Against Dalai Lama's Lecture at SfN2005

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    Dr. Carol Barnes, President of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN)
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We are concerned that SfN has invited the Dalai Lama to give a talk at the 2005 annual meeting in Washington D.C..

With more than 36,000 members, SfN is a highly respected organization for neuroscientists from all over the world. Its annual meetings are major events not only for neuroscientists, but also for public understanding of high quality research in neuroscience. It will be unwise if the reputation of SfN, built on the work of many neuroscientists over the past 30 years, is to be tainted by questionable decisions.

The presentation of a religious symbol with a controversial political agenda may cause unnecessary controversies, unwanted press, and significant divisions among SfN members from multiple geographic locations, and with conflicting religious beliefs and political leanings. Article II of SfN Bylaw states: the purposes of the Society are scientific, educational, literary, charitable, and NO OTHER (emphasis added). The invitation extended to a religious leader may have violated SfN bylaws. It has certainly deviated from the central mission of the SfN.

Inviting the Dalai Lama to lecture on Neuroscience of Meditation is of poor scientific taste because it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity at a prestigious meeting attended by more than 20,000 neuroscientists. The 2004 PNAS paper dealing with this particular subject by the laboratory of Richard Davidson at Wisconsin has serious flaws, and was done and funded by believers and supporters. The restriction placed on the Question-and-Answer period precludes free questioning. The SfN will signal to the neuroscience community that a different standard will apply when the topic is favorable to a religion or its leader.

It is ironic for neuroscientists to provide a forum for and, with it, implicit endorsement of a religious leader whose legitimacy relies on reincarnation, a doctrine against the very foundation of neuroscience. The present Dalai Lama explicitly claims the separation of mind and body, which is essential to the recognition of the Dalai Lama as both a religious and a political leader.

It would serve the interests of SfN as well as the public to cancel the talk.

SUPPLEMENT I. Major Problems posed by the presentation of the Dalai Lama at the annual SfN meeting.

1) SfN membership is not limited to any single country. Members have joined SfN for neuroscience, not for politics or religion. It is obvious that the Dalai Lama is more a symbol for a particular religion with debatable religious doctrines and claims, rather than a symbol for neuroscience or science.

2) The controversy was initiated by the SfN selection, not by scientists who had to react when the sensitivity of its membership has not been considered during the selection of a controversial symbol. It appears that SfNs choice of the Dalai Lama shows a preference of publicity over substance, celebrity over quality.

3) The SfN has announced that in the question-and-answer period, questions from the audience will be written on cards and passed to selected SfN leaders posted in each aisle. This restriction of free discussion seems to show that SfN is offering an uncritical forum for the speaker or the controversial scientific basis (or lack of it) of the talk.

4) If the talk by the Dalai Lama is to be considered educational, literary, or charitable, such stretching of definitions will set precedence to other loosely defined topics. It could be a slippery road if neuroscientists begin to blur the border between science and religious practices.

5) If a lecture on the Neuroscience of Meditation has to be delivered at SfN, it is arguable who is more qualified: the Dalai Lama, or Hindu and Muslim leaders who can claim longer history of meditation. Choosing the Dalai Lama is arbitrary and may have shown favoritism towards one brand of meditation associated with a specific religion.

6) In the SfN announcement of the Featured Lectures regarding the talk by the Dalai Lama, it is stated that meditation, a practice of mental discipline that Western neuroscience has shown to change neural states in circuits that may be important for compassionate behavior and attentional and emotional regulation. This is a misleading statement. This claim was made by believers of meditation and Buddhism and the experiments were performed by a team led by Richard Davidson, a long time believer. This study published in PNAS was flawed, ranging from experimental design to conclusions. It is too premature for SfN to support the statement on the basis of such experiments by believers.

7) Public records show that the Dalai Lama came out of previous meetings with Western scientists claiming that he has learned nothing from the West that challenges Tibetan Buddhist doctrines, including reincarnation. He was quoted in Scientific American stating that scientists are so far quite neutral with regard to reincarnation. One wonders whether meetings between the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists are helpful or detrimental to public understanding of science. While the benefits for science is debatable, it seems that associations with scientists have been more useful for the Dalai Lama and his supporters for purposes unrelated to science such as buttressing religious practices and doctrines. By publicly endorsing the Dalai Lama with what can be construed as apparent scientific legitimacy, SfN is providing potential ammunition for him or his followers to promote his own agenda.

8) If SfN wants to provide diverse perspectives, it is unclear that the Dalai Lama should be a high priority. It would be easier for SfN to select a topic with more objective research but less entanglement with religion or politics. For example, acupuncture is not a topic initiated by traditional or Western scientists. For example, there has been a much larger amount of research done on acupuncture by researchers who are not religious believers and receive no funding from religious organizations. By comparison, research related to the Dalai Lama's kind of meditation is limited in scope and depth, and also suffers from close association with practicing believers who are often not only the advocates, but also the researchers and sometimes financial sponsors of such research.

In summary, the key issue is not the right of anyone to speak, but the forum that is appropriate for specific speakers and speeches. A presentation by the Dalai Lama at SfN raises important issues which can not be resolved unless the talk is cancelled.