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Boot Camp Day 10: Can I Get a Witness?

I received an e-mail today from Patty Gras at KUHT (Houston PBS). She’s a producer and the host of a “health and lifestyle” show called Living Smart. The show features topics related to health, alternative medicine, diet, self-improvement, and so forth. Here’s what she has to say about an upcoming show:

“Did you know the happiest man on the planet is a Buddhist monk? Scientists checked his brain waves and found him to be the most joyful person on earth, so we decided to talk to another monk, Master Jian Xiao Shih, so he could share some of the secrets to happiness!

“Master Shih of the Chung Tai Zen center of Houston will share the art of happiness this Sunday at 3 p.m.”

Now, let me start off by saying that I like Patty Gras. She’s a talented singer—I used to enjoy going to hear her group Barandúa, which played music in a variety of Latin American folk styles, and I’ve also heard her perform with a group called Quartus and as part of a duo. She seems smart, cool, liberal, and keen on social-justice issues that I care about. But sometimes her show ventures too far into the area that I like to call “woowoo,” and the promo above is a prime example.

Let’s take a look at the claim she makes in this e-mail message. “The happiest man on the planet is a Buddhist monk.” Hm. Right off the bat, my hyperbole detector is registering dangerous readings. The happiest man in the world? By what measure? I want to ask. And then she’s right there with an explanation: “Scientists checked his brain waves and found him to be the most joyful person on earth.”

Wow. There’s a lot of information in that statement. If this is true, it’s big science news that hasn’t made it into any of the science blogs or magazines I’ve been reading. Have scientists really found a way to use brain waves to detect joy? Is happiness an emotion that can be measured by bioelectric activity? I am inclined toward skepticism, but I’m entirely willing to believe that this assertion is based on research about which I’ve never read. (I’ll get to googling at my earliest opportunity.)

But my skepticism rises to an irresistible level when I get to “…and found him to be the most joyful person on earth.” Even if I accept as a given that scientists have found a way to measure happiness, is she asking us to believe that they’ve found a way to measure brain waves remotely for everyone on the planet? I, for one, have not had my happiness brain waves measured yet. At least not that I know of.

Is this merely careless language? Or is it careless thinking? I almost hope it’s just a poor representation of an inexact understanding of some real findings of some real scientific research. But how can an intelligent person put forward an assertion that’s so ridiculous on its face? How much credulity can one successful professional broadcaster possess?

I worry, though, that there’s something worse going on here, which is a disturbing disregard for the very nature of science. Science is about evidence—about observation, experimentation, and the testing of hypotheses. And although I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should be expected to test and verify any claim that’s presented as having a scientific basis, I believe that intelligent people—especially intelligent people who make it their business to communicate with the public about important issues—have an obligation to apply a measure of skepticism to such claims. In other words, if you’re planning to go on television and say, “Scientists have proven this thing I’m telling you about,” then you have a responsibility to find out exactly what the scientists had to say, and then to present it to the public in a way that honestly represents the science involved.

In fact, let’s make it a rule. Why not? We have FCC regulations governing decency and obscenity, why shouldn’t we have one simple rule about scientific truth: If you make a claim on television or the radio and you invoke the name of science, you should be required by law to cite your sources and provide an honest statement of what the research proves.

And if it turns out that there’s no real science behind the claims, then journalists with integrity have a responsibility to present that information, too. Or come clean and say, “I just like the idea that this Buddhist monk is the happiest person on the planet.”

Note: I decided to totally disregard the suggested topics for my tenth and last Boot Camp submission.

© 2008 Edward F. Gumnick

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