The blog Godless In Dixie discussed the phenomenon of “confirmation bias” as it relates to Christians, and by extension most highly religious people, very well in this post. I especially found a deep resonance with this particular post and its subject matter, as I related it to my own experience in Christian Science. Godless in Dixie does a very good job of discussing confirmation bias, and what it means vis a vis being religious, so I strongly recommend reading his post as a primer for my post. Here, I want to take the subject of confirmation bias, and get into how I see it in relation to Christian Science and its rather grandiose claims regarding physical healing.
“I asked . . . why she chose this particular denomination of Christianity [Christian Science] as opposed to the tens of thousands of others. Her answer?
It’s the only one that can physically heal you.” 1
Christian Science indeed claims to be able to heal any physical, mental, or emotional ailment. Although many Christian Scientists, and officials at The Mother Church go to great pains to state that it (Christian Science) isn’t all about physical healing…um…I beg to differ. The woman quoted above confirms what is true with most rank and file Christian Scientists–it is largely about the physical healing. Yes, Christian Science also claims to be able to solve what I’ll call “life issues”; things like: career/job issues, relationships, emotional issues, and finances. Now, I’m willing to concede that a deep study of Christian Science and application of some of its precepts may be able to help somewhat with the “life issues” by perhaps calming one’s thought; I do not believe that Christian Science has any ability to heal or solve physical or serious mental-health issues. This is where confirmation bias comes most strongly into the discussion. Let’s look at a definition of confirmation bias:
In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.
Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study.
Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.
As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence. 2
The way confirmation bias shows up in Christian Science is largely with its claims to heal physical and mental health issues. I’ll start with an example of my own. This incident occurred just over 20 years ago while I was in college, and was a testimony of healing that I often gave at Wednesday evening meetings. I was working during summer break at a café, and was helping to clean up at the end of the day when a drain got clogged. I went to pour drain opener into the clogged sink, not realizing that bleach was in the water. The drain opener, which was acidic, reacted with the bleach and it reacted right into my face and eyes. I felt an immediate burning sensation in one of my eyes. Right away, I went and washed out the eye, and as per protocol, a co-worker called 911. As I recall, circling in my head was the “Scientific Statement of Being”, well known to Christian Scientists, and found on page 468 of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The EMTs checked me out and there was evidence of some slight damage to the surface of my eye, and I experienced some minor burns to other parts of my face (which ultimately disappeared with time). They advised me to have the eye checked by an eye doctor. As a dutiful Christian Scientist, however, I chose to pray about it with the help of a Christian Science practitioner. The irritation went away, and eventually I thought no more of it, and my vision didn’t change. Of course, I attributed the healing entirely to Christian Science. I expected that Christian Science would, and concluded that it did, heal me when the physical effects went away.
Let’s take a more objective look at the evidence now:
- I immediately took practical steps to mitigate the effects of the chemicals in my eye by washing out the eye (I took these steps mere seconds after the event.
- The effects were very slight, not a lot of the chemical solution splashed into my face anyway.
- The body does have the ability to regenerate from injury–especially if it is superficial, such as this was.
I will add that a few years after this incident, I did have a routine eye exam, and the optometrist noted some sort of scratching or damage to the eye I had felt the burning sensation in. I can’t help but think now that if this had been a complete healing as Christian Science purports to heal, there would never have been any detectable damage to the eye at any time, since, paradoxically, Christian Science theology claims that there never was any damage to the eye. My most recent eye exam earlier this year, which was the next eye exam I had after that one, has noted no such damage to the surface of either eye, and I don’t even remember which eye it was now. I credit the lack of noted eye damage now to natural healing ability on the part of my body over the course of 20 or so years. Looking back on this incident as objectively as I can, I don’t believe Christian Science did anything except calm my mind about what happened (which isn’t a bad thing), which led me to more calmly and methodically pursue the practical remedies that did prevent lasting damage to my eye. It most certainly did not effect any sort of miraculous healing. My confirmation bias led me to the conclusion that I had experienced a healing from chemical burns to my eye due to the application of Christian Science treatment, when it is far more likely that my quick practical attention and my body’s natural ability to heal itself is what really did the job. It was my expectation that Christian Science would heal me. I also consider myself lucky there wasn’t more serious damage to my eye that, given my decision not to go to an optometrist as the EMT advised, would have gone untreated possibly causing serious consequences.
“‘Who do you think controls the wind?'” 3
Another vivid example of confirmation bias in Christian Science comes from a story that has become legend in the Christian Science community. Lona Ingwerson, CS, a Christian Science practitioner and lecturer often tells the remarkable story of how her home was spared in a 1993 firestorm that destroyed most of the other homes in her Laguna Beach, California neighbourhood (click this link to read more about it). When I first heard the story maybe a year or two after the incident itself, I was amazed and fully convinced at the time that it was indeed the power of the prayers of friends worldwide that saved their home, as Ingwerson states.4 Never mind that most of their neighbours lost their homes, I guess God doesn’t care about them–they didn’t pray hard enough, and can’t use his almighty omnipresent power to save them, but I digress.
I too now live in an area with a similar dry climate and propensity for large firestorms, and about 10 years after the Laguna Beach firestorm, a similar firestorm in 2003 destroyed entire neighbourhoods in the city near where I now live. I recall touring the burned-out neighbourhoods with my parents a few months after the fire, and one thing that struck me was how capricious fire can be. Where a house was leveled to its foundation, a nearby outbuilding merely a few meters away was spared. It happened time and time again in that fire. It is known that firestorms and conflagrations create their own erratic wind patterns, and these can shift the fire quickly and unpredictably and thus spare one building, while leveling another one mere meters away. Is this the intervention of God or some other omnipotent entity? While Ingwerson says it is, I don’t think so. If that were true, then why aren’t all homes in an area spared? Why would the fire have even occurred if God could have prevented it? What concrete proof is there of divine intervention? Where is the evidence?
“Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”4
I just don’t see the evidence of any deific intervention here as I look back on this story with the different perspective I have now. Ingwerson’s home was spared by a shift in the wind or some other localized event, and that occurs quite natually and yes, randomly. Mini fire-tornadoes can spur the fire in erratic directions. Even the fire marshal expressed confirmation bias by saying that Ingwerson’s home was spared by some divine intervention–how does he know that? He offers up no evidence, just his opinion. Confirmation bias with regards to divine intervention can creep in anywhere, especially in a society such as the United States that has a deep propensity to see divine intervention everywhere. People expect to see the divine in action, so they end up finding it where there more likely is actually none. Evidence that would satisfactorily prove the intervention of a divine entity in this case to me would be simple: the firestorm would skip over all of the houses; or better yet, it would vanish into thin air–“vanish into its native nothingness like dew before the morning sunshine,” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 365) to quote Mary Baker Eddy. I go with Mr. Hitchens: if you can try to assert something without evidence, I will be happy to dismiss it without evidence.
“You don’t see faith healers working in hospitals for the same reason you don’t see psychics winning the lottery.” 6
The Christian Science Church claims to have published over 80,000 “verified” healings in Christian Science in the Church’s various periodicals over the past 130 years.7 These verifications are flimsy at best, and consist only of: the supporting testimony of three people who know the testifier; and can either: attest to the integrity of the testifier, or who have witnessed the healing.8 That’s it! The door is wide open for confirmation bias because the verifiers themselves already have a strong propensity to credit the healing to Christian Science and lack the objectivity to see or consider other evidence.
I’m willing to bet that in probably at least 95% of cases, all verifiers are Christian Scientists, as well as having strong connections to the testifier. There isn’t much room for objectivity at all, and a lot of room for confirmation bias. In the case of my testimony that was published in the Christian Science Sentinel, only one of the three people who verified my healing for publication was even nominally a witness to the “healing’, and that person was one of my parents (I don’t remember which)–they didn’t witness the initial incident; I related it to them when I got home that day. The others were merely character references. To make a verification credible, the verifier needs to be an objective observer. This is not the case with the verifications of Christian Science healings published in the Christian Science periodicals.
Many a testimony will start out by saying “I had symptoms of [insert name of disease here]…”; in other words, there isn’t always even a medical diagnosis of a disease. I once thought I was suffering from diabetes and I expressed most of the symptoms (or at least I thought so), in fact. Later blood tests came up that I had completely normal levels of blood sugar. I was probably just suffering from fatigue, and the effects of the asthma that I was diagnosed with a short time later. Under treatment for the asthma, the symptoms that caused me alarm have largely disappeared. It’s also well-known that mis-diagnoses are frequent, even with trained medical professionals. That’s why it is always important to get a second and confirming diagnosis, especially of a serious life-threatening illness such as cancer. Doctors are human, they make mistakes, and some diseases are difficult to diagnose. If a medical doctor, with their years of education, training, and experience are capable of mis-diagnosing something, imagine how it could be with someone who has no medical training at all.
So, confirmation bias shows up in two key ways in Christian Science: (1) in the pre-existing expectation that any healing is due to Christian Science, and Christian Science alone, and (2) in the common and usually mistaken mis-diagnoses of diseases–which is how Christian Science usually gets the credit for healing something (thought to be) serious, like diabetes. The Christian Scientist will expect that Christian Science will heal. If it doesn’t, they’re not praying hard enough, or their thought isn’t right. It won’t be due to the fact that Christian Science doesn’t heal, they will blame themselves, and end up in a tragic downward spiral.
1 Jarry, Jonathan. “It’s All in Your Head: A Statement on Which Both Christian Scientists and I Can Agree.” Cracked Science. 18 May 2014. Web. 25 May 2014. <http://crackedscience.com/2014/05/18/its-all-in-your-head-a-statement-on-which-both-christian-scientists-and-i-can-agree/>
2 “Confirmation bias” (definition). Science Daily. Science Daily, LLC. n.d. Web. 25 May 2014. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/c/confirmation_bias.htm>
3 Berlin, Loreen. “A Miracle in Mystic Hills.” Laguna Beach Independent. Firebrand Media LLC. 21 October 2013. Web. 26 May 2014. <http://www.lagunabeachindy.com/miracle-mystic-hills/>
5 Hitchens, Christopher. “Mommie Dearest.” Slate. The Slate Group, LLC. 20 October 2003. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2003/10/mommie_dearest.html>
6 Brutal Atheist (@BrutalAtheist). 22 March 2014, 11:44 a.m. Tweet.
7 “Firsthand experiences of healing.” Christian Science. The Christian Science Board of Directors. n.d. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://christianscience.com/prayer-and-health/firsthand-experiences-of-healing>
8 “Testimony Guidelines.” JSH-Online. The Christian Science Publishing Society. n.d. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://jsh.christianscience.com/submit/testimony-guidelines>