Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Shermer's Fallacy


I'm skeptical of skeptics

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 monotheism, thereby discrediting the clergy and increasing their own prestige?

48 comments:

Dave said...

" Prayer is not a medication; it involves creating a relationship."

I think that is insightful.

However the question would remain, if the effectiveness of prayer is testable in any way. Is it?

jewish philosopher said...

Probably not, especially considering the Talmudic statement:

R. Eleazar said: Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked (Baba Mezi'a 59a)

http://www.come-and-hear.com/babamezia/babamezia_59.html

I think this experiment may have been directed not at monotheism in general however at a specific Christian teaching:

"And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." (Matthew 21:22)

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+21%3A22&version=KJV

Anonymous said...

Religion people of all stripes seem prone to deceiving themselves on these kinds of matters:

There are faith healers who don’t heal – but the practice continues and many believers spread stories.

There is the phenomenon of every good thing that happens saying it was a miracle from G-d. The next week six girl scouts will be killed on a bus and no one says anything.

There is a bustling industry of hashgacha pratis stories – concocted? Real? And isn’t virtually everything that happens hashgacha pratis?

I remember hearing that during the first Gulf War the black hats left Israel by the thousands (Chabad did not.)

This is after of course big rabbis talking about the Torah community having protection from Hashem.

Would they stay in Mea Shearim if the IDF pulled out? I doubt it.

No one seems to buy it when it gets down to the nitty gritty.

We just had 12/21/12 – and around the world people needed to be reassured that nothing was going to happen.

We are all prone to superstition, and fear of the unknown.

Religion people take advantage of this – fear mongering.

I say the same thing every time: Fear Mongering 101 class – NEVER put down a specific date for the end of the world, or the rapture or anything. BIG mistake. HUGE. Entire churches shut their doors when the minister does this!

NEVER let anything be testable! That is religious fear mongering 101.

I think the Jews have done a good job with this – except for the deadline for moshiach – 227 short years away!

I asked one frum Jew about this who was into the topic. When I suggested it would be a watershed moment if moshiach did not come by then he said that it would not: there is a good chance we got the date wrong. There is at least one opinion (currently not to be held by) that 6000 is not the deadline!

The backtracking begins…Judaism will survive the close call, the ikkurim on this matter will be revised. Phew – that was a close one…

Tuvia

jewish philosopher said...

"We just had 12/21/12"

Actually this is true - the world did end before December 21. Twinkies were discontinued.

http://www.thetastespot.com/the-taste-spot/2012/11/death-of-the-hostess-twinkie-hostess-strike-news.html

"Religion people take advantage of this – fear mongering."

As do doctors and the federal government, for example.

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes

"NEVER let anything be testable!"

Judaism is pretty much all about past events - creation, the exodus, Mount Sinai. History is never testable. You believe it or you don't.

Anonymous said...

JP:

“Judaism is pretty much all about past events - creation, the exodus, Mount Sinai. History is never testable. You believe it or you don't.”

Kiruv is predicated on pseudo proofs (just don’t look for yourself, you will find the proofs not so proofy. Christianity and Islam love their proofs too. Everybody gets in on the act of proofs.

But Judaism is lucky that the “history” is so far in the past that no one can verify or disconfirm it.

The problem comes in the future – 227 years from now.

Can’t you hear them squirming – mumbling “what jack*ss put a deadline for moshiach arriving? What are we gonna do when it doesn’t pan out??”

I can see them now, pouring over the texts, looking for an out. “Found one! We got one rabbi from 1236AD who says it isn’t a firm date!”

“Spread the word!” says the other rabbi. “And the ikkurim – we got a new list – and moshiach is off it!”

“Won’t the people grumble, call this revisionism?” asks a bachur.

The big rabbi strokes his beard and thinks.

“We won’t tell them,” he says. “We’ll say it was always like this. Teach the kids the new thing. Come one or two generations, they’ll never know the difference!”

He whips around. “Spread the word!”

Too bad we won’t be around to see what happens.

But can’t you foresee the above happening? Is there anything more quintessentially Jewish than changing the rules?

Tuvia

Anonymous said...

R. Eleazar said: Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked, for it is written, Also when I cry out, he shutteth out my prayer. Yet though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not, for it is written, Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears.

Anonymous said...

Ps. XXXIX, 13; the idea is that the destruction of the Temple may have made it more difficult to commune with God, yet earnest prayer from the depths of the heart is always accepted.

Anonymous said...

Ps. XXXIX, 13; the idea is that the destruction of the Temple may have made it more difficult to commune with God, yet earnest prayer from the depths of the heart is always accepted.

Dave said...

"Judaism is pretty much all about past events - creation, the exodus, Mount Sinai. History is never testable. You believe it or you don't."

Another good insight, JP! You're batting 2 for 2.

This is contrasted to Christianity, which although has its own history, is very focused on the future-- salvation, rapture, reincarnation, etc. I think that this difference explains a lot-- especially in terms of the mass abandonment of Judaism over the past 200 years, in the western world. This didn't happen with Jews in the Muslim world, which is also focuses on the past.

natschuster said...

I understand that the author's of the study in question had people pray using a specific formula. If prayer is suppose to come from the heart, then using a specific formula might not work.

natschuster said...

According to this study:

http://www.charitywire.com/charity280/05046.html

prayer does seem to help.


Hear's another one.

http://www.zhealthinfo.com/Prayer-proof.htm

Anonymous said...

" If prayer is suppose to come from the heart, then using a specific formula might not work."

Right. No formulaic prayers in Judaism. It's all heart.

Thanks, big-G, for not making me a gentile!

natschuster said...

Anonymous said...

" If prayer is suppose to come from the heart, then using a specific formula might not work."

Right. No formulaic prayers in Judaism. It's all heart.

Thanks, big-G, for not making me a gentile!

In Judaism, the focus in on making the Fomulaic prayer a prayer from the heart. We work on kavona and such like so that it soon comes from the heart.

Anonymous said...

no good JP? edit it if you have to...


JP:

“Judaism is pretty much all about past events - creation, the exodus, Mount Sinai. History is never testable. You believe it or you don't.”

Kiruv is predicated on pseudo proofs (just don’t look for yourself, you will find the proofs not so proofy. Christianity and Islam love their proofs too. Everybody gets in on the act of proofs.

But Judaism is lucky that the “history” is so far in the past that no one can verify or disconfirm it.

The problem comes in the future – 227 years from now.

Can’t you hear them squirming – mumbling “what jack*ss put a deadline for moshiach arriving? What are we gonna do when it doesn’t pan out??”

I can see them now, pouring over the texts, looking for an out. “Found one! We got one rabbi from 1236AD who says it isn’t a firm date!”

“Spread the word!” says the other rabbi. “And the ikkurim – we got a new list – and moshiach is off it!”

“Won’t the people grumble, call this revisionism?” asks a bachur.

The big rabbi strokes his beard and thinks.

“We won’t tell them,” he says. “We’ll say it was always like this. Teach the kids the new thing. Come one or two generations, they’ll never know the difference!”

He whips around. “Spread the word!”

Too bad we won’t be around to see what happens.

But can’t you foresee the above happening? Is there anything more quintessentially Jewish than changing the rules?

Tuvia

jewish philosopher said...

Tuvia, you'll be dead a long time before 227 years from now. I would worry more about how that's going to go.

By the way, I apologize if you posted this before and I deleted it. I actually get tons of spam (a lot of it seems to be in Korean or Russian) which I delete and sometimes I hit a real post by mistake.

Dave said...

I like this proof:

http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

Not a scientific argument, but a theological one.

Personally I think that the benefit of prayer is that it is like meditation, and also promotes community fellowship. These aren't bad things. But whenever I see the Heredim come out for a special mass prayer for something like the government to fall or for the recovery of their 102 year old leader or something like that, I laugh at them. Those poor superstitious fools really believe it.

jewish philosopher said...

"Those poor superstitious fools really believe it."

Consider political protests and demonstrations.

The Taxpayer March on Washington was a Tea Party protest march from Freedom Plaza to the United States Capitol that was held on September 12, 2009, in Washington, D.C. The protesters rallied against what they consider big government, the dismantling of free market capitalism, abortion, and President Barack Obama's proposals on health care reform, taxation, and federal spending, among other issues. Event organizers also reported a range of attendance. FreedomWorks suggested between 600,000 to 800,000 participants while National Taxpayers Union said 200,000 to 300,000.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxpayer_March_on_Washington

Was it completely successful? Did it have some success? And if not does that prove that all demonstrations are pointless because the United States government is a myth and doesn't really exist?

Same idea with prayer rallies.

MP said...

You are analogizing incorrectly.

According to what you wrote, the scientist concluded that prayer does not help sick people. He did not write that the experiment proves there is no God or God doesn't listen or whatever.

To use your analogy, your experiment of having 1000 people write to the president may prove that writing to the president does nothing for people's income tax rate. It has nothing to do with whether the president exists.

Dave said...

I would consider your analogy interesting, but to be in inappropriate anthropomorphism.
The US government is not omnicient, omnipresent, omnipotent. God supposedly is.

Given that prayer isn't testable, can you say anything at all about the "track record" of the effectiveness of prayer? The success rate?

I put prayer in the same category as pseudoscientific things like homeopathy, ESP, the anti-vaccination movement, and palm reading. Never testable or falsifiable, you can't change anybody's mind about it, you either believe it or you don't (or you make money off it it, like homeopathy). You'll only get anecdotal reports or personal testimonials.

Dave said...

JP, this is slightly off topic, but I think you might enjoy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions

This is perhaps one of the most famous (and interesting) works on the history and philosophy of science in modern times.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't include prayer anywhere in any of my proofs of Judaism.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2012/01/why-weshould-beorthodox.html

And at least in Judaism, the belief is that we must listen to God however there is no rule that God must listen to us. He might or He might not.

Dave said...

"however there is no rule that God must listen to us"

So there is no point to the rabbinic commandment of praying. I might as well toss a coin, or go to the beach.

jewish philosopher said...

Is there any point in writing a letter to your congressman or organizing s political demonstration? It might help. It might not.

Dave said...

"Is there any point in writing a letter..."

Even with letter writing there is a track record. It could be checked. With prayer there is no way to check.

Furthermore there is the theological problem of prayer changing God's plan-- which would mean that he isn't omniscient and perfect.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't think looking at a few thousands letters to the White House would tell you much about whether anyone is reading them or if they made a difference. And besides the number of letters, what about who the author of the letters are. A letter from the president of Harvard university and the editor in chief of the New York Times might might mean more than a letter from John Q. Towndrunk in Boonseville, Oklahoma.

Prayer may change God's decision because it has changed the situation. Now that you have humbled yourself before God in prayer, you may be more worthy of His mercy. Or not.  He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination. Proverbs 28:9

http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2828.htm#9

Anonymous said...

YOu believe in prayer, when you experience it's power...
There is so much skepticism here about prayer. I think that is because prayer is very often a personal thing. I have a request, I pray- G-d answers my prayers. But its only a personal experience- I cant use it to prove the existance of G-d to others, unless they expereince the circumstance with me. I can use it to prove G-ds existance to myself, however- every time a prayer is answered and i feel G-ds Presence, and when circumstances seem to indicate my prayers would not be answered.
And when my prayers aren't answered immeidiately- I know its a challenge and test, and I draw faith from G-ds Providence in my life and His answers to my previous experiences.
there is a prayer to say when you lose something, and then you can find it. Whenever I say it, it works, no matter how long an object was lost for. Soon after I say the prayer I find it. Another prayer is there to say when you are being chased by a dog. I am scared of dogs- every time i see one about to come near in a threatening way, I say the prayer and they just calmly back away. It works ever time! And I see they dont back away from others.
These are both amazing examples of how I experience the power of prayer, on a simple level, on a constant basis in my life.

Dave said...

Anonymous,

You could get the same result by praying to the sun or rain gods, or Jesus, and many people do. Prayer as meditation may have a calming, therapeutic effect. Ancient man discovered this a long time ago.

There is a reason people besides Jews developed rituals such as rain dances, idols, amulets, etc and continue to this day. It obviously helped them in some way, psychologically or otherwise. Our argument is about how and why.

Dave said...

JP when we step back for a moment, I am still puzzled by something.

You are obviously not cloistered, and are a well read intelligent man. You look at other religions, cults, holy books and traditions in the world, each with their own unique claims, stories, beliefs and rituals.

You see that Judaism is but one of them, and can't really be proven or disproven any more than any other faith. (all religions see to it that they can't be disproven!)

You see the errors in biblical and rabbinic texts, and their borrowing of ideas from other (and older) faiths.

You see how OJ has had to change itself to adapt to (and adopt) many values and realities in a modern world, and dispense with others.

You look at the obvious chaos and suffering that exists on earth.

You see how scientific progress has been explaining more and more phenomena that previously were the exclusive domain of religion.

To me these things make it glaringly obvious that Judaism, like other religions, is a human invention and OJ is a human project.

How do you keep your absolute faith in OJ? How do you do it? Please answer me honestly, rather than just reversing the question back at me.

jewish philosopher said...

"their borrowing of ideas from other (and older) faiths."

I haven't actually seen that. However I think this post may explain the other questions.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2009/12/look-at-world-with-innocent-eyes.html

Dave said...

""their borrowing of ideas from other (and older) faiths."

For example--the Ugaritic texts and archeological findings. They are much older than any known biblical texts. See

http://www.theology.edu/ugarbib.htm
http://www.adath-shalom.ca/ugarit.htm

http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/pubs/nn/win02_pardee.html

search and you will find many more.

"this post may explain the other questions"

Well, its your narrative, anyway. One could spin that narrative many different ways that would be plausible, with completely different outcomes, but that wouldn't make me believe its truth. (I wont elaborate)

jewish philosopher said...

Ugarit religion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugarit#Ugaritic_religion

seems to be totally different than the Israelite religion described in the Torah.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torah#Contents

The Ugarit findings if anything seem to highlight the Torah's remarkable originality.

"Well, its your narrative, anyway."

I am just making the most logical deductions based on the most well known facts about nature and history. Of course I don't expect to pursuade everyone, anymore than the curators of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Holocaust_Memorial_Museum

expect to convince Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4529198.stm

Dave said...

So this is interesting. Regarding the facts before us we don't argue. But 2 intelligent people arrive at totally opposite conclusions. Hmm. A common occurance in human history...

"seems to be totally different than the Israelite religion"

Except of course the names of some of their Gods (El Shaddai, etc), the sacrifices, priests, many rituals, their temple, their stories, etc.

"if anything seem to highlight the Torah's remarkable originality"

except when they are similar.

Most likely both religions developed in parallel and evolved from a common "ancestor" Canaanite tradition.

What is interesting is how and why most religions disappeared and a few remained. A question for historians and philosophers.

jewish philosopher said...

"except when they are similar."

"Since the 1930s these texts have opened some initial understanding of the Canaanite mythological world and religion. The Baal cycle represents Baal's destruction of Yam (the chaos sea monster), demonstrating the relationship of Canaanite chaoskampf with those of Mesopotamia and the Aegean: a warrior god rises up as the hero of the new pantheon to defeat chaos and bring order."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugarit#Ugaritic_religion

After having personally read or heard read the entire Torah at least a hundred times, this doesn't ring a bell to me. 

Generic words like "god" or "almighty" or "lord" and practices such as animal sacrifice may be common to dozens of unrelated religions and obviously prove nothing.

natschuster said...


"You see how scientific progress has been explaining more and more phenomena that previously were the exclusive domain of religion."

Science still hasn't answered the big questions liek where the Universe came from, where life came from, how the mind works, where morality came from, where religion came from, etc.

Dave said...

"...and practices such as animal sacrifice may be common to dozens of unrelated religions and obviously prove nothing."

They prove that the Torah borrowed and incorporated practices that were common at the time in older religions, and then made them "mitzvahs".

I agree that there were many things that were unique to the Israelite religion-- as could be said of any other religion. That's what made it its own religion and not something else...

"Generic words like "god"

El was not just a generic word but the specific name of a Ugaritic God, the head honcho above Ba'al. Later it became generic.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_God_in_Judaism#El_Shaddai

That article gives many other examples.

BTW, don't you also find it interesting that rabbinic Judaism adopted the Aramaic pagan god's names for the lunar months?

All of this shows that both the Israelite religion of old, and subsequent Judaism, were religions that evolved from the surrounding cultures and people. No magic or revelation required.

natschuster said...

Judaism is different than the earlier religionsin two significant ways. The other religions don't have a god that transcends the Universe, physically and temporally. Judaism does. Where did that come from? And Judaism has a National Revelation as part of its authentic history.

natschuster said...

Judaism is different than the earlier religionsin two significant ways. The other religions don't have a god that transcends the Universe, physically and temporally. Judaism does. Where did that come from? And Judaism has a National Revelation as part of its authentic history.

jewish philosopher said...

Linguistic similarities between the Torah and Ugarit texts should not surprise Orthodox Jews. The Dispersion (Genesis 11) occurred in 1765 BCE. According to Midrash Tanchuma (Buber ed.), Noach 28, prior to the Dispersion all people spoke Hebrew. "El" just means "power".

Animal sacrifices were universal in ancient times.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_sacrifice

In the Torah, we first see it with Abel.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering; (Genesis 4:4)

http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0104.htm#4

No one copied from anyone else.

ksil said...

"...glaringly obvious that Judaism, like other religions, is a human invention and OJ is a human project."

its obvious to 99.999% of the earth's population....just not to these 2 people (JP and nat) - the funny thing is they dont even see that! they live in a bubble, echo chamber....

why do you think most OJ folks want to raise their kids in a sheltered community, banning books, not allowing internet or magazines, etc. its a cult!

a little sunlight, will send everybody off - b'ezrat hashem that happens, bimheira v'yameinu...AMEN!



Dave said...

" According to Midrash Tanchuma (Buber ed.), Noach 28..."

I guess the rabbis didn't know history very well, because biblical Hebrew as we know it did not appear for almost a thousand years after that, unless you want to consider Phonecian or Canaanite as Hebrew. (at least according to the available evidence)

"Animal sacrifices were universal in ancient times." As were many other practices. That's my point.

BTW the Babel story is a nice legend the ancient Bible authors had to invent (or adopt from other nations legends, like the flood), in order to explain why there are so many different languages if all of humanity descended from a Hebrew speaking Adam. Furthermore, the is ample evidence of languages before Babel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_first_written_accounts

The bottom line, JP, is that from all the archaeological finds, the Bible appeared on the record MUCH LATER than did the Ugaritic texts (by at least a 1300 years). To me that says it all.

The Ugarit is OLD and the Bible is NEW. NEW copies from the OLD, not vice versa.

jewish philosopher said...

"its obvious to 99.999% of the earth's population"

Just like Jupiter was once obvious to everyone.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2012/11/what-everyone-thinks-can-be-totally.html

"biblical Hebrew as we know it did not appear for almost a thousand years after that"

I'd like to see you prove that.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2012/01/does-egyptian-history-contradict-torah.html

Dave said...

"I'd like to see you prove that."

I guess you don't believe archaeological evidence. In any case, I think that it will be harder for you to prove that hebrew DID exist 5000 years ago!

jewish philosopher said...

Where's the evidence? Everyone says so therefore it must be true?

As far as my reasoning for believing in the Torah I presented that earlier.

natschuster said...

Ksil:

There are 2 billion Christians who believe in the Dvineorigin of the Bible. Same goes fro 1 billion Muslims.

Dave:

It seems to me that you are making the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy. Anyway, it isn't supprising hat there would be similarities between ancient religions and the Bible. There was prophecy before the Torah was given. The Avos had an influence on all the people around them. this tend to confirm that.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever think – I don’t mean this saracastically – really, did you ever think that the reason we have national revelation is because we are a people and a tribe, and Judaism is not simply a religion, but something different?

Like, Christianity and Islam are NOT a “people.” We are different than a religion. And therefore our mythology – or whatever you wish to call it, our creation story – fits us in a way it would not have to fit a true religion.

I also notice that some say the Aztecs (another “people”) have a national revelation. But also, I have heard that American Indian tribes have things they did collectively (spiritual things.) Like fly around as a group or something – or their ancestors.

Anyway, doesn’t it sort of make sense that a “tribe” would do things together? Sort of the reflection of tribal identity – we are all in it together, we are equals, etc?

Tuvia

Anonymous said...

DAve
Myself being a Jew with Jewish history, looking at the evidence, there does not seem to be a good enough reason not to believe in Jewish history.
Can you disprove the mass revelation?
You may say I cant prove it, but to me it seems evident that it happened so long as you can't disprove it. To me it is honestly the most plausible, sensible explanation of Jewish history and heritage.

jewish philosopher said...

"I also notice that some say the Aztecs (another “people”) have a national revelation."

Not really.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2012/04/uniqueness-of-judaism.html

yaakov said...

It's impossible to disprove prayer from any single experiment as one could always say the prayers were not good enough or whatever. The important question is, in general is there a significant difference between those who pray vs. those who don't. The answer, of course, is no.

I once heard a lecture from some Rabbi who answered this question by saying that God would not want to make it obvious that He exists, therefore when people pray He is careful to help others who didn't pray to ensure people wouldn't know Him. (I wonder if some extreme religious friends of mine believed this if they would stop praying, after all they wouldn't want to help out a horrible evil atheist!?)
I don't think I have to speak out the stupidity of this approach, I will only say this. The way religious apologetic's always weave out of every phenomenon or question that might disturb their belief, is disgusting. So much for the God of the Torah who was constantly busy showing Himself and His great powers!