Global Warming: Do the Math

I have mainly limited my blogging to modern evolutionary theory and the clash between science and religion. The main reason is that these are the areas that I felt knowledgeable enough to make a contribution to the debate that is engendered around them. However, I have been reading about another interest of mine, global warming. It is my opinion that global warming is not only real but there isn’t even a scientifically valid doubt about it. It is bad news and I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised by the resistance to accept it. But I am.

I am also dismayed at the resistance to accept it on the part of otherwise intelligent young people. Here are some comments from some young people whose opinions I normally respect:

I think the whole bit about Global warming is a load of shit

The funniest thing about the global warming crowd is that they rarely take into account that the earth is still coming out of the last ice age.

Global warming may be real, but it’s not as bad as they make it out to be, and there IS NO CLEAR EVIDENCE in support of anthropogenic global warming.

It’s about time for that, if you think about it. We’ve had what? about ten years or so of the “global warming” crap, and before that it was about a decade of “global cooling” crap? Sounds about right then.

These comments were taken from blogs on entitled: The Truth About Global Warming & NASA Scientists Predict Period of Global Cooling. This website is primarily for high school and college age students. I deliberately chose comments from people whose work I have read before and have in my opinion posted thoughtful posts. Unfortunately they seem to think that the science behind global warming is weak, poorly done, being done only for the grant money, or the overall picture contradicts itself. That is unfortunate. My generation deserves a lot of the blame for global warming with our profligate use of energy but it is there generation that will have to deal with the consequences, and closed-eyed denial and conspiracy theory mongering is not going to put them in good stead to handle it.

I would like to do my part to stem this denialism by presenting the case for global warming. In stepping up to the plate to do this I feel like I am on familiar grounds. The promoters of global warming denialism use many of the same techniques as do creationists. They misrepresent the real science. They claim that the scientific establishment actively censures their point of view. They point to a legitimate controversy in peripheral area (such as whether or not global warming will lead to a greater number and more destructive hurricanes) as casting doubt on the entire field. I have had a great deal of experience dealing with such techniques and I think I can contribute some here.

The first step is to present the basis of the theory in a manner that shows the theory follows from simple logic. In the case of global warming, I think the way to do that is to look at the energy that strikes the earth’s surface. We can use simple math to show that the observed rise in CO2 concentrations HAVE TO lead to a rise in the global temperature of the earth. After that is established I will present the evidence that the rise in CO2 concentrations is caused by the activity of man. Once this is done, then there should be no way around it … anthropogenic global warming is a fact that should be dealt with.

One complaint that I often hear is that we can’t predict next week’s weather so how can we predict the climate decades from now? This is a fallacy. Climate and weather is not the same thing. Climate is best understood as AVERAGE weather. And the average weather is very predictable.

As a kid I remember a George Carlin skit in which he played “the hippy-dippy weatherman, Al Sleet”. Al gives us his long-range weather forecast (quoted from memory):

“The year is going to start out cold. There will be a gradual warming trend through spring, becoming hot in the summer. That will be followed with a cooling trend in the fall before becoming cold again at the end of the year”.

However, strictly speaking this is not a weather forecast it is climate forecast and everyone in the temperate latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere knows it is correct. So much so, that the humor in the skit lies in its obviousness. Climate is very predictable.

Climate change is also predictable. The reason is that, unlike next week’s weather, we know the major factors that affect it. And when we talk about GLOBAL climate there is really only one factor that we need to look at … the average energy absorbed at the earth’s surface. Let’s look at that now[1].

Let’s begin in the stratosphere. If one were to measure the energy coming from the sun at the top of the earth’s atmosphere one would find that 1,370 watts per square meter hits the upper atmosphere ever second. So the strength of the sun’s output is 1,370 W/m2/sec. Of course not all the earth receives this energy input. Half the earth is in darkness. The further north one goes the more oblique are the rays of sunlight that hit that part of the atmosphere. Thus, if we average the solar input across the entire earth we find that it averages out to 342 W/m2/sec.

If the earth receives that much energy, then it MUST also emit that much energy or else it will instantaneously heat up until it does. Some of the energy is emitted before ever makes it down to the earth’s surface. 77 W/m2/sec are reflected back from clouds and aerosols[2] in the atmosphere. Another 30 W/m2/sec hits the earth’s surface but is reflected back into space by its albedo[3]. Thus, 107 of the sun’s 342 W/m2/sec gets reflected back into outer space before it can absorbed. That leaves 235 W/m2/sec that are absorbed by the earth. The breakdown of that is that 67 gets absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, leaving 168 W/m2/sec to be absorbed by the earth’s surface.

That is the amount of heat that we get directly from the sun. If that were the only heat that the earth gets then the average temperature at the earth’s surface would be -19o C. Hopefully you can see that this is much colder than the earh actually is. The average temperature of the earth’s surface is about 14o C, about 33o higher. So where does all this extra heat come from? The answer is greenhouse gases.

What has been long known is that certain gases absorb long-wavelength radiation and then re-radiate it. The earth’s surface radiates about 390 W/m2/sec. Of that about 324 W/m2/sec gets re-radiated back to the surface by greenhouse gases.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to do a little housecleaning. If you have been following the story so far you will note that the earth’s surface gets 168 W/m2/sec directly from the sun and another 324 W/m2/sec re-radiated to it by greenhouse gases. That totals out to 492 W/m2/sec coming in. But I have said that the earth radiates 390 W/m2/sec going out. There is a difference of 102 W/m2/sec. Why doesn’t the earth instanteously heat up to the point that its thermal radiation matches that of the incoming radiation? The reason is that there are two other forms of heat loss that the earth’s surface has that I haven’t yet mentioned. For completeness, let me do so now.

Wind blows across the earth’s surface. As it does some of the earth’s heat is picked up. In climatology, these winds are called thermals and averaged across the surface of the earth they disappate about 24 W/m2/sec. And then finally some of the earth’s heat is used to evaporate water that will make clouds and lead to rain. This averages out to a disappation of about 78 W/m2/sec. Or in other words, totals out to our (formerly) missing 102 W/m2/sec. OK, housecleaning is done, let’s get back to the greenhouse gas story.

Note that most of the energy hitting the earth’s surface actually comes from greenhouse gases (324 W/m2/sec for greenhouse gases compared to 168 directly from the sun). So the greenhouse gas effect is very strong. It naturally follows then that a change in the concentration of greenhouse gases WILL lead to a change in the amount of energy at the surface of the earth and therefore a change in climate. There is no way around that conclusion.

But we can’t end the story there. So far we have said a lot about greenhouse gases, but we haven’s said much about CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but it is not the only one. In fact, from the standpoint of the amount of energy re-radiated back to the earth it is not even the most important one. That honor should be given to water vapor, H2O. About 36%[4] of the greenhouse gas effect on the earth’s surface is due to H2O.

This is not a new discovery. Climatologists have known about this for a long time. So then why do global warming climatologists stress CO2 so much and talk so little about water vapor? Is this some conspiracy to intentionally hide the evidence? Not at all. Global warming climatologists are interested in climate CHANGE. Human activity does very little to directly change the concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere. But they do a lot that directly changes the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. And CO2 IS the second most important greenhouse gas directly causing about 9% of the greenhouse effect on the earth’s surface.

Climatologists refer to a change in CO2 concentration as a FORCING, and a change in water vapor concentration as a FEEDBACK. What do they mean by that? What they mean is that under normal conditions it is the temperature of the atmosphere that determines the amount of water vapor in the air, the higher the temperature the more water evaporates and the more water vapor will be in the air. That is a feedback.

But if the temperature goes up there is a neglegible effect on CO2 concentration. While if we raise the CO2 concentration (which we are doing; evidence to be presented later) then that will FORCE a rise in the temperature. If one has followed the discussion so far (and I complement you if you have) then one may see a sneaky little fact of global warming here … a rise in CO2 concentration will directly cause a rise in temperature, which will in turn cause an increase of water vapor in the air, and the increased water vapor will have a further effect on the greenhouse gas effect. Thus, only part of the overall effect of raising CO2 concentrations is caused by its direct greenhouse effect, it also indirectly contributes to global warming by increasing the water vapor as well.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Up to this point I have said very little that is controversial. Everything I have said is to the best of my knowledge not seriously contested by global warming advocates or by global warming denialists. Everybody agrees that a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration will lead to a rise in global temperatures. Long established physics of radiation and simple math shows that. What I have tried to do (and do in detail) is to give you the background information to evaluate claims that will be controversial, if not with the scientists involved in the actual research at least with those who claim that global warming isn’t really what the scientists say it is.

Some global warming denialists claim that global warming isn’t really happening. For that to be true then we should see that CO2 concentrations are not really rising. So what does the evidence say?

The answer is CO2 concentrations are rising and rising rapidly. The above graph show that. Since the early 1950’s we have measured the CO2 concentrations directly in the air. This measurement is done daily at an observatory on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. This site is chosen because it is far from any industrial source of CO2 emissions which could contaminate the measurement. That is shown in the red part of the graph.

Prior to that if we want to know what the CO2 concentrations were we have to infer them from other measurements. The best way to do it is to find some “fossil” air, air from the time of interest that has not been contaminated by air from other tmes. It turns out we have just what the science needs. We have ice cores from both Antarctica and from Greenland. These ice cores have yearly banding patterns on them that we can use to precisely date the area we use. Inside the ice is air bubbles, and inside those air bubbles is the “fossil” air we need. The data is so robust (from both the direct measurements at Mauna Loa, and from ice core data) that no reasonable person can deny that CO2 concentrations have dramatically gone up. And if the CO2 concentration goes up then global temperatures MUST rise. All we have to do to see that is follow the math. More CO2 in the atmosphere the greater the greenhouse effect. The greater the greenhouse effect the greater the energy at the surface of the earth. The greater the energy at the surface of the earth the greater the temperature … no ifs, ands, or buts.

Some global warming denialists say that the rise in CO2 concentration is not manmade. What does the evidence say?

There are direct and indirect ways to answer this question and ALL of them point to humans being the cause. Let’s look at an indirect method first.

Human input into global warming comes mainly from burning fossil fuels, oil and coal. They are called FOSSIL fuels because they came from living organisms. Living organisms grow by using biochemical pathways that are controlled by enzymes. Enzymes are molecules that direct chemical reactions. They do this by moving appropriate molecules together. So we have molecules moving molecules. And to do this requires a source of chemical energy. With respect to energy usage, enzymes are not much different than most humans … they don’t want to use any more than is necessary. Thus, they would prefer to move lighter molecule than heavier ones. There are two stable isotopes of carbon 12C which has 6 protons and 6 neutrons, and 13C which has 6 protons and 7 neutrons. 13C is heavier than is 12C. Thus, enzymes do a better job of using 12C than they do of using 13C. Living things then have an enrichment of 12C over 13C. Therefore if the cause of the increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is due to humans using fossil fuels then we should be able to see that 12C enrichment in the atmospheric CO2 of today compared to the CO2 found in the “fossil” air. And we do.

The direct way to determine if the rise in CO2 concentration is due to human activity is look at the CO2 we emit into the air and follow it through the carbon cycle. Can it explain the rise?

We emit over 27 gigatons of CO2 per year[5]. The molecular weight of CO2 is 44. 12, or approximately 27% of that is due to carbon. Thus, a release of 27 gigatons of CO2 corresponds to a release of about 7.3 gigatons of carbon (GtC) into the atmosphere. That is our present carbon footprint and it is an all-time high.

The above diagram shows the carbon cycle. It shows how carbon gets distributed throughout the ecosystem. It uses data from 2006 when our carbon footprint was only 5.5 GtC. In short, the carbon we put into the air is easily enough to account for 100% of the observed rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration.

So the evidence strongly points to humans as the source for the increased CO2 concentration. Thus, if one actually believes what the science has to say, then there is little doubt that anthropogenic global warming is real. Humans are pumping CO2 into the air. It is causing a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We know from more than a hundred years of established physics that that rise in CO2 concentrations has to lead to global warming.

The above graph shows global temperatures over the past 1000 years. This is EXACTLY what we know MUST occur when there is a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This just confirms the math. For most reasonable people this enough. But global warming denialists would have you believe otherwise. I will end this post by very briefly looking at some of their arguments based on the above information.

The most common argument is that what we are seeing is a natural cycle. The present increase in temperature is due to an increased solar activity. But that ignores EVERYTHING above. There is no reason that increased activity would lead to a natural increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. There is no reason that a natural rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration should appear to have any of the characteristics we see that strongly suggest it is due to human activity. The only way this theory flies is to ignore the science.

The second most common argument is that the specific models used by climatologists are not accurate. As it turns out they are very accurate, and as we learn quantitatively about factors like methane concentration, aerosol reflectivity, the indirect effects of CO2 rise (such as increasing H2O vapor), changes in the earth’s albedo by ice sheet melting, etc. the more accurate they become. But even if they weren’t everything presented in this post relies solely on well tested physics and observations that (to the best of my knowledge) are uncontested.

The final argument is that those damn scientists are doing it for the money. They are in it only for the grant money. Creationists make similar allegations about evolutionary scientists. Why do you think it is that these complaints ONLY come from people who do not like the results science comes up with. If one actually looks at the science one finds that there is controversies and these can become quite personal. The confrontations between the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins was legendary. Science is not a monolithic entity. One does not get ahead in science by agreeing with others. One gets grants by proposing research that is designed to find out what we do not know. That means that you have to point out the shortcomings of other people in the field. And scientists do just that. If one scientist has good reason to think that he can show the field has taken a wrong turn, then he has a surefire grant in the waiting. And if he turns out to be corrrect in that assessment then he has his career made.

Science isn’t in the good-old-boy business, it is in the evidence business. If your idea is wrong then it is unlikely that you are going to keep getting evidence supporting it … unless you fake your data. If you fake your data on a problem that plenty of people are working on, then someone who doesn’t care a whit about your pet ideas is going to find something that says you are wrong and then others are going be more than willing to “settle the controversy” and show that you are stupid and they are right. That is part of the self-correcting mechanism of science.

The final argument that I seem to hear is that Al Gore is an asshole, so global warming is a lie. This is a non-sequitur. Even if Al Gore were an asshole … and having listened to him, I don’t think he is … it makes no difference. Al Gore has taken the time to read the literature, which is something that the vast majority of his critics seem not to have done. But he has done none of the science. And global warming is based on science not on Al Gore.


(1) Much of the discussion that follows comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, Frequently Asked Questions 1.1.

(2) Aerosols are small particles suspended in the earth’s atmosphere that are capable of reflecting sunlight. They are not constant. Humans emit aerosols in certain forms of pollutions, especially sulfur-containing solutions. These are generally washed out of the atmosphere within a few days by rain. The sulfur-containing aersols so washed out are major contributors to the acidity in acid rain. Volcanos can be a natural source of aerosol production. Particularly violent eruptions can shoot aerosols above the level of the highest clouds. In that case, gravity must bring the aerosols down to a level where rain can eliminate them from the atmosphere. Since they are often only slightly more dense than air and turbulent winds can stir up the stratosphere, this process can take weeks to years to complete. During that time period the earth will reflect more of the sun’s incoming light which will cause a temporary cooling event.

(3) Albedo is surface of the earth feature. The lighter the color of the earth’s surface the more of the earth’s sunlight it reflects back into space. This can potentially exacerbate the problem of global warming. As the earth heats up, more and more of the earth’s surface formerly covered by ice gets exposed. This darkens the earth’s surface causing it to absorb more of the sunlight causing it to heat up further.


Up until recently the United States has been the number 1 carbon emitter. China now has that honor. Unfortunately it isn’t because the United States has reduced its emissions, it is because China has significantly increased theirs.

The Scientific Vacuity of Intelligent Design Creationism

The most potent technique ever invented for discovering the nature of the natural world has been the scientific method. It consist of (1) making observations; (2) proposing a theory to account for the observations; (3) making a testable prediction based on that theory; and (4) testing the prediction. The process can be repeated without end and we eventually get a better and better idea of what the universe is like. I would suggest that our scientific understanding of the universe is the greatest accomplishment mankind has made.

One integral part of science is modern evolutionary theory. However, there is a group of people primarily motivated by religious beliefs who find the conclusions of modern evolutionary theory so disconcerting that they would rather we go back to pre-enlightenment times in favor of some form of creationism. I include in this group the most recent form of creationism, intelligent design creationism (IDC).

Of course, IDC proponents would take issue with my categorization of them. They would say that they do not necessarily believe in the literal 6-day Genesis creation event. They would point out that IDC is not necessarily incompatible with a 4.5 billion year old earth, a 13.7 billion year old universe, or even with common descent (the idea that all life shares common ancestry). They would claim that they just follow the evidence and the evidence suggests that some aspects of the natural world are best explained as being the product of an intelligent designer.

However, there have always been young-earth creationists (YEC) and old-earth creationists (OEC). IDC takes no official position on the age of the earth. Why not? It is so they can fit both YEC and OEC within their “Big Tent” (their term). The Discovery Institute certainly has both YEC and OEC on their payroll. Furthermore, as best as I can tell of the IDC proponents only Michael Behe has publically accepted common descent. I don’t think that you can list that as one of the tenets of your theory if only one person believes it. But IDC is notorious for not taking any official positions other than some aspects of the natural world are best explained as being the product of an intelligent designer.

I think that IDC’s claims that is distinct from creationism is somewhat less than genuine. One of its leading lights, William Dembski, showed its biblical roots when he was quoted in an article directed at a religious audience as saying, “Intelligent Design is just the Logos theory of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory”. And rough drafts of their own “textbook” Of Pandas and People show the creationist roots of these cdesign proponentsists. Therefore, I will continue to refer to it as intelligent design creationism

One of the knocks that real scientists have on IDC is that its proponents publish nothing in the scientific journals in support of their “theory” nor is their “theory” of any use. By that they mean that it makes no useful predictions. IDC proponents fend off the first criticism by claiming that there is a conspiracy to keep these poor mistreated heros of pure uncontaminated science out of the journals. They say that if anyone tries to publish something favorable to IDC then their papers are rejected and their careers in science are ruined. And in our conspiracy-theory happy world, I think this excuse plays well with the public. The facts are that almost no papers supportive of IDC are ever submitted to the scientific journals. The ones that are, are usually rejected because they ignore 150 years of research and therefore bad. Bad papers are rejected without there being a conspiracy.

IDC proponents generally bring up two people as examples who have had their scientific careers ruined for advocating IDC. Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University, was refused tenure. However, many scientists are refused tenure. It is not that uncommon. The fact of the matter is that Gonzalez’s publication record, his inability to attract grant support, and his poor record of supervising students are what led his denial of tenure.

The second person is Richard von Sternberg, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Health (NIH) who had an office at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. As part of his fellowship he served a term as editor of a small journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. At the end of his term he published a paper from Discovery Institute member Stephen Meyer questioning whether or not modern evolutionary theory could explain the Cambrian explosion. Subsequently, Sternberg complained that the NIH was pressured to fire him and he was harrassed and driven out of his position at the Smithsonian. This is rather disingenuous.

The role of an editor at a journal like Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington once a paper is received is to determine if the paper covers an area that is of interest to the journal. If it is, he then determines the appropriate section chief to send it to. The section chief then decides who would be the best people to peer-review the article. Sternberg shorted the process. Instead of sending the paper to a section chief Sternberg, an IDC proponent, picked people to peer-review the article and accepted the paper without revisions. He had it published without any input from the rest of the staff. Furthermore, he did this as the last act of his term as editor.

This getting a paper in by the back door method DID create hard feelings. Even more so since Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington is normally a taxonomic journal that publishes descriptions of new species and Meyer’s paper was wholly inappropriate for that journal. But Sternberg was not removed as editor as some IDC proponents have claimed since his term was over anyway. The only thing that happened to Sternberg was that people at the Smithsonian turned a cold shoulder to him, as well they should. His actions were underhanded. If that made things tough for him, well it was his own doing. He was never fired from his position at the Smithsonian, for the simple reason that he never held a position there. He had an office there, but his position was with the NIH. He was never fired from that position either. Neither of these cases demonstrates any conspiracy to ruin IDC proponents. But regardless, judging from the responses on the internet I think the public is favorably disposed to believe there is.

But that second criticism … IDC makes no useful predictions … is hard to dismiss as being a part of the evil evilutionist conspiracy in science against IDC. It obviously isn’t the responsibility of the evolutionary theorist to come up with useful predictions concerning IDC. It is the responsibility of the IDC proponent to do so, and either he can or he can’t. If he can’t then IDC is a science stopper. If you can’t make a testable prediction then you can’t use the scientific method, and if you can’t do that then you can’t do science.

I have just come across an IDC proponent’s attempt to remedy the problem. Denyse O’Leary has come up with nine predictions that she claims that IDC makes. Here is her list:

1. No good theory will be found for a random origin of the universe, either by the Large Hadron Collider or anything else. The universe will consistently behave more like a great idea than a great machine.

Positive prediction: An end to unfalsifiable ideas about zillions of flopped universes and a focus on how we can best explore our own universe, as per The Privileged Planet .

2. No good theory will be found for a random origin of life, though there will be plenty of huffing and puffing in favour of bad ideas. All theories that exclude purpose and design fail because they leave out the key driver – the purpose that life should come into existence.

Positive prediction: We will learn more about the real nature of our universe and our place in it, and how best we can explore it when we accept the fact that it didn’t “just happen.”

3. Complete series of transitional fossils will not usually be found because most proposed series have never existed. Eventually, researchers will give up on ideologically driven nonsense and address the history that IS there. They will focus on discovering the mechanisms that drive sudden bursts of creativity.

Positive prediction: Discovering the true mechanisms of bursts of natural creativity may be of immense value to us, especially if we need to undo some significant harm to our environment.

4. The environment will prove far more resilient than eco-doomsayers believe. People forget that the Permian extinction wiped out 90% of the marine life forms on this planet. Life seems to want to exist on this planet, even at the South Pole (cf March of the Penguins). Note: I have no time for environment destruction, and personally gave up keeping a car, as the simplest and most economical way to reduce my environment footprint. But I am NOT waiting for enviro-apocalypse!! – I don’t believe it will happen. There will be changes. That’s all. Not the end of the world or anything like it.

5. No account of human evolution will show a long slow emergence from unconsciousness to semi-consciousness to consciousness, let alone that consciousness is merely the random firing of neurons in the brain. However consciousness got started, it appeared rather suddenly and it permanently separates humans from our genetic kin, however you want to do the gene numbers and however much time researchers spend coaxing monkeys to stop relieving themselves on the keyboard and type something meaningful.

Positive prediction: We will focus on what consciousness can do, especially in treatment of mental disorders. Yes, a drugged up zombie is better than a suicide, but only because the zombie isn’t technically dead. Why stop there?

6. Claims that the human brain is full of “anachronistic junk” will be falsified, just as century old claims that there are hundreds of vestigial organs in the human body were falsified. The human body will be recognized as suitable for the purposes for which we exist. (Not in all cases perfect, to be sure, but in general suitable.)

Positive prediction: We will discover the functions of many brain areas whose functions we did not know before.

7. No useful theory of consciousness will demonstrate that consciousness is merely the outcome of the random firing of neurons in the brain. All useful theories will accept that the mind and the brain exist in a relationship. Research will focus on delineating the relationship more clearly. That will greatly benefit medical research, especially research on difficult mental disorders such as phobias, depression, etc.

Positive prediction: We can have a better grasp of what consciousness does and how it relates us to our environment.

8. No useful theory of free will (human volition) will demonstrate that it does not really exist. Free will (which includes using the mind to help heal bodily injuries) will become an important tool of medicine, especially for helping aging people toward a better quality of life. For example, the fact that a drug only need perform 5% better than a placebo to be licensed for use will encourage the development of mind-based treatments for people who would otherwise be forced to take antagonistic drugs.

Positive prediction: Better health care for people with complex illnesses

9. No useful theory of human psychology will be founded on claims about what happened in the caves of our ancestors (= evolutionary psychology). That is because there are no genes that simply “cause” behaviour in a clinically normal human being. The mind is real and humans create their social environment by mental effort. Information is passed on from mind to mind, not through genes or physiology.

Positive prediction: For example, if one culture decrees that “God says you SHOULD beat your wife” and another culture says that “God says you SHOULDN’T beat your wife”, the observed instance of wife-beating will be lower in the second culture than in the first. Human nature may be the same everywhere, but human behaviour is predicted by culture. So culture matters.

Let me number the problems with this list of “predictions”:

(1) The terms are not defined sufficiently well to be useful.

What does a “good theory for a … random origin of the universe” entail? What is even meant by “random” here? If the universe came about by laws of nature then is that random? Ms. O’Leary needs to be more specific. “A theory concerning a naturalistic origin of the universe will never be found to be consistent with the facts”, would be a specific “prediction”. Except the problem is that one is already refuted. There are many naturalistic theories of the origin of the universe that are consistent with known facts, and do so better than any IDC hypothesis.

The exact same problem goes for “good theor[ies]” concerning “the random origin of life” and “useful theor[ies]” concerning consciousness and free will. Nor does Ms. O’Leary tell us what she means by a “COMPLETE series of transitional fossils [emphasis mine]”. What is so incomplete about the numerous ones we already have?

(2) The “predictions” do not come from IDC.

Ms. O’Leary says, “The environment will prove far more resilient than eco-doomsayers believe”. For the sake of argument, let’s assume it is. Suppose we find in the future that anthropogenic global warming has little effect. How does that in any way come from IDC? If Ms. O’Leary wanted to make an IDC specific prediction, then she say, “Once conditions get to a certain point (and yes, she should specify what that point is) then the intelligent designer will personally intervene to prevent a catastrophe”. That is a prediction that could only be made from an IDC paradigm.

(3) The “predictions” are unfalsifiable.

With terms like “good theory”, “useful theory”, “not the end of the world or anything like it” having no specified criteria at what point can one claim that the prediction has been falsified?

(4) The “predictions” are non-sequiturs.

They contain material that are irrelevant or wrong. It is not true that vestigial organs in humans has been falsified. They have been confirmed.

The fact that the Permian extinction caused the death of 90% of the marine organisms is irrelevant to global warming. No serious climatologist has ever claimed that anthropogenic global warming will lead to the death of every species on earth. They claim that it will have a severe effect. Human activity has already led to an extinction rate that approaches the extinction rate of the earth’s major extinction events. If global warming accellorates it then it will have a monumental effect over the long term. But life will come back … over millions of years EVOLUTIONARY THEORY predicts that naturalistic evolution will lead to diversification that will fill the niches left empty by the extinction event.

(5) The “predictions” ignore historical reality.

Ms. O’Leary says that IDC will lead to a better understanding of “our universe and our place in it”; better “treatment of mental disorders” and; “better health care for people with complex illnesses”.

But IDC is not a new theory. The idea of an intelligent designer has been around since the beginning of civilization. The insights we got from that paradigm were that the earth was young (6,000 years old), flat and at the center of the universe. If that paradigm is so useful, then why did we not get a better picture earlier?

Our insights into mental disorders under an IDC paradigm was that they were caused by demons. It was not until post-enlightenment and we had discarded the IDC paradigm that we actually got better health care. If we go back to IDC what will change?

(6) None of these “predictions” are useful; and they are all science-stoppers.

I think this is by far the most crushing problem. None of the nine predictions give us anything that can be used in science. They do not suggest any fruitful lines of research to follow. What they all suggest is that what we are doing now will be useless. We wont find anything. If that is so, then why try? … That is a science stopper.

I want to finish this blog by looking at a couple of useful predictions, and predictions that were made under the paradigm of modern evolutionary theory. I want to use these examples to show the difference between a scientifically testable prediction and the “predictions” made by Ms. O’Leary.

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans have 24 pairs. If modern evolutionary theory is true in that we share a geologically recent common ancestor with these apes then something must have happened since our branch split off that reduced our chromosome count by a pair. Since we know that loss of a chromosome is almost always fatal, by far the most likely explanation is that two chromosomes fused together to form a single chromosome. That is the prediction that modern evolutionary science makes.

Since we discovered the difference in chromosome number between humans and chimps we have discovered that Robertsonian translocations do lead to chromosomal fusions. They are relatively common. And in some cases the offspring are phenotypically normal. Furthermore, a technique using Giemsa dye was developed that showed a banding pattern on chromosomes that allow us to uniquely identify specific chromosomes. All human chromosomes have unique homologues with the chromosomes of chimps, gorillas and oranguatans, except human chromosome 2. It appears to be a combination of two of the ape chromosomes. And finally DNA sequencing has shown that chromosome 2 has two centromeric sequences and an interior telomeric sequence (normally found only at the ends of chromosomes). This is exactly what we should see if chromosome 2 was made by the fusion of two chromosomes by a Robertsonian translocation.

Note how the prediction, humans must have undergone a chromosomal fusion event, could only have been made from evolutionary paradigm. If we do not share common ancestors with chimps, then there is no reason to suspect we should have similar chromosomal structures. Note also how that prediction led to a very productive line of experimental evidence.

Finally, if modern evolutionary theory is correct then amphibians evolved from lobe-finned fish. We had a lot of paleontological evidence indicating that was so. We had fossils of a lobe-finned fish whose fins seemed to be preadapted to forming forelegs, Panderichthys, dated back 385 million years ago. We also had bonified tetrapods with fish-like structures, Acanthostega and Ichthyostega dated back to 365 million years ago. But the gap between Panderichthys and Acanthostega/Ichthyostega suggested there was more than likely other transitional forms between them. Acanthostega and Ichthyostega were found in Greenland in strata suggesting that they were formed on river bottoms. Neil Shubin knew of strata in Greenland that dated back to 375 million years ago. He went there specifically looking for river bottom formations in that strata. The result was Tiktaalik, a nearly perfect intermediate between the two. Again the prediction was that an intermediate fossil should be found in strata of a specific age from a specific environment. That was a prediction that could ONLY have been made from an evolutionary paradigm. It led to a fruitful line of research.

What makes a theory a good scientific theory is that it leads to fruitful lines of research. Modern evolutionary theory has been more successful in that than any other theory in the history of mankind. The reason I can make that statement is that more papers are published on evolutionary theory each year than on any other scientific theory. The implications that one can derive from modern evolutionary theory is absolutely astounding. As technology develops for molecular studies, and our knowledge of the geology in different parts of the world improves, more and more of these implications can be put to the test. This is why evolutionary studies produce as much science as they do. The reason IDC produces none is not because of some scientific conspiracy against it. It is because the theory is useless. It says that some unnamed and undescribed intelligent designer created something. It doesn’t ask how, it doesn’t ask why then … there is no place to go. It even says that the mechanism behind it is probably one that requires suspension of natural law in order for it to be achieved. If that is true, then we have no hope of ever finding it out. Ouila … science stopper.

Scientific Studies on the Effectiveness of Intercessory Prayer

There is a long history of scientific investigation on prayer with mixed and contradictory results. However, I think now there is enough information to come to a rather strong tentative conclusion. It doesn’t work.

The first study I am aware of on the effectiveness of prayer was made by Sir Francis Galton. Galton was an interesting person. He was a cousin of Charles Darwin. He pioneered the science of biometry (the application of statistics, systems analysis and engineering to the life sciences). He also was a strong advocate of eugenics.

In his prayer study Galton reasoned that many people pray for the health of the King. If prayers were answered then kings should live longer than well-to-do but not regal people. He took a look at records and found they live less long. So he concluded that the effectiveness of prayer was not supported.

More recently there have been a number of studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Four in particular have made a “media splash”. The first three were hailed as scientifically showing the power of prayer without critical analysis. The last study was one which used over 2 million dollars in grant money, involved several centers, had the best controlled model. It failed to show a positive effect for prayer.

I will critically evaluate all four studies and show you that in actuality the other three didn’t either.

(1). Byrd, RC (1988). Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal 81:826-829.

This was the first on the scene. It was hailed as the first double-blind study on the effects of intercessory prayer. Byrd looked at 393 patients who were admitted to the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital. The patients were divided into 2 groups. The experimental group contained 192 patients; the control group contained 201 patients. Both groups were told that people may pray for them as part of a scientific study. However, only the experimental group actually received prayers.

The intercessors (the people who did the praying) were “born again” Christians. Their normal religious activity included daily prayer and regular church attendance. They were affiliated with several protestant sects and with Roman Catholicism. Each patient in the experimental group was assigned to between 3 to 7 intercessors. The intercessors were told the first name, diagnosis, and general condition of the patient. They were also told of pertinent updates to their condition. Intercessory prayer was done daily until the patient was discharged from the hospital. Each intercessor was told to pray for a “rapid recovery and prevention of complications and death”.

Experimental and control groups were compared on 29 different outcome measures during their hospital stay. The experimental group fared statistically significantly better on 6 of those criteria. They were congestive heart failure (4% of the experimental group and 10% of the control group developed congestive heart failure); Diuretics (5% of the experimental group and 8% of the control group required drugs that stimulate the kidneys to reduce fluid volume); Cardiopulmonary arrest (2% of the experimental group and 7% of the control group had a period in which their heart stopped and required electrical stimulation to restart); Pneumonia (2% of the experimental group and 7% of the control group came down with pneumonia); Antibiotics (2% of the experimental group and 9% of the control group required antibiotics during their hospital stay); and Intubation (0% of the experimental group and 6% of the control group required intubation during their hospital stay).

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? In every case in which a significant difference was found the group that received prayer fared better than the control group. Prayer works … or so it seems. But just reporting the results is not critically examining the study. To do that one needs to look at the design of the study and the results that were not statistically significant.

The first thing to note is that there was no statistical differences in what most of us would consider the most important outcomes. Patients in both groups had similar mortalities. There was no difference in the length of their stay in the CCU or in the hospital. No statistical difference in the cases of unstable angina, readmissions to the CCU, coronary angiography, or major surgery. The prayers for the patients specifically asked for speedy recovery (no difference between controls and experimental groups), no deaths (no difference between controls and experimentals), and no complications (no difference in MOST indices). So the question that immediately arises is why some things and not others. No obvious answer arises, nor does any testable hypotheses immediately jump to mind. That is never a good sign.

Dr. Byrd claimed that his was a double blind study. Neither the patients nor the persons determining the outcome were aware of who was being prayed for. In fact Dr. Byrd claimed that the patients, the staff doctors, AND HE, HIMSELF were all “blinded”. So in a sense that is triple blinded. That is the way such studies should be done. In studies like this it is important. Why?

The reason is that presumably it would be Dr. Byrd who is entering the data. Data entry is a boring and monotonous job. Mistakes can easily be made. Also mistakes can be unconsciously be made especially in times like that. As Richard Feynmann said the most important thing in science is to not fool yourself, and the first step in doing that is to realize that you are the most easy person to fool.

Unfortunately, it was discovered afterwards that Dr. Byrd did not enter the data. The data was entered by his assistant Janet Greene. She was also the one who assigned patients to each group. She also gave the names of the patients to the intercessors. She closely monitored each and every update. She was totally unblinded. … That is not the way to do it. Each and every place is a place where her personal biases can enter into the experiment.

So the judgment from this study alone is that there are some intriguing signs that prayer may work. But there also some intriguing unanswered questions and some disturbing methodological flaws.

(2) Harris, WS et al. (1999). A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159:2273-2278.

This study was hailed as a “truly blind” study that replicated and supported Byrd’s 1988 study. But did it really? Here is what the study reported.

990 patients from the Mid America Heart Institute (MAHI) were divided into experimental and control groups. There were 524 patients in the control group and 466 in the experimental group. Neither patients nor doctors were told of the study so both were unaware that an outside group was praying for anyone.

The intercessors had a variety of Christian backgrounds. 35% were non-denominational; 27 % were Episcopalians; the rest were from different protestant and Roman Catholic sects. 87% were women. The mean age was 56 years old. All said they agreed with the statement, “I believe in God. I believe that He is personal and is concerned with individual lives. I further believe that He is responsive to prayer for healing made on behalf of the sick.” All prayed daily and attended church at least weekly. A group of intercessors was given the name of a patient only. They were instructed to pray for “a speedy recovery with no complications” and anything else they deemed appropriate. They were told to pray for 28 days regardless of the outcome of the patient. They were not given any updates on the patient’s condition.

Experimental and control groups were compared over 35 different outcome parameters. These parameters were then evaluated on a scale invented by the MAHI that rates outcomes on a graded scale. Each time the patient needed some type of medical intervention he was given points. The lower points were given for simpler procedures. The higher points were given for more serious complications. The highest (6 points) was given for death. A patient’s total score is the arithmetic total of all the scores throughout his hospital stay.

It was found that the score for the experimental group was better than the score for the control group by 11%. This was statistically significant at the P=.04 level. That means that only 4% of the time should you expect to get results like that if there really isn’t any difference between the groups you compare.

Harris et al. proudly proclaimed that they had successfully replicated Byrd’s study and the news media so reported it that way. However, they had not. In order to see that we need to look at the study critically.

Byrd had found statistically significant difference between experimental and control groups on 6 of his 29 outcome measurements. They were Congestive Heart Failure, Cardiac Arrest, Pneumonia, Diuretics, Antibiotics, and Intubation. Each of these is included in the Harris study. But there is no statistically significant difference between experimental and control groups on these parameters in the Harris study. In fact, Harris found no statistically significant difference on ANY of his 35 outcome parameters.

The statistical difference that Harris gets is only when the results are lumped together and “cooked” in a rather subjective grading scale. It appears as though the authors were searching to find something significant. In reality, even the Byrd study can be criticized for this. One needs to specify exactly what factors one want to look at before these types of studies are performed. If one uses enough parameters one should find things that appear statistically significant but are only so due to chance. Thus, my interpretation of the scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of prayer at the point of the Harris study is one that says the two studies contradict each other and no viable claim can be established.

(3) Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA. (2001). Does prayer influence the success of in Vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Journal of Reproductive Medicine 46:781-787.

This study was widely touted as evidence of prayer affecting fertility. It was even hailed as a potential breakthrough by Dr. Timothy Johnson on ABC’s Good Morning America. It has become a BIG LESSON of caution for researchers purporting beneficial effects of the supernatural … although you would never know it if you limited yourself to the popular media coverage.

In this study the authors looked at the fertility rates of women being implanted with embryos at a fertility clinic. Looking at this single trait avoids the problem in the two studies above in which a shotgun approach is taken to search for statistical significance. Both the women being implanted and the doctors doing the implanting were unaware that prayer was going on. Excellent double-blind technique.

The fertility rate in the experimental prayed-for group was 50% while in the control not-prayed-for group it was 26%. Almost a 100% increase… a robust phenomenon. All of these things are things we like to see in a study.

Furthermore, two of the authors were faculty members at Columbia University School of Medicine. One, listed as the study’s primary author, Dr. Rogerio A. Lobo, was chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia. You couldn’t ask for better qualifications than that. So then what was the problem with the study?

The answer is the third author. Daniel Wirth it turns out is a big time con man. Soon after the study was published Mr. Wirth was indicted on fraud charges. He had bilked Adelphia Communications out of 2.1 million dollars by infiltrating the company’s computers and having the company pay for unauthorized consulting fees. An investigation into his background showed that he had used an alias, John Wayne Truelove, to obtain a passport and make several trips abroad. He bilked the Social Security Administration out of $103,178 by having his father’s social security checks sent to him for 10 years after he had died.

While none of these things deal with the article directly it does cause one to wonder. What was Mr. Wirth’s role in the study anyway? It turns out he did almost everything. Although Dr. Lobo was listed as the primary author, Dr. Lobo later admitted he knew nothing about the study until a year after it was over. His TRUE role was to give advice on the wording of the article, check out the statistics, and to facilitate publication … Dr. Lobo was on the editorial board of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

Dr. Cha ran the fertility clinic. He was responsible for collecting the data on the people being prayed for. He used the protocol developed by … Daniel Wirth. Mr. Wirth collected the data from the intercessors. He is also the one who collated the data. There was plenty of opportunity for fraud.

Since the paper was published Dr. Cha has left Columbia. He works at his own fertility clinic. Dr. Lobo has requested that his name be dropped from the article. He claims that it was erroneously put on there in the first place (despite the fact that he was initially referred to as the primary author). He has stepped down as chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He is no longer on the editorial boards of any journal. Both Cha and Lobo are effectively out of science and deservedly so.

Mr. Wirth is serving a 5 year prison sentence after having pleaded guilty to all counts of fraud against him.

So, as it turns out this paper is almost certainly fraudulent and offers no support for the efficacy of prayer. At this point I would say that the scientific data is becoming decidedly against it in fact. If the phenomenon were real one would be expecting to see something by this time.

(4) Benson H, et al. (2006). Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patents: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151:934-942.

This was a highly publicized research project from the moment of its inception. It was funded primarily by the John Templeton Foundation. It was supposed to be the definitive study on the efficacy of prayer. The Rolls Royce of prayer studies, if you will. It is a huge study. It involves several prestigious heart centers. The researchers were familiar with appropriate design of blinded studies. In short, it was a study that prayer aficionados were looking forward to for almost a decade.

A total of 1802 patients completed the study. The patients were all scheduled for nonemergency coronary artery bypass surgery. They were randomized to 3 different groups. Group 1 consisted of 604 patients that received intercessory prayer after being told that they may or may not receive it. Group 2 consisted of 597 patients that did not receive intercessory prayer but as in group 1 they were told that they may or may not receive it. Group 3 consisted of 601 patients that were told they were definitely going to receive intercessory prayer and did receive it.

So Group 1 received intercessory prayer but were unsure whether or not they were going to receive it. Group 2 didn’t receive intercessory prayer and were unsure whether or not they were going to receive it. Group 3 received intercessory prayer after being assured they were going to receive it.

The intercessors were from two Catholic groups and one protestant group. A list of patients to be prayed for was posted at a central location within each church and the intercessors were to pray “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications”.

The data was collected by independent auditors reviewing patient records. All investigators, participating nurses, interviewers, and auditors were blinded as to which group the patients were assigned.

The results were devastating for the efficacy of prayer. The complication rates were as follows:

Group 1 patients (received prayer; uncertain that they would receive it) – 52.5%
Group 2 patients (did not receive prayer; uncertain that they would receive it) – 50.9%
Group 3 patients (received prayer; certain that they would receive it) – 58.6%

The first thing to notice is that the complication rate was significantly higher than either the Byrd or Harris et al. studies. The authors attribute this to the thoroughness of the independent auditors. If this is so then it raises further questions about the first two studies.

Group 3 patients experienced a significantly higher complication rate than did Groups 1 and 2. Why this should be isn’t clear. The authors speculated that perhaps knowing they were being prayed for may have unconsciously convinced them they were sicker than they really were.

The other interesting finding is that Group 1 patients had higher complications than did Group 2 patients. This did not quite rise to the level of statistical significance. However, when the researchers looked at the patients that they had classified as having a major complication then the results did reach statistical significance. Group 1 patients had major complications 18% of the time while Group 2 patients only 13%.

Thus, the group of patients that received prayer did statistically worse than those who didn’t even though neither group was certain as to whether or not they were to receive it. This is another result that is hard to explain.

The authors noted that during the design of the experiment they had elected to include in the major complication group patients that they had lost contact with. It was assumed that the most likely reason they would lose contact with the patient was because the patient would have suffered some major complication and be unavailable for follow-up. There were 35 such patients in the major complication groups. When these patients were eliminated from analysis the results were no longer statistically significant. So the authors suggest that the overall result even though statistically significant were really due to chance.

The results have certainly been criticized. Most of the criticism comes from theological sources and center on the inappropriateness of trying to quantify God. I find this criticism rather disingenuous. I am sure that had the results come out showing that prayer was efficacious these same sources would have found nothing inappropriate trying to “quantify God”.

One valid scientific criticism of the study is that prayer by outside sources was uncontrolled for. It would be impossible to do so. I cannot imagine family members and friends so inclined to pray foregoing such activity to aid in the scientific investigation on the efficacy of prayer. However, this type of prayer is true for control and experimental groups. In a study as large as the STEP study, it should even out.

Other criticisms have come from fringe groups. Some say that the type of prayer is important. The basis for this seems to be the Spindrift studies. These studies were carried out by Christian Scientist members Bruce Klingbeil and his son John Klingbeil between 1969 and 1993. They took plant seeds, stressed them in salt water, planted them in pans, prayed for one side and not the other. They reported that the prayed-for side produced more plants than did the non-prayed-for side. They further prayed in two different ways. One in which they asked God to make the plants grow more robustly – directed prayer. And another way in which they asked God to do what was in the best interest of the plant – undirected prayer. They reported that while both prayers made the plants do better than non-prayer, undirected prayer worked the best. All of the prayer studies listed above used directed prayer (actually the Cha et al. study on fertility claimed to use both directed and undirected prayer, but it is unlikely the study actually did either). So, claim these prayer enthusiasts, it is no wonder the results are equivocal.

But the Spindrift studies were never published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal so were never subjected to formal scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, the studies are bathed in a sea of suspicion. The Klingbeils did publish their results on their own. But very shortly after they published their results both of them committed suicide. Why? Some people claim it was because they were persecuted by both the religious and scientific communities. They were supposedly about to be excommunicated from their Christian Science church (I do not know why). The science establishment had poo-pooed their research.

I certainly do not know why they committed suicide, but they seem to have been a strange family. Here is a quote from an review of a book detailing their life. The quote comes from Deborah Klingbeil, Bruce’s daughter and John’s sister:

As the daughter of Bruce Klingbeil and the brother of John (the two researchers whose work is documented in this book) I read Journey Into Prayer with special interest. I can attest personally to the truth of the incidents in the book. I found the book especially helpful as a resource for newcomers to prayer research who are carrying on my dad’s research work because it gives them a sense of context and history. I disagree somewhat [w]ith the author’s opinion of the suicides given in this book. I talked on the phone to my dad and brother just hours before their death and I was the only person in communication with them at that time. Based on what they told me, which they asked me not to make public, I felt the suicides were a concession made in order to keep the research from dying entirely while the author of this book states that he feels the suicides sabotaged the research. I gave the suicides my blessing before and after they occurred not because I believe in suicide (which I do not) but because I do believe in concessions that advance the greater good. The author expresses that he thinks the suicides were caused by negative energy. …

What?? The suicides were a concession made in order to keep the research from dying entirely?? She gave the suicides her blessing before and after they occurred?? That seems to be one strange family! It makes no sense to me.

To my knowledge in the 14 years since their suicide no one has replicated their results. From this there is no reason to put any credence in the idea of directed vs undirected prayer.

Other people claim that what is important is the relationship of the person doing the praying to the person being prayed for. These are just the type of studies that the lead author, Herbert Benson, was familiar with. Dr. Benson is head of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University. He had written several books extolling the power of prayer. His work had been criticized extensively, however. For one thing he never used a control group. In one study he reported that spiritual relaxation by using prayer increased the likelihood of a woman achieving pregnancy by 35%. It turns out that what he really did was see women who had unexplained infertility problems. He told them to relax and pray. After doing so 35% actually became pregnant. How many would have become pregnant if they would have gone home and read Harry Potter or something innocuous like that? No one knows because it was not controlled for.

If a person has a lot of family members praying for him and he gets better is it because of the praying or is it because of the family support? No one knows, it hasn’t been checked. Thus, there is no reason to assume this is a valid criticism either.

The problem with these fringe objections is that they are ad hoc. One can always come up with potential ad hoc reasons that studies don’t work out the way one wants. The simplest (and most likely correct) answer to failed experiments is that the phenomenon one is examining isn’t like one thinks it is. In this case the way the phenomenon of intercessory prayer is most likely to be different than one thinks it is, is in its very existence. But that is often hard to accept.

It should be noted that many (if not all) of the authors of the STEP study were devout theists. Besides the lead author’s advocacy of prayer, several other authors were hospital chaplains. It comes as no surprise that the implications of their study were hard for even them to accept.

For instance, in the discussion section of the paper the report says, “Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief.” Er … it seems to me that it does at least challenge that belief. The study rather clearly implies that intercessory prayer is ineffective. If intercessory prayer is ineffective with strangers then why would it not cast at least a shadow of doubt on “private or family prayer”? Why is private or family prayer such a different entity that the study would have no bearing on it?

Dean Marek, a hospital chaplain at the Mayo Clinic and coauthor of the study said after the study was published, “you hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don’t doubt them.” Really?? Why not? Why was it not shown in the study?

Bob Barth, spiritual director of Silent Unity, the protestant organization that provided intercessors, said, “A person of faith would say this study is interesting, but we’ve been praying for a long time and we’ve seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started.” How does he “know” it works? If it is so obvious that it works, why didn’t the study show it?

The real reason this doesn’t challenge their belief in the power of prayer is that they believe in prayer despite the evidence. It is called “faith” and in this case seems to be directly opposed to reason. Tell me again … why is this a virtue?

But in any case, this study … large in scope and lacking the methodological problems plaguing the Byrd and Harris et al. studies … certainly give no support to the efficacy of intercessory prayer.

So what is the story on prayer so far? These are by no means the only studies published on prayer. They are just the ones that have received the most attention. There are many others and the results are like these … mixed and contradictory. None are as well controlled as the STEP studies however.

As of this point, the efficacy of prayer has been diligently looked for and our best data says it doesn’t exist. This is telling. If the phenomenon was real, studies should have demonstrated it by now. They don’t. Barring extremely impressive results to the contrary in the future, my opinion is that intercessory prayer has been shown to be ineffective beyond a reasonable doubt.

Is There a Conflict between Science and Religion?

Michael Shermer in his book How We Believe describes a three tiered view of the relationship between science and religion:

(1) The Conflicting Worlds Model. This model says that science and religion is in conflict. They are different views of the universe and they come to irreconcilably different views. If one is right then the other is wrong.

(2) The Same Worlds Model. This model says that science and religion are not in conflict. They are different ways of looking at the universe but they both are valid. Since “truth” cannot contradict “truth”, they cannot be in conflict. Any apparent conflict then is due to our lack of understanding what the real “truth” of at least one of those views is.

(3) The Different Worlds Model. This model says that science and religion is not in conflict for the simple reason that the world of science is completely separated from the world of religion. Religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.

At one time or another in my life I have advocated all three views. After giving it a great deal of thought I believe the Conflicting Worlds Model is ultimately correct. The only way to avoid conflict is to change religion or science into something that we not call religion or science now.

First, let me deal with the Different Worlds Model. This view was championed by a person I have a great deal of respect for, Stephen Jay Gould. Gould called it NOMA for Non Overlapping MAgisteria. Gould said that science deals with mechanisms of how the universe works. Relgion deals with ethics. Quite a few scientists and theologians have advocated this. I call this the Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along” appeal. I think it is too simplistic.

Certainly science does deal with explanatory mechanisms behind the workings of the natural world. But science can in principle investigate any phenomenon affecting the natural world. So when religion says that God answers prayers, for instance, science can investigate that claim. If religion says that it is possible for a human male to be born of a virgin, science can investigate that. If religion says that the earth was created in 6 days, science can test that too. If religion tells us that God must have made the universe then science can investigate that too.

Furthermore, I see no reason that ethics necessarily be conceded to the sole province of religion. I think non-religious institutions, including science can yield useful insights into ethics.

Some people say that science cannot prove God existence one way or the other. That is too simplistic. Suppose that on December 24th there the bright red star in the constellation of Orion, Betelguese (pronounced “Beetle Juice”) undergoes a supernova (as astronomers say it will one day in the not too distant cosmological future). Suppose also we turn our telescopes toward it and see in perfect Times Roman font “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men – Love God” written in the cosmic dust of the explosion. I doubt if any proponent of the NOMA philosophy would claim that isn’t evidence that God actually exists.

Already some theists have speculated about doing DNA analysis on the supposed blood stains on the Shroud of Turin. What if it shows that there is two sets of DNA. One with an X chromosome that looks just like normal everyday human chromosomes and another that includes the Y chromosomes in which there is no excess DNA. The genes don’t have introns, pseudogenes, ALU repeats, endogenous retroviruses, or any of the other apparent junk normally found in our genome. That would be scientific evidence not only for Jesus’s existence, but for his supernatural paternity as well.

So it is certainly possible to get scientific evidence supporting God’s existence. What about evidence for God’s nonexistence. That can be done as well.

Really?? Isn’t proving a negative impossible? Yes and No. I will agree that we cannot possibly rule out the existence of all conceivable Gods, but we can rule out the existence of certain Gods. Anytime one says something about God’s character, then there are logical ramifications that can be subjected to scrutiny. If the characteristics do not stand up to scrutiny then a God with that type of characteristic can reasonably be ruled out. The only god that science can say nothing about is one that has no interaction with the universe what-so-ever. If such a god exists then at best it is irrelevant to anything in our lives.

So then we are left with either the Same Worlds Model or the Conflicting Worlds Model. I have many friends who are atheists and I have many friends who are theists. Every theist I am friends with would support the Same Worlds Model, every atheist would support the Conflicting Worlds Model. Interestingly there are theists who support the Conflicting Worlds Model too. These are the fundamentalists and I am not on particularly good terms with them. While I reject religion in favor of verifiable science, they reject the science in favor of religion. Even though we are diametrically opposed on most things, I do give them credit for holding a logically consistent position.

The problem I have with my theistic friends is that their apologetics seem to be ad hoc and strained. Let’s take the Genesis 1 account of creation as an example. Genesis 1 says the earth was created in 6 specific days. My theistic friends say that must be read allegorically. “Evening and morning, the [first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth] day” doesn’t REALLY mean a 24 hour day. It means an unspecified length of time that could really be billions of years long.

Why do they say that? The answer is because if you think of it as a 24 hour day then it is obviously wrong. A few of the more studied theists say that even the early church fathers didn’t view “day” as being 24 hours long either. That actually is true. They thought of it as being a period of a thousand years. Why? Because in Genesis 2 there is a second story of creation … the Adam and Eve one.

In that story God tells Adam that if he partakes of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil that in that day he will die. Adam does eat of it but lives another 930 years. So to overcome inconsistency they said that when God said “day” he meant “1000 years”. That must have been among the first of the ad hoc apologetics to come along.

But even if you believe as the early church fathers did you get the age of the universe at 12,000 years instead of 6,000. You are still off by a factor of a million.

Even if you let “day” be meaningless, then you have the problem of coming up with something meaningful as to what creation of light (day 1), creation of firmaments (day 2), creation of dry land and plants (day 3), creation of Sun, Moon, and Stars (day 4), creation of fish and birds (day 5), creation of land animals and humans (day 6), and rest (day 7) mean.

My theistic friends are able to do it. They do it a number of different ways. They do it by making things mean what no one would normally thing they mean. I find this intellectually dishonest. They are intentionally fooling themselves. It is clear what the intent of the author of many biblical stories was. It has also become clear that the bible is wrong in many instances. The only reason to claim otherwise is to reconcile obvious wrong findings.

I think religion DOES make specific testable claims about the nature of the universe. I think science says many of these claims do not withstand scrutiny. The claims that do not withstand scrutiny are numerous enough and of sufficient importance that I think science and religion is basically incompatible. If one is right then the other is wrong. I choose science.

[Note: I origninally wrote this blog here.]


I would like to introduce myself to the readers of WordPress blogs. I am especially interested in science. I have two doctoral degrees (one in neuroscience and another in optometry), but I don’t expect to blog too much about either. My main blogging interests center on evolution, the conflict between science and religion, and positive atheism. That is what I plan to concentrate on, however, I hope to become competent enough in the science behind global warming to do some blogs on that as well.

I have another blog, and I plan on keeping it. My approach on that blog has been a “take no prisoners” approach. I don’t plan to do that here. I have lofty goals for this blog. I want these writings to be of sufficiently high quality that I would be proud to have them published some day. Because of that I want to treat this blog with more of an academic demeanor. I will consider all comments as suggestions on how to improve the writing. Because of that I suspect I will edit and re-edit the blogs. Thus, the first blog that one may read may not be the blog that ends up here.

I have other purposes for blogging. I believe things and believe them deeply. But I know that no matter how deeply I believe anything there is always the possibility that I may be wrong. I try to take as little as possible on faith. I like to think I have good reasons and evidence for believing the way I do. But if I am wrong, then I hope someone will point it out to me. I have been known to change my mind on occasions.

I have been accused of being an “evangelical” atheist although I call myself a vocal atheist. I do present my case passionately at times. But I try to do so with a force of logic, not appeals to emotion or anecdote. In reality however, it is not a goal of mine to convert people to atheism. If I had that as a goal I would surely fail much more than I succeed. I blog to test out ideas. And eventually I hope to establish a presence here that would encourage challenging feedback to those positions. Otherwise, I there is no test at all.

In my other blog I have found that trying to respond to every comment made is time consuming and too often leads to needless repetition. Instead of replying to people individually I will try to respond to ideas. I haven’t decided yet whether to handle it in the comments section or re-edit the blog to take it into account. I suspect I will do a little of both. I am also thinking of using the comments section myself to reference and expound on points I think important in my blog.

I also like to blog because I learn things. If one is going to blog properly one needs to do gather information and arrange it into an order that makes sense. I know no better way to learn something than by doing just that. I highly recommend it for everyone.

I believe that one should blog about that which they know. But to quote the noted philosopher, Yogi Berra, “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. I may blog on subjects of which I presently know nothing about. My only promise is that before I commit anything to blog form I will have made a sincere effort to have understood the problem. I generally do a good job, but if I don’t … feel free to call me on it.

Finally, in the blog world I go by the pseudonym of Darwin’s Beagle. I do so as an homage to one of the greatest scientists of all time, Charles Darwin. The “Beagle” part has a triple meaning to me. The HMS Beagle of course was the ship on which Darwin sailed around the world making observations that would eventually lead to his developing his theory of descent with modification and the primary mechanism behind it, natural selection. On Dec. 27, 1831 Darwin set sail on a scheduled 2-year voyage. It was almost 5 years later that he returned to England [1]. That was quite an adventure for a young man, and evidently for Darwin that was enough. He never left England again.

Darwin did not publish On the Origin of Species until 1859, some 23 years after his return. Although looking in hindsight it is clear that Darwin spent the vast majority of his professional life working on problems directly related to his theory, he was in no rush to publish the theory in full. Although he began writing his “big book” on evolution in 1844, I suspect if he had had his way, it would have only been published posthumously. He didn’t have his way because in 1858 another unknown naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, sent him a small paper which outlined Darwin’s own ideas on the subject. Wallace was asking for Darwin’s help to get it published. Darwin sent the paper to his friends, geologist Charles Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker. They presented Wallace’s paper along with a letter that Darwin had written to American botanist Asa Gray at the meeting of the Linnaean Society of London, thus giving both official credit for developing the theory of natural selection.

Almost being scooped of 23 years worth of research gave Darwin the motivation to publish On the Origin. He edited his “big book” into what he called an “abstract” and that is what became the book that changed the world. My copy of that “abstract” is 484 pages long.

I suspect the major part of Darwin’s hesitancy stemmed from the fact that he knew evolution would be controversial and Darwin was almost pathologically adverse to controversy. Although he dealt with criticisms of his theory in letters and in subsequent editions of Origin very well [2], he would get physically sick from going to scientific meetings. He needed a public defender, and he got them, Joseph Hooker and most famously Thomas Henry Huxley who was called “Darwin’s Bulldog”. Darwin’s theory is still under religious and political pressure today. He still needs defenders. He has them. Most notably among those defenders today is Richard Dawkins, who has been called “Darwin’s Rotweiller”. Thus my nom-de-plume pays homage to both Huxley and Dawkins as well.

Finally, the “Beagle” plays homage to the fond memories of my childhood. Growing up I enjoyed rabbit hunting. We had “rabbit dogs” around the house. I remember them well; Bullet, Nellie, Fred, and Josephine. They were, of course, beagles.

As always, thanks for your time.

Darwin’s Beagle