Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Dogmatic Study of Dogma

I'm sure you've heard by now about the recent $2.4 million study that found a neutral, and possibly mildly negative, influence of intercessory prayer on specific medical outcomes (in this case, of cardiac surgery). I've read some of the study's findings and looked over its methodologies in the context of my own academic and professional background in descriptive and inferential statistics; and I have come to a conclusion: this was a waste of a good $2.4 million.

Overall, I tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan of Columbia, who commented that the study is a reflection of poor science studying bad religion. What he meant, I suspect, is that what you get out of a study like this one is akin to an amateurish, ugly schoolyard or barroom brawl: two forces competing over a delusion. The entire scenario is an abasement to both true science and genuine spirituality.

Take a look at how the study was done: three groups were chosen to offer the prayers—two Catholic groups and (it appears) a Baptist group. So already, we can see that this was not a study of prayer, but a study of ideology. It would have been the same if Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Shintoists, or Zoroastrians were chosen for the prayer groups.

I have written about this before, in my Tao of Hogwarts, and the point is fairly simple: calling for help (as young Mr. Potter does in a few of J.K. Rowling's stories) is a natural act of both humans and animals. But once it's pressed into a religious mold, encrusted with the mud of ideological attachment, then it's no longer a call for help through one's personal connection with the ground of being, but instead a petition to a political outsider, an overlord, a distant and often annoyingly capricious Boss.

Further complicating this study is the fact that there are not merely religious ideologies throwing mud into the water of truth; there is also the competing dogma of institutional science creating its own fog. The Fisher test upon which modern statistical methods are based is a little over a hundred years old. Already its fundamental assumptions and mathematical underpinnings are being weakened by various nonlinear approaches to the calculus of probability. For scientists to even assume for a moment that they can maturely measure the effect of certain practices of ideological belief systems itself reveals the odious stench of dogma. Again, as Dr. Sloan commented, such a position of arrogance makes for both bad science and bad religion. In an editorial in the American Heart Journal (the organ in which the original study had been published) three doctors offered a similar conclusion:

In the interpretation of obviously counterintuitive findings as “what may have been chance,” the STEP investigators have allowed cultural presumption to undermine scientific objectivity.

The bottom line to all this is that we waste entirely too much money, energy, talent, and time amid the dogmatic study of dogma. There is no nuance, elegance, or wisdom to such junk science. The truth, taught to us by experience, is that the most original science and the most transformative spirituality is done not from an institutional foundation, but from a personal one. Every time the pundits had Einstein nearly nailed down to a doctrinal position, he sprinted off in an unforeseen and creative direction, driven only by his natural thirst for clarity, his experience, and, of course, his unique personal gifts. Spiritual geniuses have behaved similarly: Lao Tzu would have been horrified to discover that a "school of Taoism" fermented into being a few centuries after his death. He taught that if we could only "separate from spirituality...close the academies, extirpate the feudal rites...sorrow will be annihilated."

What Lao Tzu was trying to tell us 2,600 years ago is still of use today: the moment you dress truth in the stone robes of a governmental, scientific, moralistic, or religious doctrine, you have killed it, silenced it, frozen its growth and stopped its breath; for it is then no longer yours. And as we have seen in the effects of political tyranny, when the voice of the individual is silenced or oppressed, then the universe suffers in response; the whole is diminished and weakened.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we can't study the effects of people's beliefs from psychological, neurological, and even philosophical perspectives. But whenever we undertake to do it, we had better begin by making sure we know what our assumptions are. This is not a matter of theory or doctrine; it is a matter of good practical living. To see one way (just one, mind you) that this could be approached, try the meditation at the home page of my other website.

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