Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Austin Cline doesn't understand miracles

Talking head and profession know all Austin Cline (Saturday February 7, 2009) weighs in on the question of miracles:
Austin Cline

Both religious and paranormal beliefs are consistently defended by references to so-called "miracles" — events which are so improbable that they simply must have been caused by supernatural or paranormal forces. Believer categorically deny that a purely natural explanation for the events is even possible. The problem is, these "miracles" are often not so improbable after all. To understand why, we just need to know a little math and statistics — subjects which too few people understand well.

quoing Cilne here

In Scientific American Michael Shermer wrote:

[A] principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. ... In the case of death premonitions, suppose that you know of 10 people a year who die and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the 10 people, a probability of one out of 10,512--certainly an improbable event.

Yet there are 295 million Americans. Assume, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you. That makes 1/10,512 X 295,000,000 = 28,063 people a year, or 77 people a day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable. With the well-known cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias firmly in force (where we notice the hits and ignore the misses in support of our favorite beliefs), if just a couple of these people recount their miraculous tales in a public forum (next on Oprah!), the paranormal seems vindicated. In fact, they are merely demonstrating the laws of probability writ large.

But of course he hasn't given us any examples. this is nothing more than a straw man argument. He's only dealing with one kind of claim. I notice that this is generally true of all of his bs. He just sets up straw man arguments, claims that a significant enough number of christians fall for whatever it is so they it's worth picking on, then attacks his straw man as though it represents a valid position argued by those he wishes to ridicule.

In a review of Debunked! [physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton] invoked "Littlewood's Law of Miracles" (John Littlewood was a University of Cambridge mathematician): "In the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month." Dyson explains that "during the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month."

Quantifying the rate of miracles is an extremely stupid mission. So many times people are assuming that God is some automatic force that has to obey a set of laws that it can't violate. When we consider that God has a will and a consciousness and doesn't have to do anything we expect "him" to, ever, there may not miracles at all for a century and then one a second for a year and none of a decade and they twenty in the next century and so on. It's a totally foolish to try and predict a rate of miracles.

It almost goes without saying that many bad, poorly reasoned, and unfounded beliefs would not exist if it were not for widespread ignorance — in particular ignorance of science and math. If people were more knowledgeable and better thinkers, they wouldn’t fall for every hokey idea that comes along. Maybe if the above information is spread around a bit, some people will be spared from perpetuating bad beliefs.

He should know about poorly reasoned arguments, since like this one, most of his are.The preceding paragraph for example, plays upon the informal fallacy of guilt by association. It works like this, some miracle claims work by the fallacious method in the straw man example, therefore, since that involves the idea of miracles, then anything that involves the idea of miracles is automatically also invalid.

Then again, maybe not. So many of these beliefs are comforting in various ways, so it could very well be that even exposure to mathematics and scientific facts won't cause very many to seriously reconsider their beliefs. People don't change their minds easily once they have a personal investment in some ideology. I doubt it would hurt, though, so it's probably a good idea for atheists to familiarize themselves first with these issues.

Maybe it could be that some people have actually seen miracles, so they are convinced because they have seen them? No, that can't be it. Why if that were the case then Austin's little smug ideology of supiriority would be wrong. That can't be because Austin went to an Ivy league school and he knows everything. Why's he's a profession know all! He must be right because the universe would be broken if he wasn't.

Unfortunately, math and statistics aren't exactly easy subjects — they aren't simple to learn and they certainly aren't simply to explain to people, especially online. It would probably be a good idea to come up with methods to educate people at least a little bit about these subjects, given how important they are. Can you think of any ways to better explain to people some of the math and statistics necessary to counter false ideas about what is and is not genuinely improbable? Maybe some analogies which help make these large numbers more readily comprehensible?

Unfortunately a lot of people don't' want to beileve. So they just refuse to believe anything that contradicts their little ideology. Let's notice that he doesn't use any examples. He doesn't demonstrate the level of documentation for any argument about miracles. He's merely assuming that the only real proof is the comforting nature and the wild statistically variation. But what he's missing of course is straight out empirical proof, which does exist. For example the diagnostic committee for medical evidence at Lourdes doesn't go by statistics in this sense. They go on a case by case basis. The statistical probability of remission does come into it, but only to the extent that a case in an area where the probability of recovery is 0% and the patient recovers are people assumed to be recovered. This is because with 0% recovery is assumed to be impossible.

one such example is the lungs of Charles Anne.Anne was a young seminary student in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed a case of TB of a kind that left his lungs as ravaged as those of a coal miner with black lung. He was on his death bed and wasn't expected to live. He prayed to the woman who was to become St. Therese of Lisieux (this prayer and its' answer was the second "miracle" that put her over the top for sainthood). The next morning his lungs were good as new. He literally grew back a pair of lungs overnight. This is impossible. You can subject it to statistics: the probability is 0. It's never happened, in all of recorded history. More importantly, there are good reasons to suppose it can't happen; it's impossible. It violates our understanding of the law of nature. For this reason there is more of a barrier to accepting this than just improbability.

All the miracles at Lourdes, both the 66 official miracles the church as so declared and the 2,500 "remarkable cases" that just barely missed making it. The total number is 6,500 cures from Lourdes, most of them coming before the committee was established so they cannot be considered as "official." This is the total number claimed. The following was written by men on Doxa, but my research was from the Marian Library newsletter:

The Lourdes Medical Bureau and the International Bureau hold Symposia and conferences at which medical experts of all kinds present papers on the data of the miracle claims. Both philosophical and medical questions are addressed. The papers of top academic quality and the discussions are very important. There is a very interesting section on the Marian Newsletter site about this, it is well worth reading, but we cannot go into that here. I urge the reader to click on that link and consider all that is said. One of the major issues addressed is the meaning of miracles. The Catholic church does not regard miracles as proof of the existence of God, rather, it understands them as a message, a sign form God, and the Pope has declared that miracles are a call to prayer and to seek God. In light of this realization, I present a few examples of healing from Lourdes:

the part of the verification process in which the claims are subjected to scientific scrutiny involves strict rulesand the requirement of the best medical evidence.


The paradox of human miracle assessment is that the only way to discern whether a phenomenon is supernatural is by having trained rationalists testify that it outstrips their training. Since most wonders admitted by the modern church are medical cures, it consults with doctors. Di Ruberto has access to a pool of 60 - "We've got all the medical branches covered," says his colleague, Dr. Ennio Ensoli - and assigns each purported miracle to two specialists on the vanquished ailment.

They apply criteria established in the 1700s by Pope Benedict XIV: among them, that the disease was serious; that there was objective proof of its existence; that other treatments failed; and that the cure was rapid and lasting. Any one can be a stumbling block. Pain, explains Ensoli, means little: "Someone might say he feels bad, but how do you measure that?" Leukemia remissions are not considered until they have lasted a decade. A cure attributable to human effort, however prayed for, is insufficient. "Sometimes we have cases that you could call exceptional, but that's not enough." says Ensoli. "Exceptional doesn't mean inexplicable."

"Inexplicable," or inspiegabile, is the happy label that Di Ruberto, the doctors and several other clerics in the Vatican's "medical conference" give to a case if it survives their scrutiny. It then passes to a panel of theologians, who must determine whether the inexplicable resulted from prayer. If so, the miracle is usually approved by a caucus of Cardinals and the Pope.

Some find the process all too rigorous. Says Father Paolino Rossi, whose job, in effect, is lobbying for would-be saints from his own Capuchin order: "It's pretty disappointing when you work for years and years and then see the miracle get rejected." But others suggest it could be stricter still.

There is another major miracle-validating body in the Catholic world: the International Medical Committee for the shrine at Lourdes. Since miracles at Lourdes are all ascribed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, it is not caught up in the saint-making process, which some believe the Pope has running overtime. Roger Pilon, the head of Lourdes' committee, notes that he and his colleagues have not approved a miracle since 1989, while the Vatican recommended 12 in 1994 alone. "Are we too severe?" he wonders out loud. "Are they really using the same criteria?"

Reported by Greg Burke/Lourdes
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

There is a lot more involved here than just the assumption of probability of some event that seems comforting and then seems not to happen much. Like most atheists Cline is just cheating himself out of a wonderful life in order to feel superior to some group and thus flatter his ego.

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