Would somebody please teach Victor Stenger how to do science?

Victor Stenger is once again attacking the scientific community:

So, scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.

So according to Stenger, scientists are engaged in deception and are more interested in politics than truth. What’s behind these crackpot accusations? Stenger writes:

In recent years, right under the nose of the NAS, reputable scientists from reputable institutions have vigorously pursued several areas of empirical study that bear directly on the question of God and the supernatural. Any one of these experiments was capable of providing evidence for at least some aspect of a world beyond the material world. I will mention just two.

Really? Let’s take a look below the fold:

Stenger writes:

Teams of scientists from three highly respected institutions — the Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke Universities — have performed carefully controlled experiments on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer and published their results in peer-reviewed journals. These experiments found no evidence that such prayers provide any health benefit. But, they could have.
For my second example, over a period of four decades extensive investigations have been made into the phenomenon of near-death experiences (NDEs) in which people resuscitated from the brink of death report a glimpse of “heaven.” Despite thousands of such reports, not a single subject has returned with new knowledge that could be tested by further investigations. No prediction has been made of some future catastrophe that later occurred on schedule, and not for lack of opportunity given the many natural disasters — earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornados — of recent years. Similarly, no divine revelation has provided an answer for any currently unanswered question in science, history, or theology; such as, where in the universe we will find extraterrestrial life or the location of Noah’s Ark.

I see. So the physicist is not talking about physics. Nor is he talking about the other hard sciences – chemistry and biology. Stenger accuses physicists, chemists, and biologists of being insincere because experiments about intercessory prayer and NDE investigations could have shown that God exists? Is he serious? No, it’s more likely that physicists, chemists, and biologists are, unlike Stenger, people without an agenda and thus have a better grasp of science than Stenger.

First of all, it’s not clear at all that any NDE investigation is real science. You’ll notice Stenger says nothing about controlled experiments with this example and replaces it with something akin to journalism: “extensive investigations.” What’s that? What’s more, you get the feeling that Stenger is moving the goalposts here. He wants only NDE experiences where people come back with the psychic ability to predict the future or solve mysteries. But what does any of that have to do with God? If Stenger wants this NDE investigation to be science, he must first establish the following principle:

If God exists, then people would have NDE experiences and come back with psychic abilities.

Only then could we develop a scientifically testable hypothesis. But Stenger does not make that argument because anyone with a bit of intelligence would recognize how foolish it is. So with NDEs, Stenger has failed to give us an example where science can detect God. He is just demanding a sign while making it look sciencey.

The other example of prayer looks better, as Christians do claim God answers prayer and controlled experiments can be done. We’ll have to take a closer look at this one in the next posting. For the moment, however, focus on the possibility that such prayer studies did show health benefits. Does anyone believe that Stenger would acknowledge this as evidence for God’s existence and abandon his atheism? Anyone?

Actually, we need not imagine such a situation, as there have been studies that show a health benefit. Here is one from a couple of years ago:

Brown CG, Mory SC, Williams R, McClymond MJ. Study of the therapeutic effects of proximal intercessory prayer (STEPP) on auditory and visual impairments in rural Mozambique. South Med J. 2010 Sep;103(9):864-9.

The results and interpretation?


We measured significant improvements in auditory (P


Rural Mozambican subjects exhibited improved audition and/or visual acuity subsequent to PIP. The magnitude of measured effects exceeds that reported in previous suggestion and hypnosis studies. Future study seems warranted to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatment is limited.

Hmmm. I notice the authors of this study did not cite it as evidence for God. What’s more, does Stenger consider this evidence for God? He could cite the the Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke University studies, but those were with distant intercessory prayer, not proximal intercessory prayer. So why in 2012 is he still claiming there is no evidence for God?*

No scientist is going to cite this study as evidence for God for several reasons. First, it would have to be repeated and independently confirmed. Second, if there was some health care benefit, scientists would look for natural causes. That’s what science does. If none were found, scientists would not throw up their hands and declare God did it (as Stenger thinks they should). They would classify it as a currently unexplained phenomenon. In other words, it becomes a topic for future study, not evidence for God.

It is interesting that Stenger claims he would so easily abandon the scientific approach and accept a supernatural explanation. He either doesn’t understand science or he is being the very thing he accuses other scientists of being – disingenuous.

*I do not consider this study as evidence for God. I am simply illustrating the insincerity of Stenger’s position.

This entry was posted in Religion, Science, Victor Stenger and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Would somebody please teach Victor Stenger how to do science?

  1. Bilbo says:

    Is it “sciencey” or “sciency”?

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