Monthly Archives: February 2012

Church makes outrageous healthcare claims, highlights need for clear thinking

Church billboards can say a variety of things, good and bad, but “Jesus heals cancer” is ridiculous. So what can we learn from this outrageous pronouncement by a Napier Church?

File this one under the ‘very odd’ category but the billboard put up by Napier’s Equippers Church has attracted a lot of attention, which I suspect is the main reason it was erected.

First I’ll say what the media should say about this issue, but lacks the balls: We know the reasons the church offers for such incredible claims are false.

The NZ Herald reported that at least one family was appalled by the billboard’s cancer claim and that the matter has been submitted to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Even Steve Novella, prominent skeptic and author of the Neurologica blog has added his weight behind the issue, essentially saying religious freedom is one thing but protecting the public from misleading health claims is another.

The trouble with outrageous claims on billboards, websites etc… is that you never know how an individual will respond to them. If one person in a hundred buys the message and forgoes proper medical treatment then we have a problem. Misinformation about medicine and health is always a bad idea for this reason.

Beware! Magical thinking lurks

Appeals to magic, and prayer is such an appeal, can be treated with extreme skepticism from the outset just as sacrificing goats should be.

It raises some important points about how we know something is true and also prompts one to ask: “Does prayer actually work?” and “Why do people make claims like this?”

The church billboard is irresponsible, as Steven Novella points out. Even if people sincerely believe they are doing the right thing by advertising such messages, the truth of the matter is their efforts can only subvert truth and cause harm.

Good questions expose pseudoscience

Belief-based ideas about what constitutes a medical treatment are simply worthless. Human cultures operated on ignorance of the facts for millennia before some bright spark said, “I wonder if any of this is true”.

Using scientific thinking, we can get to the heart of medical claims. We can ask questions like:

  • What exactly was healed?
  • How do you know X cured this ailment?
  • How would you know if X didn’t cure it? (exposes criteria)
  • What about Y? How do you know whether Y had no effect on the cure?

The Pastor admits the people who were claimed to be healed of cancer completed their medical treatments. So I ask, how does he then claim that it was Jesus that cured them? What criteria did he use to eliminate other influences, like medical scientific interventions?

Someone’s self report of what cured them of ailment X is riddled with problems and is worthless in terms of determining fact for the following reasons:

  • Motivated reasoning
    Given a set of data, a person will concoct an interpretation based purely on their beliefs and worldview. Other people will construct different interpretations.
  • Confirmation bias
    Given a set of data, a person will unconsciously filter out evidence that falsifies their conclusion while endorsing only that which confirms their prior beliefs (this is the default setting of the brain).

Sloppy thinking and the inadequacy of prayer

A great illustration of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias can be seen in the way that people interpret experiences, first as spiritual, then as solely in terms of their spiritual/religious beliefs.

Buddhists have experiences they interpret in Buddhist terms, Mormons in Mormon terms and so forth. Research shows conclusively that people experiencing the same stimuli inside the brain will self-report those experiences purely terms of their spiritual worldview.

Furthermore, every controlled test of prayer has been negative (shows prayer doesn’t work) and it does not matter which deity one prays to. The practice of prayer shows how motivated reasoning and confirmation bias/ad hoc reasoning work to produce and reinforce beliefs.

Scenario: Heads I win, tails I win!
For instance, if we pray to a deity with a vague request (help with our finances), this leaves the door wide open for interpretations and therefore we can never know if the prayer worked at all. If we pray for a specific goal, (say $1000 by March 3) then we run the risk of falsifying our prayer.

Confirmation bias will come to our rescue. If we find $50 on the street, hey presto – God/Jesus answered our prayer, not completely but who are we to question God? If our finances do not improve, we can reason that God heard our prayer, but God chose not to grant it because he has a plan.

Ergo – If God has a plan, and he’s going to stick to it regardless, what is the point of asking? It is this kind of not making sense that leaves us non-believers scratching our heads

Conclusion – not just a religious problem

Rightly, many people are outraged by the sheer audacity of the false claim that ‘Jesus heals cancer’. However, I suspect some of those people also believe equally ridiculous ideas about what can cure cancer.

Selective skepticism such as this is a constant reminder of why we need objective studies to confirm the reality of any treatment/modality.

Skepticism and scientific reasoning has to be applied across all healthcare claims if we truly care about doing no harm.

The fact is, cancer is not one disease but a class of diseases that emerge and behave in a wide variety of ways. For this reason, one “cure all” panacea for cancer simply holds no basis in reality.

The church has the right to make whatever claims they want on their billboards, but we too can point out that it is ridiculous and irresponsible and hopefully limit any damage such magical thinking can inspire.