NPR's Magical, But Misguided Reporting on Spirituality and Health

Can positive thoughts about someone else help to heal them? Love and support matter. But the thoughts themselves? Sadly no, much as we wish they would.

I, Michael O'Hare , and Mark Kleiman have been having a running debate over at the Realty-Based Community over what I believe is an appalling series on "the science of spirituality" that ran last week. I'm cross-linking here, in part because Mark provided a fabulous posting regarding his own brush with a deadly illness that partially disagrees with the below take on things.

I should say that it gives me no joy to criticize public radio. NPR, PRI, and American Public Media may be the best things going these days in journalism. Their web offerings are great. They are among the few serious mass media operations not on life support, peddling celebrity flesh, or whose future seems foreordained by a depressing numbers of Depends commercials. Dick Gordon's The Story (e.g this nice interview with John Hope Franklin) is my particular favorite.

NPR reporters have done an especially fine job covering health reform and, often, difficult medical issues. I enjoy listening to Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who has a wonderful way with people and is an appealing person. So it's especially disappointing to hear her promote magical thinking that has such little foundation in medical science.

The episode "Can positive thoughts help heal another person?" drove me over the edge (though the following account of near-death experiences was scarcely better).

Like others drawn to magical thinking in response to human problems, Bradley presents a gauzy version of quantum mechanics to draw mystical connections between ourselves and suffering people we love and wish to help. A casual friend, web journalist Jesse Singal, notes that quantum mechanics is the greatest gift to science and to pseudoscience in human history. Quantum mechanics applies to a realm we can't directly observe. It is insanely bizarre, and no one fully understands it. So this branch of physics creates a huge opening for people who wish to believe that human consciousness feeds a cosmic life force that influences the physical world in ways that--you knew this was coming--currently elude modern science. In physicist Brian Greene's lovely phrasing, reality isn't what we think it is. I guess this creates an irresistible temptation to believe that reality is what we want it to be.

Thus Hagerty reports:

The 'Quantum Entanglement' Of Love

So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as "quantum entanglement" may offer some clues. [That's Dean Radin is a senior investigator at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco.]

Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships -- couples, siblings, parent and child -- also be "entangled"? Not just emotionally, and psychologically -- but also physically?

"If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don't understand," he says, "if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch."

This idea -- that we may be connected at some molecular level -- echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

But it infuriates others -- like Columbia University's [behavioral scientist Richard] Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.

"Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so
open-minded that your brains fall out."

Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

No wonder Sloan is incensed. I'm baffled that Hagerty's editors would allow her to characterize this as a he-said she-said conflict between two behavioral researchers when one side provides thinly-disguised magical thinking and the other includes virtually everyone who knows what quantum entanglement actually is.

Every day in America, millions of people are suffering or dying. Many are blessed with the prayers of loving and supportive friends and neighbors who wish them well. An even larger number of people pray every day asking God to relieve world hunger, to reduce the suffering of children afflicted with malaria, dysentery, simple hunger, or AIDS. The love and support are precious. And I would not disparage anyone who wishes to pray for any good person or cause--especially because so many of the people who do the praying also do other wonderful things to improve our world. There is just no evidence that the more spectral aspirations of these prayers do any good. The only reason to believe otherwise is our fervent wish that this were true.

And the alleged link between spirituality and healing includes an ugly underside, as well--one that peeks into Hagerty's report. Consider:

"If you ask people what's kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality," [HIV researcher Gail] Ironson says. "It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that's why I decided to look at it."

Ironson began to zero in on a patient's relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress....

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.

"In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality," Ironson says. "That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date."

"Just so I understand it," I confirm, "if someone weren't taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?"

"Yes," she says. "Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people don't take their meds," she adds quickly, laughing. "This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above."

As Mark Kleiman writes in our exchange, faith might well bring real health benefits for some patients. Chronic illness is an arduous long-distance run. For many people, faith is a valued companion on this journey. It is perfectly reasonable to explore whether and how faith provides patients with hope, serenity, and consolation, and whether these translate into concrete health effects. Of course this has nothing to do with the truth-claims of any religion, let alone the dubious title of Hagerty's report.

But I have two caveats.

First, I confess I am skeptical of much research being done in this area. Many people doing this work have a strong stake in affirming the value of religious commitment in human life. This is not a domain of social discourse that brims with findings that spirituality or faith can harm patients' physical or mental health, though one can all-too-plausibly hypothesize such harmful effects. It's just too easy to identify confounding factors or poorly-measured variables that would bias the results in a direction congenial to the researchers. When someone asserts an unlikely but psychologically appealing hypothesis linking spirituality and health, when someone posits nonsensical causal mechanisms that supposedly underlie these research findings, I generally presume that she believes what she is saying because she fervently wants to believe it, not because she is dragged kicking and screaming by the scientific evidence to believe the hypothesis is true.

Second, there is something repellant in what is not said here. Some people may derive health benefit from the serenity that comes with faith. At least this is a reasonable hypothesis to be tested. However this hypothesis bears up, there is nothing wrong or misguided about the mindset or the (non)religious beliefs of others. The statement "turning away from God" is bad for your health glides too easily into a discourse that profoundly insults victims of awful diseases: There are no atheists in fox holes or the cancer ward (except for Mark, as he points out).

Let's be frank here. Patients with unresponsive HIV disease are going blind from cytomegalovirus scoring a trench through their retinas. Others experience exotic HIV-related cancers, not to mention central-nervous-system damage, standard-issue GI complications and the variety of toxic side-effects from AIDS meds. People with deadly cancers or heart failure also suffer quite greatly. If some of these patients turn away from God, who could blame them?

When I was young, my faith was broken by God's apparent stony silence in the face of such agonies, not only among AIDS patients or among the thirsty and dying children of Darfur, but among countless people around us who suffer greatly from with more mundane ailments.

Last night, I had dinner with a wonderful man who has the cognitive skills of a kindergartner. His brain is damaged because of one damned repeating sequence CGG, CGG, CGG... at position 27.3 on his X chromosome. He has every right to ask: "God, why have you forsaken me?" The question is not only unavoidable. It is more polite than I would put it.