The ‘Nobel Prize episode’ refers to an exchange of letters in New Scientist and Science 1974–75, in response to Nikolaas Tinbergen’s 1973 Nobel Prize lecture.
New Scientist correspondence
The American journalist and author Edward Maisel contacted New Scientist complaining about Tinbergen’s representation of the Alexander Technique in his Nobel Prize lecture. The outcome was an article, ‘Did Nobelist go too far in advocating Alexander Technique’ by Roger Lewin. Lewin is communicating Maisel’s objections, primarily that, contrary to the language used in the lecture, the Alexander Technique does not consist of treatment and that Barlow’s health claim does not stand up to scrutiny. (Barlow, in his The Alexander Principle claimed that out of more than 100 teachers trained in the Technique only four had died, and also made claims about a reduction in heart disease and lung cancer.) Lewin reports that he had been in touch with Tinbergen and that ‘Tinbergen now seems to be backing down somewhat’.
In response to Lewin’s article Tinbergen defends his view on the Technique, saying he had not backed down and that his experiences and observations over the past year ‘had, if anything, strengthened me in my conviction that the Alexander Technique often has beneficial effects’. He also clarifies that he did not himself make the health claims which Barlow made.
Roger Lewin replies that many of the claims Barlow makes in his book are ‘simply wrong’ and that the point of his article was that Tinbergen was making important claims for a technique without having subjected it to ‘critical analysis’.
In the same issue Patrick Macdonald has a letter which is complaining about Tinbergen’s description of the Technique as ‘manipulation’.
In the same issue Maurice Burton writes that he had his first lessons in the Technique with Alexander in 1949, and testifies to the fact ‘that the proper use of the Alexander technique can have the most remarkably beneficial and immediate effects on both body and mind with minimal effort.’
Two issues later Barlow responds and defends his health claims set out in his book as well as stating that his claims have been misrepresented in Lewin’s article.
In the following issue Maisel repeats and intensifies his criticism of Barlow’s health claims (especially regarding the 100 teachers trained in the Technique), and wants to know the methodology employed ‘since a number of teachers have neither been examined nor submitted relevant data.’
In the next issue Barlow replies, addressing Maisel’s criticism (indirectly admitting that the health claims based on more than 100 teachers was not supported by a formal study), and in respect to other claims refers the reader to some of his studies regarding misuse and Tinbergen’s use of Barlow’s diagrams.
Maisel repeats his attacks on Tinbergen for the usage of ‘manipulation’ in describing the Technique and on Barlow’s claims in the following issue. Maisel quotes Dr D. A. H. Yates for questioning Barlow’s sampling procedure, saying that trained teachers constitute a self-selected group. And again asks for Barlow’s methodology.
Barlow responds, expressing that what started as a canard against Tinbergen turned into an attack on himself. He does not agree with Dr Yates’s assumption that teachers necessarily constitute a self-selected group. He points out that Maisel now agrees that Lewin was mistaken in referring to Maisel as a ‘long practitioner of the technique’. And he points out that he does not understand why a new edition of Maisel’s book contains on the cover an extract from the Nobel oration which Maisel venomously attacks.
With this letter the editor of New Scientist closes the correspondence.
Maisel renews his attack some five months later, this time in Science, in a long letter. The criticisms center around the lack of evidence for any health claims made for the Technique made by Tinbergen or Barlow, and Maisel also attacks the qualifications of teachers of the Alexander Technique. He writes that STAT’s certification ‘proceeds mainly by a laying on of hands in apostolic succession from Alexander and those upon whom he bestowed certificates.’ He cites British osteopaths for challenging the qualifications of Alexander teachers ‘to observe and treat abnormal function in their students. What training in anatomy, physiology, study of the biodynamics of activity and its perversion and knowledge of musculo-skeletal pathology, etiology, and pathogenesis entitle these teachers to make such observations?’ And he calls Tinbergen’s oration an ‘essay on massage’ which is a distraction from the real subject matter.
In the same issue Tinbergen replies briefly, this time expressing his puzzlement as to why Maisel appears to be attacking the Alexander Technique while at the same time endorsing it in the book of Alexander writings, of which Maisel is the editor.
Maisel answers a few weeks later, saying a part of his initial letter omitted part of a sentence. He then summarises his criticism: 1. Tinbergen in his Nobel oration does not describe the Alexander Technique ‘but some form of osteopathic treatment or Esalen massage’, and 2. Tinbergen makes specific claims for the Technique for which there is no scientific support.
Frank P. Jones wrote a letter to Science drawing attention to his own research into the Technique at Tufts University, but it arrived too late to be included.
Nobel Episode Revisited
The above exchanges of letters was later reproduced, with a commentary, in a little book, Nobel Episode Revisited (1998) by Dr G. S. Hehr. Hehr concludes that Maisel had made false claims and misleading statements in his letters, and contradicted what he had written in his own book (the selection of writings by Alexander). Hehr cannot reach a conclusion as to Maisel’s motive, and asks whether Maisel had an ulterior motive.
Later Maisel quoted Tinbergen’s nobel oration in a revised edition of his The Resurrection of the Body, using Tinbergen’s enthusiastic statements about the Technique as another scientific endorsement of the Technique.