The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Prayer, Miracles, and Damned Statistics

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2010

We’ve all heard the line: There’s lies, damned lies, and then there’s statistics. The implication is that people can use statistics to deceive themselves and others.  But the opposite is also true: people often deceive themselves due to a stark ignorance of numbers & statistics (often referred to as innumeracy).

For example, at this time of year, at least in Christian circles, there is a lot of talk going around about prayer and miracles – usually in the guise of stories about supposedly “miraculous” healing.  And the media loves to give air time to these kind of anecdotal stories with nary a whiff of skepticism.  However, to its credit, ABC News did a segment recently with Elizabeth Vargas where she gave a fair amount of face-time to skeptic Michael Shermer.  Here are some excerpts from Shermer’s account of the interview at the really groovy SkeptiBlog…

Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?

I really like how Shermer goes into the issue of large number statistics, confirmation bias, and believers counting the “miraculous hits” while discounting the enormous number of inevitable misses…

Let’s say one million people have cancer in America (it’s much higher than this), and only one-tenth of one percent experience a spontaneous recovery (it’s actually higher than this). 1,000,000 x .001 = 1,000 people. Out of that cohort of 1,000 people, what are the chances that half a dozen of them have compelling narrative stories worthy of broadcast television? Pretty good! Here is a show you will never see on any television series: “Next, we examine the remarkable fact that 99.99 percent of people who were diagnosed with incurable cancer and were prayed for died anyway. Stay tuned, for you won’t want to miss these stark statistical realities.”


If you drop enough balls some will fall into the highly improbable outside slots. Such “miracles” are statistically guaranteed with large enough numbers.

You can read the entirety of Shermer’s article for his full views.  But what is a skeptic/atheist to do if someone asks you the following really tough question: If a loved one was dying, would you suspend disbelief and pray?

Personally, my answer is an emphatic “no.”  And I’m not just speaking of a hypothetical situation here, because this very occurrence has happened to me.  Years ago, my mother was deathly ill, so much so that me and my siblings flew across country on a day’s notice to be with her because we didn’t know how much longer she had.  Things got so bad at one point that we had The Talk with her (that is, the one where she told us that she wanted us to pull the plug if things got bad enough).   Let’s just say that it was a very tough time, because none of the treatments were working and the doctors were throwing everything they had into the fight to turn her around.

Eventually, through the wonders of medical science (plus some luck, I’m guessing), the doctors were able to make an experimental treatment work and pull my mother back from the brink.  By the end of the week, she was back to normal – but what a week it was.

Never once did I pray during that entire time, even though some people suggested that I do so.  I decided that it would have been far better to put my efforts into being with her, my siblings, and her husband through the difficulty of the situation.  Beyond that, I never once fooled myself about her chances – I immediately accepted the enormity of the situation, and I didn’t want to set myself up for any kind of self-imposed crash when “my prayers weren’t answered”.

Last, but not least, when it comes to healing, let’s face it: modern medical science has prayer completely licked.  If it didn’t, and prayer actually worked as advertised by so many, then why would anyone ever get sick & die?

Good question.

2 Responses to “Prayer, Miracles, and Damned Statistics”

  1. […] A badge — intermittently lost between fat-flaps — identified him as the director of the Health and Wellness division. It was possible, she mused, that badge had belonged to an unfortunate predecessor the man had […]

  2. Ender said

    “If it didn’t, and prayer actually worked as advertised by so many, then why would anyone ever get sick & die?”

    I’ve never seen prayer marketed as a cure-all by any non-cult group? Even the Christian scientists believe that you can get ill no matter how much you pray.

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