Sunday, February 10, 2008

Giving credit where it's not due

I'm originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a nice place to grow up... in many ways. But it was--and still is--a very Christian community. An example of what passes for multicultural education in the public schools is learning how Christmas is celebrated around the world. Lessons on how Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan are celebrated in Grand Rapids? Not so much. And there's absolutely no love for the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (My public high school biology course was taught by a man who proudly proclaimed--in class--that he believed the Biblical account of Creation.)

So I probably shouldn't be surprised when the local news broadcast credits prayer for helping to save a heart attack victim. For those who follow the evidence, the only evidence for the "power of prayer" is that there is none. Indeed, heart patients who were prayed for suffered a greater rate of complications. For what it's worth, evidence for the claim that prayer was helpful for in vitro fertilization was completely fraudulent.

In its defense, I will hasten to add that Michigan is in the midst of a debilitating recession. It is one of two states that lost population last year. These are not conditions that drive communities toward rational though and critical thinking.

We see so many of these credulous, feel-good stories in the mainstream media that we generally don't take much notice. To get a sense of how much it stands out to people like me, imagine stories like this on your evening news: "Quick actions, witchcraft, help referee who collapsed," or "Quick action, pact with Satan, help referee who collapsed."

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for anyone who's found their path. And if that path includes prayer, no worries. But to proclaim that prayer has a power that is specifically contradicted by evidence? That's irresponsible. And it's on par with the claims of psychics and other proponents of woo.

The "quick actions" mentioned in the story, two athletic trainers and an RN administering CPR, did save the heart attack victim. The prayers were a kind and thoughtful gesture, but deserve no credit in saving the man's life. Think of it this way: suppose three people were to collapse in heart attacks. One got the "quick actions and prayer," one got "quick actions" only, and the third got prayer only. Two of the three would stand a good chance of survival.

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