Cargo Cult Science

During World War II, American forces fighting in the Pacific set up bases on remote islands whose people had had very little prior contact with other civilizations. These people, with technology at a Stone Age level, were amazed by the strange visitors and the almost miraculous cargo they brought with them – chocolate, cigarettes, radio, steel tools. When the war ended and the soldiers left, some tribes went to desperate measures to summon them back, forming religions – cargo cults – which tried to induce the soldiers to return through sympathetic magic. Some of them went so far as to make mock military uniforms, cut “runways” in the jungle, or build “control towers” out of bamboo. The most famous surviving cargo cult is the following of John Frum, which I’ve written about before.

I mention all this because a friend sent me this bizarre article from a group calling itself the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, “How does prayer work? A spiritual perspective“. It’s an excellent example of what (to borrow a phrase from Richard Feynman) we might call “cargo cult science”.

This article is clearly intended to mimic the form of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It has an abstract, a section discussing the “mechanism” of prayer, plenty of colorful graphics and charts, and plenty of technical-sounding talk about which postures increase the efficacy of one’s prayers by what percentage:

But for all its glitzy graphics and pseudotechnical jargon, this article is no more science than a cargo cult’s bamboo control tower will attract real airplanes. It imitates the form while completely misunderstanding the essence of what it’s trying to recreate.

The essence of science lies in answering two questions: how do you know that? and how can I test it? Both these answers are missing from the SSRF’s prayer article, which spews forth assertion after ludicrous assertion without making the slightest effort to explain how its author came by any of this knowledge. Just take a few examples:

A person at the 50% spiritual level will more often than not pray for his spiritual progress… a person who prays for the death of another person will be helped by a negative subtle entity from the 4th Region of Hell… The subtlest frequencies are generated when one pays gratitude along with the prayer… Prayer increases the particles of the subtle basic sattva component in the vital body sheath… In our life, 65% of events happen as per destiny… Prayers of people who are below the 30% spiritual level lack potency… By touching the wrists to the chest, the Anaahat chakra is activated and it helps in absorbing more sattva frequencies… In some cases people hold hands and pray. This is also a spiritually incorrect practice… All other things being equal, using the recommended mudraa (posture) for prayer helps to improve the chances of one’s prayer being answered by 20%.

The article goes on and on, throwing out these statistics as if they were well-established facts, never attempting to explain how any of this knowledge was acquired. Nor does it make any effort to explain how an interested person might test any of this to confirm for themselves that it’s true.

What seems clear is that groups like this (and others) are envious of science – of its precision, of its demonstrated success, of the esteem it enjoys from the public. They want to claim some of that authority for themselves, which is why they ape the form and language of a scientific paper, hoping that the credulous will be deceived by the resemblance into thinking that their beliefs are scientifically verified as well. Yet despite its pretense of scientific language, this article is essentially no different from any other religious book, making bald assertions which the believer is required to take on faith.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.