The needle of god in the scientific haystack

In an earlier post, I spoke about studies that looked at claims that god answered prayers. Some of these studies were done by physicians and scientists who were themselves religious, and who presumably would have been immensely pleased if they could have found a positive effect. In fact, as Victor Stenger points out in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, the idea that scientists are somehow conspiring to suppress evidence of god’s existence (something strongly suggested by intelligent design creationists) is strange. A lot of scientists are religious and nothing would please them more than to find scientific justification for their beliefs. Furthermore, even if you were not religious, it would be very exciting to find evidence of god. Not only would it open up vast new areas of research, you can bet that Congress and foundations would open up their checkbooks and generously fund efforts to further identify the way that god acts in the world.

I myself am a little bemused by these efforts by some scientists to find statistical needles in the haystack for god’s presence. I understand that when a hypothesis is raised, scientists instinctively think in terms of setting up research protocols in such a way that they can use statistical tests of significance to see if a positive result has occurred. So when someone claims that prayer can lead to healing, the instinctive reaction of a good scientist is to design a double-blind study to test that hypothesis. But stepping back and viewing the big picture, it just does not make logical sense to me.

The reason is as follows. The MWC (‘mysterious ways clause’) is either true or false; either god wants to reveal his presence to us or he does not. If it is true and god does not want to let us know about his existence, then he would surely rig the results of any tests like the prayer ones so that the results would come out negative. If the MWC is false and god does want to reveal to us that he exists, then he does not need to do so in a labored way such that only double-blind clinical tests show effects at the boundaries of the significance level. All god would have to do is to do something openly like stopping the Earth’s rotation.

So people who invoke the MWC as a way of explaining why god does not reveal himself should actually be hoping for negative results from these kinds of prayer experiments so that their beliefs are consistent. In other words, although they believe that god does answer prayers, when experiments like this are done, those who depend on the MWC to defend their belief in the absence of evidence should hope that god would either ignore the prayers in the experimental groups or answer them carefully and selectively in such a way that the experimenters always find no evidence of god’s presence. Otherwise, if statistically significant positive results turn up, it looks like god is not smart enough to thwart the experimenters from revealing his presence.

Of course, one can always create a kind of super-MWC narrative where god has decided to simply tease us with occasional tantalizing glimpses of his existence that can be seen only at the p=0.05 level of statistical significance, so as to keep us in a permanent state of uncertainty. Why anyone would want to believe in such a god is beyond me.

Religious people can invoke the MWC to explain why we don’t see direct evidence of god. But then they should not advance fine-tuning or anthropic principle or intelligent design creationism arguments as proofs and evidences of god.
Either god wants to reveal himself or not. Which is it?

POST SCRIPT: Alan Greenspan, comedy genius

Tom Tomorrow exposes the role that Alan Greenspan played in causing the present subprime mortgage collapse and other disasters.

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

The “introduction” that Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger gave the leader of Iran after the university had invited him to speak there has attracted much attention. Writing in the Nation, Jayati Vora says:

In his statement, combative and unduly vicious, Bollinger accused his invited guest of being nothing more than a “petty and cruel dictator,” of having a “fanatical mindset.” He claimed that this exercise was valuable in knowing one’s enemies and understanding “the mind of evil.”

It was an extraordinarily rude display by the Columbia president. If you invite someone, anyone, to speak, it is because you feel that he or she has something to say that is worth listening to, even if you do not agree. The very minimal courtesy that one should extend is to listen to that person and afterwards, if you disagree, to point out the points of disagreement. It was left to Ahmadinejad to teach Bollinger proper manners when he said in his remarks “In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them.”

To give a preemptive insulting tongue-lashing full of name-calling to an invited guest is a sign of boorishness, unworthy of anyone let alone the president of a prestigious university. It is almost a universal principle of hospitality that one never insults a guest in one’s home. Columbia University and the US were diminished by Bollinger’s actions. The people who have been desperately trying to demonize Iran as a prelude to starting yet another war might have cheered his actions, and Bollinger’s words reveal the extent to which he wants to curry favor with that latter group.

Bollinger also said, remarkably, that he doubted that Ahmadeinejad had the “intellectual courage” to answer his questions. This was despite the fact that Ahmadinejad had agreed to appear before an unscreened audience in a country in which he has been demonized and which is in the process of being whipped up into a frenzy to attack his own. He was even willing to take questions from an audience which he had to know would be hostile to him, in a public place in full view of the media, a sign that he was willing to be confronted in the normal rough-and-tumble of political discourse.

In this respect Ahmadinejad showed far more “intellectual courage” than either Bush or Cheney who in their own country never speak anywhere unless there are no questions or without a carefully screened audience that has been prompted to either praise them effusively or ask softball questions. Even people who demonstrate and protest or wear t-shirts with antiwar or anti-Bush messages are either arrested or not allowed within sight of Bush or Cheney, as if they would faint at the sight, like the clichéd Victorian women when someone says “damn” or “hell” in their presence. How would Bollinger describe Bush and Cheney, I wonder? Would he have the “intellectual courage” to ask them tough questions or say what he thinks of them?

But we don’t have to speculate about how Bollinger might act. His willingness to follow the official party line was seen when he hosted Pakistani President Musharraf, a strong Bush ally, in 2005. This is how Bollinger introduced him:

Rarely do we have an opportunity such as this to greet a figure of such central and global importance. It is with great gratitude and excitement that I welcome President Musharraf and his wife, Sehbah Musharraf, to Columbia University. . . President Musharraf is a leader of global importance and his contribution to Pakistan’s economic turnaround and the international fight against terror remain remarkable – it is rare that we have a leader of his stature at campus,”

Who is this person of such “stature”? This is how the BBC profiles him:

General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 which was widely condemned and which led to Pakistan’s suspension from the Commonwealth until 2004. . . In 2002 General Musharraf awarded himself another five years as president, together with the power to dismiss an elected parliament. The handover from military to civilian rule came with parliamentary elections in November 2002, and the appointment of a civilian prime minister.

General Musharraf has retained his military role, reneging on a promise to give up his army post and to become a civilian president.

Its pretty clear that it is Musharraf who is an unsavory military dictator, someone who has no time for democracy and ruthlessly arranges the murder of people who cross him, while Ahmadinejad is actually an elected president. Yet Bollinger referred to the former as a “leader” and the latter as a “dictator”.

Vora was also at that earlier event:

On each of our seats was a pamphlet with a brief history of the leader. I was astonished to find that, according to his biography, Musharraf “assumed the office of chief executive of Pakistan in October 1999.” There was no mention of the coup through which Musharraf seized power. Not once did Bollinger refer to the military man, who had overthrown the elected government and then refused to hold elections as promised, as a dictator–a word he seemed to have no problem using to describe Ahmadinejad. The question of how Musharraf “assumed office” was delicately avoided, a diplomatic skill that has clearly been forgotten in these two intervening years. No one seemed curious to know how Musharraf’s rhetoric about democracy fit in with his continued reign as a dictator–at least, no one with access to a mike.

In fact, it was the audience questions at Columbia that exposed the weakness of the Iranian leader. When he responded to a question by saying that Iran had no homosexuals, he revealed his extreme homophobia to the world. Bollinger would have been well-advised to have merely given a pro-forma introduction and let the questioners take the lead in showing Ahmadinejad’s weaknesses. Bollinger’s attacks only strengthened Ahmadinejad’s image at home and abroad, and increased the perception that Americans are uncouth and uncivilized and do not practice the basic elements of courtesy.

Jon Stewart has the correct attitude to Bollinger’s remarks. In fact, Bollinger could learn a lot from Stewart about how to treat guests. Stewart interviewed Musharraf a year or so ago and then President Evo Morales of Bolivia just last week. He treated them pretty much the same although Musharraf is a ruthless military dictator determined to hold on to power while Morales is the first person of indigenous origins to be elected to the highest office in his country in Latin America and has pushed through sweeping reforms to benefit the poor of that country. ((By the way, note the amazing skill of Morales’ simultaneous translator who is able to listen to new words while speaking the translated words that he had heard a few seconds earlier.)

As a footnote, it should be noted that Ahmadinejad also had a cordial meeting with a group of rabbis in New York and visited Bolivia and Venezuela after leaving the US, where he was warmly greeted in both countries.

POST SCRIPT: Please leave them alone!

What do Britney Spears and General David Petraeus have in common? Both have had “fan” videos protesting the way they have been treated.

Here’s the Britney fan video:

And here’s the Petraeus “fan” video:

Of course, the “Leave General Petraeus alone” video is a parody of the other. I originally thought that the Spears video was a piece of theater or performance art, but it seems that it represents the real feelings of a true fan called Chris Crocker.