Magical Thinking and “Miracle” Cures | Vol. 3 / No. 22.4

Magic is for shows, not for medicine | Photo: Bruno Ronner, CC BY-SA 2.0

In which a medical doctor exhibiting a love for magical thinking bothers me greatly.

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I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with “god of the gaps” thinking — the idea that, if we don’t know the answer to something, we can just fill it with whatever we please, often some kind of divine will — which is why, I think, this article by medical doctor (and part-time theologian?) Professor Jeffrey Rediger made me so very uncomfortable.

Published on Tuesday in the Washington Post, it bears the headline “Harvard Medical School professor says ‘Miracles from Heaven’ and other remarkable cures could be real.” I know better than to trust headlines, which are usually just designed to attract clicks, so I went and read it. It left me feeling upset.

The problem, as I see it, is that a trained medical professional is essentially — despite his claims to the reverse — playing god of the gaps with medicine, specifically with spontaneous remission.

Spontaneous remission is the medical term for what are colloquially called “miracles.” In reality the term reflects a very mundane and at times frustrating fact: the patient recovered and we don’t know why. And this is where Prof. Rediger and I part ways, and where I worry that he himself parts ways with his profession.

Science is comfortable with ignorance. We live in ignorance of many important things, trying to build best-fit models to explain our observations, but leaving gaps in our knowledge where those models fail, until we come up with new models that account for all of the evidence. Religion takes advantage of ignorance to insert wishful thinking into those gaps: I don’t know, maybe god/the spirit/the soul/energy did it. Unfortunately, this latter track is the one Prof. Rediger has taken.

Despite writing “I do not believe that we can think ourselves into health,” that is precisely the argument he makes for the rest of the article:

I have listened to more than 100 of these remarkably cured individuals, despite the fact that in medical school, I was taught that reports of spontaneous remission are rare, “anecdotes” and “flukes” from which nothing can be learned.

That assumption appears to be wrong.  In my studies of more than 100 people with medical evidence for recovery from incurable illness, the similarity in their paths suggests to me identifiable mental and spiritual principles associated with their recoveries.

Long story short, he seems to be claiming that in the hundred or so cases of spontaneous remission he’s examined, the patients all had a specific mindset in common:

Haser was told that she was going to die. She values science highly and has a long history of pursuing the best that traditional medicine can offer. After much consideration, however, she said that she knew at a deep level that she needed to not chase a cure but rather to change her relationship with fear.

Five years after deciding not to go through cancer treatment, Haser had an abdominal CT for unrelated reasons. It turned out, she said, that her cancer was gone.” [emphasis mine]

And further:

Life really is a matter of perception. Perception changes experience, even perhaps to the point of changing physical bodies.

Anna [another spontaneous remission case] may have experienced a piece of heaven. The astonishing medical evidence suggests her body changed to match her inner experience.

No.

You do not get to go there. In precisely the same way that you do not get to tell people dying of cancer how energy fields or divine will or a positive outlook could cure them of cancer, you do not get to tell people who have spontaneous remission of a terminal illness that their positive thinking made them well. All you can tell them is “we don’t know why you got better.” Do you know why that’s all we can tell them?

Because tens of thousands of people — hundreds of thousands, millions — with terminal illnesses and positive outlooks die anyway.

As a scientist you should know — must know — that associations are only significant if they’re present in the positive outcome group and absent in the negative outcome group, at least to a statistically significant degree. I’m just a blogger and I know this for crying out loud. There’s no evidence that having a positive outlook does anything to increase survival times — people have tested that hypothesis and found nothing statistically significant.

And another thing: about this whole “our outlook changes our reality” thing. That’s a metaphor.

Prof. Rediger writes that we should “think of it this way: Two people can sit on a park bench together, and yet live in very different worlds. One person can be living in hell, with a turbulent, frightened inner world, noticing and experiencing an outer world full of violence and pain. The other person, sitting right next to him, may be living in a completely different universe, full of love, connection and beauty.” [emphasis mine]

Again, no. They are both in the same universe. The same atoms. The same laws of physics. If one is vaporized by an alien laser weapon right then and there, the other continues to exist. That is because they exist in reality, not just in perception. Reality is more than just perception because it exists without us. To believe otherwise is either intensely narcissistic — “I alone am real and the universe will end when I do” — or counter to the available evidence: people die all the time and the universe continues on in the same fashion without them, I am a person, ergo when I die the universe will continue on in the same fashion without me.

My thoughts only affect how I perceive the universe. They do not change the universe itself. I do not literally live in my own universe. Neither do you.

The flaws in these lines of thinking bother me all the more coming from someone with a medical degree, as much as neurosurgeon and now (thankfully ex-) presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s ideas on evolution and climate change.

I’m not saying you can’t believe in some divine power and yet be a scientist. Live and let live, fine. But you can’t be a scientist and cherry pick your evidence to suit your religious beliefs. And there’s no evidence to support the idea that we create our own universes or that our dispositions — or divine intervention for that matter — cure illnesses.

There’s a reason the medical profession calls it spontaneous remission: it describes it perfectly, without recourse to unnecessary leaps of logic, and without running counter to the evidence.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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