Albany Peace Project: Peace Through Magical Thinking

I recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s excellent book about why violence is declining. But one thing he failed to take into account was the power of wishing it.

My friend Frank Zollo alerted me to the local Albany Peace Project (APP; click here), pushing three of my buttons: pacifism, supernaturalism, and pseudoscience. A perfect trifecta. Unknown

I’m no war lover; I hate war. But I also hate pacifism because it’s an empty sanctimony that only serves to evade the real and difficult issues human conflict entails. As the one-time pacifist Christopher Hitchens eventually came to realize, there are things worth fighting for (and against); and pacifism would make the world safe for non-pacifists willing to use violence to gain their ends.

APP manages to compound the misguidedness of pacifism by adding paranormal nonsense and pseudoscience. APP is seeking participants “to meditate/pray/focus intention together for 15 minutes a day for the month of January 2014 while sending peaceful intentions to the City of Albany.” APP expects this will reduce crime rates, and plans to conduct research to document this. Its website says dozens of studies, many published in peer reviewed journals, suggest that meditation by a “small amount (sic) of people” positively affects an entire population.images

One example promin-ently discussed is a 9/11 10th anniversary “peace experiment” which was “especially beautiful” because “it began with a bilateral forgiveness ceremony.” Participants beamed “healing inten-tions” to lower violence in two Afghan provinces. And guess what? Attacks and casualties subsequently went down! Post hoc ergo propter hoc!

Translation: “after which, therefore because of which” — one of the commonest thinking errors. X happening after Y doesn’t mean Yimages-3 caused X. In the Afghan case, if violence decreased after the prayer fest, that doesn’t prove the latter caused it; you’d have to investigate what might have changed in the military/strategic situation. Duh.

A similar case discussed on APP’s website was Sri Lanka’s long vicious civil war, whose violence was allegedly reduced by a 2008 “peace intention experiment.” But possibly an intensive 2008-09 military offensive, that crushed the rebels, ended the war, and pacified the country, also had something to do with it.

APP cites a host of other studies, supposedly also documenting mental doings reducing violence. They are bogus, prima facie. images-6Invariably studies like this are shown to be faulty, often simply from the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, as in the examples above, and sometimes from simple fraud. That was true of a famous study purporting to show that praying for heart patients improved their outcomes. It was phony. (So was a study claiming prayer helped in-vitro fertilization; one con man responsible went to prison.)

Much though people have long striven mightily to produce such a result, there has never been any scientifically valid evidence for any sort of extrasensory or paranormal phenomenon. Nothing happening in your brain can have any effects outside the confines of your skull. Period. Only actions can do so. images-1

I am an optimist and do believe that positive thinking leads to better action. But that’s not the same as wishful thinking. Belief that praying for peace will bring it about is wishful thinking. The world does not work that way. Unknown-1


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18 Responses to “Albany Peace Project: Peace Through Magical Thinking”

  1. Frank Zollo Says:

    The issue here is not pacifism, but passivity. There are plenty of things advocates of nonviolence in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King could be doing to address the problem of violence in Albany. Educate the community about crime prevention; organize a march, campaign to get jobs in the community, set up a gun turn-in program. Join with Dr. Alice Green of the admirable Center for Law and Justice. But, while well-intentioned, the Albany Peace Project does none of these. Instead, it relies on New Age pseudoscience. While well-intentioned, the project is worse than ineffectual. By deluding people into thinking that their good intentions are a substitute for real action, they actually lessen the chances of real social change.

  2. njmolinari Says:

    “there has never been any scientifically valid evidence for any sort of extrasensory or paranormal phenomenon.”

    Because such things are beyond what is scientifically commensurable.

    “Nothing happening in your brain can have any effects outside the confines of your skull. Period. Only actions can do so.”

    You can prove this just as well as the APP can prove their cause (i.e. you can’t).

    I agree that the APP project is probably useless (and somewhat funny) but don’t let your logic slip, Frank!

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    My logic is firmly in place, thank you. “Beyond what is scientifically commensurable”? In other words — believe whatever you like, and if there’s no evidence for it, why, it’s something outside of such silly limited concepts as “evidence”!
    Once again — extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you think brain events CAN have effects outside your skull, it’s on you to prove it with evidence. There is no such evidence. That may not “prove” the proposition I stated, but it sure makes its truth extreeeeeeeeeeeemely likely.

  4. njmolinari Says:

    My point was just that scientific realism, which you seem to purport, relies only on a firm conviction, because scientific realism itself cannot be scientifically proven! It’s the same problem as Ayer’s famous folly about ostensive verification. You folks who demand evidence have no evidence for the soundness of the epistemological construct which you employ!

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    In other words, there is no reason to think well-supported propositions are more likely to be true than propositions with no such support? Well, if you believe that, you can believe ANYTHING — literally!

  6. frankzollo Says:

    “If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence?
    If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?” Sam Harris

  7. njmolinari Says:

    It does come down to value and aesthetic judgments, ultimately. Things can be more likely to be true, of course. But that’s different from furnishing definitive “proof”.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    It’s funny how people can demand “definitive proof” for things they’d prefer not to believe, while when it comes to things they wish to believe, proof is irrelevant.

  9. njmolinari Says:

    It is funny, that’s why my initial comment brought up the absurdity of mentioning scientific evidence in this context 😉

  10. frankzollo Says:

    “This context” is not some unfalsifiable religious doctrine (e.g., three persons in one God, unbaptized babies go to limbo), but rather the empirical claim that a group of people sincerely wishing for a reduction in assaults in Albany can cause such a reduction to be effected by means of their thoughts. This is a demonstrably scientific hypothesis. You can bet your bippy that if we see an otherwise-unexplained precipitous drop in assaults in Albany consonant with the beginning of this project, the sponsors will be quick to cite this as evidence of the validity of their claims. They will also deserve a Nobel prize, as the laws of physics will have to be revised to accommodate this phenomenon.

  11. njmolinari Says:

    But it isn’t a valid scientific hypothesis, because there is no possible scientific evidence to demonstrate the truth of the claim, according to you. Or am I misunderstanding you?

  12. frankzollo Says:

    If the evidence showed a big drop in assaults in Albany, and there were no other variables to explain it – and, realistically, if this experiment were replicated numerous times with similar results – then we would be justified in theorizing that thoughts can change behavior of people miles away. Further research would be justified to explore how many people need to wish for a reduction in assaults to achieve what %age reduction? Does it matter if the people are alone or together? Are women more effective in reducing assaults with their thoughts than men? Does this effect appear in other cultures? etc.

  13. njmolinari Says:

    We’ll just have to wait and examine their evidence, then 🙂

  14. Greg Says:

    It was discussions like this that caused many smart people over time to develop the scientific method — our best known method for collecting and evaluating evidence about the nature of reality. Evidence is our only way of knowing about reality, everything else is only in your mind. Science is good — use it !!!

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Frank, thanks for exposing this “magical thinking” pseudoscience. I happen to know the generator of this project has no background in science or statistics. Relation does not correlate to cause and effect. This study has no controls. Zero. It is delusion gone wild. I believe meditation can be god for the meditator, and potentially those who receive some resulting good vibes from the meditator shortly after. But it does not save the world. As you said the world does not work this way. Any other study done without any scientific rigor would be trashed before the papers abstract could be read, this study should be as well. It is wasting a lot of time, and deluding people. Everybody wants to be know/popular for something, unfortunately, there is nothing to be proud of here.

  16. frankzollo Says:

    Thanks, Anonymous. Depressingly, a check of their website reveals the woo-woo level has recently escalated:

    “This year, we are fortunate to be collaborating with the Institute of HeartMath which has graciously approved the use of their evidence-based [sic] Heart Lock-In Technique.® This state of the art mind-body tool leads the body into a state known as Coherence, which facilitates synchronization between the heart and brain, that when maintained allows individuals to distinguish between the voice in the head, often the critical voice and the one in the heart, where positive feelings of love, caring, and appreciation originate.”

    The only “evidence” to be found on the site is the abundant evidence that the authors don’t know the difference between correlation and causation.

  17. rationaloptimist Says:

    Love, caring and appreciation originate in the brain, not the heart.

  18. Jason Clark Says:

    Pacifism would actually be an argument against going to war to keep your slaves (and plenty of countries ended slavery without going to war, Americans are just “special”). Pacifists would be arguing against Fascist, Nazi, and Communist violence. All of them thought violence was the way to solve their problems.

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