28 April 2006


Just a brief post to set straight anyone who might be intrigued by reports in the mainstream media that 12,000-year-old pyramids have been discovered in Bosnia.

They haven't. Consider the source, one Semir (Sam) Osmanagic, a self-described archeologist who is working outside the scientific mainstream. As the understandably annoyed people at Archeological Institute of America point out, Osmanagic also believes the Mayans, who are descended from aliens from the Pleiades Cluster -- via Atlantis -- built their pyramids to fine-tune the Earth's vibrational frequency.

Whatever that is.

25 April 2006

No such thing as bad publicity

A couple of weeks back Canada's new Conservative government demonstrated both its lack of respect for the Charter of Rights -- the one that guarantees free speech -- and its poor understanding of public relations by ordering a science fiction novelist not to attend his own book launch.

Guess what happened? Sales of the book, Hotter than Hell, by government climatologist Mark Tushingham, shot up and
forced DreamCatcher Publishing of Saint John, N.B., to order a second printing of the book. "Things have just gone crazy," publisher Elizabeth Margaris told CBC News."I guess you could say they're hotter than hell." (CBC News, April 24)
Surprise. (Not.) Let's hope Environment Minister Ron Ambrose, has learned her lesson. After all, the book, which depicts a world gone bad thanks to climate change, "had received little notice and minor sales" until Ambrose imposed the gag order.

Until recently, Ambrose's biggest claim to fame (or infamy) was being voted sexiest member of parliament by the weekly Hill Times a couple of years ago. For a while it looked like the rookie member of cabinet was headed for a place in the history books as possibly the worst environment minister ever. She's gutting climate change programs, vowing to ignore the country's Kyoto commitments, and doing her best to follow the example set by her counterparts south of the 49th. Now she may be remembered for violating one of her employee's basic civic rights.

Sigh. I try to remind myself that her government was elected by 36 percent of the vote. Sure. That helps.

24 April 2006

Hope from the Pope

Is Joseph Ratzinger, better known these days as CEO of the Roman Catholic Church, a closet liberal? Signs of progress are leaking from the Vatican, where a breakthrough on contraception policy may be imminent. From The Guardian:
Pope Benedict has asked senior theologians and scientists to prepare a document discussing the use of condoms as a means of preventing the transmission of HIV, a Vatican official has revealed.

The study comes only days after a contender in last year's papal elections, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, challenged the Roman Catholic church's official position by suggesting that condom use was the "lesser evil" in combating Aids.

It is unclear whether the proposed document will pave the way for a fundamental shift in church policy. The Vatican currently opposes the use of condoms as part of its teaching against contraception, and advocates sexual abstinence as the best way to fight the spread of the Aids virus.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, who is in charge of the Vatican's
healthcare ministry, disclosed plans to publish the document in an interview published in La Repubblica newspaper yesterday.

"Soon, the Vatican will issue a document about the use of condoms by persons who have grave diseases, starting with Aids," said Cardinal Barragán "My department is carefully studying it, along with scientists and theologians."

Don't hold your breath -- this could just be a trial balloon. But simply consulting scientists on contraception is a major step forward for an institution that took 300 years to admit it Galileo was right about the whole sun-earth thing (and that was more out of loyalty to Aristotle's cosmological musings, not the word of God on the sanctity of sex). If by some chance B-16 is seriously considering reversing course on one of the RC Church's biggest moral failings, who knows what else is in the pipeline?

Not, it would seem, similar progress on the homophobia front. According to today's New York Times:

About 50 prominent religious leaders, including seven Roman Catholic cardinals and about a half-dozen archbishops, have signed a petition in support of a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage.
Oh, well. One affront to reason and decency at a time.

23 April 2006

Ahead of the curve?

As I asked a few weeks back, what if all the Liberals stop having children? G.B. Trudeau now puts such fears into cartoon form.

21 April 2006

Trouble with Goldilocks

What if the universal constants, the numbers that are supposed to be so well tuned that life wouldn't exist if any of them were just a fraction of a percent different -- weren't actually constant?

It is almost incontrovertible that one of the most puzzling aspects of reality is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life. If several key absolutes, like the strength of electromagnetism and the mass of the proton, to name but two, were just a tiny fraction of a percent different than what they are, life wouldn't exist -- atoms would fly apart, stars would never ignite, and so forth.

Or so goes the "anthropic principle" as cosmologists and other scientists who spend their days thinking about these things call it. A more prosaic description employes the Goldlilocks scenario: this universe is just right for life.

Theists, including some adherents of intelligent design, claim this seeming perfection means the universe isn't the product of any old random quantum variations, but must have been designed to play host to life. It's hard to take issue with the fact that the universe does indeed seem too good to be true. Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer even used it as a central plot device in his novel Calculating God. All those coincidences have added up to make a conclusive case for a supreme being, said the alien to the human.

There are ways around this argument. The most commonly cited by cosmologists is the possibility that our universe is only one of an infinite number of universes, each with different values for the constants that determine its nature. It is therefore inevitable that one of those universes would be hospitable to life. Or, instead of an infinite number of universes existing simultaneously, maybe universes have been created and destroyed in an eternal cycle; sooner or later, one of those universes will be hospital to life. That would be ours.

Others point out that this is a really circular reasoning. Douglas "Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy" Adams' story of the self-aware puddle illustrates this point of view succinctly:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in. It fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well. It must have been made to have me in it!"
There's also the somewhat arrogant assumption behind the anthropic argument that life is impossible except under the conditions with which we're familiar.

So far, all of these debates hang on philosophical musings, not science. But what if those mysteriously perfect constants, which are commonly represented as mathematical ratios, aren't really constant? Hints that this might be the case are starting to pop up more and more often. And if the constants aren't constant, then what does that say about the whole argument in favor of a designed universe?

The current issue of Science contains a brief news item relevant to this neverending debate:
New measurements suggest that the ratio of the proton's mass to the electron's mass has increased by 0.002% over 12 billion years, a team of astronomers and physicists reports. If so, the ratio and other fundamental "constants" of nature may not be constant after all. "If this small variation exists, it's a revolution in science," says Victor Flambaum, a theoretical physicist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and a member of a different team that 7 years ago reported that another constant may have changed.
The bottom line is we're not yet approaching certainty on such matters. The latest speculation comes from the combined efforts of two groups of scientists, one of which performed some clever analysis of very old light from quasars (poorly understood but very bright objects at the edge of the known universe) while the others shone light through hydrogen right at home in their own lab. Turns out that the spectrum produced is determined in part by the ratio between the proton and electron masses.
The measurement is at the edge of statistical significance. "We have an indication," [physicist Wim] Ubachs says. "I wouldn't call it proof.
Other researchers think they have evidence that the "fine-structure constant" -- another of those all-too-convenient numbers, which determines the strength of the electromagnetic force -- has changed by about six parts per million since the universe was created, although attempts to reproduce those findings have failed.

None of this will get us any closer to explaining the creation of the universe, which is pretty much beyond the scope of science, anyway. But doubts about the alleged "constants" should give us pause when it comes to reaching conclusions about how much tinkering was necessary for life to have arisen. If the constants aren't constant, then how dependent is life on those constants?

I think the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything has a little life left in it yet.

18 April 2006

Credibility gap

Convinced the signal-to-noise ratio in society isn't low enough, the advertising industry has finally decided to exploit that most intimate of media: the personal conversation. If you live in a major American metropolitan center, there is now a 1 in 2,000 chance that your so-called friends and even family have been assimilated by marketing equivalent of the Borg.

I came up with those odds after listening to this morning's item on "BzzAgent" on NPR's Morning Edition. According to reporter BzzPoints" you can redeem for cool "BzzRewards!" It's the sales incentive equivalent of airline frequent-flier points -- only the more you push a product, the more product you get.

Officially, all BzzAgents are supposed to be up front and honest about their participation in this propaganda campaign, which has the goal of creating "credibility" for new products among young Americans. But the unavoidable fact is that the targets of the buzz are much more likely to be receptive to the sale pitches if the agents are less than sincere about their role. After all, if the goal is to create "credibility" among a cynical slice of the demographic pie, then the last thing an agent is going to want to do is admit they're on the take.

In music radio, you may recall, it's called payola.

Aside from the insulting invasion of personal space that this new tact represents, the real damage is even more insidious. It all has to do with the laws of thermodynamics and quantum theory, metaphorically speaking.

To begin, take this weird notion of creating credibility. I suggest that you can no more create credibility than you can create matter or energy. Each community only has so much on hand at any point in time. BzzAgents may be able to generate credibility within a community for a specific product -- we're talking new camera phones, MP3 players and so forth -- but only at the expense of the total level of trust or credibility in the community as a whole.

As soon as the truth is revealed -- and it will be revealed -- the unearned credibility, like a virtual subatomic particle, will evaporate back into the vacuum from which it came, leaving the universe that much more cynical and bleaker.

This might seem odd coming from someone who champions doubt and skepticism, and I still believe strongly in the power of doubt when it comes to science and reason. But I'm the first to admit that communities, and society as a whole, need a shared sense of trust and credibility. Without people to whom you can turn with some degree of confidence for advice that's in your best interest, and not that of a large corporate, life gets pretty dark.

A couple of years ago, I read a great little editorial from Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, on the general decline of trust in America. In this post 9/11 era when governments have little trust in their own citizens, he wrote in the July/August 2003 issue:
... the more we can depend on the high probability of most people simply behaving decently, the better off we'll be. That requires widespread trust, and that works as a survival characteristic only if we have widespread trustworthiness. I'm not sure how to cultivate and maintain that in a large, diverse, complex society, but learning how is one of the most worthwhile things we could learn to do.
I'm not sure how to do that, either. (It probably has something to do with discouraging tribalism.) But I do know that turning everyone into a BzzAgent will take us farther, not closer, to such a society.

As it stands, if you live or work in a big city (i.e., lucrative market) where those 140,000 BzzAgents are concentrated, there's a good chance that one of every 2,000 people you bump into will try to convince you of the merits of something you never knew you thought you needed. And that's without compensating for your market appeal. For young, wealthy consumers, the odds are probably closer to 1 in 500.

Image if the relatively new BzzAgent army doubles or quadruples in size. Soon the chances of running into one of these Borg -- the phrase "Join the Hive" actually appears on the main recruitment page -- on any given day approaches a sure thing.

I'm relatively safe for the moment, living as I do in a community of just 600 people in rural western North Carolina. I think the IPod penetration rate here is close to zero. But I worry about the threat to credibility among those in the centers of power. It's not like we need more reason to distrust the government, our bosses, our heroes. We need to let anyone who is still decent enough to admit they are part of the hive that they can either be a friend, or they can Bzz off. And remind them that credibility cannot be bought and sold. It has to be earned.

I'll let Schmidt have the last word:
That kind of understanding, and the behavior that follows logically from it, are not easy to instill into a whole population. But any civilization that can't learn to do it had better be prepared to be replaced by one that can.

14 April 2006

Gag order in Canada

More signs of trouble, and antipathy to science, among the new powers that be in Canada, where the rookie environment minister ordered a government climatologist not to attend his own book launch.

Here are the facts:

Veteran scientist Mark Tushingham is the author of a science-fiction novel, Hotter than Hell, that depicts a world in turmoil thanks to climate change.

Rona Ambrose is a member of the new minority, Conservative government, which was elected with 36 percent of the popular vote three months ago. The same day word came of the gag order, her government announced cuts to "15 research programs related to the Kyoto climate-change protocol and aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases thought to cause global warming."

The government has also made it clear it has no intention of meeting Canada's Kyoto Protocol commitments, although neither does it intend to formally withdraw from the treaty.

From the Toronto Star:
Sandra Buckler, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's communications director, says the gag order against Tushingham did not come from the top and Harper told reporters yesterday he was in the dark about the incident.

But Harper then added, in a not-so-subtle warning to the public service: "We were elected on a particular platform. Our commitment to the people of Canada is to go ahead with that platform. That will include measures we're going to develop over the next year or so to deal with both pollution and greenhouse gases, and I obviously not only hope but expect that all elements of the bureaucracy will be working with us to achieve those objectives."

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, in an email, said Tushingham's mistake was in billing himself as a government representative, though he only appeared as such on a Canadian Press advisory to the media about the event. Tushingham's book jacket and the promotional materials merely describe him as an Ottawa scientist. Neither Ambrose nor anyone in her department said they had problems with the scientific or any other premises behind the book.

Tushingham was also warned not to speak to reporters and spent much of yesterday in hiding, said his publisher, Elizabeth Margaris, head of DreamCatcher Publishing. Margaris flew into Ottawa from New Brunswick specifically to introduce her author at the luncheon, only to learn upon her arrival that he was not allowed to speak.
As one my friends in Ottawa says, the honeymoon is over. The Prime Minister's Office:
insists that the information chill in Ottawa is more perceived than real — a product of a media culture that got too accustomed to the hyper-availability of former prime minister Paul Martin's regime. Yet in Ottawa, everyone seems to have a story of lips being sealed, communications shut down or thwarted. Bureaucrats are talking about "the new normal" — a world where every utterance to outsiders or journalists can incur the wrath of the new government. Ambrose abruptly cancelled an interview with a national columnist this week after her office had already warned she would not take questions on the issue of the Kyoto accord.
Curiously, it appears that Canada's new right-wing government isn't paying close enough attention to its ideological inspiration south of the border, where initial attempts to gag government climatologists are backfiring.

First it was NASA, where James Hansen had to launch a national media campaign to get the White House to back off efforts to keep him quite. Then it was NOAA, which experienced a similar brief chilling. All is not perfect down here, but when I come across letters like this one from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert to NOAA head Conrad Lautenbacher, I take heart that at least it's not that easy to shut down informed scientific debate.
Dear Admiral Lautenbacher:

I appreciated your call yesterday to discuss the concern we share over the report in The Washington Post describing scientists’ concerns that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is limiting discussion about climate change. I was pleased to hear once again that you support open and unfettered scientific communication, as you have stated in the past both to me and in messages to NOAA employees.
the issue of climate change is too important to countenance any scientists feeling intimidated or constrained about discussing the matter, regardless of whether that feeling is the result of specific policy actions or of misimpressions that create a stifling atmosphere.

11 April 2006

Vote of confidence in evolution

I just received a reply from Janet Halliwell, executive director of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to my letter expressing concern regarding the rejection of an application for funding to study the effects of the intelligent design movement on students.

The good news is the SSHRC believes evolution is real. According to Halliwell,
The theory of evolution is not in doubt. SSHRC recognizes the theory of evolution as one of the cornerstones of modern science and of our understanding of the world.
Her letter offers no explanation for why the council initially demanded "adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct."

But I suppose we can assume that this sort of thing won't happen again.

A silver lining?

Getting weary of all the bad news? I know I could use a good dose of optimism right about now. Enter political scientist Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. According to his review of a couple of new books in the Chronicle of Higher Education, everything that's going wrong is only paving the way for a backlash of intelligence.
...governance is impossible without ideas, and by basing his foreign and domestic policies on so many bad ones, President Bush may have cleared the ground for the emergence of a few good ones.
Yes he may have done just that. Unfortunately, Wolfe doesn't really provide any real grounds for anticipating a new era of reason, just an appeal to the "center cannot hold" kind of logic. Which isn't really logic at all, but plain old wishful thinking.

Still, it was refreshing to come across someone from academia who hasn't abandoned all hope. He doesn't say so explicitly, but I get the sense that Wolfe was inspired by the road-to-Damascus conversion of former neocon Francis "End of History" Fukuyama, who takes back everything he said about the least intellectual president ever in his new book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. Apparently, if Fukuyama can change his mind, so can the American elite en masse:
...academics and intellectuals will find themselves in great demand when the leaders of this country eventually decide that their foreign and domestic policies will have to confront the real world around them, not the imaginary one bequeathed to them by their ideology.
In other words, the pendulum will swing back toward sanity. Well, one can hope.

08 April 2006

More worries in Canada

Further to the post on the rejection of an application by a Montreal researcher to study the impact of intelligent design on science education in Canada.

Hannah Hoag, the journalist covering the affair for Nature, has a story (subscriber only) in today's Globe and Mail that contains a couple of disturbing paragraphs. She tried to get at the reasoning by the rejection of the research funding application by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (a federal agency).

As reported earlier in the week, the council denied the request for $40,000 in part because it had not provided enough "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct." Now we learn that:
SSHRC spokeswoman Eva Schacherl says that if factual errors are identified during the appeal, a new committee will be convened. "The council regrets the way the committee note was worded and that it gave the impression they had doubts about evolution," she says.

However, an interview with one committee member indicates that some academics in decision-making roles may not grasp the distinctions between evolution, intelligent design (I.D.) and creationism.

The committee member, who did not wish to be named, suggested that I.D., stripped of any religious connotations, is an honestly debated issue among scientists.

The social sciences are already widely derided as the "soft" sciences. They hardly need this kind of stereotype reinforcement. Or maybe they do...

07 April 2006

Giving birth to reasoned discourse

PZ Myer's explanation of Plan B, a.k.a. the morning-after pill or emergency contraception, and the accompanying exchange of ideas generated by his post at Pharyngula, is the best example I have ever come across of what every blog aspires to be. If you have a free half-hour, and are even remotely intrigued by either reproductive biology or blogging in general, read the whole page.

First, the explanation of the science behind pregnancy and contraception is succinct and easy to understand for anyone with no more than high-school biology. Second, the comments that follow address the issues PZ chose not to. The questions asked and the answers supplied paint a most complimentary picture of the intellectual depth of Pharyngula's readership. There's discussion of research, religion, politics, feminism -- you name it -- almost all of it delivered in calm, reasoned tones.

Here's the introduction:
There has been an oddly evasive struggle going on in Washington DC for the last several years. We have a safe, easy method of emergency contraception that has been turned into a political football, with Republicans playing their usual role of criminally stupid thugs, trying to crush a simple idea: Plan B contraception. It illustrates exactly how the Religious Right is trying to intrude on your private life, and in particular, how they want to control women.
Of particular interest to me was PZ's claim that Plan B only prevents ovulation and does nothing to interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg. It did not slip past his readers without debate. I wasn't the only one to recall that, as William Saletan wrote a couple of days ago at Slate, the scientific community is not of one voice on the potential of progestin-based contraception, such levonorgestrel, to prevent implantation.

James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, offers a less absolute opinion:
Treatment with ECPs containing only levonorgestrel during the peri-ovulatory phase may fail to inhibit ovulation but nevertheless reduce the length of the luteal phase and total luteal phase LH concentrations; this observation suggests a post-fertilization contraceptive effect.
The consensus seems to be that even if this is true -- and it is by no means settled -- it would happen extremely rarely. Unfortunately for those who want black-and-white answers on just what the chances of EC preventing implantation really are, the only way we have at the moment to determine the fate of an egg prior to implantation is to open up the suspect mother.

More on that, a lot more, at Pharygula.

05 April 2006

Backwards in Canada

Nick Matzke at the Panda's Thumb alerts us to what is a genuinely shocking development in Montreal, where the Canadian federal government's primary social sciences granting agency has rejected research on the grounds that the theory of evolution may not be correct.

Brian Alters of McGill University's Evolution Education Research Centre wants to find out how the "intelligent design" movement is eroding acceptance of evolutionary science in Canada. He asked the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for $40,000 to carry out the research. He was rejected. The rejection letter reads, in part:
Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct.
The SSHRC chief, one Janet Halliwell, is arguing that one line was taken out of context, but she dissembles. The full text of the denial letter can be found here, in an Ottawa Citizen story. Also from that story is nice little anecdote:
Mr. Alters said yesterday that he was "shocked" at the council's response and it offers "ironic" proof that his premise about intelligent design gaining a foothold in Canada is correct.

He said he read the letter at a public lecture last week in Montreal and there were "audible gasps" from the audience.

"Evolution is not an assumption, and intelligent design is pseudo-science," said Mr. Alters. "I think SSHRC should come out and state that evolution is a scientific fact and that intelligent design is not."

I, for one, am hoping and expecting the SSHRC to reverse its decision within hours. But in case they don't, write to the council and share with them your frustration. Dr. Stan Shapson is the president of the SSHRC. His email address is vpri@yorku.ca. The medic contact is: susan.goodyear@sshrc.ca

03 April 2006

Keep the faith ... out of science

One of my local dailies, the Asheville Citizen-Times, recently added a sophisticated talkback forum to its online edition, and it didn't take long for the backtalking to turn to the merits of the theory of evolution. Which is a good thing, I suppose, seeing as the other local daily, the Hendersonville Times-News, has banned the subject from its letters to the editor section altogether.

Unfortunately, the Citizen-Times forum quickly attracted some less-than-informed opinion. Which should not come as a surprise, I suppose, seeing as even this blueish corner of North Carolina has seen some pretty extreme examples of fundamentalism in action. (Like the pastor who expelled Kerry supporters from his congregation in 2004.)

What particularly disappointed me was the comment from one writer who was doing his best to defend evolution against the tirade of an intelligent design advocate who misconstrued both the second law of thermodynamics and the big bang theory. Robert Dale Breedlove -- that's our would-be defender of science -- made a valiant attempt to clear up the misunderstanding, but then wrapped up his rebuttal with:
If you want to say that God said, “Let there be light...” and the universe began, then science has no method nor any reason to disprove that belief. Most scientists, after all, believe in God; they just want to understand how it happened.
Now, I understand the impulse to appeal to the sensibilities of one's opponents. But this particular effort is marred by the inconvenient fact that is it just plain wrong. I pointed out his error in my own post:
A recent survey of the American National Academy of Scientists, for example, showed that 93 percent are agnostics/atheists. While it could be that less distinguished scientists are more likely to believe in a god, that still leaves us with the fact that the more successful you are as a scientist, the less likely you are to follow a religion.
That prompted some skeptical responses, the only coherent one being a request for a citation. That would be Nature 394, 313 (23 July 1998); doi:10.1038/28478. It's a survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences that found only 7 % held some sort of belief in a god. The rest described themselves as atheists or agnostics.

This sort of finding has been made numerous times, yet there seems to be a widespread belief out there that scientists are just as likely to believe in a god as anyone else. It's an important issue, one that deserves repeating often, because it goes to the heart of the neverending argument over whether faith and science are compatible.

My emerging opinion is that it is indeed possible for a layperson to respect both science and the idea of a Deist interpretation of the divine. In other words, so long as you don't believe your god tinkers with the universe by whipping up the odd miracle or responding to prayer, then you can probably manage to incorporate both belief systems without your head exploding.

But for scientists, it's not so simple. Good science negates faith as a matter of principle. For scientists to accept the existence of a god, for which there is no evidence, would be tantamount to rejecting the essence of their profession. After all, why stop at believing in just one thing without good reason? Soon your entire approach to the scientific method is suspect.

(Just to make my own position clear: Not believing in a god is not the same as a positive belief in the non-existence of a god. The only logical approach for a scientist to take is that there is no evidence for one. If you agree with that thesis, then there is no substantial difference between atheism and agnosticism.)

There are, of course, many scientists who have managed to produce useful research while clinging to some elements of faith. The authors of the 1998 survey even note that the then-president of the NAS, Bruce Alberts, reportedly said, "There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists." But the NAS survey makes it quite clear that the vast majority have decided that they can't straddle both worlds.

As Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins told the Daily Telegraph when commenting on an earlier and broader survey of scientists, "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge."

Science takes no position on the existence of a supreme being and is not capable of doing so. But let's do our best to put to rest the idea that there isn't a significant conflict between science and faith. We're fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.

01 April 2006

Background prayer?

If this story had appeared today, instead of a couple of days ago, I would have written it off as a too-subtle April Fool's gag. It's not the main thrust of the story, a Reuters report first drawn to my attention my Matt Nisbet's Framing Science blog, that's suspicious:
CHICAGO - A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said on Thursday.
Nothing new there. But a few paragraphs later we're treated to this gem:
"One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer," Manoj Jain of Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, another author of the report.
Background prayer, eh? You mean I'm being bombarded 24/7 by good thoughts over which I have no control? That's got to be some kind of violation of my agnostic rights. Quick! Find me a lawyer before someone saves my soul.

Just to be sure, I checked for anagrams of Manoj Jain, but couldn't find anything meaningful.