Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Are prayer studies a waste of government money? No way!

A fellow blogger draws my attention to a column in the Waco Tribune by John Young who announces that he is "starting to long for the days when it was respectable enough for a Bible-believing American to say science was Satan’s tool." He lists many sources of grievance with the present science establishment, which - in his view - favours fundamentalists, including this one:
Our president’s type of "sound science" is that which authorized $2.3 million to study the power of prayer.

Did it indeed? Only $2.3 million? Well, I have some news for Young of the Tribune:

Here is what I wrote to some friends on the subject:

Anyone familiar with the placebo effect would consider $2.3 million to study the power of prayer money well spent.

Listen: The drugs you pay $$ for must perform 5% BETTER than your own belief that you will get well in order to be licensed for use.

That doesn’t mean that belief is 0%, as the vast majority of the lay public is encouraged to believe.

It means that any licensed pharmaceutical is at least placebo + 5%.

Have you ever read a label that said,
Phynyl causmungaphene

In the controlled study, 60% of the patients who thought their sugar pill was this medication got better and 85% of the patients who were actually taking this medication got better.

In the placebo group, 15% of patients required treatment for the "side effects" of the sugar pill and in the study group, 30% required treatment for the side effects of phynyl causmungaphene.

$44.95 15 tabs

(But this really IS the medication, honest. You can TRUST your pharmacist!)

No, I bet you didn’t read that. And you won’t either. But that’s not because this stuff never happens.

Look, I am NOT trashing pharmaceuticals. They wouldn’t be on the pharmacist’s shelf if they didn’t do anything at all. And doctors tend to know what works for their patients, so sure, we can trust an experienced physician and pharmacist.

But I was amazed when I learned what studies actually show about the difference that what you think is happening makes, in a wide variety of illnesses, while researching The Spiritual Brain (and Mario and I talk about that in some detail, too). After we turned in the manuscript, I read several more books that opened my eyes on the subject.

So even if people WERE praying to a Great Void (they're not), they might still gain some benefit. Research in these areas is critical for the following reason:

Aging people (of whom there are a lot just now in the settled and prosperous democracies) must sometimes take drugs that have unpleasant side effects or effects that counter each other (though both may be necessary, for different reasons). Research into the extent that mental states affect physical states may enable some individuals to manage with fewer or reduced medications that have undesirable side effects. And if they do it through prayer, whose business is that?

And that's not even saying that prayer studies will confirm that prayer has independent effects ... even if it didn't, prayer would still be highly effective.

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Dawkins blasted in Skeptical magazine

Dinesh D'Souza draws our attention to the fact that some of atheist crusader Richard Dawkins's fellow atheists (and agnostics?) may be getting fed up with him. How else to explain David Sloan Wilson, whose work on a hypothetical evolutionary basis for religion Mario and I discuss in The Spiritual Brain, having this to say in Skeptic, a magazine the majority of whose readers are probably atheists or agnostics? As quoted/summarized by D'Souza:
"Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory." Moreover, "We are both atheists in our personal convictions." Then Wilson gets to his point. "When Dawkins' The God Delusion was published, I naturally assumed he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues." Rather, Dawkins has subjected his atheist readers to "sleights of hand." He has produced a "diatribe against religion" that is "deeply misinformed." Indeed he is "just another angry atheist trading on his reputation as an evolutionst and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion."

To this strong stuff from Wilson, D'Souza adds,
Wilson examines Dawkins' central claim that religion is an obvious "delusion." On the contrary, Wilson writes, religion is in general more adaptive for human communities than atheism. "On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning, rather than gratifying their impulsive desires...They report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited."

Here's Wilson's blast in Skeptic in full.

Sure, Wilson (and D'Souza) but the thing is, everybody KNOWS this stuff. Or should. The data's been out there for a long time. (See Chapter 8 of The Spiritual Brain for a handy little discussion of key findings about the role of spirituality in promoting health - and of reasons why such data tend to get shelved.)

Anyway, it's nice to see people being Skeptical in more than one direction. If the skeptics think that what Wilson is saying is not true, they are only fooling themselves, and rants about Islamic extremists are only distractions.

(Muslim friends tell me that the extremists are not particularly spiritually minded at all; they want power over other people and religion is their ploy of getting it. And the extremists have chosen an orientation to their religion that means they'll likely kill themselves trying ... is that divine justice or what?)

Anyway, D'Souza's always fun and so is Wilson here.

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Spirituality and culture: Dating the Shroud of Turin?

An Australian friend, biologist Stephen E. Jones, has taken considerable interest in the Shroud of Turin, and has a proposal to date the pollen, which should be interesting. Briefly, no clear explanation seems to have emerged for how an image of a human figure, reputed to be Jesus, could have been produced on the cloth by a technique similar to photo negatives - in the fourteenth century. In any event, here are some other facts about the Shroud.

I have read a fair amount of material on the subject and seen several Shroud exhibits - and all I am going to say is this: If you have heard that there is some simple and obvious explanation for how the Shroud was produced, forget it. If the explanation were simple and obvious, it would have been thunk up by now.


Culture: Neuro this and neuro that and neuro go away ....

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science is sponsoring a long overdue project on the trend in modern culture that makes the brain (instead of the whole body) the vessel of our personhood:
Since the Decade of the Brain, several proto-disciplines, such as neurotheology, neuroeducation, neuroesthetics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuromarketing or neuroeconomics have advanced bold plans to reform the human sciences on the basis of knowledge about the brain. Driven by the availability of brain imaging technologies, particulary PET and fMRI, these fields tend to focus on the quest for “neural correlates” of behaviors and mental processes. The media, both popular and specialized, has given much room to these emergent fields; it has also reported on new forms of sociability and identity politics incarnate in the growing “neurodiversity” movement and various sorts of “neurocommunities; ” and it has been decisive in the process of turning brain scans into modern icons of personhood. Parallel to academic discourses and practices, but interacting with them at many levels, there is an expanding galaxy of neurobeliefs and neuropractices that go from learning how to draw or feel with one side of the brain, to various forms of neurohealthism, neuroascetics, neuroesotericism and neuroeschatology.

I’ve described this trend as "neurobullshipping." Of course we can learn a lot about ourselves from studying the human brain. My lead author Mario Bearegard learned a lot about mystical contemplation from his brain studies on Carmelite nuns, which we discuss in The Spiritual Brain.

But our brains do not sit in pickle jars. Our brains, minds, and bodies are a continuous feedback loop. All the information stored in our brains is learned through the exercise of our bodies and the focus of our attention is determined by our minds. Put another way, "neurobeliefs and neuropractices" are just beliefs and practices. I admit that I do not have any idea what "neuroesotericism and neuroeschatology" are, which is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

Hat tip: Alan Yoshioka of Sheepcat fame.

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Neuroscientist: Most opposition to new science ideas comes from fundamentalism within science

Well, another non-materialist neuroscientist has just been sighted.

Edward F. Kelly, lead author of Irreducible Mind, writes at the Rowman blog (sponsored by publishers Rowman and Littlefield),
The word “fundamentalism” probably evokes for most of us only images of bomb-wielding Islamic terrorists and other examples of religious extremism, but fundamentalism exists within science as well. When scientific opinion hardens into dogma it becomes scientism, which is essentially a secular faith and no longer science. Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition, but in modern times the main opposition to new scientific ideas has derived not from religious orthodoxies but from other scientists for whom contemporary opinion established the limits of the possible.

Consider in this light the question of post-mortem survival. The notion that aspects of mind and personality survive bodily death is central to the world’s great religions yet scorned as impossible by present-day establishment science. But few participants in this contentious debate have any inkling that there exists a large scientific literature collectively suggesting that at least some of us, under largely unknown conditions and for some unknown period of time, do in fact survive. The primary threat to this interpretation, ironically, has nothing to do with the quality of the evidence—problems of fraud, credulity, errors of observation or memory, and the like—but with the difficulty of excluding non-survivalist interpretations based solely upon supernormal (“psi”-based or parapsychological) processes involving living persons. The voluminous evidence for such processes includes both spontaneous cases and experimental studies, and in my opinion has long since passed the threshold where competent persons who take the trouble to study it in depth and with an open mind will routinely conclude that these things exist as facts of nature. Indeed, future generations of historians, philosophers, and sociologists will undoubtedly make a good living trying to understand why it took so long for scientists in general to accept this conclusion.

Kelly is Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Hat Tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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