Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Facts, Desperate People, and "Skeptical Believers"

What are the facts? This is a very interesting question, as it assumes that facts settle an issue. Just what do we mean by the word "fact"? A fact is a piece of true information about circumstances that exist or events that have occurred.

People often don't want to believe in facts. Desperate people are especially prone to ignoring facts. If one is desperate, then one will latch onto all sorts of unsubstantiated claims that give one's life meaning. Religious commitments are often a type of desperation; likewise; certain political commitments (especially among those locked in poverty) are another type of desperation. Accordingly, many religious and political commitments give meaning, yet are unsubstantiated. (Not surprisingly, this can have harmful societal effects [1]. )

But when one investigates the facts, and the relationship between facts -- that is, when one seeks to carefully investigate unsubstantiated commitments, one's too-easily acquired meaning readily begins to dissipate. I have observed that people have a dim awareness of this, and thus enter into a kind of anti-intellectualism in order to defend irrational beliefs.

For example, if a carefully constructed and executed scientific study on the effect of prayer for cardiac patients is put in place, and the results come up negative (i.e. prayer for cardiac patients has no effect on the patients' rate of healing healing [2] [3] ), then all sorts of excuses get offered.

I had a theologian tell me, for instance, that such a study only applies to cardiac patients, and not to the medical effects of prayer generally. There are some major problems with this kind of response.

First, the theologian makes an odd religious claim. How strange to say that God doesn't honor prayers for some diseases, say heart troubles; but, God nevertheless does honor prayers for other diseases (say, cancer). Suppose the exact same study (and subsequent results) were run for prostate cancer. Would the next complaint be that one can't rule out the effect of prayer for face cancer, or for kidney stones, etc.? This whole line of thinking is a medical version of the God of the Gaps fallacy [4].

Second, the theologian makes an odd data gathering claim, as it seems to say that one cannot generalize scientific claims. For example, all the planets and asteroids observed in our solar system are entities with gravitational forces that affect one another. But "theologian science" allows that there might be planets and asteroids along with their gravitational forces in other solar systems that don't affect one another. We just can't be sure until we test every single planet, asteroid, and rock, for there could always be an exception! Sadly for the theologian, the manner in which medical science explains and predicts the natural occurrences of diseases is sufficiently understood to generalize from a study of one type to another type. (That's why Epidemiology works.)

Ironically, both the first and second problems above are a kind of skepticism that sets the standards for convincing evidence so high as to be either unreasonable or outright unfalsifiable. That's how it is with the justification schemes of "skeptical believers."

Well, believe this: there is nothing so useful for avoiding the facts of some matter as setting up an unfalsifiable standard.


[1] "Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side'" The Times (Accessed June 27, 2006) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1798944,00.html

[2] "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer" Medscape Today from WebMD (Accessed June 27, 2006) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/529308

[3] Summary of above: "Largest Study of Third-Party Prayer Suggests Such Prayer Not Effective In Reducing Complications Following Heart Surgery" Harvard Medical School Office of Public Affairs (Accessed June 27, 2006) http://web.med.harvard.edu/sites/RELEASES/html/3_31STEP.html

[4] "God of the Gaps " Evolution Education Wiki (Access June 27, 2006) http://wiki.cotch.net/index.php/God_of_the_Gaps


At 9:44 PM, Anonymous tim said...

Maybe Ted Turner wasn't so out of touch when he said that people use religion for a crutch. He probably casts a broader net that I would with that statement, but I do think there is some truth to it.


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