June 13, 2008

School Prayer Causes More Cancer Deaths

You see what I did there. It is really easy to do and the intelligent design and denialists (of all sorts, evolution, vaccines, science based medicine) have become very good at it. Let me continue a little.

Back in 1962 (Engel v Vitale, 370 U.S. 421) the Supreme Court said teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. This essentially started the path toward eliminating prayer from schools. By 1992 the Supreme Court had pretty much put the wraps on school prayer (Lee v Wiseman, 505 U.S. 577, 599) saying officials couldn't attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in any religious activities.

At the same time this was happening cancer had become a national problem. Scientists were working on treatments and cures but nothing was really working and we still don't have a cure for cancer. But nonetheless this is what happened.

That's right, as our Supreme Court continued to chip away at the religious stronghold in our schools the probability of surviving a childhood cancer rose by over 80%! Obviously its about time we start eliminating prayer from other aspects of our life as well. If children benefit so well from removal of prayer, maybe we should ban prayer from church, there are a lot of old people there and they tend to have a lot of cancers.

Ok, that almost made my head explode, but I think its a pretty good example of how to misuse science. Data is just data, numbers mean nothing without context. That's what scientists are there for, and it's why some guys make a whole hell of a lot more money than others. The ability to read into the data and determine the significance of certain trends, design further experiments to elucidate unknowns, and combine this new data with the old and make sense of them is truly what science is. Honestly anybody can sit in a lab and repeat procedures and fill stacks of notebooks with data, but if you can't find out truly what that data means then you have done bad rather than good.

Hence the argument I made earlier, that declining school prayer has led to a better survival rate among children, is a logical fallacy. I combined two unconnected sets of data into an overreaching statement about how the two data trends are causally related. Some people have become really good at doing just this thing (I'm looking at you Creationists and anti-vaxers), but in much more subtle and non-inflammatory ways. There are some pretty good theoreticists (they aren't scientists) who work for creationist institutions (The Discovery Institute), scouring the literature to find two points of data which will prove that Darwinian Evolution has failed as a theory. But these guys do exactly what I did to make my earlier argument.

I had previously decided that school prayer causes cancer deaths. Now I know that cancer deaths have declined for most cancers due to effective treatments and therapy, but that is irrelevant to the argument, because I am choosing to dismiss the rest of the body of cancer literature stating our social evolution has had little to do with the rate of cancer deaths. Creationists are great at this, finding two simple data sets and saying they connect to prove the theory they already believed. Here's the difference between a belief and a scientific theory; A belief doesn't need data and discovery for you to accept it, which is why creation by a god or the denial of evolution, is simply a belief. There is no data needed for people to believe this. But evolution is an idea that was borne out of data. An idea that did not exist prior to the years of observation and idea synthesis that has led us to where we are today. It is easy to state the opposite of science, by definition science is the exploration of the unknown, so at some point science will always struggle to define every detail and question. But it is much harder to understand the provided data and the holes in the data to come up with the correct theory, which is why the guys who push the hardest for core ideas such as evidence based medicine and Darwinian evolution make the big bucks.

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