Saturday, March 29, 2008

Holy placebo (and snake oil)

In his March 20 2008 article "Reflections on healing, faith, funds, Fr. Suarez" Fr. Virgilio Aderiano Abad Ojoy, theologian and professor at the University of Santo Tomas, tells us that for healing by the Catholic Church and its priests to be effective "faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of humankind is a conditio sine qua non, a requirement without which no healing could ever take place." And that faith need not be of the sick. His loved ones or the community's faith would be sufficient to effect healing.

As a professor in a school that teaches medicine, Ojoy may have heard of the placebo effect which, as doctors are well aware of, is dependent upon the patient's belief in the effectiveness of the treatment and in the expectation of cure. A placebo is any intervention which, unbeknownst to the patient, has no therapeutic value. A placebo may be a lactose pill, or flavored sugar syrup, or even sham surgery. The placebo effect is not a cure much less a cure-all. It is merely the body's chemical response resulting in a transitory sense of well-being including a reduction in pain. This felt effect is isn't surprising because the substances released into the body are related to opiates.

When drugs and various treatments are tested to determine their efficacy they are deemed effective only if they perform better than placebos. Now to make therapeutic claims for something that works no better than a placebo borders on deception. On the other hand, to simply believe that something can cure when clinical studies have yet to be performed to determine efficacy is to subscribe to a delusion--one is merely hoping that it works; one cannot claim that it works or worked.

It thus behooves us to ask whether "faith healing" is really effective. Is faith yet another placebo? Fr. Ojoy provides us a number of anecdotes to show that faith healing does work. But stories and even testimonials are never accepted as evidence in the assessment of therapeutic efficacy. Worse, what Ojoy provides are stories dating to a pre-scientific society, stories which not even biblical scholars can say with confidence were in fact historical to begin with. Quite conspicuously, Ojoy provides no case studies from our time, cases which can be examined and investigated by medical experts to rule out hoax and trickery, misdiagnosis, spontaneous remission, natural regression, cure via medical treatment(s) the patient had received, and a host of other mundane explanations.

In search of evidence, Ojoy might point us to the officially declared miracles by the Church. May we then remind this theologian of the Budd-Chiari embarrassment in the 1960s, in which the miracle turned out not to be so. As with all declared miracles it was considered so on the basis of current lack of scientific understanding of the nature of the phenomenon, of the disease and its course. But the Church knows very well that while it can declare miracles it cannot claim to be certain they are indeed miracles. The Church merely relies on science and medicine's current inability to explain a cure. But then our knowledge of the human body and the nature of disease is progressive in nature. As research continues our understanding grows. What boggles the minds of Einsteins today may be no more mysterious and inexplicable to high school students generations hence than lightning is to us today. Even the Vatican confesses this to be so.

What Ojoy is asking us to do is to take it on faith that the biblical stories he cites are historical and accurate. He's asking us to take it on faith that faith is necessary to be miraculously cured. He is asking us to take it on faith that the afflicted need not himself have faith but that the faith of those around him suffices to cause healing. That's a lot of "faith-ing" in there. But rather than resigning ourselves to mere hoping and believing, wouldn't it be much better to put faith healing to the test and find out whether it's any better than placebos? And if it isn't wouldn't it be the ethical duty of the Church and faith healers like Fernando Suarez to desist from making therapeutic claims?

Fr. Ojoy will probably remind us that faith alone is insufficient. That God is also part of the equation, that it is God's choice to conjure a miracle or not. And that if we are foolish enough to test the claims of faith healing and find to our chagrin that no healings had taken place then this only means either that people had insufficient faith or that God had chosen not to heal. As a theologian I'm sure Ojoy knows that to embark on such a line of reasoning would make his claim nonfalsifiable. In other words, he would've covered all his bases such that even negative results cannot refute it, not least because his ad hoc explanations can never be tested. Hopefully, he won't drag us into that dark pit where speculation rather than edification reigns.

Ojoy considers faith a panacea, a cure-all, Deo concedente (God willing). But, pray tell, Fr. Ojoy, why is it that God, faith, and prayers have never ever restored a lost limb?

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