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.
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.
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 Y 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. Invariably 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.
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.