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.


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