually strong language" because the wording used by the review’s authors is nonstandard and in fact rather odd for science journals.

Studies that have the most rigorous designs are often the largest (i.e., have the highest number of subjects and control groups, are conducted over longer time periods, etc.). They are also exceedingly expensive—typically costing several million dollars for a single research project.

Smaller studies (which are more common) can still employ rigorous clinical controls. They have their place and play a significant role in the scientific literature. Smaller studies point the way to further research, or, in combination with other studies, can strongly suggest an effect or benefit. Usually the researchers themselves will explicitly acknowledge the limitations of a study’s design and the limited conclusions that can be drawn from a single study. And that is the language that is typically used: “only limited conclusions can be drawn” or “further research is needed.”

But the ARHQ reviewers instead chose to characterize such studies as poor: “Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality.”

Quite a number of the studies so described were published in major medical journals, which generally would not be said to publish “poor research.” In fact, there have been over 350 research studies on the TM technique published in peer-reviewed science and medical journals (studies that were conducted at 250 independent research institutes and medical schools worldwide). The National Institutes of Health has awarded $26 million for scientists to further the body of research on the TM technique. NIH grants are intensely competitive and given only for studies that meet high standards of research. The NIH reviewers are no fools; they would not continue to grant millions of dollars over a 20-year period for research on the TM technique unless there was a precedence of promising findings based on quality research. Independent, peer-reviewed journals and their editors and peer-reviewers would not risk their reputations and continue to publish research on the TM technique if all previous research in the field was known to be “poor.”

Criticism of AHRQ: A number of meditation researchers have said that due to its methodological errors, the review's conclusions are invalid. One of the paper’s reviewers, Professor Harald Walach of the University of Northampton and School of Social Sciences and the Samueli Institute for Information Biology in England, strongly urged the authors to withhold publication. “When I looked carefully into the details of the study, the whole analytical strategy looked rather haphazard and ad hoc,” Walach said.

Other researchers have criticized the study as well:

Top researchers criticize new meditation and health study:

Meditation researcher David Orme-Johnson on the AHRQ report:

Theoretical perspective: Moreover, experts in the various, long-standing traditions of meditation would flatly deny the review’s reference to meditation practices lacking a “theoretical perspective.” In the case of the Transcendental Meditation program, there has been 50 years of theoretical development aimed at providing a scientific understanding of the mechanism of the TM technique and integrating technique’s theoretical framework into modern science—especially with regards to quantum field theory.
The TM program has its basis in a tradition of theoretical analysis that, according to scholars, is at least 10,000 years old.

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