I’m sure there’s a paradox in here somewhere

The Colorado NPR station KUNC recently ran a credulous fluff piece by some guy named Marc Ringel, touting “healing at a distance”, some sort of magic handwaving that he claims is “scientifically” supported. The Colorado skeptical community, of course, has expressed their scorn in email to the station, and also brought it to my attention. They also mentioned an excellent website reviewing the evidence for intercessory prayer.

The most interesting revelation to me: I’ve heard of tests of intercessory prayer, where people pray or don’t pray for a patient and then the outcomes are evaluated to see if it helped (it never does), but there’s another weird version of these improbable experiments.

Retroactive intercessory prayer.

It’s what it sounds like. The investigators took old hospital records, from patients who had been treated 4-10 years before, and asked subjects to pray for one group, and not pray for the other group. They then looked again at the old records to see if the patients that were prayed for now had gotten better then … and they did.

Think that through for a moment. It really is that insane.

So if ever you learn that I’ve gone into the hospital and died, I want you all to get together and pray really, really hard and change the past so I come back to life.

Oh, wait. I’m talking to the wrong people, aren’t I? I need to get a more devout readership who will have the true magic ju-ju to pull off time travel.


  1. says

    I think we ought to pray for the survival and good health of a certain dude who was crucified 2000 years ago. Boy, will that mess with their heads.

  2. Cappy says

    I keep reading that paragraph over and over and still can’t figure out what they’re freaking talking about! My mind is thoroughly boggled.

  3. says

    So if ever you learn that I’ve gone into the hospital and died, I want you all to get together and pray really, really hard and change the past so I come back to life.

    We already did!

    The thanks we get…

  4. says

    These fine,upstanding scientists allowed no bias to creep into the experiment. That double-blind thingie is for eevilutionists!

  5. Macholan says

    I am confused. If they had simply switched the samples around, wouldn’t the opposite conclusion have been reached? The study was done as soon as the sample groups were assigned. Or am I missing something.

  6. Alex Besogonov says

    Actually, retroactive prayer experiment is _not_ illogical.

    Subjects don’t know the outcome of the disease for the people they pray for. So it’s conceivable that God can affect the random distribution of people to pray/no-pray groups.

    It’s kind of like ‘delayed choice quantum eraser’ experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_choice_quantum_eraser (which actually produced stunning results).

    Of course, any statistically significant positive result from prayer experiment would be absolutely totally unreal.

  7. Rey Fox says

    That reminds me. Last night I prayed for that black widow spider not to bite you on April 3, 1989. Don’t even remember the spider, do you? Praise the Lord!

  8. dcwp says

    In defense of the author (for those who may not have read the entire article) – the retroactive hocus pocus experiment was set up explicitly as a lighthearted example of what NOT to do. The conclusion points out that apparently legitimate methodology does not necessarily make a study valid.

    Sadly of course our quote-mining creationist friends are perfectly capable of looking right past the point of an article to take problematic results and pretend they mean something.

  9. says

    This reminds me of a comment I made about intercessionary prayer on a mailing list. The argument was that $deity does not intercede where he is being tested, because prayer requires faith. Thus, if you do a retroactive study looking at people who were sick last year and whether prayer had any results, there are two possibilities:

    1. $deity treated the group as “untested” and thus the study should show whether prayer is effective.

    2. $deity knew the study was going to be done and thus treated the group as “tested”. In this case, retroactive studies make a pretty good denial-of-service attack on prayer.

    Either way, the religious side loses. In 1, the studies show $deity does not exist. In 2, $deity is shown to care more about what a bunch of scientists think than your sick grandma.

  10. says

    That reminds me of one of the two or three “Psychic Detectives” shows I watched. Mr. pscyhic ‘saw red flowers’ (or petals or whatever) near where the guy had drowned.

    Low and behold, there was a red petal or two floating above the dead guy when they found him (didn’t help them find the guy, I ought to note).

    One problem with his “seeing” the red flowers. It was the dead of winter, and there were no red flowers, petals, or anything like that when Mr. psychic saw them. The petals came from a bouquet of flowers that people threw into the creek after the psychic “saw them.” So of course he hadn’t seen any existing association between red petals and the body.

    To be sure, to the true believer that doesn’t matter at all, because time doesn’t limit the psychic. Yeah, yeah. Let’s note that red flowers may have been thrown into the creek due to the suggestion of the psychic in the first place. And in the second place, with few or no constraints (like ID) with respect to time, space, or other factors, just about anything can be inferred to happen. And conversely, no science, nor any meaningful investigation of any kind, can be done.

    I’m glad that I haven’t seen Psychic Detectives listed on the schedule since Court TV changed its name to Tru TV.

    Glen D

  11. Kseniya says

    I’m sure the study was performed according to the most rigorous standards or science available anywhere.

    This, though less evil and more stupid, is right up there with preemptive absolution.

  12. Matthew Skinta says

    We actually reviewed this article last year in behavioral medicine rounds at the hospital I then worked at. The take-home message as discussed in rounds was that it’s rather easy to generate significant findings for something like this. The study is from an issue of the British Medical Journal that’s tongue in cheek start to finish… it’s worthwhile to do a lit search on that particular volume and to browse the articles. I recommend the piece on Gogol’s Diary of a Madman as evidence of transhistorical stability in the diagnostic features of paranoid schizophrenia.

  13. Matthew says

    Would someone like to tell me what exactly wÒÓ† keeps linking to on all these threads? I don’t want to click.

  14. says

    With a bit of reading, it looks like what happened was that they found no difference in mortality between prayed-for and not-prayed-for patients, so they measured other things instead until they found something significant at p<0.05.

    Mr. Bonferroni: says Ayyyyy!

  15. Holbach says

    You should have been stacking up those indulgences PZ,
    then you would have no need for any kind of prayer as
    this almost gets you into fantasyland according to the
    insane rituals of the catholic church. Intercessionary or
    not, I’m afraid we can’t do a damn thing for you and you
    will have to join the billions of other hapless creatures
    moaning away in that nether world created for them by the
    insane wackos of religion. Yet, comedy aside, or rather
    despite of it, here is just another example that I have
    blasted on this blog of religion as one of the most
    pernicious dangers of humankind. The freaking moronic scum!

  16. Voting Present says


    You mean the resurrection!

    I always knew PZ would come around eventually. “Praise the Lord! I used to be an atheist …”

  17. Jason Failes says

    “I keep reading that paragraph over and over and still can’t figure out what they’re freaking talking about! My mind is thoroughly boggled.”

    That’s because the evil woo-conspiracy’s main tactic is to make skeptic heads explode with maximum lunacy. (Can you blame them? No facts, no logic, they have to use the only thing they’ve got)

  18. says

    Well, actually I have been secretly praying to Zeus, to keep you alive. You are still alive, therefore praying obviously works. What more proof do you want???

  19. Olaf Davis says

    I love this part:

    According to Clause 30 of the Declaration of Helsinki, “at the conclusion of the study, every patient entered into the study should be assured of access to the best proven prophylactic, diagnostic and therapeutic methods identified by the study.” Now suppose you have done a study proving retroactive prayer works. If you don’t offer retroactive prayer to the control group, you’re being unethical. If you do offer it, then the control groups should be retroactively cured. Thus, in the end there should be no difference between the control group and the treatment group, and therefore the study cannot show an effect.

  20. SteveM says

    With further reading of the norvig.com site linked to, not only is it made clear that the article on retroactive intercessionary prayer was tongue-in-cheek, but it also highlights the concept of “prior probability” when analyzing your “p-value” of a statistical experiment. That is, you should include not just the probability of incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis, but also include some estimate of the probability that the alternative hypothesis is true to begin with. That is, what is the a priori probability that retroactive prayer works? I think most would agree that it would be pretty darn small. So even though you may have rejected the null hypothesis of “no effect” that does not necessarily mean your proposed alternative is correct and maybe you should look for other possibilities.

  21. Dustin says

    Funny, in the phil science class that I’m TAing for we just read J. Worrall’s recent article “Evidence in Medicine and Evidence-based Medicine” which discusses the Leibovici retro-active prayer study. According to Worrall, Leibovici’s point in publishing the study was a methodological one–namely, that statistical tests are not all there is to hypothesis testing. Since none of us are fool enough to conclude from the study that prayer works retroactively (despite the statistically significant results), what the study shows is that we must *also* take into account the *prior* probability of the hypothesis being tested.

    The Score

    Bayesians: 1
    Fisherians: 0

  22. Carlie says

    Was that from one of the BMJ annual joke issues? They really need to put a disclaimer on that thing – this year’s got dusted up all over the internet, too.

  23. Dustin says

    Oh, and PZ, don’t you know that the grandfather “paradox” is no paradox at all? Haven’t you read David Lewis’ “The Paradoxes of Time Travel”?

    Sheesh, what would you scientists do without us philosophers watching your back? (Oh yeah, science.)

  24. says

    Carlie is right – the recessionary prayer was from the Christmas issue of the BMJ. I think it’s brilliant, and Martin Bland’s comment (that Olaf Davis points out) is the icing on the cake.

    Another year, the BMJ ran an article on HARLOT plc: an amalgamation of the world’s two oldest professions.

  25. Jazmin says

    I was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer four months ago. Fortunately(?) for me I come from a big Irish-Catholic family and live in a very small town with a large Apostolic Lutheran population so I have prayer chains and masses being said for me up and down the east coast and all through the mid-west. Unfortunately(?) most of them are praying for someone with my maiden name instead of my legal name. I recently asked my new sister-in-law (who shares my first name and now has my brother’s last name) if she was feeling any better. She replied, “no, and if they don’t stop, my ears are going to burn off”. It’s good to know that when I die, she will carry on for me. Our family needs this new blood.

  26. Carlie says

    Jazmin, I’m so sorry. Are any of those relatives volunteering to help in tangible ways as well? Even if not nearby, sending care packages or gift cards to eat out or warm fuzzy hats or something?

  27. Jazmin says

    Thanks Carlie, but no worries. I’m being treated by excellent surgeons and oncologists and nurses. They are the ones that will extend my life as far as it can be extended. As far as my family and friends, I was probably being a little too snarky. Most of them have been so generous with time, money, and yes, warm fuzzy hats, that I know that I’m really loved. I think that it was in “The God Delusion” that I read that when patients know they are being prayed for, they feel more pressure to get well which then acts as a detriment to their health and so they become more ill. Since I consider myself a “recovering Catholic” I still have enough residual guilt to feel bad that I won’t be able to accomadate their wishes. But I am also intelligent enough not to let it get the best of me. I (almost) feel bad for these well intentioned but deluded people when the day comes and they realize that the power of prayer didn’t work, though I’m sure they will come up with an explanation for that.

  28. says

    Did it work?

    No, but my prayer that someone named “Dan”, or beginning with a “D”, or – does the letter ‘D’ mean anything to you? An Uncle? Maybe an ancestor? – did. See! Prayer works! Hallelujah! I’m off to heaven! Or hell. or some other place beginning with “H”. Hereford?

  29. Art says

    “So if ever you learn that I’ve gone into the hospital and died, I want you all to get together and pray really, really hard and change the past so I come back to life.”

    Assuming we got the right folks with the ju-ju and position of th moon just right I’m not sure I would want to be waking up in a coffin 6′ under.

    That might scare me to death … rinse repeat.

    The perfect torture.

    The Communist Party of the United States could hold a really loud party on John Bitches grave while they bring him back to life. They crank up the sound system so he can hear them celebrate his death. Between sets they get quite and listen for the muffled screams and scraping at the coffin lid. Always good for a laugh.

    It is bad enough that there are all these pseudoscience types spouting this drivel. But now they have to go and screw with the time-space continuum. It’s like Ghostbusters without the laughs.

  30. October Mermaid says

    This reminds me of that Casimir Pulaski Day song by Sufjan Stevens. I don’t know if he made the whole thing or if it’s based on truth, but it’s still a pretty powerful song.

    He basically sings about a girl who is dying of cancer and there’s a great, understated verse that says “Tuesday nights at Bible study we lift our hands and pray over your body… but nothing ever happens.” It’s a pretty good song.

  31. Kseniya says

    when the day comes and they realize that the power of prayer didn’t work, though I’m sure they will come up with an explanation for that.

    Yes. They will.

    However, they may not arrive at the same explanation that I did. Mine goes like this: “God just isn’t there.”

    Ovarian cancer took my mom at the age of 43. It still takes the breath out of me. I’m so sorry.

  32. Kseniya says

    Casimir Pulaski Day…

    Yes, Mermaid, it’s a GREAT song actually, and proved to be very cathartic for me personally.

    The irony is that Stevens himself is quite religious. The song doesn’t dodge the issue, either. There’s a lot of conflict there. It’s one of the most naturally bittersweet and moving songs ever.

  33. flynn says

    Casimir Pulaski Day…

    And I could only think of the Big Black song of the same name. That guy doesn’t get better either.

  34. Eric Paulsen says

    Will I ever see in my lifetime religion classified as a mental illness? I hear the bald faced lies, see the distortions of truth, read of all manner of vile and villanous things done in the name of religion and yet if the same were done in the name of say ‘Bill the talking sandwich’ it would be called what it is – mental illness. I realize these folks cling to their delusions, even love them, but that is no reason why the rest of us need to play along.

    I might pity those who retreat into fantasy to escape an unlovely reality, I will even try to help them cope with living in the real world, but I will not twist and bend THIS world to fit their warped desire to make ‘a heaven of earth’ to make them feel better.

  35. Dahan says

    My dad got out of the ICU yesterday. I gotta remember to pray for that to happen sometime in the future so that will happen yesterday.

    Made me think of this:

    “One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with…
    The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations…
    Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.”

    Douglas Adams

  36. Carlie says

    Jazmin, I’m really glad that they’re helping out. The people I want to punch in the jaw are the ones who say “Oh, I’m praying for you”, and that’s all they do, AND they think they’re all big stuff for doing so. Sounds like yours are good people.

  37. Kseniya says

    I gotta remember to pray for that to happen sometime in the future so that will happen yesterday.

    “Ted, what the hell are you doing?”

    “Trash can… remember the trash can!”

    “What trash can?”


  38. David Marjanović, OM says

    In this case, retroactive studies make a pretty good denial-of-service attack on prayer.


  39. David Marjanović, OM says

    In this case, retroactive studies make a pretty good denial-of-service attack on prayer.


  40. Sastra says

    PZ #2 wrote:

    I think we ought to pray for the survival and good health of a certain dude who was crucified 2000 years ago. Boy, will that mess with their heads.

    It’s Lent. Tell people that, for Lent, you’ve given up GUILT. Keep on messing with the system…

  41. Laura says

    Maybe that’s what my family did… prayed that I got that job a year ago. When I got it back in March, (nothing to do with years of college, waiting tables, working my butt off and applying to every firm in the state), everyone called to congratulate me and literally said “See? We were praying for you to get it and god let you have it. You should thank him and us that you got it.” Sadly, this is no exaggeration and pretty much verbatim what they said. But obviously the retrograde prayer worked and voila, job was mine! Maybe I’ll go back in time and pray to hit the lottery instead…

  42. says

  43. Tony Jeremiah says

    Yeah. I’d have to agree with Dustin (@31) that this study was done to illustrate methodological issues with paranormal research. In this instance, the significance was probably due to issues with the sampling procedure.

    The same result could have been obtained by flipping a coin and stating prior to data analysis, that if the coin turns up heads, then a certain group of (pre-selected) patients’ records would be classified as the prayed for group; the other set would be assigned as the not prayed for group. Significance could arise purely by chance, and most likely due to selection biases related to those who did the selecting of the records.

    To reduce this selection/sampling bias problem, there would need to be a better randomization procedure such as the use of random assignment (e.g., designating each individual folder to one of two piles using the coin flip method).

    So it would be interesting to conduct this study again, using only a coin flip procedure, and see if the same result is obtained.

  44. Kagehi says

    The petals came from a bouquet of flowers that people threw into the creek after the psychic “saw them.”

    A real good show to watch is “Psych”, on.. I don’t remember at the moment, probably Fox, unfortunately. The main character uses 100% total logic and observation, then uses a silly song and dance routine to convince just about everyone except his father and maybe one of the cops he helps out some times (though he won’t admit, while sober at least, that the guy is a better detective), that he is psychic. Shows real well how someone can intentionally fake it and, as is usually the case in real life too, actually *look* more real than people who truly think they *are* psychic.

  45. says

    I was wondering how such a paper could possibly published in a respectable journal, when I looked at the top and saw it was the BMJ, December issue. Duh. That’s when the BMJ publishes a bunch of spoof articles.

    Ironically, the Dossey guy cites the paper seriously, saying, “no one has come up with any methodological flaws in this study.” Clueless.

  46. shane says

    I think we ought to pray for the survival and good health of a certain dude who was crucified 2000 years ago. Boy, will that mess with their heads.

    I was going to say good luck praying for someone to survive crucifixion but… It was, however, possible to survive crucifixion, and there are records of people who did. The historian Josephus, a Judaean who defected to the Roman side during the Jewish uprising of AD66 – 72, describes finding two of his friends crucified. He begged for and was granted their reprieve; one died, the other recovered. Josephus gives no details of the method or duration of crucifixion before their reprieve.

    Anyway it would probably make more sense to first pray that certain dude into existence 2000 odd years ago before praying for his good health.

    As an aside Why does god hate amputees?

  47. Michael Woelfel says

    As children we are taught fairy tales, but folks frogs really don’t change to princes. Let’s look at some Scientific facts…NO MUTATION has ever been observed to produce a more complex living organism, i.e., add new DNA; even with observation using current technology. Fruit flys simply had their Existing DNA destorted, nothing beneficial to the flys occurred in those experiments. Again- and this is THE BIGGIE- No New DNA Has Ever Been Observed (NN-DNA-HEBO) to develope from mutations happening naturally or in labs. Think about that, NO NEW DNA has Ever been observed to develope from mutations happening naturally or in labs.

    Macro evolution is a totally baseless exercise of faith, since this single issue has never been resolved!

    Doctors of science teach throughout textbooks, of a mysterious ‘Mother Nature’ who resembles Santa Claus. She works the scenes bestowing imaginative anatomies and behaviors freely upon all living things (yet NN-DNA-HEBO). Earth’s life forms were cleverly supplied, each according as it had need. Yet all change was said to be completely accidental- although in duplicate, as each male and female of all species co-evolved with no disruption in their procreative abilities. Though Mom Nature is promoted as somehow marvelously ‘innovative’, only ‘ranking’ scientists can understand and interpret how her modifying activities occurred; but Nowhere Do They Explain Process Details (BECAUSE NN-DNA-HEBO). So we are simply to accept that the boundless and stunning variety of life on this planet appeared solely from time and happenstance; in short folks “LIFE HAPPENS!” No one can point out positively a single transitional fossil. Neither is there an example of any mutation producing a beneficial change.

    The following information is taken from an ICR Impact publication (April 2002 article #346) normally devoted to scientific creation evidence. This article reveals the competence and influence of some of today’s CREATIONIST scientists. To show the reader the esteemed prominence of the creation worldview, a few of these Genesis believing scientists are listed: Kenneth B. Cumming (Dean and Professor of Biology) has a Ph.D. from Harvard where he studied under Ernst Mayr, “often considered the dean of living evolutionists”. Dr. Carl B. Fliermans (Microbiology) is a microbial ecologist with Dupont with over 60 technical publications. He is well known as the scientist who first identified the “Legionnaire’s Disease” bacterium. Dr. Kelly Hollowell (Molecular Biology) has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology from the University of Miami. She is also an attorney (J.D.). Dr. Hollowell’s work includes a number of publications in the fields of DNA technology, cloning, and neurobiology. Dr. Raymond V. Damadian, M.D. is an inventor, most notably of the M.R.I. machine. Dr. Kurt Wise (Paleontology) has the M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, having studied under the dedicated evolutionist, Stephen J. Gould. “Dr. Wise is currently in charge of the science division at Bryan College.” Dr. Duane T. Gish (Senior Vice President and Professor of Biochemistry) has earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. Beyond his career as a research chemist, and 24 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Dr. Gish “is also known worldwide for winning over 300 scientific debates with evolutionists”. As you can see, many fully credentialed scientists deeply intimate with the varied aspects of evolution, have wholly rejected the ideas. There are many more scientists today actually numbering in the thousands, who have also turned away from the monkey-man conjecture, and who now likewise embrace the literal Genesis record of human origin.

    The effects of ‘Scopes’ had it’s heyday. The pendulum of public opinion will now swing back with the release of Expelled. Solid Scientific evidence will be the catalyst, while the archaic ideas of Darwin are made a laughingstock. The current crop of evolutionary scientists will cluster and squall among their counterparts at the loss of all public respect. It is happening now, look and their blogs. Tell me there’s no God!

  48. Iain Walker says

    As children we are taught fairy tales, but folks frogs really don’t change to princes. [etc]

    Are you planning on posting this exact same drivel on every thread? Just curious.

  49. Michael Woelfel says

    Like you Iain I’m curious, will anyone give one piece of solid evidence for WHAT MAKES ENOUGH NEW DNA TO WHICH YOU MIGHT ATTRIBUTE ALL VARIETY OF LIFE ON THE PLANET. Until this evidence is provided, the theory of frog-to-prince style evolution remains a fairy tale.

  50. Iain Walker says

    Iain, I think Micheal w. is confusing having the “last word” with winning an argument.

    And he’s welcome to it, I’m sure.

  51. says

    Regarding the public radio piece by Marc Ringel on “healing at a distance,” I heard it on KUNC last month and was outraged. The commentary is anti-science, anti-intellectual, and incendiary. I wrote the station several times expressing my concerns. Guess how my concerns are being handled? Ringel is airing another commentary tomorrow morning (3/24) that will “address my harsh criticisms,” and Ringel has personally warned me in advance. Ringel intends to further promote his anti-science rhetoric, and the station is giving him a pass. This is happening in one of the most highly educated regions of country. The station manager says he “may” allow a rebuttal.
    Here’s the link to the original piece, “The Science of Woo Woo.”
    I feel defeated.