Monday, January 30, 2006

The prayer placebo effect: it's no secret

The power of prayer may all be in knowing you're being prayed for, according to an article in the Jan 28 edition of New Scientist.

"The best way to understand the scientific effect of belief is to look at the literature on the placebo effect," says Herbert Benson, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston.

The placebo effect is the biological impact of believing in a medical treatment. There is no doubt that it is a real and powerful force. Apparently, it works by making the body produce more endorphins, the body's own natural opioid painkillers.

All this suggests that the cognitive experience of anticipating relief plays a major role in allowing it to happen. But to benefit from the effect, you have to know you are being treated--the placebo effect won't kick in if a sham medication is given covertly.

prayer in secretSimilarly, praying for yourself or knowing that family and friends are praying for you seems to produce positive results, while being prayed for secretly does not, according to a recent study in the journal, The Lancet.

So does prayer really do anything? Why would Jesus instruct us to pray in secret when it has no effect?

Perhaps one would say God doesn't answer secret prayers that are under study, the heart of the researchers isn't in the right place and so on. I doubt that. If the supernatural were to slip away whenever earnestly sought, that's a good argument for it's non-existence, or suspiciously selective manifestation at least. It's also counter to a biblical understanding of God as a rewarder of "those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).

Hasn't God said he would make himself known through signs to the unbeliever, as verification that He is real and still speaks to man? Didn't Paul say,

If you are all prophesying, and an unbeliever or a person unacquainted with you comes in, he'll be rebuked by all and examined by all, the hidden things of his heart will become open, and thus he will fall on his face and worship God, proclaiming, "Surely God is among you!"

"Surely our shared delusion makes us healthier!" the skeptic would say now, adding in triumph, "And that's why evolution created religion."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Earth-like planets and goofy ways to run

Artist's freakin' conception of supposed 'Earth-like' planetIn case you didn't know it, an Earth-like planet has been found outside the solar system, according to the Washington Post. But don't think we'll be visiting there anytime soon. It's about 28,000 light-years away. That takes you way outside of your cell phone network. It might not even be anything to snap a cell phone picture back to mom about, as it's likely just a bigger badder version of our own hellish Venus or icy-hot Mercury (freezing on night side, blisteringly hot during the day).

In other science news that may have escaped your notice, some researchers at Cornell wanted to understand where walking and running came from. They did simulations of how bipedals move (things like people that walk on two feet). They discovered that walking and running are the most energy efficient ways to move at low and high speeds, respectively.

Even cooler, they discovered a new type of motion, which they've called a “pendular run”, which you can see demonstrated (along with walking, running and level walking) in a video on their site and others here. Apparently, even though it's the most efficient motion, it's rarely used by humans. I think we should call it "wunning" and all try it!

Monday, January 23, 2006

have ingredients, need recipe

I want to know if anybody has come across a "reverse cookbook."

I want to be able to enter the ingredients I have, and let the search engine show me a list of recipes, perhaps even several course meals, that I can make with what I have.

I am imagining that you can get an account on the website, and make an exhaustive list of things that usually don't need replacing, unperishables like spices. When you're about ready to cook, you can give it perishables (meat, vegetables, etc) and it will tell you what you can make!

Update1: I found What's in your Pantry?. The site says, "Tell us what ingredients you have on hand and we'll find recipes to match." This is kinda what I was talking about, but not exactly: it still asks for ingredients that I don't have.

Update2: A Google-based recipe search

Reason comes before faith

Faith and reason are the two modes by which we come to believe things. I have long had a sneaking suspicion that one was prior to the other, namely reason. The mind's ability to grasp reality precedes faith. The world must be intelligible before anything can be revealed to us, whether by God or by nature.

Another suspicion I have is this: the fact that the world is intelligble at all may argue for an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. I think this may have been one of C.S. Lewis's points in Miracles. I read the book several months ago in Switzerland while waiting for Jessica to hop over the pond and join me. Maybe the idea took that long to gestate.

I also believe the writings of physicist Paul Davies speak of this. The one and only time I heard him give a lecture (at one of the Friday night lectures at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura) I think he said that his understanding of God was related to the intelligibility of the universe, which convinced him to some degree of a design to the universe. I was heavily influenced by Davies's books in high school. They introduced me to the strange world of physics and philosophy and helped shape my interest in both.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Make poverty history

I've been motivated in recent weeks to learn how we--the rich of the West (probably anyone reading this)--can start to make an impact to help the world's poor. I think this recent interest came after reading about what Bono and Bill & Melinda Gates are doing to try to relieve poverty. That's led me to start reading Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger by Ron Sider, a book that originally was John's.

Especially impressive I thought were that these people had done their homework regarding how most effectively to use money to help the 1. 3 billion human beings who live in relentless, unrelieved poverty worldwide. For example, millions of desperately poor people have received "micro-loans" of $75, $200, or $500 so they could start small businesses and thus provide a better living for their family. And for only dollars per child, we could prevent the 34,000 deaths that occur every day among children because of preventable disease and hunger.

In Rich Christians, Dr. Sider says that he is confident

that the biblical understanding of economic equality, or equity, demands at least this: God wants every person, or family, to have equality of economic opportunity at least to the point of having access to the necessary resources (land, money, education) to be able to earn a decent living and participate as dignified members of their community.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Academic orthodoxy and the lawsuit against UC

Here's a recent news article in last Thursday's USA Today on the same subject as my last post, UC Riverside academic standards for high school courses.

In the article, it says, 'The lawsuit against UC alleges that the university accepts courses from other schools taught from a particular viewpoint, such as feminist, African-American or countercultural, so the school can't discriminate against "a viewpoint of religious faith."'

Hmmm. Some issues:

  • Is UC willing to do the same for other types of schools?
  • Are they willing to deny credit for someone who may have learned world history from the Muslim perspective?
  • Is UC willing to do the same for bad textbooks whose problems don't stem from a religious viewpoint?
  • What about homeschooled students whose parents focus on Christianity or some other religious viewpoint?
  • Has it been demonstrated that students who took "biased" high school courses perform more poorly in college than those who took "non-biased" courses?
  • Can I drop the "sneering quotation marks" and still get my point across?

When I read the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, I don't see it as permitting public institutions to uniquely disfavor a religious viewpoint compared to others. Instead, I see it as saying that public institutions cannot uniquely favor a religious point of view, something very different.

In any case, I can see the UC arguing that they are not uniquely disfavoring a religious viewpoint. Instead, they have an obligation to set high academic standards, by which I suppose they mean that courses approved for UC admission must be consistent with viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted among academics. University professors set the standard, and if you want to go to college, you must learn knowledge in accordance with the established standards. Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist viewpoints are not in accord with established standards, whereas feminist, African-American or countercultural viewpoints are. I hate to say consensus equals truth, but isn't that kind of what "academic standards" are all about? i.e., teaching in accordance with what the majority of (university) teachers believe. Perhaps academic orthodoxy would be a better term.

The UC could also say that no one is forcing the students from religious high schools to go to UC Riverside or any public institution for that matter. Let them go to a private college that accepts their biased, sub-standard high school education.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Personal growth unacceptable at Riverside

Students from Christian high schools are having a hard time getting accepted at the University of California, Riverside. The university deems some of the high school courses to be biased in favor of Christianity. "Religion and ethics courses are acceptable," says the university, "as long as they do not include among its [sic] primary goals the personal religious growth of the student." I'm not making this up.

In defense of complaining


Perhaps a bit too much of blog content is a list of complaints, critiques, etc., especially when it comes to our jobs or politics or the nature of existence. The same might be said of journalistic content in general.

And, OK, I know that it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But sometimes it's necessary to curse the darkness as well, just to prevent our getting used to it.

Stampede in Mecca kills 345

This is awful. There must be some way that control and dynamical systems ideas could help do crowd control so that panic-induced pedestrian disasters don't happen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Unwanted desperation

With a few days until the 33rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision (January 22, 1973), I found myself reading a much needed perspective on abortion by First Things reader Elyce Santerre, included as part of this blog entry. Below is a motivating quote from the heading of Ms. Santerre's letter.

For the question remains, do women want abortion? Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate.

–Frederica Mathewes-Green

Is time speeding up?


With another year passed, maybe you're thinking, like I am, "Wow, it's January already" or "that week flew by fast!" I remember being a kid, looking at my watch and thinking that a one second tick seemed to take a while. Now the seconds just slide past. Is there something to this phenomenon? Why, as we get older, do the years seem to go by faster and faster?

Carefully designed experiments suggest there is actually an explanation for this impression. As we age, our biological clocks run slower and, since our clocks are running slower, the world seems to speed up. Depressing as this may be for those of us long past the subjective midpoint of our lives (which turns out to be about 20 for someone who lives to be 80), it could be worse. A recent book describes a man with a brain tumor that affected his biological clock who quit driving and watching television because traffic seemed to be rushing at him at an incomprehensible speed and television nattered on faster than he could follow. Maybe this is why it would've been better for me to learn Spanish as a kid. People wouldn't seem to be talking faster than I could understand!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New Years in Texas


The past week, Jessica and I went to Texas, around Houston and Waco, to visit some of my family. It was fun. We got to see the new house of my sister and her husband. The big fun was having an illicit bonfire, around which at least two dozen persons hovered.

Fun was had as dangerous firecrackers went off and the bonfires flames soared upward. My mom even twirled a sparkler. It was a Yuletide moment.

But the fun was cut short by the authorities, represented by the Volunteer Fire Department from the city of Cut-N-Shoot. Could there be a more Texas sounding town name? Nobody got arrested or cited. I guess there was a fire ban in effect. In any case, the embers were still smoking in the morning, when the sun, thank goodness, returned.