Think positive, think again

The Balance Within
July 27, 2001

This is a book for a person of the New Age who feels in need of a tad of scientific rationalism to underpin some of his or her beliefs.

Its thesis is that there are good biological explanations for the avowed efficacy of alternative medicines, crystal gazing, meditation and the like. The book tells us how these practices and their predecessors, the ancient healing arts, may work in part through a connection of the immune system with the brain. Healthy mind, healthy body. Think fit, think positive. These would be viewed by most people as sound aphorisms for dealing with stress and they make an implicit causal connection between the emotions and physical health.

Some of Esther Sternberg's stories are quite captivating. Her historical vignettes and descriptive travelogues are often evocative, interesting and entertaining. But there is something deeply wrong here. A continuing plaintive subtext is that her field of investigation, which carries the arcane title psycho-neuro-immunology, is sniffed at by mainstream scientists. It is Sternberg's view that the endeavours of a few dedicated scientists are casually disregarded by the rest of the scientific community for no better reason than that they do not understand the results or cannot explain them.

This does not wash. The reason why the majority of scientists have a healthy sceptical attitude to the mind-body connection is that research in this area is characterised by contrived and poorly conceived experiments, which are often followed by invalid and inappropriate conclusions.

Here is an example of the genre (abbreviated and syllogised and not at all typical of the majority of papers presented) from last year's annual meeting of the Australasian Society of Immunology which I attended. Observation 1: Reserpine (a drug) causes depression. Observation 2: Reserpine causes a diminution of recall immune responses. Conclusion: Depression causes a blunting of the immune response.

The conclusion clearly cannot be drawn because the observations could be completely independent of each other. One might just as well argue that blunted immune responses cause depression.

One wonders why so many people are so credulous about research that really offers no more evidence of its veracity than the apocryphal second-hand car salesman with his line: "One lady owner, mate, honest."

For although Sternberg has published her work in some of the top science journals, what she shows in those papers and what she claims in this book are qualitatively different. She declares early in the book that scepticism is scientific arrogance. I say she has been seduced by the dark side.

The basic problem is that she aggrandises arguments, drawing large conclusions from insufficient evidence. As an example, we learn that there are two cultures: one popular, the other scientific. Sternberg suggests that books such as The Balance Within will begin a process by which these two cultures can respect and talk to each other. She goes on to ponder how, if we can accept that the brain can cure illness, scientists may then be able to harness this power and use it more efficaciously. Given such a power, who knows what diseases can be conquered?

Sternberg tells us how the ancients lived in peace and in balance with their world. Their healing arts were based on millennia of observation, on the power of water, meditation and the rhythms of the land and the sea. Left largely out of the picture are smallpox, plagues, parasitic infections, child mortality rates and the like. But maybe these are inventions of modern medicine?

Richard Lake is an immunologist at the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, Perth, Australia.

The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions

Author - Esther M. Sternberg
ISBN - 0 7167 3479 6 & 4445 7
Publisher - Freeman
Price - £18.99 & £10.99
Pages - 250

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