Prayers keep boy alive

Until the real life-saving treatment is removed, of course…

17 Responses

  1. Except no doctor would remove care in a case like this. Compare that with a theistic view – if you do not do as decreed then you will burn in hell for eternity (and/or other threats like that)

  2. where’s that comic from?

  3. It’s from

  4. Of course there is evidence that a positive outlook helps. If prayer helps with that than it has value.

    Unless you think that your outlook on life has absolutly nothing to do with getting better. I don’t think you’ll find much evidence to support that position though.

  5. No no, the positive outlook thing absolutely helps. You’re right about that one, Nate.
    But the reason it helps is not the prayer itself, it’s because it also shows that the people praying for you care (or at least pretend to care).

    Now the million dollar question: is this in any way better than simply telling people that you care and hope they get better?

  6. @Nate

    I believe there is very little evidence that a positive attitude helps health-wise, a positive attitude has absolutely nothing to do with getting better, and there is no evidence that one helps for anything other than mental health.

    To the contrary, talk to any ER doctor – he or she will mention that it’s always the miserable bastards that seem to hang on the longest, although I suspect that’s just as true as the ‘full moon’ myth :)

    The idea that “a positive attitude helps” is actually counter-productive, as it places the blame on the patient for their current state of illness…obviously if they had the right ‘attitude’ they’d get better.

    Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-sided” is a recent popular text on the phenomena.


  7. @rcn2:
    Actually there is a lot of evidence to suggest that old people often die when they “give up” mentally. E.g. when one old person in a marriage dies, the other often follows soon after.

    Of course if you’re suffering from somatic disease, a positive mind helps precisely dick.

  8. My point really was that positive outlooks help. Whether or not there is a God or not is irrelevant. Assuming that because there is no God that prayer is useless is of course wrong. I’m talking about the praying a person would do by them self or with others, NOT pray on their behalf that they have no knowledge of.

    Whether or not that helps is of course a purely theistic question and untestable since there is no way to have a control group, and thus is also irrelevant.

    As far as what can be observed and tested you’re exactly right, you have the perfect example of the old couple who die soon after one another or even in some rare cases within hours of each other. You even see the same thing in pets.

    Even with things like cancer the ability to preserve hope helps many people put up with the difficulties and I’d be willing to bet that some doctors recommend religious activities (along with other social activities) for many long term and/or terminal illnesses.

    Even in my case, mostly long term pain management, almost every doctor I’ve seen has asked whether I’m religious or not and indicated that in their experience its helps almost every patient. Mental fortitude, coping measures, do help, however pointless some may think specific ones.

    Like I sort of indicated, nice of you to attack prayer again but a poor example. Try something about whether it helps bring good weather or win the lotto.

  9. @slater

    I think you and I would disagree on what constitutes ‘evidence’. There’s a lot of mythology about a person dying when they ‘give up’, but very little science.

    For example, in your marriage example, define “old”, and “soon”. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that they’re both old, and “soon” is a variable frame of reference that can fit anything? How soon is soon? 1 day? 1 year? 5 years? What are probabilities of someone of that age dying within the same timeframe without the death of the partner, and how often would we expect this to happen by chance?

    It’s nonsense – a commonly told urban legend we repeat because it sounds interesting.


  10. @Nate

    Superstitious nonsense. I’m sure a positive attitude helps make everyone _around_ the patient feel better (including the doctors). We feel a lot better when a patient is peaceful or positive about either their treatment (or their impending death if nothing can be done), but whether or not it helps the actual patient is another story. People deal with things in different ways, and have different temperaments – this “everyone must be happy, happy, happy” pressure does a disservice to the patients and doesn’t respect their personal methods of coping.

    With respect to your examples using old people or pets, urban legends regarding human behaviour does not correspond to “what we have observed and tested”. Observed perhaps, tested no. The E.R. doesn’t get more business on a full moon either.

    Your point about helping people put up with treatments, pain management etc, touches on some hypothesis for why it may happen, but it’s much like the “full moon and the E.R.” hypothesis. I’ve heard it suggested that the full moon makes it brighter and people can commit more crimes/damage, or the full moon exerts a stronger tidal effect on neurons on the brain (the latter being the weirdest one I’ve ever heard). The point being, inventing reasons for an effect that has no evidence of its existence other than popular mythology doesn’t support the popular mythology. It just adds to the myth.

    And when considering your hypothesis, there are some obvious problems. Sure positive people might be more compliant with treatment. They also might not – do you include all the people who are so ‘hopeful’ in their outlook they assume their not as sick as they really are and take less medication, or turn to ‘alternative’ therapies? It’s a testable hypothesis I think, but one that hasn’t been done, for an effect that’s unproven, and the outcome isn’t as clear cut as you laid out.

    To misquote you, nice of you to try to defend prayer a bit, but a poor example. Try “reinforcing obedience to authority through repetition and ritual”, or (for positive attitude only) clinical depression.


  11. @rcn2:

    I think you may want to read up on that, say, here:

    It’s not that common, but it exists. And yes, a somatic effect causes the death, but stress or “broken heart” causes the somatic effect.

    If we disagree on what constitutes evidence, I’ll have to assume that your definition is wrong.

  12. @Slater

    Good link. You should read it – given it has little to do with the topic under discussion I would recommend against random searching on Wikipedia for anything that vaguely related.

    Nice shifting of the goal posts too. You’ve gone from “there is a lot of evidence to suggest that old people often die when they “give up” mentally” to “It’s not that common, but it exists” – and your latter example nowhere supports your original statement that “the positive outlook thing absolutely helps”.

    Stress cardiomyopathy shows that some patients experience heart attacks after a strong emotional stress, such as the death of a spouse. This does not, however, support the idea that patients that attempt to maintain a positive attitude after such stress reduce their heart attack risk.

    Put it this way – a scientist notices that whenever malaria infections increase, this is preceded by an increase in soda consumption. (This is lovely correlation, nearly as perfect as you can get.) Does it follow that reducing soda consumption will reduce malaria rates? Of course not – they both have a common cause: warm weather. Correlation is not causation without evidence.

    A emotional stress can cause a heart attack, but there’s no evidence that any amount of ‘happy families’ will reduce the risk. In fact, there’s evidence against it.

    When researchers tried to intercede and treat depression among heart attack patients, they found the patient’s moods improved, but the rates of second heart attack didn’t. A systematic review can be found here:

    Moreover, this entire myth actually harms patients, adding pressure to conform to the “happy, happy, happy” expectations of society in addition to dealing with their disease.

    The most poignant quote from that article I found was from a young lady:

    “I feel as if I have been victimized twice: once because I have a brain tumor for which there is no known cause and a second time because I am blamed, that it’s my fault. It just isn’t fair.”

    I know you likely didn’t think of these consequences before promoting this particular bit of cultural mythology, and of course the consequences have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the hypothesis, but promoting a mythology that has absolutely no evidence to support it does have consequences, and rather tragic ones. I’d prefer some evidence first please.

    “If we disagree on what constitutes evidence, I’ll have to assume that your definition is wrong.”

    It might very well be, although since yours seems to include the absence of evidence I’ll stick to the science one, thanks.


  13. @rcn2:

    This has exactly everything to do with what we were talking about. People can and do die from emotions and giving up mentally.

    This was not a “random wikipedia search”. Please refrain from lying and throwing around childish insults and straw men. All it does is make you sound like a 15-year-old, who’s angry because he wasn’t right.

    I would very much like to know where I have said that Takotsubo was the only case of people dying from emotions, which would indeed mean I was moving the goal posts. If you can’t point to that: stop lying.

    Correlation is not causation without evidence.

    So… your claim is that something entirely different caused both people’s death from entirely different reasons and at different times? That’s just insane.
    Causation is in this case far the simplest choice. You’re adding unlikely and unnecessary variables to the equation.

    A emotional stress can cause a heart attack, but there’s no evidence that any amount of ‘happy families’ will reduce the risk. In fact, there’s evidence against it.

    That makes absolutely no sense.
    If stress increases the likelyhood of heart attack, then obviously decreasing stress decreases the likelyhood of heart attack.
    Your link only deals with second heart attacks, which have no relevance whatsoever here.

    I know you likely didn’t think of these consequences before promoting this particular bit of cultural mythology

    I honestly don’t give a crap about the consequences if it’s true. If it’s not, fine – I’d very much like to know – and so would doctors around here. There’s really no reason to act like an angry child and try to guilt trip me.

  14. And yes, I know it’s “likelihood”. As soon as I saw the word after posting, I knew I’d screwed it up. I need an edit button.

  15. @Slater (Apologies for my late reply.)

    I’m getting the feeling you may be emotionally involved in this topic (i.e. “little 15-year-old boy”, “angry child”, accusation of lying, etc). If this conversation is making you too upset, by all means write me off as an angry child who simply doesn’t see how correct you are. I have no idea what situation or state you are in, and if this argument is making you unhappy I certainly wouldn’t want to continue.

    If, on the other hand, accusations and innuendo are simply your writing style, I fear you have mistaken my previous point. I never even suggested that you said your example was the only case of dying from emotions. What I did try to say, and I apologise if it wasn’t clear, is that the example is entirely irrelevant to your point that a positive attitude helps. I will endeavor to state this point more clearly. This is probably my fault, as I should have dismissed such examples out of hand rather than discussing them as I did. I will try to explain.

    You spoke in defense of prayer, in that it encourages hope and a positive attitude, which in turn should have a positive effect on their health. You then gave an example of a high-stress event having a negative effect on someone’s health. So no, my claim is not that something entirely different caused their death – you’ve shifted the goal posts 180 degrees, by claiming that since an intense emotional stress such as the loss of a spouse can trigger (rare) cardiomyopathy, that intervention that reduces stress would either improve health or have a protective effect. This is not supported by the evidence, as in the paper I referenced last time:

    So it doesn’t really matter if it makes no sense to you, and your “argument from incredulity” has about as much validity as a creationist suggesting that evolution isn’t true because it doesn’t make sense…to them. Evidence is better than using a gut feeling. This is not to denigrate the gut feeling, indeed an ‘initial plausibility test’ is useful when dealing with new claims, but it is an imperfect tool at best, and always trumped by actual evidence.

    While you are correct that the article only deals with second heart attacks, it does directly address the point: does an intervention to improve depression decrease risk? The answer is no. Of course a study seeing if an intervention to improve depression decreased the risk of a first heart attack would be better, but such a study has not been done. If you had one, this would constitute evidence for your case – but in its absence the burden of proof is not only not met by your hypothesis, it has some evidence against it. In any case, your example also fails as these patients weren’t unhappy, or depressed as a general mood – they suffered a traumatic event when their spouse died. This event, and a patient’s reactions to it, are not going to be characteristic of their normal temperament, and there is no evidence that ‘jollying them along’ would improve their prognosis. Given the previous study, it is entirely plausible that it could possibly harm – it may be that improving their mood would remove a valuable marker for increased risk without changing it.

    To explain, you appear to be confusing evidence for the negative effect of a major stress as evidence for a positive effect for a general positive attitude. They are entirely two different things. The death of a spouse may indeed (rarely) trigger an event, but there is no reason to believe that depression intervention (or other mood enhancer, such as community prayer) will reduce the risk – given the result of the study it would appear that whatever changes are created by a high stress event are not reversible by a ‘positive attitude’.

    Of course, you stated that it’s not limited to heart disease. Does it work for cancer?

    To quote:

    “There is little consistent evidence that psychological coping styles play an important part in survival from or recurrence of cancer. People with cancer should not feel pressured into adopting particular coping styles to improve survival or reduce the risk of recurrence. ”

    You can bring up all the examples of disease being caused by emotions, but it’s still not evidence of a positive effect from mood intervention, prayer, or anything else. One area where it does make a difference is clinical depression, but heart disease, cancer, or any of the other great diseases of humankind? No evidence.

    I too would support it if it was true, but your characterizations of ‘angry child’ and ‘guilt trip’ seem oddly defensive. The victimization of patients by blaming them for their own disease was not intended to argue that my point was true (indeed, I stated as much), but to point out that the conclusion isn’t a theoretical concern – this actually matters. Whether or true or false, the idea that “the power of positive thinking” can cure people in its current form actually harms patients. If it’s true, then it would be a matter of balancing the good with the bad, but if it’s false we would be guilty of perpetuating a harm for no benefit.

    No worries with the spelling mistakes – it’s the Internet. If such things mattered a mob should have attacked my computer a long time ago :)


  16. @rcn2:

    There you go again.
    I’m not “accusing” you of anything, I’m stating the fact that you were lying. Also, calling me “emotionally involved” because I’m calling your insults and anger childish, is just blatantly projecting.

    You could have acted like an adult and said “hey, I don’t think you’re right about that and here’s why”, but instead you threw a temper tantrum and acted like an angry child, thus you were called out.

    Now, I’d – as I already mentioned – be the first to want to know if I’m wrong, and that’s very much possible. But I’d like to be informed via adult conversation, not by guilt trips and infantile insults.

  17. @Slater,

    It is a bit odd how direct examples, studies, and conversation is ignored, while imagined insults and motivations seem to be the only parts either seen or remembered in each post. At some point, are you going to address the substance, or continue to sulk and throw tantrums? It’s been fun either way, but if you’d just try to see beyond the emotional cloud we might actually get somewhere. Provide some evidence, and I’d even end up agreeing with you.

    To recap: we’ve got at least two studies demonstrating that ‘positive thinking’ doesn’t have the power to heal in two major areas: heart attack and cancer. Try as I might, I cannot find a single example, either offered by you or online, any clear examples other than intervention in areas such as depression. Your examples have confused evidence for the negative effect of a major stress as evidence for a positive effect for a general positive attitude. And lastly, you have the belief that real-world consequences are part of a “guilt trip” to help the argument; it may surprise you that not everything is about you. It illustrates the importance of the truth of the proposition under questions; whether or not you feel guilty about it is entirely immaterial. There are a number of recent popular texts on the tyranny of positive thinking; the idea I invented it just to make you feel guilty is flattering to the both of us, but unfortunately wrong.


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