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Science Gurus

April 4, 2022

As a member of the baby boomer generation, I witnessed the surge in interest in Eastern religions starting in the 1960s, such as the pilgrimage of The Beatles to India for enlightenment under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008). Some of the youth of that era sought guidance more often from one guru, or another, rather than the ministers of their parents' religion. That was the same decade that John Lennon (1940-1980) made his notorious statement that rock music might outlast Christianity.[1]

The 1970s saw a merger of Eastern spiritualism and physics in two books. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism was a 1975 book by physicist, Fritjof Capra (b. 1939). This book entwines the mysteries of theoretical physics with Eastern mysticism. 1979 saw publication of The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav (b. 1942). This was a popular exposition of physics, and quantum mechanics in particular.

American physicist, Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019), named his organizational scheme for hadrons that led to the development of the quark model the eightfold way, a reference to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Earlier, we have the example of J. Robert Oppenheimer(1904-1967) recalling the Hindu god, Vishnu, at the Trinity nuclear test. When he was was elevated to the Danish Order of the Elephant, the equivalent of knighthood, in 1947, Niels Bohr (1885-1962) incorporated the yin yang symbol as part of his coat of arms (see figure)

Coat of arms of Niels Bohr

Coat of arms of Niels Bohr incorporating the yin yang symbol. This symbol from Ancient Chinese philosophy incorporates the complementary properties of dark and light, negative and positive, male and female.

Bohr, who created the Bohr model of the atom, was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his "investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them." He also originated the concept of complementarity in physics to describe quantum phenomena in which objects have certain pairs of complementary properties, such as position and momentum, which cannot be observed or measured simultaneously. I wrote about the Bohr model in an earlier article (Bohr Model of the Atom, January 3, 2012).

(Wikimedia Commons image. The Latin motto translates as "The Contrary are Complementary." Click for larger image.)

Science has had its own gurus, the most notable of which is Albert Einstein (1879-1955). More than half a century since his death he is still the image that most people evoke for high science. This leads to the question of whether people value advice more from scientists than spiritual gurus. A team of psychologists and other scientists has just published results of a study that demonstrates that scientists are more credible than spiritual gurus. The results of the study are published in a recent paper in Nature Human Behaviour.[2-3]

The huge international research team was comprised of members from University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), Victoria University of Wellington (Wellington, New Zealand), Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), the University of London (Egham, UK), the Institut Jean Nicod (Paris, France), Aarhus University (Aarhus, Denmark), Vilnius University (Vilnius, Lithuania), the University of Haifa (Haifa, Israel), the University of Padua (Padua, Italy), Babes-Bolyai University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), Brunel University London (Uxbridge, UK), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany), the University of Oxford (Oxford, UK), Rikkyo University (Tokyo, Japan), Adolfo Ibáñez University (Santiago, Chile), Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), the Universidade de Bras&iacut;lia (Bras&iacut;lia, Brazil), James Cook University (Singapore), the Catholic University of Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium), the University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut), and Leiden University (Leiden, The Netherlands).[2]

A diverse cross-cultural sample of 10,195 participants from 24 countries was used for the study, of which 340 participants (3.23%) were excluded because they failed the attention check for the online questionnaire.[2] The participants were presented with obscure, meaningless statements that were attributed to either a spiritual guru or a scientist.[2] It was found that across all 24 countries and all levels of religiosity, scientists held greater authority than spiritual gurus.[2] More religious people held spiritual gurus in greater authority.[2] Similar data across 143 countries indicated the same effect, and the overall assessment is that across cultures science signals the reliability of information irrespective of one's religious beliefs.[2]

Figure caption

Whom do you trust?

This illustrates that scientists enjoy greater trust than traditional healers in a majority of the 143 countries in the study.

The 95% confidence interval of the data is about 0.05 on the horizontal scale.

(Created using Inkscape from data in fug. 4a of ref. 2.[2] Click for larger image.)

The participants were asked to evaluate the credibility of two two meaningless but profound-sounding statements, one of which was attributed to a spiritual guru, and the other to a scientist, as shown below.[3] I'm personally happy that none of my writing sounds like this! The participants were asked rate the credibility of these on a 7-point scale.[3]
"We are called to explore the cosmos itself as an interface between faith and empathy. We must learn how to lead authentic lifes in the face of delusion. It is in refining that we are guided."

"Yes, it is possible to exterminate the things that can confront us, but not without hope on our side. Turbulence is born in the gap when transformation has been excluded. It is in evolving that we are re-energized."

There were interesting differences between countries. Dutch participants were the most skeptical about any claims, and the difference in credibility between the scientist and the guru was greatest in Turkey and smallest in India, China and Japan.[3] This study comes at a relevant time in which scientific and political claims about the coronavirus abound. However, the advertising world has always thought that science sells products, with cosmetics sold as clinically proven and recommended by dermatologists.[2] There's even the historical advertising campaign based on the claim that "more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette."[2]

Vintage Camel cigarettes lighter

Vintage Camel cigarettes lighter.

Tobacco products historically have been heavily advertised, but the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in the United States banned cigarette advertisements on radio and television.

It also required the cigarette package notice, "Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health." This shifted advertising to point-of-sale at convenience stores and the Internet.

As for smoking physicians, I remember one of them in our corporate medical department in the 1980s being advised by his senior colleague that he should stop.

(Wikimedia Commons image by Joe Haupt,)


  1. Who would believe that there's such a thing as The Journal of Beatles Studies, an open access journal started late last year by the Liverpool University Press.
  2. Suzanne Hoogeveen, Julia Haaf, Joseph Bulbulia, Robert Ross, Ryan McKay, Sacha Altay, Theiss Bendixen, Renatas Berniünas, Arik Cheshin, Claudio Gentili, Raluca Georgescu, Will Gervais, Kristin Hagel, Christopher Kavanagh, Neil Levy, Alejandra Neely, Lin Qiu, André Rabelo, Jonathan Ramsay, Bastiaan Rutjens, Hugh Turpin, Filip Uzarevic, Robin Wuyts, Dimitris Xygalatas and Michiel van Elk, "The Einstein effect provides global evidence for scientific source credibility effects and the influence of religiosity," Nature Human Behaviour, February 7, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01273-8.
  3. Scientists carry greater credibility than spiritual gurus, University of Virginia Press Release, February 8, 2022.

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