Eric MacDonald, a former Church of England clergyman who is now an atheist, knows that prayer doesn’t make sick people better. Dr. John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, a former physics professor at Cambridge who is also an Anglican priest and theologian, who recently wrote Questions of Truth: Responses to Questions about God, Science and Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), in collaboration with Nicholas Beale, FRSA, believes that at times, prayer “may” result in “remarkable physical recovery,” although often it does not (see the “Science of Prayer” video here). Whom should we believe?
In yesterday’s post, which was entitled, Is this the Dumbest Ever “Refutation” of the Fine-Tuning Argument?, I exposed the silly fallacies in atheist philosopher Anthony Grayling’s criticisms of the cosmological fine-tuning argument, which Dr. Polkinghorne defends in his book. Today, I’ll be focusing my sights on Eric MacDonald’s critical review of Polkinghorne’s book.
In a provocatively titled post, Polkinghorne: Religion, Lies and Digital Video (17 October 2011), MacDonald accuses Dr. Polkinghorne of lying to his audience:
Praying — as Polkinghorne must know — has no effect whatever on disease outcomes, and if it’s just a kind of psychological self-help program he should say so, instead of resorting to the mumbo-jumbo of religion….
… Polkinghorne must know, if anything can be called wish-fulfilment, religion is a prime candidate, since there isn’t a shred of evidence to show that religion is true….
… Polkinghorne is deliberately misleading his audience. In any other language this is called lying, and to my mind, it just shows how desperate religious believers are, that they can shamelessly tout their beliefs in this hucksterish way, like a carnie in the midway of a country fair.
“Lying.” That’s a pretty strong accusation to make against an Anglican priest who is also a knight and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In my language, that would be called slander. It might help MacDonald’s case, though, if his charges against Dr. Polkinghorne turned out to be true. But are they?
Watching the video, I was reminded of a statement made by the late Arthur C. Clarke:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
(Clarke’s first law, which he originally proposed in the essay, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, in Profiles of the Future, 1962.)
Dr. Polkinghorne is 81. Should we believe him when he says that prayer may result in a remarkable physical recovery?
In order to answer that question, it might help to do something that MacDonald forgot to do: look at the evidence. The Wikipedia article, Efficacy of prayer turned out to contain a couple of surprising nuggets of information:
Determining the efficacy of prayer has been attempted in various studies since Francis Galton first addressed it in 1872. Some studies have reported benefit, some have reported harm, and some have found no benefit from the act of praying. Others suggest that the topic is outside the realm of science altogether…
In comparison to other fields that have been scientifically studied, carefully monitored studies of prayer are relatively few. The field remains tiny, with about $5 million spent worldwide on such research. If and when more studies of prayer are done, the issue of prayer’s efficacy may be further clarified.
In the absence of decisive results one way or the other, a prudent agnosticism would surely be the healthiest scientific attitude to adopt. When Eric MacDonald claims to “know” that praying “has no effect whatever on disease outcomes,” he is not speaking in the way that a scientist would talk.
Atheists who write on the subject of prayer commonly cite the 2006 Benson study as the last word on the subject of intercessory prayer. This study found that intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications, and that patients who knew they were receiving
intercessory prayer actually fared worse. (Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. (April 2006). “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”. American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934–42. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2005.05.028. Abstract. Lay summary.) One curious feature of this study, unlike previous studies, was that the intercessors were not allowed to pray their own prayers. The prayers were given to them by the study coordinators, in order to “standardize” the prayers. The discussion section of the study acknowledged that some of the intercessors were dissatisfied with the canned nature of the prayers.
In 2007, a systemic review of 17 studies (including Benson’s) stated that there are “small, but significant, effect sizes” for the use of intercessory prayer in the reviewed literature. (David R. Hodge, “A Systematic Review of the Empirical Literature on Intercessory Prayer” in Research on Social Work Practice, March 2007, vol. 17 no. 2, 174-187 doi: 10.1177/1049731506296170.) For the benefit of readers, I’ll quote a few of the study’s highlights:
Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria
Because the purpose of the review was to examine research capable of informing and guiding practice decisions, studies had to meet the following criteria to be included in the review: (a) use intercessory prayer as an intervention, (b) implement the intervention with a population of clients or patients, and (c) test the efficacy of the intervention, preferably using standardized measures and a double-blind randomized control trial (RCT) methodology. (p. 175)
Findings Supportive of Prayer
Individual assessment revealed that patients who received intercessory prayer demonstrated significant improvement compared to those who received standard treatment devoid of prayer in 7 of the 17 studies. Furthermore, in an additional 5 studies, the trend favored the prayer group. This raises the possibility that an increase in power would yield significant findings. (p. 182)
Findings Unsupportive of Prayer
Conversely, in 10 of the studies, prayer was unassociated with positive improvement in the condition of clients. In addition, in many of the studies in which significant results were obtained, the results were not uniformly positive across outcome variables. For instance, in the Byrd (1988) study, only six positive outcomes were recorded among 26 specific problem conditions. This type of inconsistent pattern raises the possibility of Type I errors. (p. 182)
The Use of Informed Consent for Private Intercessory Prayer
With the exception of one small pilot study (i.e., Mathai & Bourne, 2004), all six studies in which clients were completely unaware of the intervention yielded positive outcomes or exhibited a trend in favor of the group receiving intercessory prayer. This finding held irrespective of when the prayer was offered (prospective vs. retrospective) or the spiritual tradition of those providing the prayer (Quakers vs. Catholics). (p. 184)
Intercessory prayer offered on behalf of clients in clinical settings is a controversial practice, in spite of its apparent frequent occurrence. The topic is one that engenders both support and opposition, often passionately held. This study has attempted to shed some light on the controversy by examining the empirical literature on intercessory prayer.
Practitioners who adhere to Division 12 criteria have little basis for using intercessory prayer, in spite of a meta-analysis indicating small, but significant, effect sizes for the use of intercessory prayer. Most practitioners, however, are likely to affirm the broader understanding of evidence-based practice articulated in the APA’s Presidential Task Force on Evidence-based Practice (2006). Such practitioners may believe that the best available evidence currently supports the use of intercessory prayer as an intervention.
Thus, at this junction in time, the results might be considered inconclusive. Indeed, perhaps the most certain result stemming from this study is the following: The findings are unlikely to satisfy either proponents or opponents of intercessory prayer.
Faced with evidence of this nature, I submit that an honest scientist would withhold judgement regarding the efficacy of prayer. When Dr. Polkinghorne modestly asserts his belief that at times, prayer “may” result in “remarkable physical recovery,” he is perfectly within his rights as a scientist.
Before I conclude my discussion of prayer studies, I’d like to mention two complicating factors which make the interpretation of prayer studies difficult. The first is that even in a control group, family members will almost certainly be praying for the patients, if the study is being conducted in North America. Perhaps it would be better to conduct a study in China, whose government is officially atheist, if one wants better controls.
The second complicating factor underlying prayer studies is the questionable assumption that a Deity (supposing Him to be the One responsible for answering prayers) would be more inclined to help those who pray than those who do not. Even Holy Scripture is not clear about this: we are told that “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, NIV), but we are also told that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Prayers may indeed be powerful, but whom do they help? God alone knows.
The Power of Prayer – the Experience of C. S. Lewis
One person who had quite a lot to say on the power of prayer was C. S. Lewis, a former atheist who was highly doubtful of the worth of intercessory prayer studies, but who had personal experiences which led him to affirm that prayer actually works. Lewis’ description of his experiences in his essay, The Efficacy of Prayer, with prayer makes for intriguing reading:
Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too. But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.
It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident.
I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thighbone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones, as well. It took three people to move her in bed. The doctors predicted a few months of life; the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying, “These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous.”
But once again there is no rigorous proof. Medicine, as all true doctors admit, is not an exact science. We need not invoke the supernatural to explain the falsification of its prophecies. You need not, unless you choose, believe in a causal connection between the prayers and the recovery….
Cases like these are singular, but they certainly give one pause. Whatever one makes of them, they shatter the shrill dogmatism of ex-clergymen like MacDonald, who claim to know that prayer doesn’t affect disease outcomes.
No evidence for religion?
Eric MacDonald also asserts in his review that “there isn’t a shred of evidence to show that religion is true.” I have to say he’s flat wrong on this point. If MacDonald wants evidence, I can show him some: the evidence from miracles.
The philosophical arguments against the possibility and/or credibility of miracles, have been dealt with by Dr. Timothy McGrew in his article, Miracles in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, so I won’t waste time on them here.
Eric MacDonald will want to see good evidence of miracles, so I’ll confine myself to one case: the 17th century Italian saint, Joseph of Cupertino, who was seen levitating well above the ground and even flying for some distance through the air, on literally thousands of occasions, by believers and skeptics alike. The saint was the phenomenon of the 17th century. Those who are curious might like to have a look at his biography by D. Bernini (Vita Del Giuseppe da Copertino, 1752, Roma: Ludovico Tinassi and Girolamo Mainardi). The philosopher David Hume, who was notoriously skeptical of miracle claims, never even mentions St. Joseph of Cupertino in his writings. Funny, that.
The evidence for St. Joseph’s flights is handily summarized in an article, The flying saint (The Messenger of Saint Anthony, January 2003), by Renzo Allegri.
The earthly existence of Friar Joseph of Cupertino was rich in charismatic gifts. However, the phenomenon which attracted the most attention occurred during his disconcerting ecstasies. Chronicles recount, as we have already said, that he need only hear the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint before going into an ecstasy. He used to let out a wail and float in the air, remaining suspended between heaven and earth for hours. An inadmissible phenomenon for our modern mentality.
‘To doubt is understandable,’ Fr. Giulio Berettoni, rector of the Shrine of St. Joseph of Cupertino in Osimo tells me ‘but it isn’t justifiable. If we take a serious look at the saint’s life from a historical point of view, then we see that we cannot question his ecstasies. There are numerous witness accounts. They began to be documented in 1628, and this continued until Joseph’s death in 1663, i.e. for 35 years. In certain periods, the phenomenon is recorded to have taken place more than once a day. It has been calculated that Joseph’s ‘ecstatic flights’ took place at least 1,000 to 1,500 times in his lifetime, perhaps even more, and that they were witnessed by thousands of people. They were the phenomenon of the century. They were so sensational and so public that they attracted attention from curious people from all walks of life, Italians and foreigners, believers and unbelievers, simple folk, but also scholars, scientists, priests, bishops and cardinals. They continued to occur in every situation, in whatever church in which the saint prayed or celebrated Mass. It is impossible to doubt such a sensational and public phenomenon which repeated itself over time. It is also worth noting that these events occurred in the seventeenth century, the time of the Inquisition. Amazing events, miracles and healings were labelled magic and the protagonists ended up undergoing a trial by the civil and religious Inquisition. In fact, St. Joseph of Cupertino underwent this very fate because of his ecstasies. But he was subjected to various trials without ever being condemned; final proof that these are sensational events, but also real, extraordinary and concrete facts.’ (Emphases mine – VJT.)
In view of the fact that miracle claims can be found in many different religions, it would be imprudent to cite St. Joseph’s levitations and flights in support of any one particular religion. But miracles like this, which could be prompted by St. Joseph’s hearing “the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint,” certainly constitute evidence for religion. MacDonald may or may not be persuaded by such evidence, but evidence it certainly is. In the meantime, he might like to have a look at an article by Dr. Michael Grosso, entitled, Hume’s Syndrome: Irrational Resistance to the Paranormal (Journal of Scientiﬁc Exploration, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 549–556, 2008).
Investigating the Ridiculous
A true scientist is not constrained by metaphysical blinkers, such as “methodological naturalism” or “empiricism.” A true scientist is fearless, and prepared to investigate any claim, no matter how much it conflicts with our preconceptions. Discoveries in quantum physics in the 20th century have forced scientists to question our common-sense assumptions about reality and the nature of causation. That is all to the good, and we should welcome further investigations.
As an example of what I mean when I talk about open-mindedness, I’d like to mention the research of Dr. Daryl Bem, of Cornell University, whose article, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011 Mar;100(3):407-25) claimed to find evidence of retroactive causation. In a nutshell, what Bem is claiming is that events that haven’t yet happened can influence our behavior.
Here is how Bem describes his findings, in his online Response to Alcock’s “Back from the Future: Comments on Bem (a reply to a critical review, which appeared in the March/April 2011 edition of The Skeptical Inquirer):
My article reports nine experiments, involving more than 1,000 participants, that test for precognition or retroactive influence by “time-reversing” well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before rather than after the stimulus events occur. Each time-reversed experiment tests the straightforward hypothesis that we should observe the same effect that we normally observe in the standard (non-psi) version of the experiment. Five different effects are tested in this way; and, to bolster confidence in the results, four of the nine experiments are actually replications of Bem – the other experiments in the article. Across all nine experiments, the combined odds against the findings being due to chance are greater than 70 billion to 1.
70 billion to 1. That’s pretty impressive, if it holds up. The field of parapsychological research is littered with claims that haven’t held up, but the methodology of this study is nothing if not scientific. As one of Bem’s reviewers, Professor Joachim Krueger, put it:
“My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can’t be true. Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I didn’t see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order.” (Quoted by Peter Aldhous, Is this evidence that we can see the future? In NewScientist 16:29, November 11, 2010.)
Krueger’s online article, Why I don’t believe in precognition is a model of scientific impartiality. He writes:
In a paper published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP, 2011), Daryl Bem notes that 34% of psychologists in one studied sample believe that psi is impossible. I would be among those 34% if I were sampled. Yet, I remain intrigued by attempts to prove the existence of psi. Bem defines psi as “anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms.” …
I am not ready to trade my traditional view of how causal processes work themselves out through time for an “anything-goes” view. Bem knows that massive paradigm shifts require powerful evidence. The evidence he presents hardly clears that high threshold. On the plus side, there are 9 experiments conducted on different but related topics. On the minus side, the effect sizes are rather small; some of the null hypotheses are rejected only by way of the flat-footed one-tailed test, and finally, it took apparently 20 years and extensive pilot testing to put together this package of studies. Bem also knows that skeptics will clamor for independent replication studies. To his credit, he encourages such replications and provides the programs for running these studies.
[The] missing explanatory step is how we get retroactive causation at the macroscopic level from indeterminacy at the subatomic level.
Aldhous mentions in his article that one failed attamept at replication has already been posted online. In response, Bem has argued that online surveys are inconclusive, because one cannot know whether volunteers have paid sufficient attention to the task. Time will tell.
What I find impressive, however, is that the reviewers were fair-minded enough to urge the publication of an article which claimed to shatter our most deeply held beliefs about the nature of causality – and all in the name of scientific fairness. As Bem points out, “several of the reviewers expressed various degrees of skepticism about the reality of psi, while still urging the article’s acceptance.” Two reviewers, Chick Judd and Bertram Gawronski, were more sanguine: they wrote that Bem’s findings “turn out traditional understanding of causality on its head. A central assumption in lay and scientific conceptions of causality is that a cause precedes its effects, not the other way round [and] we openly admit that the reported findings conflict with our beliefs about causality and that we find them extremely puzzling.”
Fairness and fearless investigation. Those are two vital hallmarks of good science. Science withers on the vine when it is kept in check by metaphysical shibboleths and pundits who insist that something cannot be published because it is “impossible.”
Would it be too much to ask for the same spirit of openness in the field of biology? How long will it be, I wonder, until Intelligent Design researchers can freely publish their findings in journals like Nature?
A final quote for Eric MacDonald. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 166–167.)