November 5, 2011 Leave a comment
I listen to quite a few different podcasts. One I got on to a couple of months ago is ‘The Accidental Creative‘. It’s a podcast about how to get the most creativity out of yourself in your day-to-day work. It’s directed specifically at the artistic type, however I think just about anyone can get something out of it as all of us are required to come up with creative problem solving techniques at work and even in our day-to-day lives.
This podcasts covers a range of different ideas, but the one I listened to today was about false assumptions. Within the podcast Todd Henry explained a story involving his son that evoked some ideas in my head and I think is a great way to bring up a topic that tends to be a little sensitive. The story essentially goes like this:
His family was celebrating the 4th of July and had decided to go check out a fireworks display. One of his children put up a stink and said he didn’t want to go see them. Well, though luck. The family was going and so was he.
On the ride to the fireworks the kid continues to resist and upon arriving at the location he jumps out of the car and starts trying to run home.
When Todd finally catches up to him he tries to explain calmly to the child that the fireworks aren’t a danger and that he doesn’t have to worry about them falling on him.
The kid tries to explain to his father, ‘no, I’m not worried about them falling on me. Fireworks make my feet go fuzzy’.
What the fuck right? Well here’s the beauty of the story.
The previous year the family had made a trip to Disney World. The kid had spent a lot of the day riding around on his father’s back, as he was too young to walk around and keep up with everyone else. At some point during the day the family wandered past a show and at that exact moment a stream of fireworks got set off. By coincidence, at the same moment the young man realised his legs had fallen asleep.
The poor child had spent an entire year believing that fireworks somehow made him lose feeling in his legs!
True story. The podcast is freely available from iTunes. You can’t make this shit up.
Now Todd Henry has a completely different point he’s trying to make in the podcast, but I think there is something important we all need to learn from this. Sometimes what appears to be cause and effect can simply be a coincidence, and can severely mix up our learning and understanding of processes. We probably all think we’re a little too clever to make the same silly mistake as this child, but I see people making this error all the time.
If you think about it, this is probably how customs such as rain dances began. A group of people were probably celebrating some event with a dance and it happened to rain. Perhaps they were even really smart and tested the theory a few days later by trying it again and lo and behold, more rain! Naturally this linked the cause and effect idea in their heads and thus was born the traditional rain dance ceremonies.
Despite this ‘evidence’ I think we can say with reasonable certainty that dancing about outside has no effect whatsoever on the weather.
So it can happen. I’ll bet though, you still think you’re immune to this idea. Well, let’s go with a more modern-day example using the same principles.
Miracle healing. People who pray, then mysteriously get better, sometimes from diseases that frankly all the experts say they shouldn’t get better from.
I remember hearing a caller from another podcast I listen to, the Atheist Experience. This middle-aged woman called in saying she had experienced a miracle healing. She’d had breast cancer, had gone to her church and got the congregation to pray for her, and her cancer disappeared.
At face value it sounds pretty profound, but the podcast crew asked a few additional questions to try to get to the bottom of it. Here’s the part of the story the woman didn’t initially tell…She’d never been to the doctors. She’d never had her diagnosis confirmed. She had found a lump on her breast, prayed for it to be healed and the lump went away. At no point did she ever actually know it was cancer. And what’s worse, even once this was explained to her she couldn’t wrap her head around it.
A fatal misunderstanding of cause and effect. Actually it’s more just a misunderstanding of medicine.
But here’s the thing. Even if she had been to the doctors and had a positive diagnosis of cancer, pray and got better, it still doesn’t mean anything. People get better from cancer all the time. Sometimes even without treatment. It’s still a bastard of a disease, but it’s not incurable.
But this is the problem with these false assumptions. People have a problem, they pray and get better and assume it was the praying that did the trick. But in an average day you do a thousand different things, and without you even knowing it your body is doing a million different things. The number of chemicals (most of them natural) that you bring into your body daily would dumbfound you. Every time you take breath, not to mention what you deliberately swallow. Then there will be things that are absorbed through your skin. Heck, even the thoughts in your head release chemicals into your body. The vast majority of diseases and ailments, people recover from naturally. Odds are you won’t even realise you’ve got half of them.
Of the hundred thousand things you did today, what makes you so sure it was the praying that healed you? Don’t get me wrong, it might have been. But you’ve simply got too many variables to just assume it was this one thing. It’s quite possible it was a combination of things really.
You see, this is why people’s personal stories of miracles aren’t accepted as scientific evidence. When some random dude off the street (or the internet) tells you they recovered from a debilitating disease because they prayed you really can’t be confident that’s true. Certainly I don’t think the person is likely to be lying to you. They probably believe wholeheartedly it’s true. But when there are so many variables available, the odds are stacked against them being right.
This is where science comes in. This is why when we hear a story of a miracle healer, or a psychic, or a homeopathic remedy, or any new scientific medicine, we should take the story with a grain of salt until someone has taken the time to evaluate all the possibilities.
I have no doubt that the guy who thinks he can heal people with touch alone is sincere. And odds are, once he’s touched you, you’ll get better! But you really need to stop and ask the question of whether or not it was the touch that healed you, or something else at play. Like I don’t know, your immune system!
So to all you people out there who think you have supernatural abilities, and the devoted followers who all think we skeptics are being killjoy’s, we are trying to protect you from yourselves! Testing these amazing claims is necessary, not just something we do out of intellectual snobbery. In an ordinary day there are just too many variables to take into account and the only way to be certain about what is causing these ‘supernatural’ events is to put it in a lab where you can eliminate as many of these variables as possible.
You see this is where we have a problem. The miracle workers, or those that believe in the miracles workers, all tend to have this idea that science is out to prove them wrong. That science and the skeptics are out to attack their pet project and bring it crumbling down.
You want to know the both sad and hilarious irony of that thinking? It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about; it’s a false assumption. For the past few hundred years people have seen science continuously bringing down supernatural empires with cold hard facts. When science studies something supernatural, it always arrives at a negative conclusion. Science has never proven something supernatural to be real. So it sounds like a reasonable jump. Science is trying to undermine the supernatural.
But here’s the thing; it’s not. Just like the rain dances, it’s a coincidence. It is pure coincidence that science always undermines supernatural. That’s not the goal. The goal is to find the truth, and by coincidence the best methods of investigation we have all come up negative on the supernatural.
That alone should be a hint.
-Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.