Friday, August 04, 2006

Folk Science or Junk Science?

In the August, 2006 issue of Scientific American magazine page 34 Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is devoted to the topic of “Folk Science”, which seems to mean any beliefs not based on scientific experiments.

One example of folk science is prayer. Shermer cites a study published in the April, 2006 American Heart Journal. In this study, about 1,000 heart surgery patients were prayed for by members of several religious congregations and were found to have no better outcome than other heart surgery patients. According to Shermer this proves conclusively that prayer for sick people does not help them.

The weakness of this conclusion is appalling.

Obviously, prayer involves communicating with an intelligent being who has free will. Therefore the person offering the prayer, the manner of its offering, the subject of the prayer and other circumstances may be crucial. It is not as simple a process as administering a drug to heart surgery patients. Prayer is not a medication; it involves creating a relationship.

To give an analogy, let’s say I want to do an experiment to discover whether or not writing letters to the President of the United States has any affect. One thousand people will write to the President asking that their federal income tax be lowered. Then we will check to see if their taxes drop compared to other people or not. If not, then we can conclude scientifically that the President either does not exist or he never reads his mail.

An experiment like that is obviously absurd junk science which no one would take seriously. Therefore one wonders why Dr. Shermer finds the AHJ study to be so compelling and in fact why the editors of Scientific American magazine even published his column. Could there be a need in scientific community to grasp at any straw which seems to disprove theism?

17 comments:

Avi said...

AH Jewish Non Philosopher I am disappointed in you. You had no answer for my comment so you erased it. Pretty soon you will have no one to read your blog.

jewish philosopher said...

No I didn't. What comment?

Anonymous said...

He need to read the Talmud about prayer. Its views on prayer are the same as Deism. However, for the reason why we pray you must read the Talmud.

Goatboy said...

Of course it doesn't disprove theism. Who says that it does? What it does do is make an actual effort to test the effacacy of prayer. The results are interesting. Surely one would have expected some kind of difference between the two groups.

As for science clutching at straws, that is a bit rich coming from a theist.

jewish philosopher said...

The study proves one thing only: Not all prayers are answered. No theist is surprised to hear that. Would you be shocked that not all letters to a head of state are answered, and therefore conclude, as Shermer has, that NO letters are ever answered because if he exists he doesn’t read them? But I guess if you really want to believe something, any half-baked “proof” is more than enough.

Goatboy said...

Well you said it, not me.

Anonymous said...

How would you go about proving that any prayers are answered or not?

jewish philosopher said...

I doubt it can be proven one way or the other. The fact is that the Talmud makes a statement to the effect that "the gates of prayer have been closed", meaning I assume that prayers are today seldom answered.

About 90 per cent of the Jewish prayer book consists of praising God, not asking for things, in any case.

happywithhislot said...

jp
"meaning I assume that prayers are today seldom answered."
so why do they have prayers for peoples health, safety, parnassa etc? doesnt seem that todays gedolim think its a waste of time.

jewish philosopher said...

If the act of praying causes a change for the better in the person who is praying, then it may be that God's decree will change as well.

happywithhislot said...

So the gates of prayer are not closed?

jewish philosopher said...

It seems to be open a crack.

happywithhislot said...

jp

is it our hashkafa that prayers are SELDOM answered?

seems like the amount of calls for prayer as a PRIMARY way to change things must mean we believe it is very effective.

can you name a source for your idea that hashem has basically cut off the jews from prayer?

jewish philosopher said...

Let's put it like this. We are seldom worthy of having our prayers fully answered. I will have do some research to track down sources.

jewish philosopher said...

Here is the quote:

Talmud Bavli Brochos 32a
Rabbi Elazar said "From the day when the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been locked. However the gates of tears have not been locked."

Apparently our prayers are much less effective today than they once were.

happywithhislot said...

JP
sounds to me that if you actually mean what you pray (ie you pray and offer change in yourself - the tears of tshuva) then its more readily accepted.
It could be prayer simply worked by itself without the tshuva component.

Anonymous said...

I am with you on this one. The experiment you refer to was junk science. But so using the bible as a science textbook.