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Miracle Cures

No one believes everything they are told and this especially applies to advertising. So there is a built-in understanding by both the advertisers and consumers that some claims should not be taken seriously. If even a small fraction of what advertising tells us was true the world would have to be a very different and bizarre place.

If I saw an advertisement telling me that drinking a particular brand of rum will transport me to a tropical island I would not take that ad as being lierally true. But if I saw an ad telling me that an airline can fly me to one I would take it literally.

So I wouldn’t drink the rum and expect to instantly find myself on an island but I would expect that if I boarded the plane I would get there. These are obvious extremes of advertising which are metaphorical at one extreme and literal at the other. Everyone understands this which is why the ad promising something impossible is allowed, but what about less clear examples?

There have been two cases recently (one here in New Zealand and one in the UK) where churches have got themselves into trouble over advertising that they can perform medical miracles, specifically that God can heal diseases which cannot be treated by conventional medicine.

Is this false advertising? If the people making the ad genuinely believe it is true then maybe it isn’t. If there is a certain amount of evidence indicating that prayer works (and there is) maybe it isn’t false. Wait, did I just say that there is evidence prayer works? Me, the atheist who likes to rant against and generally denigrate religion?

Yeah, sure. There is some evidence it works. There is some evidence homeopathy works, and water divining, and there is some evidence of alien abductions, and the Loch Ness monster, and fairies, and Santa Claus. But the real question should be: how much evidence is there and how good is it?

The answer for prayer is not very much, and rather poor. But you could say the same thing about some conventional drugs whose efficacy has later been found to be less than originally thought. So did the pharmaceutical company who advertised that drug indulge in false advertising too?

The thing that many people don’t seem to be able to get quite right is judging the balance of evidence. It’s too easy to pick one piece of evidence which fits what you want to believe and say that is proof. And it’s not just religious people who indulge in this behaviour – everyone does, including me (although I would like to think I am aware of the issue and deliberately try to avoid it).

Looking at the balance of evidence on the healing power of prayer I would have to say that it doesn’t work. There have been some studies showing positive results but there have been others showing negative results too (the people prayed for were actually sicker than those who weren’t).

In general studies involving phenomena which are either very weak or non-existent (healing prayer, homeopathy, monsters, mystic forces, etc) produce mixed results like this, plus the bigger and more tightly controlled the experiment is the more inconclusive the result is.

There are other effects worth considering though. They are the placebo effect and the benefits of having a positive outlook. If people are prayed for these effects might manifest themselves. Unfortunately there is the possible negative outcome too where people relying on alternative therapies might neglect potentially far more effective conventional ones.

So the whole issue is actually quite complex and it’s far from clear whether banning advertising of religious interventions is justified. After all, anyone who really takes those things seriously is likely to be a bit fantasy prone in the first place and might just as easily be susceptible to other poorly supported procedures such as natural and alternative remedies.

I have seen many dubious products advertised and sold in real pharmacies. These include herbal remedies, aromatherapy, acupressure, magnetic therapy, and many others. None of these (apart from the occasional herb which has some limited effect) are supported by any real evidence. I wonder how long it will be before the pharmacy starts offering expensive bottles of holy water as well?

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