Friday, March 31, 2006

Does God hate theists?

A number of times now I have heard of studies carried out in the US to test the effect of prayer upon the well-being of those prayed for. The results of the latest and biggest of these have just been released:

New York — Does praying for a sick person's recovery do any good?

In the largest scientific test of its kind, heart surgery patients showed no benefit when strangers prayed for their recovery.

And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications. Doctors could only guess why.

Reading about the test made me wonder about a couple of things. The first is that the test cost 2.4 million dollars which could have been used to buy some very useful medical equipment or to lower health insurance payments that are astronomical in The States. But, given the number of previous studies and the widespread belief that prayer helps I guess this study was justified. Especially if it helped to finally kill the silly medieval notion that those praying are making anyone feel better other than themselves.

The second thing I found curious was the reaction of the scientists to the results:

The study “did not move us forward or backward” in understanding the effects of prayer, said Dr. Charles Bethea, a co-author and cardiologist at the Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. “Intercessory prayer under our restricted format had a neutral effect.”

First of all, it didn’t have a neutral effect as the study wasn’t capable of identifying a cause effect relationship but only a statistical correlation. Even if all of the people who were prayed for had lived and all those not prayed for died, or vice versa, this would not have shown that prayer affects health. It would have merely shown that prayer and the survival of patients are somehow correlated. What the actual connection is would take further studies. But that is not the main point. Nor is it that the actual correlation wasn’t neutral but, at least for some instances, negative – the people who knew they were prayed for had more complications than those who didn’t. No, the main point is that the researchers seem to be doing everything to undermine the significance of their study. It would be like Newton saying, “Well, that apple underwent constant acceleration till it hit my head but that says nothing about other apples or planets or anything.” Once you start thinking like that science becomes impossible. Indeed, life becomes impossible since, for example, the fact that rat poison killed people before says nothing about whether it will do so in the future. I do not know why these scientists are saying such silly things; it could be that they are theists who were hoping for a positive result but are too professional to hide the negative one, or it could be that they are afraid of what their results might mean for their careers in the only first-world theocracy. Of course, one has to be careful with the results of an experiment but if it were really the case that the results would have no wider implications then why was 2.4 million dollars spent on them in the first place?

In the end, one possible conclusion to draw from the study is that if you hate someone who is about to have an operation it may be a good idea to tell them that you’re going to pray for them. It certainly doesn’t look like it’ll hurt.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How much wood would Noah need if Noah needed any wood?

It seems that Ark stories come along much like the seasons – there isn’t year that someone doesn’t find the remains of the Ark hiding somewhere. So, I wasn’t too surprised when I read the latest twist on Bible literalism:

Dutchman Johan Huibers is building a working replica of Noah's Ark as a testament to his Christian faith.

The BBC News report says that the replica is only going to be a fifth of the original but, unfortunately, does not inform us of what that means precisely. However, knowing something about the number of the species that exist around the world, we can afford to make a very rough estimate. Thus far something like one and a half million species have been identified. Very conservative estimates claim that there must be at least two million species around with it being thought possible that there may be one hundred million species or more. However, given that we are dealing with Bible literalism here, we ought to be conservative. So, let’s say that the are only two million species. Also, it is important to realise that by far the majority of the known species are beetles and other invertebrates, with mammals only adding about five and a half thousand species to the total number. So, for the same of the calculation, we can assume all of the species are tiny little insects, none larger than, lets say a cube with 2 cm sides. Of course, the Ark remained afloat and ‘functional’ for nearly a year according to the Bible so the animals needed space to move around and go about their animal business. In fact, the insects would have most gone through a number of generations with the pair coming off the Ark being the great-great-great-something of the original pair – the bug begat the bug who begat the bug who begat...

All in all, it seems a very conservative estimate to claim that every pair of animals would have on average required a cube with 10cm sides – what would make for a very small terrarium indeed. Now, the calculation for the total volume of the Ark become easy – it would have to be big enough to hold two million of these terraria. But how big is that? Is that as big as one of the ships that Columbus crossed the Atlantic in? Is that as big as a modern cruise ship? How big is that? Well, to get two million terraria you need to line up a fifty of them in one direction then to put three hundred and ninety nine of such lines next to the first one and then stack ninety nine more of the rectangles you’ve just made on top of the original one. This will give you an Ark which is 100 metres high by 50 metres wide by 400 metres long. In comparison, the RMS Queen Mary 2 which, “at the time of her construction in 2003 was in every dimension the largest passenger ship ever built” is a mere 344 metres long, 45 metres wide and 75 metres high. And, of course, the Queen Mary isn’t shaped like a row of cubes but has keels, bows and many other elements that would have added more size to the Ark. To add to the comparison consider the following:

Approximately 3000 craftsmen spent some 8 million working hours on the ship, and a total of 20,000 people were directly or indirectly involved in the design, construction, and fitting out of the QM2.

On the other hand, Noah built the Ark with the help of his three sons. Miraculous, indeed. In fact, by the time you realise how miraculous it would be that a civilization that would be incapable of constructing any ocean-going vessel for millennia should suddenly produce a ship bigger than the biggest modern cruise ship, you make the job easier by just saying that God did it all while Noah looked on and planned the on-board entertainment.

Even after the ship was finished, however, the Ark wouldn’t be ready to go. After all, it would be necessary to get the animals all aboard. Of course, if we assumed that Noah and his family had to actually put the animals in their cages, the whole process would have taken years: in fact about 16 years if we assume that seven people worked non-stop 12 hours a day and it only took them on average 15 minutes to identify a pair of animals, take them to their cage (somewhere on the 400 metre long Ark), put them in there and then return to get the next pair. So, we have to assume that the animals just knew where to go by themselves (Wonder of Wonders!) Now, if we assume that a pair of animals boarded the ship an average of one second apart (not unreasonable if you consider most were insects) the whole boarding time would be cut down to a rapid 23 days. More time to sit around for Noah and his family.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

How much daylight can you save?

Today, we all woke up an hour later. The effect is that the sun now sets at a very respectable evening hour. Perhaps I imagined it but it seemed to me like I heard everyone sigh in relief. Mind you, I really wish that we were on summer time all the time. The switching back to winter time makes no sense to me. You end up going to work in the dark anyway so at least you could leave work while it was light instead of having the sun set before four o’clock like it does. Still, it makes for yet another thing to be glad of when the time-change rolls around. Kind of like being glad when they stop pulling your tooth out, really. Part of the problem is that most of Europe is one big time zone so that those on the eastern end have a much harder time of it than those on the western end as the sun sets much earlier, in effect. I really ought to look for a job in Spain! Seville, perhaps.

Will it leave a scar?

It was a difficult day yesterday. My wife and daughter were in the other room and I was talking with a friend when we heard a crash and a cry. The tyke had fallen, clearly. I froze, as I do whenever I hear that. Then, I heard my daughter’s cry – good, she’s still breathing – and my wife’s cry – not good, it must be serious. I rushed towards the other room only to see my wife rushing out holding the little one in her arms. My daughter’s head was covered in blood.

I did what I find I usually do in these situations. I suddenly became very calm and, taking another look at my daughter’s head, said, “We’re going to the hospital.” In a couple of seconds we had a wet towel at her brow and I could see that the blood was coming from what was actually a small but deep cut on the forehead. The first thing was to stamp the flow, which we did. During this time, the friend set up his car so we could just jump into it, my wife wrapped the little one in a blanket and I grabbed warm clothing for her to get dressed in when we had the time. On the way out the door I thought how glad I was that it wasn’t sub-zero outside anymore.

In the car we could observe how the tyke was acting. She was screaming at first but then calmed down and just looked at me holding her and her mum holding the towel to her head. The cut appeared to be the only thing that had happened and the skull is very thick on the forehead. Her eyes seemed fine and she hadn’t vomited or had any of the other sign of a brain injury. I was feeling still quite calm and was thinking through the situation. Things didn’t seem all that bad. The immediate harm seemed limited and it didn’t look like there would be any long-term effects. But, then, I’m not a medical doctor. My wife became worried at how quiet the tyke was and tried to get her to say something, anything. Finally, we asked, “Do you want to go to grandpa’s?” “Aha,” she answered just as she usually does. Ok, good.

One at the hospital our feelings were proved to be right. The cut was fairly small and after being washed out was closed up using a special plaster that acts like stiches in that it helps the wound to heal. Also, the doctor went with us through all of the normal symptoms of brain damage as well as looking at the little one’s eyes and checking how she holds up her head. All is well, we found out. He was quite a pleasant man and chatted a little with us to relax us and, probably, to judge how we were reacting. He told us a story of how a child came into the hospital with a serious skull fracture that was almost definitely not caused by the reported cause of it pulling an iron down onto its head. Perhaps I am reading too much into it but I have come to rather suspect that this was to see if we would look guilty at the reference to family violence. If that is what he was doing, good on him, I’m glad to have someone looking out for my daughter’s welfare like that.

Later on yesterday, my little daughter was back to running around and laughing as if nothing had happened – the only sign that anything was different being the plaster on her forehead and the spots of blood on the kitchen floor that I washed off with a cloth. That and the fact that my wife and I both have to take out coats to the dry cleaners. Or at least that’s what it seemed like till this morning when my wife was feeling my daughter and gave her something that was too hot and make her scream out in pain. I jumped at the sound and felt nasty shivers all over. The little one was already fine but I was still feeling jittery.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Whence the light?

I’ve spent most of my thirty something years trying to get educated. All the more reason for me to be ashamed of how little I know about such men as Voltaire and Pascal – both of whom should by all rights be something of a role model for anyone who, like myself, thinks fondly of the Enlightenment. I had read Candide years ago but little apart from that. One the things that I find positive about Voltaire is his long-term relationship with an intelligent, forthright woman. It suggests that he practiced his liberal views and not just preached them. Another is his sense of humour – one of the best medicines against self-righteousness. Reading some of the things Voltaire wrote the most painful thing is the realisation of just how true many of them remain. Indeed, we could do with some of the enlightenment that made him write things like “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Could well be a motto for the last hundred years. Indeed, it points out how intimately entwined are the questions of rationality and morality that all too often have been separated in our times.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The big thaw?

Every time this winter looks like it is finished it just comes back to give us more of the same – just the other day we had yet another short snow-fall. Most of the snow that is lying on the ground, however, has been here since before New Year’s. Given the few above zero days we’ve had it is now looking pitted and ugly, the omnipresent puddles all freezing overnight and turning into ice just in time to slip up those heading to work in the morning. Still, it is starting to look like the snow won’t be around for much longer (kind of like Bush). A few more days and it seems like it will be time to start the spring cleaning in the garden. Among other things my daughter will have more opportunities to walk about outside and get into all sorts of trouble. I look forward to it.