Editing the story

Jayman’s comments continue:

(3) You edited the story so that you can attempt to provide an explanation for the healing that is not extraordinary and thus does not place you in the position of having to choose between competing extraordinary claims. (A) Bernadette and the nuns did pray for a cure, not merely a sign. (B) Bernadette has been investigated by “hundreds of doctors and theologians” and no medical explanation has been provided. This means we can dismiss your attempted diagnoses and that you’re wrong in implying Bernadette is denying doctors access to herself. Apparently she is not as superstition has you’d like to believe.

Ultimately, you have no explanation. You say admitting ignorance is not shameful and that superstition is ignorance pretending to be knowledge. You are ignorant of how Bernadette was cured but claim to know God was not involved. You’re superstitious according to your own definition.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression Jayman is not too happy with me at this point. Nevertheless, he raises some interesting points, and I’d like to address those here.

First of all, he accuses me of editing the story. If you go back and read my post, however, and compare my quotation of the story to Jayman’s original quotation, you’ll see that I did no such thing. It’s true that my discussion of the story focused on the topics I considered relevant, just as Jayman’s replies to me do not quote my entire post but only refer back to specific points he wants to discuss. That’s just normal conversation, not tampering with the evidence.

But let’s look at points (A) and (B), which he seems to feel I’ve neglected. I’m rather glad he brought them up, frankly, because they are topics that deserve further discussion.

It’s true that I did not discuss the prayers, by Bernadette and the nuns, asking for an outright cure. But let’s look at that now.  In a nation full of believers, it’s to be expected that whenever someone is suffering from some kind of serious disorder, there’s at least someone praying for them somewhere. This means that virtually any time there’s a cure (or something like a cure), odds are extremely good that someone was praying for just that outcome.

This scenario is ideal for setting up a post hoc fallacy. By praying constantly for all kinds of desired “blessings,” you guarantee that there will be a prior prayer any time any of those “blessings” happens to come true. But here’s where “editing the story” comes in: you only count the cases where the prayer is followed by the “blessing.” You don’t include the cases where the prayer endures for quite some time with no positive outcome. It’s “heads I win, tails you lose,” a kind of rigged scorekeeping that exaggerates the “successes” by the simple expedient of eliminating the failures. Mere chance is enough to produce astonishing stories of “miraculous” results, by a kind of theological natural selection.

This sort of “editing the story” is indeed tampering with the evidence, because an impartial consideration of all the results of all the prayers would show that prayer is no more effective than waving beads and feathers, or hopping on one foot while whistling “Dixie.” Surgery can be successful without prayer, but prayer without surgery is no more successful than no prayer at all, at least as far as cases like Bernadette’s are concerned. If prayer could cure tethered spinal cords, it would be cruel of the nuns not to pray for the other victims and heal them too.

So the reason I didn’t bother discuss the prayers of the nuns is because I considered it to be insignificant background noise. Prayers are happening all the time, and consistently seek the same sort of good things. If they actually made a difference, then we’d see a real world in which better things were happening. People don’t pray, “Lord, please let things continue pretty much as they have been all along,” they ask for expanding the good and reducing/eliminating the bad. They ask for a world that is different from the one we live in, and the reason they want it to be different is because we don’t receive all the good things they were praying for before.

The main thing prayer accomplishes is to create an atmosphere that promotes superstition: by making sure prayers continue, whether they work or not, believers ensure that there’s always an excuse to give God credit whenever the ordinary course of events happens to turn out satisfactorily. All it takes is for there to be enough human ignorance that we don’t always know what the factors are that led to the positive outcome.

Which brings us to (B), above. Bernadette has been examined by “hundreds” of doctors and theologians (how many of each, I wonder, and what did their investigation consist of?), and “no medical explanation has been provided.” Jayman is wrong when he states that this means we can dismiss all of the possibilities I’ve suggested. Not knowing what the natural cause is does not mean knowing that there was no natural cause (which is the conclusion that Jayman seems to be jumping to).

Ignorance is not knowledge; ignorance of the cause does not mean that we know the cause. It means that we don’t know what the cause is. But this does not mean we can’t know a few things about the cause. Nobody knows what the exact square root of 13 is (since it has an infinite number of non-repeating decimal places), but even though we don’t know what the exact answer is, we do know it’s not a quart of motor oil. It has to be a number, in order to be consistent with what 13 is, and what a square root is.

Likewise, no matter what caused Bernadette’s healing, we can know that it’s going to be consistent with the truth, as in the real-world truth. If God is not consistent with the real-world truth, He’s not going to be consistent with Bernadette’s healing, either. There may be many possible causes for Bernadette’s healing, and the way to tell which one is correct is to see which is more consistent with the real-world facts. We can eliminate the non-answers by showing that they are not consistent with the real-world facts, as Jayman is trying to do when he appeals to exams by “hundreds” of doctors and theologians.

For better or worse, though, the fact that “men have not found the answers” is actually perfectly consistent with the fact that the answers exist. Every new answer we find is an answer that already existed before we knew what it was. There is a cause for Bernadette’s healing that is consistent with the truth, and this is not in any way inconsistent with the fact that doctors do not currently know what that answer is, even if they never find out.

While that cause remains unknown, however, it is perfectly true that this incident is not an instance of God showing up in real life. If it were, doctors would be able to say that they do know what caused Bernadette’s healing. We’d be able both to describe how God was connected to the healing, and to verify that this connection did indeed take place. As it is, we have no evidence that this “miracle” could not have just as easily been the work of Thor, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or SMERFs. It’s not that God showed up to perform the healing, it’s just that believers are taking advantage of human ignorance to superstitiously give credit to an unobserved and unverifiable “Cause.”

I must confess, however, that Jayman is right to accuse me of being unfair to Bernadette when I suggested that she might hinder an investigation into the true causes of her cure. I have no reason to believe that she has ever intentionally attempted to obstruct the investigation or hinder the discovery of the truth, and it was unkind and unfair of me to phrase it in those terms. I apologize.

What I should have said is that there exists a legitimate conflict of interest here. Bernadette’s “miracle” makes her a very special and significant person, as judged by her own faith and the beliefs of others. If this were indeed a genuine miracle, she would not only have experienced a powerful relief from a serious affliction, she would also have been uniquely honored as having been favored by God, in a way that almost no one is ever favored. She receives much honor and special consideration as a result of this perceived divine favor, giving her enhanced social standing in addition to providing an emphatic boost to her own treasured religious beliefs.

All of that evaporates if it turns out that her healing was merely the ordinary course of natural events. If science can debunk this “miracle,” then she loses all the social and psychological benefits she gets from being perceived as the rare and conclusive example of God’s intervention and blessing. It’s possible that she might have the strength of character to pursue the truth anyway, even at the cost of discrediting herself and her God, but it’s still a substantial conflict of interest. Hence, ambiguous miracles are a bad thing with respect to real-world understanding. So long as God fails to show up in real life, it adds nothing, and costs much, to superstitiously attribute cures and other phenomena to Him.

And it is superstitious. Not knowing the true cause, and merely ascribing credit to God in the absence of any tangible evidence linking Him specifically to the cure, is superstition. If I don’t know where shoes are made, and I say they’re made magically, by elves, in an invisible forest, I’m being superstitious. Nor does it make me any less superstitious if I can show you a shoe you can’t find a shoe factory for, as “evidence” that elves are real. Superstition is what it is, no matter how good or kind or intelligent the person practicing it.

Jayman says, “Ultimately, you have no explanation.” And that’s true: nobody does. Even Jayman does not, because a mere superstitious attribution is not an explanation. That’s really my whole point here. If God had shown up in real life, it would not be true that I had no explanation. The fact that nobody can explain exactly what healed Bernadette is itself proof that God did not show up, tangibly and in person, in this case. And this is not just me cherry-picking the worst available “miracles”—the Vatican has officially declared this to be a genuine and notable “miracle.”

Jayman wants to refute me, but the facts he cites only reinforce my point. And that, in itself, is what I call “compelling evidence.”

 
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Posted in Unapologetics. 14 Comments »

14 Responses to “Editing the story”

  1. Jayman Says:

    DD, I’m not angry at you but I will stick up for people I think are being judged unfairly (your apology is noted). I feel that I’ve addressed nearly everything in this post in my previous comments so I’ll let you catch up on those.

    However, in this post, you have made another error in logic not noted before. On the one hand you state that there is always someone praying for the sick. On the other hand you state that prayer’s success rate is no better than chance. If there’s no “control group” you can’t know what chance is independent of prayer.

    Also, for clarification, I am not ruling out that a natural explanation for Bernadette’s cure could be offered in the future.

  2. R. C. Moore Says:

    I accept no evidence anyone prays for the sick until:

    1. The prayer is put in writing.
    2. A predetermined expectation (the results) from the prayer is put in writing, along with the time frame in which the prayer is to give results.
    2. Each person praying is observed by an independent party, and the prayer is documented.
    3. The outcome of the praying is statistically analyzed.

    I place the same standard on any medical “opinion”.

    Until this done, there is no evidence. We now have almost 400 years of scientific research documenting that anecdotal evidence, no matter its quantity, cannot be trusted.

    Jayman demands the same standards for the medicine, bridges, tall buildings, and transportation he depends upon. He has never given an justification for relaxing these standards because religious faith is involved.

    In fact, he never really supplies anything other than hearsay. I am sure Jayman would rather not be on trial for a serious crime with such a standard.

    Reasoning such as Jayman’s is a form of social parasitism, he can only engage in it and survive because others do not. He would have died from disease or the elements years ago. The ultimate irony is the expressing of such opinions using the technology of the Internet, which only exists because of the rejection by science of thinking such as Jaymans.

  3. Inquisitive Raven Says:

    Actually, after a fashion, the controlled studies have been done. While one can’t control for unknown parties praying for a specific result, there have been several studies where known parties have been asked to pray for specific patients whose outcomes are then compared to patients who were not prayed for by these known parties.

    The only study where the outcome was statistically significantly different from chance was one where the patients being prayed for were told about it. They actually did worse.

  4. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore, I don’t reject the scientific method so your claims that I’m a social parasite are false (I work in the software industry). I merely pointed out that one cannot study the efficacy of prayer scientifically if you can’t have a true control group.

  5. Lakejen Says:

    Jayman, there’s plenty of available control groups.

    For example, you could compare with results from largely secular countries where virtually no-one prays for healing (e.g. the Scandinavian countries). Or you could compare with countries where the main religion is not Christianity so that any prayers were directed to another god than the Christian (after all the Christian god excludes all others so at the very least one of the groups must be praying to a non-existent god).

    Of course you have to make sure that your research groups are of similar social status, age, health, receive the same level of treatment, etc. but that’s certainly not a huge obstacle. In fact it would be fairly trivial to compare results between, say, Sweden and USA.

    Of course, as Inquisitive Raven points out the best option, controlled randomized trials, has already been done and are pretty definitive.

  6. Mike Says:

    Since you can’t rule out the possibility of anyone praying for anyone, you can’t have a control group with no prayer. That doesn’t mean the same thing as saying “you can’t study the efficacy of prayer scientifically.” You can certainly measure a “dosage” effect for prayer by giving different groups different amounts of controlled prayer, where the difference in doses overwhelms the “background noise” (for lack of a less funny term for prayer) dose.

    Similarly, you can have two very groups of people pray for two mutually exclusive outcomes (not in the context of medicine now), in different proportions, and see which outcome happens, etc..

  7. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman said:

    “I merely pointed out that one cannot study the efficacy of prayer scientifically if you can’t have a true control group.”

    Working in the software industry is the strangest appeal to authority I have heard in a while, but not important…

    Mike has cleared things up in the are of control groups quite well. He correctly notes that “you can’t rule out the possibility of anyone praying for anyone”. But you can create a control group where no one is praying for the specific prayer under test.

  8. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore:

    Working in the software industry is the strangest appeal to authority I have heard in a while, but not important

    It wasn’t an appeal to authority. I was pointing out how wrong you were with assuming I merely use technology but don’t contribute to creating it.

    Mike has cleared things up in the are of control groups quite well. He correctly notes that “you can’t rule out the possibility of anyone praying for anyone”. But you can create a control group where no one is praying for the specific prayer under test.

    Mike seemed to be proposing a way to test whether a higher “prayer dose” was more effective than a lower “prayer dose”. That seems to be a different test than whether some prayer is better than no prayer.

  9. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman said:

    “It wasn’t an appeal to authority. I was pointing out how wrong you were with assuming I merely use technology but don’t contribute to creating it.”

    I apologize, the context misled me. Strange though that you contribute to technology, but disagree that it actually works. It seems to be a form of doublethink.

  10. R. C. Moore Says:

    I found this snippet on CNN:

    Bernadette McKenzie said:

    “Absolutely. If you were to take an MRI of my back, it would show you that the disease is there and it’s impossible for me to be really sitting up in front of you talking to you right now. And I’m fine.”

    A simple verification is possible in this case, but no MRI’s are in evidence. I label this miracle another hoax. If one truly has evidence of the “impossible” and it is simple to document it, they do so.

    It is also interesting to note the McKenzie’s neurosurgeon, interviewed by CNN, does not verify her claims, he merely comments that he did not expect a positive outcome.

  11. Mike Says:

    Mike seemed to be proposing a way to test whether a higher “prayer dose” was more effective than a lower “prayer dose”. That seems to be a different test than whether some prayer is better than no prayer.

    Yes, a different test, but you must agree that it’s an interesting one nonetheless. I’ve often seen fundamentalists encourage their flock to do “prayer barrages” (not sure what they actually call them). And even more people do prayer trees. Wouldn’t these people have an interest in knowing whether more prayer was better than less prayer?

    For testing some prayer vs. no prayer, it may not be possible to test in the case of medical intercession (where it is likely that someone somewhere is praying for the beneficial outcome), but RC correctly points out:

    But you can create a control group where no one is praying for the specific prayer under test.

    In other words, you can test no prayer vs some prayer for a contrived/benign prayer request, where you can be sure no one else has thought to pray for that specific thing. Again, why would a theist *not* be curious in the results?

    Yes, there are many different tests possible of prayer, and if I were a theologian I would be dying to know such things. Wouldn’t theologians be interested in what happens when people pray for opposite things? What factors are most important in determining which outcome is granted? This kind of information could help make your own prayers more effective, not to mention shed light on the divine.

  12. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore:

    I apologize, the context misled me. Strange though that you contribute to technology, but disagree that it actually works. It seems to be a form of doublethink.

    The only strange thing is that you think I believe the scientific method does not work despite the fact I said I think it works.

    A simple verification is possible in this case, but no MRI’s are in evidence. I label this miracle another hoax. If one truly has evidence of the “impossible” and it is simple to document it, they do so.

    If you are really interested in the case I bet you would have a decent chance of getting your hands on the MRI. But it will take more work than browsing the internet.

    It is also interesting to note the McKenzie’s neurosurgeon, interviewed by CNN, does not verify her claims, he merely comments that he did not expect a positive outcome.

    He does say he has no medical explanation.

  13. Jayman Says:

    Mike:

    Yes, a different test, but you must agree that it’s an interesting one nonetheless. I’ve often seen fundamentalists encourage their flock to do “prayer barrages” (not sure what they actually call them). And even more people do prayer trees. Wouldn’t these people have an interest in knowing whether more prayer was better than less prayer?

    It would be an interesting test but you would have to make sure you are getting rid of the “background noise”. If it’s possible for “prayer trees” to be praying for the control group you better have a lot of people praying for the study group (1000+ people?).

    In other words, you can test no prayer vs some prayer for a contrived/benign prayer request, where you can be sure no one else has thought to pray for that specific thing. Again, why would a theist *not* be curious in the results?

    It may be interesting but I imagine most people would not really care whether prayer was or was not effective in some contrived example.

    Yes, there are many different tests possible of prayer, and if I were a theologian I would be dying to know such things. Wouldn’t theologians be interested in what happens when people pray for opposite things? What factors are most important in determining which outcome is granted? This kind of information could help make your own prayers more effective, not to mention shed light on the divine.

    It is interesting but you must realize that most theists do not think of God’s response to prayer as analogous to some law of nature. The ultimate factor is God’s will, not you.

  14. Mike Says:

    Hi Jayman,

    I’m glad you agree that scientific examination into prayer would be interesting. Even as an atheist, I would love to see some surprising results — that will just mean that there is an opportunity for us to learn something new.

    It is interesting but you must realize that most theists do not think of God’s response to prayer as analogous to some law of nature. The ultimate factor is God’s will, not you.

    This is the response I expected. Chalking things up to the unknowable will of God strikes is basically pre-determinism. It’s the theistic version of nihilism. If the act of praying has no measurable effect on the outcome of real world events, then why should anyone pray for future real-world outcomes (i.e., give us this day our daily bread, lead us not into temptation)? By definition, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

    On the other hand, If praying has any measurable effect, then for the love of God, let’s measure it! How do you measure forces that have measurable effects on the real world? Science! Thousands of years of theology, but is anyone interested in learning about advancing our knowledge about prayer?

    Note that the dichotomy I’m proposing isn’t “everything is done according to God’s unknowable will” vs “God is a wish-granting genie”. The dichotomy is “the act of prayer has some measurable influence” vs “the act of prayer has no measurable influence”. Prayer having some influence does not exclude God from having the majority of the influence. I do not require your God to be a wish-granting genie in order for prayer to be scientifically examined. The part of the influence that we have is what I propose to measure.