Preposterous Universe

Friday, December 03, 2004
Like a prayer

From Bob Park's What's New, a newsletter loosely affiliated with the American Physical Society:
PRAYER STUDY: COLUMBIA PROFESSOR REMOVES HIS NAME FROM PAPER. We have been tracking the sordid story of the Columbia prayer study for three years (WN 05 Oct 01). It claimed that women for whom total strangers prayed were twice as likely to become pregnant from in-vitro fertilization as others; it was published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. At the time we were unaware of the background of the study, but knew it had to be wrong; the first assumption of science is that events result from natural causes. The lead author, Rugerio Lobo, who at the time was Chair of Obstetrics, now says he had no role in the study. The author who set up the study is doing five years for fraud in a separate case, and his partner hanged himself in jail. Another author left Columbia and isn’t talking. The Journal has never acknowledged any responsibility, and after withdrawing the paper for "scrutiny," has put it back on the web. Nor has the Journal published letters critical of the study. Columbia has never acknowledged any responsibility. All of this has come out due to the persistence of Bruce Flamm, MD. The science community should flatly refuse all proposals or papers that invoke any supernatural explanation for physical phenomena.
I'm not really sure what it means to say "the first assumption of science is that events result from natural causes," but we did know that it had to be wrong. This ground was covered a long time ago by David Hume in On Miracles:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), `That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
On the other hand, part of me says "who cares?" Certainly in theoretical physics, having published papers that are incorrect doesn't do any harm; you can just ignore them. Would many readers of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine have their opinions swayed by such a study? Or is it worth fighting to have the paper withdrawn so that it can't be used for propaganda purposes? Something tells me that, among people who thought the paper was compelling, having it withdrawn would only provide further evidence of their persecution by the Establishment.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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