Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Believers are unbiased and objective

While in a car on a 10-minute ride with, among others, a pastor and his wife, the conversation turned to health and disease. The pastor's spouse (who turned out to be far more voluble than her preacher husband) spoke of the power of prayer and advised the person I was with to pray to God and Jesus to address her various chronic conditions. To show just how powerful and effective entreaties to the Lord are, she related the story of a 60-year old female member of their congregation who had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Through prayer she completely recovered. It's been five years now and this elderly lady has regained the weight she lost and is in the pink again. Here's where it gets interesting. Without being prompted or asked she nonchalantly added that this woman had undergone chemotherapy and that the prayers helped her endure its nasty side effects. Given the circumstances a confrontation was totally out of the question and so I merely chuckled to myself.

After years of having been exposed to the mindset and the reasoning of those who believe in prayer and faith healing, I'm beginning to see that these people are prone to confirmation bias in some of the most egregious ways possible. Suppose that a patient had undergone a set of medical interventions. Let's say that prayers/faith healing rituals (let's call that P) are then also thrown in for good measure. If it turns out that the patient gets well, believers will attribute efficacy to P. They will thank God and praise the Lord. Interestingly, however, even if P is not initiated, you still have believers chalking up the positive outcome to their invisible leader, but oddly enough not attributing it to the work and effort over the years and decades of the hundreds and thousands of men and women who've contributed to the development and implementation of the diagnostic procedures, instruments, equipment, pharmaceuticals and treatments that were employed. (After undergoing emergency surgery in 2006 philosopher Daniel Dennett delves into this in "Thank Goodness!")

Were we to confront the pastor and his wife with the question, "If the 60-year old woman had not resorted to any medical treatment whatsoever, do you think that prayers alone would have licked her cancer?" I believe they'd hesitate. I doubt they'd glibly say, "Oh yes, without a doubt." I imagine they'd say something like, "God works through doctors." It almost seems to me that for most believers such as the preacher and his spouse it is an accepted fact that science and medicine are part and parcel of health and healing. What they do and have done is to hitch prayer onto the proven efficacy and track record of medicine (and then blissfully and blatantly commit the non causa pro causa fallacy). I'll hazard a guess that for most believers prayers are not there to replace doctors and drugs but rather they're there in the belief that they will assist, promote, or even ensure the effectiveness of the medical treatments. I wonder if it ever enters their mind that P may be superfluous, that the surgery, pharmaceuticals, chemotherapy, etc. may be sufficient, or in the case when even the best of medical technology is ineffective or futile or too late, that the absence/presence of prayers is irrelevant. So how does the pastor know prayers had anything to do with the recovery of his female congregant? What of his other church members who had cancer, were prayed for, but who got worse or died? What does or would that say about the power of prayer?

During services and bible meetings, when members share their testimonies you don't hear them tell such stories as, "I prayed to the Lord. Everyday, for two months, my family and friends all prayed with me. But the Lord did not save my son." With such a story how in heavens' name will the minister and the fellow members utter the mandatory twice-a-minute refrain "Praise the Lord!"? What you do hear are stories that ostensibly confirm the efficacy of prayer, the goodness and trustworthiness of their deity, and other things they believe in. If you do hear a downer as the one above, it will surely be followed by something that will end the testimony on a bright note, even if it's just the hope that things will turn out for the better. And on the off chance that the person testifying doesn't provide it, his peers will. In the world of religion, disconfirming evidence is a (mind) virus that triggers the immune response and is dealt with immediately at all costs.

The end result of exposure to predominantly positive stories, to spins on even negative outcomes of prayer/faith, is confirmation bias. Believers tend to see prayer and faith in a very positive light: Prayer does work and if it apparently doesn't then one's continuing faith is called for, for God's ways are mysterious and he knows best.


You may initially have thought that the title of this blog entry had a typo. But the declarative is there to prod you to supply a question mark. Try asking Christians the questions below. You can wait for their reply to each before asking the next, or you can just fire all questions at once. (It's my guess that the two approaches will elicit quite different responses to question #1.)

1. Are believers unbiased and objective evaluators of the effectiveness of prayer and faith healing?
2. What do you think are the means by which an unbiased and objective assessment can be made?
3. How do you know these means are unbiased and objective?

Using the second method of questioning I asked a Christian friend the first two items. To the first she replied that believers are probably not unbiased and objective, that those who are not fully into religion may be more objective. To the second question she candidly admits she doesn't know what such means would be. I'm of course wondering how she would've replied to #1 had I withheld #2. Would she have been less thoughtful/careful and answered yes?

Question #2 makes the person examine what he takes to be the means by which prayer and faith healing are efficacious. Are they objective and unbiased? #2 can't be answered with a yes or no. It involves thinking and elucidation. It's a question that's bound to give Christians pause. Hopefully the mental rigor, inspection and even introspection involved would lead to the realization that objective evaluation (which is taken to be good in contrast to a biased assessment) is more than just believing and that it isn't some facile, illogical method as with what the preacher and his wife employed.

If #2 was a toughie, then question #3 is a reinforced concrete wall. This is the end of the line for most believers. Stumped, some of them will switch to irrational mode and will let anger end the line of inquiry.

There are those who will contend that there is no objective way to test the efficacy of prayer. Such a claim sounds eerily like that of previous Chair of the Society of Homeopaths Felicity Lee. In her special pleading she claims placebo-controlled RCTs aren't suited to testing homeopathy's effectiveness. Questioned as to why this is, Lee had no answer. So how does she and her fellow practitioners know that homeopathy works? Case studies. In other words, anecdotes by homeopaths. Bottom line is that for alt. med including faith healing the only "evidence" is subjective in nature.

1 comment:

Dr. T said...

The biases of the magical thinkers drive me crazy. Years ago, my 7-year-old daughter climbed a tree and fell over 25' to the ground. She had a compound fracture of the jaw, a 2nd jaw fracture, a broken rib, a lacerated spleen, neck ligament injuries, and was comatose for 5 days. With good medical care, she had a full recovery.

Many friends and coworkers made comments such as "God was watching out for her." or "God wanted her to live." My reply to those comments was "If God wanted her to live, he would have made her fall from 8' up so her bruises and scrapes would warn her to be more careful about climbing. Instead, he let her fall 25' with serious injuries, and I give him no credit for keeping her alive."

This didn't increase my popularity, but I was thoroughly sick of such stupid comments.