Science!

This is an excerpt from chapter 7 of the book.

Stories of regrown limbs, though, don’t play a major role in Keener’s book. Here’s a more typical example of the stories in the book:

Even solid medical documentation is not adequate by itself to surmount strongly held presuppositions, because one may insist in every case (even if there are thousands of them) that another explanation is possible. My colleague in Hebrew Bible, Emmanuel Itapson, was told that his third child had “the death chromosome” and would likely die before birth if not aborted. The family prayed, and the boy is now nine years old. Because 1 percent of those with this chromosome are known to live beyond infancy, one cannot prove beyond any doubt that prayer is the factor that helped him to live so long; yet I am prepared to grant that likelihood in view of the significant number of extraordinary answers to prayer in Emmanuel’s circle, including one mentioned in chapter 9 and another in chapter 12 (p. 666–I did not notice this page number until after choosing the quote).

The first thing to notice about this is that this story is evidently being filtered through people who don’t have a lot of medical knowledge. The “death chromosome” presumably refers to a lethal chromosomal abnormality, but since there are many lethal chromosomal abnormalities, there’s no such thing as “the” death chromosome. Either someone misunderstood the doctor, or the doctor was dumbing down the diagnosis for the benefit of the parents. But whatever the case, it makes this story a little harder to evaluate.

More importantly, the way Keener implies he thinks this case illustrate how unreasonable skeptics are. Nonsense. Setting aside for a moment the other “extraordinary answers to prayer,” this case doesn’t provide an evidence at all for the efficacy of prayer. By definition, for every 100 times someone is faced with 1 in 100 odds, one person will beat the odds. In more religious parts of the world, including the United States, probably most people, maybe an overwhelming majority of people, pray when they or their children are faced with a serious illness. In that case, most odds-beating recoveries will happen after prayer. In other words, we’d expect there to be stories like this even if miracles never happened. That means these stories aren’t evidence of anything miraculous.

That’s why science is neat. When people talk about scientific studies of prayer, basically what they’re talking about is checking to see if prayer leads to beating the odds more often than not praying. We’re also checking for things like bias among people recording the data and the placebo effect. (The placebo effect is when something that wouldn’t normally do anything, like a sugar pill, leads to people doing better merely because they think they’re getting treated.)

What about the fact that this guy’s circle of friends supposedly has a whole bunch of remarkable recoveries? Is that evidence of something supernatural? No, at least not without more information. The problem is that we humans have a tendency to see patterns in randomness, and we even sometimes judge rigged events as more random than really random ones. To give just one example example, psychologist Steven Pinker describes one experiment which found that “people think that genuine sequences of coin flips (like TTHHTHTTTT) are fixed, because they have more long runs of heads or tails than their intuitions allow, and they think that sequences that were jiggered to avoid long runs (like HTHTTHTHHT) are fair” (Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, p. 204).

In other words, humans are bad at eyeballing probability. That means that the mere fact that a cluster of events seems very improbable to you or a friend of yours isn’t evidence of anything. It takes actually doing the relevant math (statistics) to figure out how improbable something actually is. That’s why statistics is a vital part of science.

Furthermore, even in cases that seem extreme, what might be happening is that inaccurate reporting is taking events that were only somewhat improbable and blowing them up into something extremely improbable. There are a number of reasons that could happen. One of them is a lack of medical knowledge, which I’ve already pointed out in the “death chromosome” story. And avoiding problems like that is another thing a careful scientific approach tries to avoid.

Bill O'Reilly's argument for the existence of God
Angry Atheists? chapter 8: Science and Religion II: Evolution
Arguments for the existence of something that sounds kind of like a god
Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity

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