Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Illogic of Trying to Study The General Effectiveness of Prayer With Science

Update: 2015   Rereading this post it surprised me how conciliatory the tone of it was to the materialists.  I had just started seriously looking into their claims on different topics and didn't know how pervasive the dishonesty and hypocrisy the self-appointed biggest fans of empirical evidence, scientific method and logical analysis was.   I still thought there was some way to reason with them.  I don't think that's the case with most of them anymore.   I edited it to remove some of more conciliatory phrasing in light of subsequent experience.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Note: I was going to hold this till later but a piece of junk mail came today, from “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by what I consider to be the pseudo-skeptical group, CSICOP*. You can imagine the effect it had on me. I might post a piece on that group someday about why I am very skeptical of its skepticism. Maybe it was the praise of Stephen Pinker in the come on that really got me going.  This is also posted as motivation to skeptical evaluation of claims of the kind of science he and many others promote. Until then, hope you find this fun. I did.

What did you mean when you said the “prayer studies both pro and con are bogus”?

Now, you will remember, before we begin, that no claims are made here as to the effectiveness of prayer. This is about why the studies are bogus. It is also about why both the believers and skeptics are being dishonest about these widely reported “scientific studies”. The real point is, spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, that would really save lives and improve health.

In order to study something you have to be able to observe it, to define what you are observing within some limits and to be able to verify that it is present in your study. “Prayer” is not definable and it can’t be known to be one thing or to exist at any particular time. Any possible mechanism of its operation or the results of it are also undefinable or prone to ambiguity. The widely reported “prayer studies” don’t even get past the first hurdle of logic, never mind science.

Prayer is an undefined activity, it is also an activity that can’t be observed. It seems that the only verification of the presence of prayer in these studies were the reports of those doing the praying. Self-reporting, one assumes by people who believe in the effectiveness of prayer, is hardly objective verification. It isn't even knowable if they had the same idea of what they were supposed to be doing. Some people might have been trying to appeal to a god to effect healing,others may have been trying to send out healing “energy” from themselves, some might have been trying to do both at once or at different times. Others might have been doing something else. It could be that two people who used exactly the same words to describe what they were doing were actually doing different things. It is quite possible that the mental activities of two such people were quite distinctly different. How would the researchers have controlled for that? If imaging or other techniques were used to monitor brain activity during prayer, there isn't any way to know if that would have an effect on the outcome.

It could be that any single person was actually doing different things on different occasions, even if they thought they were consistent. We have it on the authority of people who pray that they don’t always “get it right”. So, there is no defined activity that can even be tested for its presence. It gets worse.

It is possible that a subset of the group studied would have actually shown a result different than that of the whole group. It is possible that those were the only ones “doing it the right way”. There is no way of knowing which of the results, positive or negative, might have been right or if neither of them were valid.

Given the very nature of what was allegedly being studied, there is a possible participant in the study whose participation didn't even seem to enter into consideration. What could be a rather important “other”. If every single person who was “praying” was praying in exactly the same way for the intercession of a god or other spiritual consciousness there is no way to know, 1. If they exist, 2. If they would cooperate with the sloppy study, 3. If they found the entire thing too insulting and so sabotaged it. Maybe the “agent of healing” had entirely different motives and chose to act in an entirely mysterious way without informing the participants. There are precedents reported in the literature of prayer that are consistent with that kind of thing.

And now for one of my pet peeves in this kind of “science”, the control group. It is entirely possible that such an agent of healing had motives entirely separate from those of the study and who chose to effect healing within the people in the “control” group. Maybe God took pity on people who were set aside by the protocols set up for the convenience of the researchers. You think a God who is willing to heal people on the basis of abject, desperate, requests wouldn't have thought of that?

There isn't any way to know that either a member of the control group or prayed over group was praying for them self or if other people, unknown to those doing the study, were praying for them. There isn't any way to know if such prayer would be more of less effective than that prayer sanctioned by those conducting an official “scientific” study. There is no way to know if the effects of prayer might not be cumulative. Maybe the number of people praying has no effect whatsoever, that is if there is any effect. Even if all of the participants in the “control group”, both non-pray-ers and prayed not-overs were self-declared atheists there isn't any way to know if some of them might have cheated and snuck in some prayer just to cover all the bases. I suspect Balzac would have suspected that as a possibility*.

Why any scientist, skeptic or religious believer would give a “study” that begins so badly the time of day is probably the most interesting question that could come from this kind of thing. With a lack of validity being so clear, questions of motives must arise. Why the media would is clear, it takes up air time and pushes agendas.

These “studies” are a waste of resources that could be better spent in other ways. It’s quite shocking that religious believers, particularly Christians, would put God to a test like this. Even if its being literally against the word of Jesus didn't bother them, the literature of religion tells us over and over that doing this kind of thing is just asking for trouble.  It was Satan, after all, who was the one who proposed Jesus put God to the test when Jesus quoted Deuteronomy,

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The motives of “scientific skeptics” who take their side of this thing seriously are even more suspect. If they are willing to accept such sloppy science their skepticism is of a very low order. As long as no one is being charged for services or delaying treatment, let people pray as much as they want to. While it might offend the tender sensibilities of the pseudo-skeptics, it’s really none of their business how people in despair try to alleviate their distress. They certainly haven’t come up with something any more guaranteed to do that. If skeptics want to go after charlatans who bilk the vulnerable and who endanger people by encouraging them to stop or delay treatment, that would be an entirely worthy use of their time. Otherwise, it’s not only none of their business, it’s cruel.

Spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, there is an enormous amount of evidence that a universal healthcare system would really save lives and improve health. So important, it needed repeating.

* Marcello Truzzi was a co-founder and was later somewhat a apostate of CSICOP before he was kicked out for being more of a scholar than a gutter snipe.  He is often cited as the author of the slogan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," which Carl Sagan swiped. Apparently he broke with a number of avocational ‘skeptics’ over the fact that much of not most of the activity and writing surrounding many of the well publicized “skeptics” isn't skeptical at all but is a promotion of their fixed opinion. The term “pseudo-skeptics” is a good word to describe the intellectual conceit that is fashionable among so many materialists.

By the way, the slogan itself is scientifically problematic. Who gets to decide what claims are extraordinary to start with? Presumably the same people get to decide what evidence is extraordinary enough to fulfill their requirements.

And isn't demanding anything above the normal level of verification be a bald faced violation of the foundation that scientific inquiry has to be controlled, that no one gets to choose standards of rigor for one area of study that other areas aren't subjected to? The danger of that is clear, it would be an open door for allowing prejudice into what must be as objective as possible. Why would the designation of a claim as extraordinary require more than the, presumably, sufficiently rigorous level of evidence that makes ideas in science accepted? Is there something wrong with the normal level of scrutiny that science practices? I kind of think it works, when it’s actually practiced.

That is, that’s the level of verification necessary in science. What it takes to convince people in normal, everyday life is an entirely different matter. That’s too variable to get a handle on. People have a right to be skeptical for their own reasons that might have nothing to do with what can be demonstrated with the very limited and specialized tools of science. And they should be free to believe on that same basis. That's what we call freedom. And as long as they don't try to call it science or to force it on the unwilling it's their right. And, as I've tried to show in these posts, some "scientists" are just as guilty of passing off their unsupported opinions as science.

** See his short story, The Atheist’s Mass.

1 comment:

  1. There is an entire literature on prayer, not to mention prayer as it is understood by Christians (with all the variations attendant thereto) is not the same as prayer understood by, say, Tibetan Buddhists (with their prayer wheels).

    But, as I say, there are whole categories of prayer as deduced by Christians over the millennia. Intercessory (prayer for the benefit of others or oneself) is only a small portion of it. And even most Christians are not so arrogant as to think prayer "works" and brings a healing miracle or a new car/job/source of money, what have you. I know friends who would cite stories about miraculous interventions (usually involving money, not health) as a "result" of prayer, but those anecdotes are, first, never validated (who, what, when, where is always a bit vague) and second, powerfully self-selecting (nobody reports on prayers that get answered with "No, not this time.").

    But subjecting the topic to scientific study for determining efficacy? Might as well study the validity of love between two people. I mean, just because they say they're in love, is no reason not to seek scientific proof of it, right?