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April 04, 2006


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that's close to a description of a neutrino.

Close but no cigar.

I recall an experiment of some sort where they had some tanks of heavy water deep underground, and when a neutrino hit something just right, it would create a very faint flash of light. That's observable.

Anyone know what experiment I'm talking about, off the top of their heads?

This is a fundamental distinction which many proponents of mysticism don't understand: we can measure and study things which have ANY observable effect on the world.

So we can *measure* the (non)-effect of prayer, of homeopathy, of the influence of the stars on human behavior, etc. If we can measure it, we can try to determine if such an effect is significant, propose theories to explain it, etc.

But many proponents of mysticism want to have it both ways; they want something to have an effect, but they don't want it to be studied. This is on the face of it absurd, but it points to a diffence between how people seem to understand what I believe they see as natural/supernatural.

Natural, to the mystic, is that which science explains and they accept. Supernatural is that measurable thing (measurable because it has an effect on the natural world) that cannot be explained by science for reasons usually having to do with it somehow being more important than the natural

For the non-mystic, the natural world is whatever we can measure. The supernatural is whatever cannot be measured or dealt with; for many people it is indistinguishable from nothing.

You covered some of my thoughts pretty well, Erik.

Bronze Dog,

That appeared on Nova a few years back. There's a brand new version out from Feb of this year.


Ummm ... did you read the study?

It's actually very bad news for Skeptico, not good news. It did show a "supernatural effect". A harmful effect.

Harmful or harmless, it's still supernatural. It was not a null result.

It was predominantly in the unblinded group, but it was big. I think there was almost a statistical effect in the entire group exposed to prayer. A big enough effect that future investigational review boards will be obligated to forbid further such experiments.

Now you and I may feel the result is a statistical fluke. Certainly the persons praying believe it was. But that's belief. The data is not so comforting ...

It was statistically insignificant, wasn't it? That means dumb luck easily accounts for it. 49 coin flips out of 100 coming up heads isn't something to get worked up about.

This is an interesting article. What is the use of prayer if it has no effect at all? Some Christians might argue that they pray to build a relationship with God. But then, why do so many ask God for things when they do pray?

This is a great blog.

All the best

What is the typical percentage of people, who aren't prayed for and aren't told being prayed for is a possibility, who develop complications? They didn't mention that in the CNN article.

Unless we can compare that percentage to the 59% and 52%, how can we know if 59% or 52% are unusual or not?

I find that CNN article annoyingly imprecise. 3 groups of "about 600 apiece"? Arrghh... I want precision, darn it... :-)

Plus, is the 52% figure from a merger of both groups which were told being prayed for was a possibility - one of which was being prayed for, the other not - or did they just forget to mention which group of "about 600 people" they meant, the former or the latter?

If there were 3 groups, why didn't the article give us 3 percentages on who developed complications?

Now I'm going to have to go to the trouble of looking up the journal this study is written about in, to get all the juicy details. :-(

Skeptico wrote:

The only question I have would be: what is the difference between something that has no measurable effect and something that does not exist?

Please discuss.

OK. :-)

The former something exists, but we'll never have the assurance of science that it does. It will forever remain infuriatingly beyond scientific comprehension, despite existing. There might be effects, but if they're not scientifically measurable, too bad. As far as science is concerned, it might as well not exist.

The latter something differs from the former in that the latter doesn't exist - and there will certainly be no effects, scientifically measurable or not, from something that doesn't exist.

P. S., I enjoy your blog. :-)

The former something [without measureable effects] exists, but we'll never have the assurance of science that it does. It will forever remain infuriatingly beyond scientific comprehension, despite existing. There might be effects, but if they're not scientifically measurable, too bad. As far as science is concerned, it might as well not exist.

Personally, I find it contradictory that something could have effects that aren't measurable.

OK, an example of something that exists, which isn't directly, scientifically measurable (at least at this time).

A person's thoughts. We have no reliable, scientific method of measuring or "reading" specific thoughts, verbatim, as they are being thought.

Aside from the firsthand experience that our own thoughts exist, we only have secondhand evidence that any specific thoughts or ideas exist (or existed) in a person's mind.

A person can, truthfully or untruthfully, speak them, write them down, or otherwise communicate them. Or, based on their behavior, we can make inferences or guesses (which might be right or wrong) about what might have been running through their minds.

Or, the person can keep their thoughts and ideas to themselves, and never take any action in the least indicative that they're harboring such thoughts and ideas, and we'll likely never have a clear idea exactly what's in their mind.

Their thoughts exist, but, they're not directly and infallibly measurable by science.

Fortunately, at least we know thought itself exists, because we can all observe our own thoughts. But we're forced to acknowledge a great many of people's specific thoughts as unknown or in doubt. Yet their thoughts doubtless affect their behavior.

However, their behavior is quite possibly affected in ways that are untraceable back to the original thought, or which are completely illogical - so a particular type of behavior isn't necessarily de facto proof that a certain thought was running through a person's mind.

A person might have stolen a candy bar because of hunger, or because of malice toward the shopkeeper, or to give as a gift, or because the person thinks they have voices in their head that told them to steal it. The person may tell us about their motives but this might be a lie.

All we can really feel confident of is that they were most likely thinking something that motivated them to steal a candy bar.

But, the original thought is beyond the reach of science. If thoughts arise merely from brain chemistry, etc., the precise physical factors that gave rise to the specific thought are likely as transitory and swiftly gone or swiftly changed as the thoughts themselves - likely no longer present by the time anyone gets around to trying to measure them.

But we don't even know what precise physical factors give rise to specific thoughts anyhow, so, it's not much good attempting to measure them, just yet, until science advances further along.

OK, maybe this is too speculative or philosophical, but, it's the best I could come up with for now... :-)

Well, your example does at least present something that'd be quite troublesome to measure. :)

I'm glad I accomplished at least that much. :-)


Thoughts can be measured indirectly. Perhaps not “infallibly”, but then I never said measurement had to be infallible.

Glad you like the blog – thanks.

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