Thursday, January 12, 2012

Stay away from medicine, Templeton Foundation!

So what’s Templeton been up to? (In the realm mainly of religion, that is; AGW denialism and the like treated separately.)

Well, they and Pew funded “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” They found that the percentage of Christians in the world has declined slightly (from 35% to 32%) in the past century, and that the centers of Christian population have shifted from Europe to the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa. This should be useful to atheists.

They’re sponsoring a lecture series on science and religion at Gordon College in Massachusetts this fall:
The lectures, which will be open to the public and are meant to encourage both dialogue and further scholarship, will appropriately be held in the school's state-of-the-art Ken Olsen Science Center.

Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corp. and a longtime Gordon board member, once wrote: "Science is more than a study of molecules and calculations; it is the love of knowledge and the continued search for the truth. The study of the sciences promotes humility, leaving us with a clear sense that we will never understand all there is to know. At the same time, science provides a defense for truth, authenticates Christianity and stems from the nature of God."
Bet you didn’t know that!

They’ve awarded $5.3 million to something called the Thrive Center at Fuller Seminary in Florida to examine…wait for it…”The Science of Intellectual Humility.” That humility doesn’t have to come into play with regard to Christianity, apparently. Oh, I forgot - science authenticates humble Christianity and stems from the humble Christian God.

They’re also, in this time of economic crisis, perversely but predictably funding “research” on gratitude. An alleged “gratitude trend,” according to an article at CNN, is driven in part by “economic hard times, which appear to have provoked a greater appreciation for the basic things in life, like family and food.” The alleged trend is also driven by “what some experts call 'an explosion' in academic research on the practical benefits of gratitude.” The article doesn’t actually talk about these practical benefits, but it does refer to the economic hard times:
The 2010 Baylor survey showed no significant change in the number of people who pray or believe in God, although it did not directly address gratitude.

Forty eight percent of the 1,100 Americans with fulltime jobs surveyed by Wayne Hochwarter, a professor at Florida State University College of Business, have a greater appreciation of family because of the economic malaise.

Hochwarter's 2010 survey found that 49% feel the economic situation helped them appreciate people more than things.
So this is a survey of people with full-time jobs (and presumably homes and health insurance), and fewer than half reported this greater appreciation, which the writer is interpreting as (religious) gratitude. Nothing, of course, about the people without jobs, homes for their families, food, or health care. It would be kind of unseemly to be asking them about their appreciation of the simpler things.

The writer claims that “A wave of academic research has offered evidence of the important role gratitude plays in well-being and relationships,” but, again, does not share this research, preferring to focus on weak anecdotes (“While it won't make serious problems go away, Dr. Nerurkar said, it can help change your attitude. 'On a bad day', she said, 'sometimes I’m just grateful for a soothing cup of tea'”). The supposed academic wave seems primarily to consist of: “This year, the John Templeton Foundation awarded a $5.9 million grant to the University of California, Davis for a research project entitled 'Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude'.”

A foundation started and run by right-wing billionaires, amidst enormous and growing inequality, rampant greed by the rich, the plundering of the planet’s resources, and widespread want and suffering, encouraging people to focus on gratitude rather than social justice and change? Color me surprised.

Worst of all, they’ve got their grubby paws in medicine. This article describes the increasing role of chaplains in medical facilities, the worrisome encroachment of “spirituality” into medical practice, and a Templeton-funded mega-study of hospital chaplains. All of this is completely unacceptable.

The piece repeats claims like “Studies indicate as many as 40% of patients with serious illnesses like cancer struggle with spiritual concerns, which can harm emotional and physical well-being” and “Patients who have negative thoughts—say, questioning God's care for them—are more likely to develop worse health outcomes than patients who show positive spiritual coping, such as turning to religion for solace.” Of course, they don’t provide evidence of this relationship between “spiritual struggles” and health outcomes for any specific condition, and certainly not for the cancers discussed in the piece. (Barbara Ehrenreich, drawing on the scientific literature, would have something to say about this broad claim.)

This insidious notion that turning to religion in the face of illness is “positive coping” while questioning religious beliefs is “negative spiritual coping” pervades the article. Below, the latter is explicitly referred to as “negative religious coping”: “‘Negative religious coping’—feeling angry, unloved or abandoned by God, or doubting one's beliefs—has been associated with anxiety, depression and poorer social and emotional well-being.” In other words, doubt itself is negative and detrimental to well-being. Doubt and the examination of belief are not a natural and fruitful human response to existential crisis, but simply conducive to unhappiness and pathology and in need of fixing by professional illusionists.

But here’s the most disturbing aspect:
With a $3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation—whose late founder was an investor interested in the intersection of scientific research and spirituality—the Health Care Chaplaincy will oversee six national research projects on professional chaplains' role in health and palliative care, Dr. Smith says.
Should we expect this research to adhere to the highest standards of consent? Here’s the paragraph that follows:
A study published online in July in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that among 3,000 patients hospitalized over a three-year period at the University of Chicago Medical Center, 41% wanted a discussion of religious and spiritual concerns, yet only half of that group reported having one.

Patients who had a spiritual discussion reported being more satisfied with their overall care, whether or not they said they had desired it.
Whether or not they said they desired it. (And let me express my doubt that all of those who had not said they desired it had a positive response to such a discussion. I know I wouldn’t.)

It’s one thing to ask patients if they would like to have such a discussion and if so with whom. It is quite another to inflict such an intervention on a person who hasn’t expressed interest in it. It becomes even more suspicious when the article goes on to say: “Patients may hesitate to ask for a chaplain's services out of concern that chaplains will proselytize—even though in many cases they don't use explicit theological language and 'are there to be companionable and offer support', says Wendy Cadge, associate professor at Brandeis University.” It’s dangerous for people favoring this research to be suggesting that people who don’t request these meetings just don’t know what’s good for them. It’s also disingenuous to argue that this does not involve proselytizing in those “many cases” [!] in which no “explicit” theological language is used, especially given the fact that there are professionals who provide support services with no religious spin or motive.

Sick, hospitalized people are a vulnerable population and should be fully protected from those with ulterior motives and agendas based on false beliefs. Given their history of shaping academic research, Templeton’s involvement with studies on this population, particularly those overseen by an organization with a self-serving agenda, should give anyone pause.

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