Research and the Steiner Bubble

By Jim.

One of the many curious features of the Steiner cult is it’s craving for intellectual respectability. It loves its “research” and “institutes”. Odd really when you consider that it would be difficult to imagine anything less deserving of serious consideration in respectable academic circles. Yet that is what Steiner insiders would have you believe, indeed it is encapsulated in their notion of anthroposophy as “ spiritual science”. This was laid down as a primary objective in anthroposophy’s founding conference in 1924. But does it bear any resemblance to what we normally mean by science or research?

Steiner was nothing if not ambitious. The field of anthroposophical research embraces biology, medicine, agriculture, education, economics, chemistry, optics, architecture and pretty much anything else that fluttered across Steiner’s mind. If you look you can find articles and papers on almost any subject you choose expounding views from a Steinerian perspective. Some are just comment, which of course anyone is entitled to make, but others intend to be taken more seriously as credible “research”. But often if you strip away the would-be academic language the content is no more substantial. It is interpretation rather than research.

A good example of this comes from Sune Nordwall’s site thebee.se looking at what he calls the potentisation problem. Potentisation is the process of extreme dilution and shaking by which homeopaths believe their preparations are made effective. His opening remarks alone indicate that his idea of research might differ from the more widely held view. He concedes that “from a natural-scientific point of view it is easy to view the “potentizing” as an absurd process” but then continues “if you instead approach the problem from a research point of view”. So from the start a false dichotomy is established between the scientific view and research. What follows is a supposed description of the process in terms of astral and ether bodies, an analogy between potentisation and human metabolism which is reminiscent of alchemy, the academic apparatus of copious references to other publications ( predominantly anthroposophic or homeopathic ) and finally a totally irrelevant reference to variations in the rate of radioactive decay discussed in a mainstream publication. The whole thing actually reads like a spoof of a scientific publication – it even has some charming cartoons.

What he does not consider of course is that there is no “potentisation problem” because there is no potentisation effect to require explanation. Independent research has repeatedly shown that homeopathic remedies are indistinguishable from water and the so called “memory of water” often proposed as an explanation does not exist.

It is revealing to take a few of the key ideas from anthroposophical research and do a little research of your own on them. Google will do, ( other search engines are available ). What you will typically find is that the ideas are not referenced anywhere outside the anthroposophical community and it’s critics. The mainstream disciplines to which those ideas apply are not interested in them, possibly not even aware of them.

Take the example of “associative economics”, the economic theory developed from Steiner’s writing on the subject. A Google search brings up over 5000 results, a respectable number though if you search to the last entry Google then informs you that it is actually 304 results plus a large number of duplicates. I have trawled through the first 10 pages and sampled the rest to see what sort of attention the theory receives. There are the usual Wikipedia and Amazon entries plus listings from book publishers. There are a couple of references from general new age or alternative sites. The rest are from Steiner organisations of one sort or another – either sites which explicitly declare their Steiner allegiance or those where a little digging into the background of their members and associates reveals the link. I can find no academic response from outside the Steiner camp – the nearest is a link to StopSteinerinStroud.com on page 2 ( pretty good! ). So it seems the theory is not even worthy of rebuttal.

Another example of the Google test. Search for the words heart and pump in various combinations and you will find many explanations of how the heart functions. Introduce a note of doubt, as in “is the heart a pump?” and the top result is a link to the Steiner archives claiming that it is not. Quite a few similar links appear, including one from David Icke ( which convinces me! ). But again there is no overlap and no mainstream source feels the need to challenge the Steiner view.

Why should this be? Anthroposophists simply do not even bother to engage with the mainstream of the disciplines which they purport to research. They do not even have the same audience. Proponents of Steiner’s economic theories are not seeking to change the real world of economics. Nor do anthroposophists seriously attempt to change the view of the medical community that the heart is essentially a pump. They are merely preaching to those already inside the Steiner bubble. Not just the hard core anthroposophists but also the wider community of warm but fuzzy followers who find it appealing to have a complete package of answers for everything, no matter how implausible. The vast mass of pseudo-research is there simply to reassure the converted and reinforce the feeling of apartness of the Steiner community. The rest of the world has closed minds, a narrow outlook, an outmoded paradigm.

They are right, everyone else is out of step.

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13 comments

  1. Helen

    A couple of years ago there was a BBC4 documentary:
    Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human? ‘David Malone asks if we are right to see the heart as merely a brilliant pump or whether it should be allowed to reclaim something of its old place at the centre of our humanity’
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01kpvj1/Heart_vs_Mind_What_Makes_Us_Human/
    The programme featured Dr Philip J Kilner who is a Consultant Cardiologist at the Royal Brompton Hospital who also happens to be a v high up Anthroposophist. The BBC programme commissioner may have genuinely been unaware of the show’s true content and that they were unknowingly promoting Anthroposophy, plus most of those watching will have been fed this nonsense without knowing it’s Spiritual Science.
    Scary.

    • Jim

      I must watch the programme – it sounds odd that someone could be both a cardiologist and hold such a belief. It is as if the Steiner bubble and the real world coexists within the same person. A sort of mental Chinese wall perhaps.

  2. Helen

    The wiki page on water memory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_memory and the one on Jaques Benveniste illustrate the point you make in this post, Jim. They say water memory “violates the laws of physics and chemistry”. Many studies and double blind tests were carried out on the subject, after Benveniste published a paper on it in 1988, but his results were never replicated.
    I like the “Unusual disclaimer” paragraph where an article in Nature published a similar disclaimer about “the incredulity of referees” to one on an article on Uri Geller.
    According to wiki Benveniste was later placed on probation by the French Institute of Health and Medical Research for “an insufficiently critical analysis of the results he reported, the cavalier character of the interpretations he made of them, and the abusive use of his scientific authority vis-à-vis his informing of the public.”
    All this seems to have no relevance at all to those who spend their lives promoting ideas such as Flowforms – not to mention the scandal of homeopathy as it gains respectability.

    • Jim

      These people really are incorrigible. Researchers trying to replicate Benveniste’s results couldn’t. When they supervised him attempting to replicate them he couldn’t either. In fact the only time they found any statistically significant result was when one particular assistant of Benveniste’s ran the experiment. You might suspect some tampering but to the anthroposophical mind this indicates some individuals have a more potent “soul force”.
      I would not dispute that sometimes the scientific outlook can sometimes lead to a rather closed mind. But if the alternative is an open mind that is full of this sort of rubbish I know which I prefer. It’s a bit like running a virus checker – you may block the occasional valid mail but you avoid drowning in spam or worse.

  3. fungalspore

    I just read some Steiner in order to try and understand where he is coming from. It is full of little gems, such as the idea that science depends on facts, and the facts change, which means that science can only ever be opinion. I don’t object to that so much, because I am happy with provisional theories that can be tested by evidence. However, he goes from there directly to saying that anthroposophy is not based on opinions but on unquestionable truths that go back to the Ancient Egyptians. Your scientific opinions are not wanted, haha.

    • Helen

      Yes Steiner was of the opinion that “the ancients” were much more knowledgeable than we are today, and this seems to be his justification for using archaic “methodology” in his proclamations on all the various fields mentioned by Jim in the post.

    • Helen

      I see your blog/website about democratic education is private. Might we see a Democratic Free School in the future?

      • fungalspore

        Oh yes. I am still working on it with my friend, Leonard. Democratic Education is not at all the same thing as Steiner! We are helping people across Europe who are introducing democratic processes and ideas into their schooling.

    • Husq Jons

      > It is full of little gems, such as the idea that science depends on facts, and the facts change<

      Researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science have discovered that under certain high pressure conditions plain old table salt takes on new forms which, according to the December release on Carnegie's site, "violate standard chemistry predictions." (See, "Throwing out the textbook: salt surprises chemists," December 19, 2013)

      http://larouchepac.com/node/29700

  4. Jim

    Thanks for the Flowforms link Helen. Although I had seen the rather kitsch cascades at Ruskin Mill I hadn’t previously heard of Flowforms. It’s opened up a whole new world of barmpottery for me! Following up on this took me to the Foundation for Water which goes on at length about the magical properties of water including the fatuous claim that it possesses a memory and can communicate and even think!
    In fact the only thing missing is is WC Fields advice concerning water.

  5. Jim

    Until recently I hadn’t fully appreciated the magical significance that the anthros attribute to rhythm. Of course I was aware of eurythmy ( dad dancing in pastel shades ), the rhythmic shaking of homeopathic “remedies” and so on but I hadn’t connected them into a universal principle as it seems they do. So of course, the heart is not a pump – it’s a regulator that maintains physical and spiritual rhythms by interrupting the flow of the blood. And flowforms don’t just aerate water by normal physical means, they energise it by stimulating special rhythms that cleanse it of the pollutants which the water of course remembers even if they have been removed by conventional means.
    So there you are. Steiner was even keener on rhythm than the pope.

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