Over At The Reality-Based Community, there’s been quite a flurry of posting over the NPR story on positive thinking and/or prayer and how it effects health. No one there quite believes it.
Every day in America, millions of people are suffering or dying. Many are blessed with the prayers of loving and supportive friends and neighbors who wish them well. An even larger number of people pray every day asking God to relieve world hunger, to reduce the suffering of children afflicted with malaria, dysentery, simple hunger, or AIDS. The love and support are precious. And I would not disparage anyone who wishes to pray for any good person or cause—especially because so many of the people doing the praying do so many other wonderful things to make our world a better place. Sadly, there is no evidence that the more spectral aspirations of these prayers is doing any good. The only reason to believe otherwise is our fervent wish that this were true.
But the nonsense NPR is peddling destroys another kind of social capital, respect for science and actual facts and, um, thinking. It can also do much more direct injury. For example, the positive thoughts of these parents didn’t work out too well for their daughter, not to mention leaving the whole family with lifelong guilt that they didn’t pray hard enough. And not vaccinating children you want the best for because you get your medical guidance from entertainers can sure hurt them, and other children they can then infect.
No, “quantum entanglement” doesn’t have anything to do with the the price of beef. And NPR shouldn’t have presented the idea that it might as a reasonable viewpoint. Too many New Agers think that the mantra “quantum mechanics” is a license to believe whatever bullsh*t makes them feel good, and NPR has no business encouraging that sort of mental and moral laziness…
…But that outrage is a reason to think carefully about what we say, especially to patients, not a reason to disregard the finding. Yes, the people who ask cancer patients “Why do you think you needed to give yourself cancer?” ought to be strung up by their thumbs. But if it’s true — as it seems to be — that there are healthier and less healthy attitudes to take towards having one or another disease, we need to learn how and why, and if possible how to use that knowledge.
There’s a deeper question here for us atheists. (For these purposes, my own religious position is equivalent to atheism.) What if the sort of religious belief we think is not just false but rather cowardly — the idea that adults ought to entrust their welfare to an imagined super-parent in the sky rather than taking responsibility for it — turns out to be an aid to recovery? We already know that some sorts of false belief are healthy to have: the technical term for “not suffering from the illusion that one’s social standing and popularity are greater than they in fact are” is “depression.” But should we encourage false beliefs that happen to be healthy?
The placebo effect is real, and comprises a very wide variety of things a patient thinks will help, like acupuncture, and that ‘work’ for that reason and that reason alone. In my post I was also intending affirmatively to recognize a therapeutic benefit (for the condition in question, not just feeling generally better) of affection, good will, concern, and the like; if expressed in prayer, fine. I’m not at all surprised that confidence and optimism, including confidence of faith, accelerate recovery and that the effects superpose on the effects of conventional therapy. This is very far from blaming patients for making themselves sick by impiety or doubt. (It’s thought-provoking that many of the conditions known to have a psychosomatic origin afflict the skin (including the skin of the alimentary canal), and that the nervous system originates from an infolding of the same ectodermal layer that forms skin.)
Except for love and affection, which have no downside except if they displace treatments that do work, placebos of all types raise a perplexing issue for the health system that I have never seen examined. We can’t just put them aside, because they do work sometimes, and sometimes when we have nothing else to offer. But they only work to the extent that we lie about them; a hospital that uses placebo treatment whenever it might help should have a sign over the door saying “placebo treatments are never used in this facility” and the health authorities must conspire never to uncover the scandal of this coverup.
When someone asserts an unlikely but psychologically appealing hypothesis linking spirituality and health, when someone posits implausible causal mechanisms that supposedly underlie these research findings, I generally presume that she believes what she is saying because she fervently wants to believe it, not because she is dragged kicking and screaming by the scientific evidence to believe the hypothesis is true.
I don’t know whether the equanimity I found had any connection with my cure, but it must have been an advantage to sleep well and not to have stress hormones coursing through my veins. If some people get that equanimity from religion, it’s not hard to imagine that they might get health benefits from it.
Others in similar circumstances seem to get serenity as a result of their use hallucinogens, either before or after the threat of death becomes apparent. A mystical experience seems to be a fairly reliable cure for death anxiety, and the hallucinogens have a way of bringing about such experiences if taken under the right circumstances.
If that turned out to be predictably true, then there would be a good argument for using the hallucinogens with some patients to treat for anxiety in the face of life-threatening illness. At least, that’s the premise of at least three current medical studies.*
If some people get the same result with religious texts and traditions rather than with chemicals, why isn’t that also an important medical finding?
Mark Kleiman again, with a long post.
Rod Dreher on the same story, with a different perspective.