Friday, March 31, 2006

Solid Journalism Doesn't Have a Prayer

Watch the news today to see the anchors and correspondents struggle awkwardly with how to report the massive study that showed third-party prayers have no effect on the recovery of heart patients. The bad journalism has already begun.

I haven't read the Times piece yet, but you can find it here.

The Associated Press has a truly awful, one-sided, aggressively biased piece that you can find here.

I haven't read the Reuters piece yet, but just its headline tells you that someone fucked up. The study didn't "fail" to find prayer's power any more than telescopes fail to find the gleaming spires of heaven. Telescopes showed us that heaven ain't there. This study has SUCCEEDED in showing us that heaven ain't there.

Can you imagine if the study had shown a better recovery rate among patients who had been prayed for? The TV anchors would be positively gleeful today -- and you can bet they'd be playing the story higher than they will be now.

This outcome, however, will see them somber and neutral. Count on some bubble-headed hairdo to tag out of a piece with some moronic attempt at feel-goodity like, "well, a lot of people know that prayer works for them!" or some other such horseshit.

What most people fail to understand is that a universe in which prayer worked would be a miserable, frightening, awful place. Imagine if physical causality were not the
chain that led to illness or recovery. Imagine if there really were an invisible magic man making life-or-death decisions based on, well, his whim. Would you really feel better in a world where we had no hope of and no reason for pursuing advances in medicine? Would you really feel better knowing that, at any second, for any reason (including, but not limited to, moral judgment of who you are, or the pleading of people who just don't like you) you could be stricken with a flesh-eating virus? Imagine how stigmatized sick people would be in this world (the way they used to be) if everyone knew that Magic Man had decided not to heal them. How would you feel toward Magic Man if he let your Mom waste away from cancer? How would other people feel about your Mom if Magic Man decided she wasn't worth saving from cancer? Listen for half a second to people today who believe in god when they struggle to understand why he didn't save them or their loved ones from 9/11, Katrina, the tsunami, whatever. Do they seem happy and comforted by their faith?

Fuck, no. But that won't stop the media from happily reporting on efforts to keep them in fold, or soft-pedaling this study in order to minimize the potential bummer effect.

It would be nice to see someone with credibility and skepticism report this story. Like Peter Jennings.

Please everyone, post here your thoughts on the coverage of this story. All anecdotes and links appreciated!

3 comments:

Sportin' Life said...

From AP: They also did not rule out that other types of distant prayer may be effective for other types of patients.

It's just that Jehovah has some problem or another with cardiology.

Ben FrantzDale said...

I found your blog through blogsearch.google.com searching on this subject.

You said “I haven't read the Reuters piece yet, but just its headline tells you that someone fucked up. The study didn't ‘fail’ to find prayer's power any more than telescopes fail to find the gleaming spires of heaven. Telescopes showed us that heaven ain't there. This study has SUCCEEDED in showing us that heaven ain't there.”

In general I agree with your argument; I am not the least bit supprised that this study came out the way it did. However, it is my understanding that Reuters actually phrased things exactly right in terms of scientific parlance. Due to the everpresent possibility of type II error, no statistical study can disprove something, it can only “fail to show” something. It may be deceptive to have that in the title of a mass-media article, but "failed to show" is a common technical term.

Petty Larseny said...

Ben,
Excellent, excellent point. The problem, I think, arises from two things:
1) Headlines rarely bother hewing to scientific usage
2) The headline combined "failure to show" with "the power of prayer" (or some phrase to that effect), in such a way as to suggest that the power of prayer was real, and the study simply failed to show it. A longer, more correct (and thus, hugely unlikely to make it through the editing process) headline might have read: "Headline fails to show evidence to support claims that prayer can heal." Something like that, which made clear that the thing that the study failed to show has, in fact, NEVER been shown.
I appreciate your addition of this nuance to the dialogue. If you see this and have a chance, I'd love to see your reactions to another post about religion and politics, here: http://petty-larseny.blogspot.com/2006/03/ten-commandments-of-covering-religion_28.html.
Thanks for posting.
Jonathan

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