Jun 27 2008

Egnor vs PZ Myers

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Comments: 34

I toyed with the idea of staying away from this one. I have been writing quite a bit about Michael Egnor, a neuroscience and evolution denier who blogs for the Discovery Institute, and I try not to give too much attention to any one crank. I have focused on his nonsensical version of dualism (shocking for a neurosurgeon) and so was going to let PZ Myers and Orac deal with his latest bit of illogic – partly because Egnor is directly attacking PZ and because the topic is cancer treatment which is Orac’s specialty. They both did a fine job of deconstructing Egnor’s absurd claims.

But this is the NeuroLogica blog and there were a couple of logical nuances that PZ and Orac did not focus on, so I just couldn’t stay away.

Here is the bit I want to focus on:

PZ Myers wrote:

If we want to cure … cancers…, don’t look to magic, or wishful thinking, or ancient shamanistic wisdom, or prayer — we’ve had those for millennia, and they do nothing…What we need is more research, more doctors, more clinical trials, and more money.

To which Egnor responded:

But, leaving aside his dubious tactic of using the death of a relative to advance his ideology, I take exception to his claim that prayer and religious faith had nothing to do with the improvements in the treatment of cancer.

The remarkable progress in the treatment of cancer in the past several decades had a lot to do with faith and prayer. Myers misunderstands the origins of modern medical science and the history and nature of cancer treatment.

Egnor then goes into a long discussion of the role of hospitals founded by religious organizations in the role of medicine and cancer research and treatment. Do you see what he did there? I caught it right away because he has done the exact same thing to me – slightly mischaracterizing a quote in order to shift the claim over to one he thinks he can argue against.

PZ’s statement was very clear – science-based medicine works and magical thinking does not. We are certainly far from curing cancer, but cancer survival is greatly improved overall (better for some than for others) due to science-based treatment. There is no evidence that prayer is effective. Simply praying for someone to get better (intercessory prayer) does not work. In fact there is evidence that reliance on prayer can delay proper treatment and worsen outcomes.

Egnor has a habit of morphing claims, or slipping in changes, without pointing them out to the reader. A thoughtful and honest intellectual is careful to be clear and specific about claims and arguments. Egnor appears to go out of his way to muddle arguments. What he did here was change prayer to prayer and faith, and then focus his arguments on faith – forgetting entirely about the efficacy of intercessory prayer, which is what PZ was talking about.

His entire argument is therefore a diversionary tactic – a non sequitur.

Egnor then went a couple of steps further. He did not talk about the faith of the individual with cancer, he talked about historical institutions of religion – which has nothing to do with what PZ was talking about. But that never stopped Egnor.

Of course, Egnor then goes on to butcher the irrelevant point he migrated over to because he thought he could make it – he doesn’t. He actually argues that modern science is only possible because of the culture of Judeo-Christian religion. Astounding – this is a new bit of propaganda spin I have not yet heard. Again, PZ and Orac do a fine job of destroying this nonsense, but I do want to add one thing.

Egnor’s premise for this conclusion is that modern science arose only in the West where Judeo-Christian faiths predominate. This is a false premise – actually science thrived in the Muslim world, outshining the West at the time, until a variety of forces conspired to suppress science and reason. The exact causes are still debated, but it is generally accepted that a major factor was the interpretation that the Koran prohibited the “manipulation of numbers.” That spelled doom for math and science in the Islamic world.

While Egnor’s premise is wrong, his logic is also suspect. He is essentially assuming causation from correlation – science arose in the West and Christianity predominated in the West, therefore Christianity paved the way for science. I find this particularly interesting since Egnor denigrates the “materialist dogma” that the brain causes mind as mere correlation – brain activity correlates with mental activity, but that does not prove that it causes it, he argues. The correlation between brain and mind is strong and multifarious, making a causal relationship likely. Egnor denies this, but now is relying upon a superficial correlation as the primary logic for his argument. Ironic.

A more thorough and honest reading of history indicates that scientific thinking can arise, and has done so, in numerous cultures with a variety of faiths. The only role that faith and religion seem to have on the development of science is an inhibitory one. It is therefore absurdly ironic that Egnor would argue that Christianity fostered science.

The irony rises to a brain-burning level when one considers that Egnor writes for the Discovery Institute – an organization arguably dedicated to hampering science. The DI is part of the greater Intelligent Design and creationism movement – which is overtly religious and anti-scientific (despite their unconvincing protestations).

It it worthwhile understanding the art of propaganda and deception, not to practice it but so that it can be recognized when someone else tries to practice it upon you. In this regard Egnor serves an instructional purpose. His manipulations are as masterful as his logic is childish and tortured.

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “Egnor vs PZ Myers”

  1. deciuson 27 Jun 2008 at 11:29 am

    Steven says “He actually argues that modern science is only possible because of the culture of Judeo-Christian religion. Astounding – this is a new bit of propaganda spin I have not yet heard.”

    May I introduce you to the fantasy world of the christian apologist, history revisionist, dedicated reality-denier, anti-science crank that goes under the name Dinesh D’Souza?

    I think he is the originator of that particular nasty absurd meme, which appears to be spreading fast.

    I warn you that the guy has an uncanny power to shatters anyone’s composure and he could enrage a rock.

    Hitchens-D’Souza video debate:

  2. JustinWilsonon 27 Jun 2008 at 11:38 am

    I would just like to mention that I REALLY enjoy this blog. Other than that, no real comment here.

  3. Oracon 27 Jun 2008 at 11:50 am

    Egnor then goes into a long discussion of the role of hospitals founded by religious organization in the role of medicine and cancer research and treatment. Do you see what he did there? I caught it right away because he has done the exact same thing to me – slightly mischaracterizing a quote in order to shift the claim over to one he thinks he can argue against.


    Egnor has a habit of morphing claims, or slipping in changes, without pointing them out to the reader.

    Ain’t it the truth? I pointed out this very thing in my deconstruction of his nonsense, but as a secondary issue. Also, I didn’t hammer it home nearly as clearly and cogently as you did.

  4. Skeptical Caton 27 Jun 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I’m no historian, but aren’t the foundations of science in both the early Islamic world and the Christian west, really rooted in the ancient Greeks?

    You know, those same ancient greeks who were pagans, and in some cases even materialists?

  5. jonny_ehon 27 Jun 2008 at 12:08 pm

    I’ve also heard a similar argument about how some of the great scientists from a couple centuries ago were priests, such as Mendel.

    This is of course likely caused by the fact that in order to be literate, educated, and wealthy enough to donate free time to scientific inquiry, it helped to be of the priestly class. Once literacy and education were more widespread, science no longer had any significant contributions from the religious class. I could also argue that scientists like Mendel and Newton produced great work despite being religious, as opposed to ‘because’ they were religious.

    As Neil Tyson said at TAM6, it’s amazing to think of what Newton could have accomplished if he didn’t just stop his exploration and say “God handles it” when he encountered the multiple body problem.

  6. CleveDanon 27 Jun 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Muslim + science = scientific advances
    Christian + science = scientific advances
    Jewish + science = scientific advances
    Hindu + science = scientific advances
    Atheist + science = scientific advances
    modern science = scientific advances

    ….something seems superfluous here

  7. mattdickon 27 Jun 2008 at 1:19 pm

    What’s the logical fallacy of believing that the times you live in are typical? Dr. Egnor seems to believe that if it’s true *now* (Science thriving in Christian and Jewish cultures) that it’s true always.

  8. Jeremyon 27 Jun 2008 at 2:04 pm

    He actually argues that modern science is only possible because of the culture of Judeo-Christian religion. Astounding – this is a new bit of propaganda spin I have not yet heard.

    I’ve heard it before but it seems to be picking up in popularity. As decius noted it is probably due to D’Souza using it in debates.

    My usual response to it is that many of the sciences we have today had their origins in failed pursuits, even if some of those are still practiced today. For example, current astronomy and chemistry stemmed from astrology and alchemy, respectively and at least by my understanding. Even if I am wrong on that (and if I am please let me know) it does not change the fact that the beginnings of something does not reflect on the value of what it becomes. Conversely, the strength of the current practice does not in any way lend validity to the predecessor.

    In the end, whether this claim is true or not is irrelevant. So what if modern science was only made possible because of Judeo- Christian religion. It in no way lends credence to the validity of the religion because the science works nor does it comment on the over all benefit of the religion. As they say, Mussolini made the trains run on time.

    It also ignores the innumerable moments where religion made all attempts to curtail scientific study, which continues even into today. If we truely have the Judeo- Christian religion solely to thank for the state of modern science, then why has so much effort by the religious been put into the restriction or halting of scientific research in both the past and the present? It would seem that our advances in science have been made despite the Judeo- Christian religion, not because of it.

  9. Jeremyon 27 Jun 2008 at 2:08 pm

    My comment above equally applies to any religion, not just the one mentioned. I only use it because that was the one Egnore promoted.

  10. Michelle Bon 27 Jun 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Just want to further emphasis Jeremy and Decius observations. Lately theists are popping in on freethinking blogs to spew their revisionist nonsense regarding that Christianity gave us modern science; and it seems that this particular expression of intellectual dishonesty is increasing in popularity.

  11. DevilsAdvocateon 27 Jun 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Yes, we all know how wonderfully advanced and marvelous were science and medicine during that period of Western history when the Church controlled virtually everything, a period generally referred to as the Dark Ages.

    Then came the horrible times when Western states and governments rashly threw off the yoke of dictatorial Church guidance and pursued science, (and hence medicine) respecting the evidences revealed by observation, experimentation, and research, all governed by reason and logic rather than by forced adherence to religious dogma, a period generally referred to as the Age of Enlightenment.

    I pray only that God lets me live long enough to see the return of those wonderful wacky days of the Dark Ages.

  12. deciuson 27 Jun 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Not entirely new here is the tendency for apologists to take late and undeserved credit for any social advance that religion has historically opposed.

    Slavery – as anyone knows- is warranted by the bible and even the Nazarene gave welcome tips to slave-holder, as well as Christian doctrine has stood in the way of abolition for centuries, yet time and again one hears religionists subverting all known facts in order to appropriate the merit.

    Given the tremendously positive impact that science is having on the quality of human life, it shouldn’t surprise us that fringe kooks like D’Souza and Egnorant are already on to claim paternity. The flock will soon follow suit.

    Giordano Bruno would be less than impressed.

  13. Roy Nileson 27 Jun 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Actually modern science was the “accidental” result of the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs, leaving Adam and Eve to conduct the first scientific experiment to test an hypotheses inspired by God posing as a serpent for effect. Why only the dinosaurs were targeted was explained in a recently discovered dead sea scroll fragment that intimated God had tried first to talk to the dinosaurs but they simply refused to treat a serpent’s opinion with any respect.

  14. Roy Nileson 27 Jun 2008 at 4:01 pm

    I should have added that there was no singular form of the hypothetical proposition at that time, the serpent’s being the first one to be acted upon.

  15. cuervoon 27 Jun 2008 at 4:32 pm


    Damn, I just wasted another hour and a half watching that debate again, yes I still laughed and applauded at certain ‘Hitch’ points, but was still left feeling frustrated that d’souza got away with so many crappy arguments. Arrrggh…I’m kicking my laptop as we speak…

  16. cuervoon 27 Jun 2008 at 4:40 pm

    D’souza is one of the most dishonest people I’ve heard speak…out of their mouth.

  17. deciuson 27 Jun 2008 at 5:05 pm


    I know the feeling all too well.

    The combination of decibels and shrill voice, the unstoppable Gish-gallop of countless lies and factoids, the absence of even a modicum of intellectual honesty, the venomous cocktail of pseudo-science and pseudo-history, the logical fallacies intertwined with preposterous accusations – all at once- could turn a quaker into a sadistic serial killer.

    You have to give it to D’Souza, he is the single most annoying person who ever lived.

    Roy Niles

    You may want to check Poe’s Law, before you venture into such posts. 🙂

  18. orDoveron 27 Jun 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Christianity is responsible for science?

    Tell that to Galileo!

    Jeremy wrote, “It would seem that our advances in science have been made despite the Judeo- Christian religion, not because of it.”

    I completely agree, and Galileo is a great example of this. The church tried their damnedest to suppress the truth of his and Copernicus’s theories, but truth persevered in the end. If the Vatican would have had it its way, we’d still be thinking the sun revolves around the earth.

  19. DevilsAdvocateon 27 Jun 2008 at 8:08 pm

    To be fair, the Catholic Church *did* place its imprimatur on evolution, if a century late, and they haven’t overtly burned any witches in a long time.

  20. Jeremyon 27 Jun 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Devil’sAdvocate said-

    To be fair, the Catholic Church *did* place its imprimatur on evolution, if a century late, and they haven’t overtly burned any witches in a long time.

    True the Catholic Church, or rather Pope John Paul II, came out in support of evolution, in a theistic sense at least. Also, those that denigrate evolutionary science tend to be of denominations other than Catholic. That isn’t to say there are no Catholic creationists, I’m sure there are, just that they don’t appear to be as numerous or vocal in their opposition. However, the current pope does seem somewhat eager to jump on the ID band wagon at times though he hasn’t come right out and done so to my knowledge.

    As for no longer burning witches, there have been many reports of people being executed in various ways for being a “witch” or “sorcerer” in African countries. Currently the Catholic Church is growing in strength in Africa but there haven’ t been many accounts of Catholic clergy trying to prevent or speaking out against such actions. There especially nothing coming from the pope about it. Still, I suspect we will eventually though. My estimate is sometime around the 2150’s, at the earliest, given their history about such things.

  21. Roy Nileson 27 Jun 2008 at 10:44 pm

    decius advised:
    “Roy Niles
    You may want to check Poe’s Law, before you venture into such posts.”

    OK, so I lied about the dead sea scroll fragment. But I did it for Jesus.

  22. DevilsAdvocateon 28 Jun 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Is anyone else getting a weird David & Maddie Moonlighting vibe re: Novella vs. Egnor?

  23. HCNon 28 Jun 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Sorry, I could not resist thinking about this post when I came across this cartoon about what happens when men see a woman in a bikini:

  24. DevilsAdvocateon 28 Jun 2008 at 8:24 pm


  25. Sastraon 28 Jun 2008 at 9:25 pm

    My understanding is that the slow rise of science was the result of many factors — and yes, the specific character of the Christian religion at the time was one of them. Its theology was unworkable in practical terms. Because it was literally impossible to form a government based on the New Testament — and because Christian theologians admired the work of Greek philosophers — Christianity split its world into the sacred and profane, the City of God and the City of Man. This dualism made it possible for its scholars to study the world, instead of confining themselves to ancient texts. Other religions — such as the Eastern religions — had their mystical views permeate their understanding of everything.

    So I think the main contribution of Christian theology towards science was its unique ability to get the heck out of the way.

  26. deciuson 29 Jun 2008 at 12:38 am


    that’s pure hogwash.

  27. Steven Novellaon 29 Jun 2008 at 10:09 am

    In Sastra’s defense – I think there is some truth to what she wrote. Western scholars became adept at pursuing science and philosophy without running afoul of the church. The two basic strategies – as I understand it – were:
    1) to argue that the material corrupt world was fair game for materialist investigation and philosophy
    2) to argue that they were simply describing what makes sense, not was is literally true. Some scholars therefore claimed that their arguments about reality were simply hypothetical – an exercise in logic, and not meant to imply that church dogma was wrong.

    So, again, what we are discussing is the relative lack of hindrance, not a promotion, of science and philosophy. And, it is probably more true that scholars figured out how to get out of the church’s way, rather than the other way around.

  28. DevilsAdvocateon 29 Jun 2008 at 10:11 am

    The Christian churches in western nations did not get out of the way, they were put out of the way – kicking and screaming the whole time.

  29. pecon 29 Jun 2008 at 8:36 pm

    Egnor’s arguments do sound ridiculous. In general I don’t have the impression that Egnor is knowledgeable outside his field.

    But showing that ridiculous arguments are ridiculous is pretty easy, and it doesn’t make Novella look smart by comparison. Both of these guys have a talent for irrational self-deception.

  30. Potter1000on 30 Jun 2008 at 12:29 am

    I like the spiffy new banner. This a cool place to be.

  31. deciuson 30 Jun 2008 at 4:56 am

    The problem with Sastra’s post is that selectively focuses on the relationship between the school of Scholasticism and the Greek philosophers, while the wider picture tells a very different story.

    Here are a few facts which cannot be overlooked.

    -The reception that christian ideas were met with during the debates between Saul and the philosophers.

    -The Hellenistic schools were shut down by christians.

    -The library of Alexandria was burnt down by a christian mob, the same who murdered Hypathya.

    -The suppression of Stoic and Sceptic ideas lasted for many centuries prior to inception of the Scholasticism.

    -The Scholasticism doctored documents and distorted greek thought. Also, its methods were encouraged only until it seemed that the results were not in contrast with christian doctrine.

    -Immediately after that, science and reason were hindered in countless ways. Free-thought was not just frowned upon, but it positively led to silencing, torture, persecutions, executions on a vast scale- right until the Enlightenment.

    Therefore – most emphatically- science and reason developed IN SPITE of christianity, and not because of it.

  32. pecon 30 Jun 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Science began as a challenge to established authority, which at that time happened to be the Catholic church. It was not a challenge to religion, or mysticism, in general.

    Now mainstream science is part of the established authority, and it is dominated by the ideology of materialism, which opposes all religion and spirituality.

    Alternative science is now the challenge to established authority. It challenges both dogmatic authoritarian religion and dogmatic authoritarian mainstream science.

  33. Johnon 01 Jul 2008 at 7:49 am

    It’s a bit of a stretch to say that science began as a challenge to the Catholic church. I’m sure that the Mesopotomians, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, Archimedes – in fact, ancient scientists too numerous to list – would all be rather surprised to learn that they were challenging Catholicism.

    Science is simply deducing truths about the universe by observing, positing a theory, testing that theory and refining it until the theory can reliably predict what happens in reality. Authority-challenging is not in its remit.

  34. Johnon 01 Jul 2008 at 7:56 am

    Also, I feel you do mainstream science a disservice with the implication that it is united in promoting a common ideology. Mainstream scientists challenge their peers and pull each others’ research apart all the time, because it’s the most efficient way of finding what works.

    Any mainstream scientist would give his right arm to overthrow a theory of one of the giants in his field (yes, even Darwin or Newton or Einstein). There isn’t some kind of dogmatic loyalty that’s keeping the good stuff back.

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