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.

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