Saturday, June 17, 2006

Noci-Notes – ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #6

` Chapter Five – Astrology and Prayer (You can also Start From the Beginning)

` I’m back with another of these, despite the fact that I have very little time for them. So, it will be hasty and rich with non-original material. No matter; I am sure my regular readers will find it interesting.
` In this chapter, Raymo examines the standing of superstitions vs. fruits of science in our culture! Personally, I found this particularly interesting:
Quick. Give brief definitions of ESP and PCR. What can you say about Yeti (Tibetan Bigfoot) and SETI? What are a UFO and a WIMP?
` Ohhhh I know!!! Of course, most people – skeptics or not – will most likely catch the first in the pairs of terms and not the second, as those are more culturally familiar. The first time I had read this as a teenager, I had gotten everything but PCR, which is a way to artificially replicate DNA millions of times.
` Still, to make the point:
On a visit to one of Boston’s elite high schools, I listed twenty terms on a blackboard – the six above and the following: cosmic microwave background radiation, Adam and Eve, parallel processing, cellular automata, reincarnation, Loch Ness monster, hot fusion, superconductivity, Shroud of Turin, close encounters of the third kind, the Genome Project, the Bermuda Triangle, scanning tunneling microscope, and horoscope. I went through the list one by one, asking for a show of hands on the following question: “For which topics could you give a reasonably confident explanation?” You can guess the outcome. For half of the terms, most hands in the room were raised. For the other half, only one or two hands went up. I’m sure you can guess which terms fell into each category.
` Yes, cutting-edge science that can change what we know and how we live is not as popular in day-to-day conversation (nor day-to-day media) as more personable, easy-to-understand things that are so baseless that they cannot be scientifically verified?
I have no doubt that the exercise would have produced the same result with students at Harvard or almost any other audience not made up of professional scientists. A 1989 survey showed that about 6 percent of adults in the United States can be called scientifically literate. {Nothern Illinois University Public Opinion Laboratory, Science 243 (Feb 3 1989): 600.} Skeptics and True Believers alike are vastly less knowledgeable about science than about pseudoscience and superstition....
` Massively parallel-processing computers, with cellular automata and other kinds of computer-based mathematics, may lead to the most sweeping transformation of science since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Hot fusion and superconductivity may transform the way civilization produces and uses energy. The Genome Project will provide [and now does!] a complete genetic blueprint for a human being. The scanning tunneling microscope allows us to “see” individual atoms and move them about at will.
` That's some really great stuff, especially considering the level of ignorance the public holds about it.
` Question: Does the fact that more people are largely not aware of what’s going on at the cutting edge of science at all bother anyone? Furthermore, does the fact that people are more exposed to superstitions and fads rather than science – the world’s most effective system for unearthing answers – make anyone uneasy?
Some years ago, I wrote a column that was, I thought, a blistering debunking of astrology. It was about the time then-President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan admitting to consulting astrologers on matter of state. Polls showed belief in astrology was on the rise.... I pointed out the complete absence of any reproducible, empirical evidence linking individual human lives to the positions of celestial bodies. I described controlled tests of astrology, all of which had proved negative. {For a discussion, see Geoffrey Dean, “Does Astrology Need to be True?” Skeptical Inquirer Winter 86/87, p. 166 and Spring 87, p 257}
` But does evidence really matter to the True Believer? No. Apparently, the small number of Raymo's readers who believed in astrology, personal evidence said it all, no matter what scientific evidence showed.
...One good thing came out of the column. I entered into an agreeable correspondence with a professional astrologer who was convinced of the validity of his craft, and who, as far as I could tell, was motivated by an unselfish desire to help others. He offered gentle, patient responses to my not-so-gentle criticisms. He sent me several of his best-selling books on astrology. They were lively, well-written, and fun. As self-help books go, this particular author’s works contained much good, sensible advice. They evoked a sense of wonder, a positive attitude toward people, and (paradoxically) a healthy sense of personal responsibility.
` That’s all well and good, though such things as considering objectivity have no real effect on True Believers in astrology (much less most other faith-based systems).
It is not so much a matter of evidence as attitudes toward evidence. The astrologer and the scientist have different criteria for truth – the one anecdotal and personal, the other empirical and institutional – and, consequently, little hope of resolving their differences. “I don’t care what experiments appear to show; I just know from experience that it works,” says the astrologer.
` It is easy to believe something if it seems to work for you. For example, Subject R did not seem to notice when I replaced his posture-enhancing remedy with plain vodka, saying; “Boy, I sure couldn’t move this way yesterday! And I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t taken the remedy!” When I had revealed to him that he had only ingested plain vodka he said that; “I don’t think it really had any effect on me, anyway. I think it was a coincidence.”
` What does that tell you? My subvertent, informal experiment is fairly consistent with what has been found in all the best research: It doesn’t seem to matter if the patient is taking plain vodka or vodka with a homeopathic solution in it; the effects too similar to distinguish. Therefore, a remedy is no better than vodka.
Experiments of the most exquisite sensitivity can be devised to test the [theories of electromagnetism, particle physics, and gravity], experiments that can be performed by Believers and Skeptics alike with identical results. Radio communication, nuclear power, and the space program are spectacular testaments to the fact that electromagnetism, particle physics, and the law of gravity work.
` On the other hand, as noted earlier, every scientifically reliable test of astrology has been negative. Whenever professional astrologers have been asked in blind, controlled experiments to match horoscopes with personality profiles or personal histories, their success rate has been no better than chance.
` This reminds me; you know what I’ve always wanted to do? Get an astrology reading from someone, but give them the wrong birthdate! Have them take me for someone else with a different sign and everything, and get a chart that ‘describes me exactly’. Then show them my driver’s license or birth certificate and watch as they sputter in amazement!
` That would be a fun prank. As for Raymo, his own astrology reading went over like this:
She labored long over ephemerides and graphs, then told me I was sensitive, intelligent, basically generous but sometimes self-indulgent, inclined toward optimism but subject to occasional bouts of depression. (Wow! Right on!) In other words, she told me just what I wanted to hear, in language so vague as to be untestable.
` And, to reiterate, that doesn’t matter if tests aren’t important to any believer; they could construct some sense of it anyway. That’s what faith is all about!

` Prayer is, of course, the other main topic covered in this chapter. Since most Americans believe that praying for someone can elicit a cure for them, that seems like something the general public would be interested to know what scientific tests show.
` Yet, as I’ve stated, empirical tests aren’t important to the True Believer. Notwithstanding, Randall Byrd published the results of a study at the San Francisco General Medical Center in 1998. {Randolph Byrd, Southern Medical Journal 81, no. 7 (July 1988): 826-29} While it does not offer much evidence that prayer has effects, it has nevertheless been widely quoted as doing just that.
` Here’s what happened;
Over a ten-month period, Byrd randomly divided nearly 400 patients in a coronary care unit into two groups. One group was prayed for by born-again Christians outside the hospital; the control group received no assigned prayer. Neither physicians nor patients knew which group the patients had been assigned to.
` Was there any correlation between how long someone was in the hospital and whether or not they were prayed for?
` No.
` Did the fact that half of these patients were prayed for allow them to live longer than the average?
` No.
` However, Byrd noticed that the ones that had been prayed for did not need as much in the way of ventilatory therapy, antibiotics and diuretics than the others. It could easily be a coincidence – seeing as this was but one study – though here, Byrd treated these results as possible evidence for prayer.
` And just when you think Raymo (and I) might be writing the statistics off as inconclusive in their own right, think about this: The experiments are flawed anyway! How can you possibly control for an experiment like this? How can you tell whether or not anyone at all is praying for those who are in the ‘not being prayed for’ group?
` Not to mention, how can you expect such a thing as God to participate in such experiments if you don’t have any idea of what he could be up to? Yes, some people have told me that; “sometimes He answers prayers ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’.” Well, apparently he seems to have answered ‘no’ to all of them – either that, or he benefited various people in the study irrespective of who was being prayed for. (Either way, praying would be expected to have no measurable effect.)
` Whether or not the experiment can be considered well-controlled, two earlier studies failed to show any kind of statistical significance of intercessory prayer. {P.J. Collipp, “The Efficacy of Prayer: A Triple-blind Study,” Medical Times 97 (1969): 201-204, and C. R. B. Joyce and R. M. C. Weldon, “The Objective Efficacy of Prayer: A Double-blind Clinical Trial,” Journal of Chronic Diseases 18 (1965): 367-70}
` Not to mention, nor has any since Raymo’s book was published, including this most recent study, which I discovered from this eSkeptic.

` What are other tests are there of prayer on health? Well, you might consider the outcomes of people in hospitals which are staffed by nuns. Especially when something nasty happens. For example, in Yambuku, Zaire, some Belgian nuns got a chance to test out the effect of prayer on the first outbreak of Ebola in 1976. Lucky them!
` The nuns did all they could do with their limited training and knowledge, courageously fighting to save people’s lives, and still most of the patients died horribly of internal hemorrhaging. The surviving nuns were found fervently praying for all who were left by representatives of the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.
The scientists set to work, taking blood and tissue samples for study in the field or for shipping to Atlanta for more detailed analysis, working out transmission patterns of the disease, and looking for the animal or animals that might be reservoirs or vectors for the virus. They discovered that the virus was a new and virulent strain, spread initially by the reuse of scarce syringes at the hospital. Through a combination of quarantine and strict hygiene, the epidemic was brought under control.
` Meanwhile a similar viral epidemic was ravaging remote villages in southern Sudan. Again, the international disease-control scientists made their way to the scene. Again they discovered that unhygienic hospital practices were instrumental in spreading the disease, compounded by tribal methods of preparing the bodies of victims for burial. (The kin of the deceased used their bare hands to remove undigested food and feces from the dead person’s internal organs.) When the hospital was closed and the funeral cleansings stopped, the epidemic abated.
` Emotional states have an undoubted impact upon physical health, and it is certainly true that the medical establishment is often woefully unsympathetic to our emotional needs, but – as the earnestly praying Belgian nuns in Yambuku experienced to their distress – God has no role in the micromanagement of viruses and bacteria.
` I suppose that one could argue that God sent the people who took over and prevented the spread, though nobody can argue that the laws of physics had been broken in order to stop the epidemic. In any case, the people with the know-how can be thanked for existing and being there.

` Subject R’s belief-based therapy is another story, and I will get to that eventually, as only my cold and clinical character can carry it out. For now, I’m planning to head off to a beach party with Dandruff and the other mutants.
` Gee... I’ve always wanted to test out the seaworthiness of Experiment 9!

` (Update: My much more original next installment is now up!)


Galtron said...

Yes, I find it just... wrong that the general public is most familiar with beliefs they might mistake to be scientific or real or something instead of what we really know!

Also... He's taking a remedy for his posture? How can a medicine be expected to change your posture, anyway?

S E E Quine said...

` I don't know. It has seemingly caused him to use the correct muscles in his leg, reorienting his entire knee joint so that it isn't twisted around.
` That's good for him. And for me, I now have to go to the homeopath as well. His reasoning is that if it works on him, it should work on me, no matter what I believe.
` I guess he must love me if he's willing to give up $200 in an effort to help me get over my conversion disorder!

Galtron said...

He's paying $200? Well, as long as it isn't your money.....

S E E Quine said...

` My doctor agrees... she says it's all more for him than myself.
` ...Then again, this way I'll be able to 'interview' this famous Dr. Olsen guy.