Monday, December 6, 2010

Blog Revamp!

I have revamped my blog. I've redone the format (average monitor width, it seems, has increased since 2005) and used as a background image a picture I took at the Stanford Dish. I've always liked oak trees, perhaps because they remind me of Psalm 1. Oaks are really hearty trees. They are hardwoods, and so resistant to fires, and they have roots that go deep, making them resistant to drought. They're a true California plant. Also, they that lived near me when I was growing up, and we were friends in Boy Scouts. Maybe that's why. In any case, that's now my background: an oak tree at Stanford.

With the new layout, you can see popular posts, and a 'cloud' of the common things I have written about (to the right). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two topics on which I've written most frequently are Christianity and Philosophy. As such, I've included some of my relevant pictures: a cross etched into the cliff walls in Turkey by early persecuted Christians, and the Thinker from atop Rodin's Gates of Hell at Stanford (who knew the Gates of Hell were actually located near the center of the Stanford campus?). I've also added a tag: Best Posts to indicate my own personal favorites since I started. 

It's interesting to read the work of Younger David. He's a thought-provoking thinker, rash at times, and ignorant of many things. But he is rational and passionate. He'd be a very interesting person to get coffee with. But, alas, he no longer exists; there is only Older David. I'm glad that some record of Younger David's thinking persists.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Teaching High Schoolers "Real Science"

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach a group of high schoolers about whatever I wanted. The event was called Splash, and brought thousands of high schoolers and middle schoolers from the bay area in to Stanford to take short classes taught by Stanford students.

I decided to teach: "Real Science - What It Is and How to Spot BS" a lesson on what science was and what it could do. I had about 40 students over 3 classes, and it was a great time. The kids (grades 9-12 in my class) had a good time, and I did too. I am pictured above with Karl Popper.

My main points were:
1. Science works on matter. Matter's not all that matters.
2. Science works by experiments. Experiments have limitations.
3. Scientists are people. People are not objective.

These points are not all that controversial. I don't think many scientists who would disagree. But this revelation shook some of the kids pretty profoundly. Comment cards I collected at the end had questions like, "Then how do we know what is true?" and as if defeated, "Do all experiments have limitations?" It seems that many of my students believed in scientism. They believed that the only things that can be known are those that science can find out. And a better understanding of what science really was challenged this. Anyways, this goes along with what JP Moreland says about epistemology (ideas on how we can know things) being the central issue of our age. But that is for another blog post.

For more detail, my Powerpoint (with teaching notes!) can be found here (make sure you download the original to get the animations and teaching notes; click 'file' 'Download original').

Friday, December 3, 2010

Living an Extra Seven Years - Conclusion

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5
What is the conclusion of the matter? Church is good for you. You know it’s good for your soul. But now you also know it’s good for your body. Without looking at other factors, people who don’t go to church have an 87% increased chance of dying every year compared to those who attend more than weekly. This works out to a 7 year increase in life expectancy. Even after adjusting for risk factors, a 50% reduction in risk remains. The presence of this effect has been confirmed by many studies on over a hundred thousand people.

What should you do? If you’re in church, stay there. If you’ve left church, go back! It’s good for you! If you’ve never been to church, give it a try! I’m sure your religious friends would love to take you. Christians believe that God has built us to be in spiritual community. Is it any surprise that we operate better when live as we were made to?

In 1964, a group of doctors came together to critically evaluate the risks of smoking. They published their report and it, "hit the country like a bombshell. It was front page news and a lead story on every radio and television station in the United States and many abroad." News of a common behavior, smoking, increasing mortality by 70% was the public health crisis of our grandparents’ generation. Thousands of lives were saved by this information. Now the mantle falls to us. Our generation will be the one to make public this knowledge about church, to save the lives of thousands alive today and those yet to be born. We look at old movies and snicker because everyone is smoking; our children will look at our movies and snicker at people sitting at home on Sundays.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Living an Extra Seven Years - Medical Implications

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5
Church abstinence is today what smoking was in 1954. Everyone who’s looked at this knows it’s bad for you. There is debate on the mechanism of action, but not on the effect itself. What do we do? Or perhaps a better question is: did the Surgeon General do the right thing in condemning smoking before it was fully understood?

Because this is a behavior and not an opinion or belief, we can, in good conscience, recommend it to everyone. An atheist can go to church without changing a single belief. He can attend church potlucks and volunteer with church members without agreeing to a single point of theology. It wouldn’t be easy; an atheist might get withdrawal symptoms like a smoker, but if this can be pushed through, it’s probably a good thing in the long run. Pushing belief on an unwilling person had ethical implications, but a doctor can push a behavior like attendance with no ethical misgivings.

Even if we don’t care about atheists (or are afraid of their anger at such a reasonable suggestion), doctors should have absolutely no misgivings with asking Christians about church attendance and encouraging them to increase it. We have very solid evidence to support such a recommendation.

In the Hippocratic Oath, Doctors swear to ‘do no harm.’ If you went to your doctor, it would be unethical for the doctor to ignore your smoking habit; he has information that could prevent you harm; withholding it is wrong. How is this information about church attendance different? Can we doctors, in good conscience, withhold this information from our patients? Would this be anything other than harm?

Unfortunately doctors are terrified of religion. An enlightening essay was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on this topic (5). The author (a non-physician) told physicians that they should not talk about religion. Even though 77% of hospitalized patients want physician to consider their spiritual needs and 48% of patients want their physician to pray with them, the authors explain, “Patients often ask for things that are unrealistic or that may not be in their best interests.” After all, “physicians are not trained to engage in in-depth conversations with their patients about their spiritual concerns.” In other words, doctors are so bad at spiritual conversations, they shouldn’t even try. This idea comes straight from the Hippocratic Oath; all doctors swear to, “Never attempt a thing I’m not already good at.”  Actually that’s a lie. We don’t swear silly things like that. And neither should we live by them.

It is clear to me that doctors ought to recommend church attendance to every one of his patients. It is likely that patients will ignore him as they do with smoking. But if he truly cares about their wellbeing, he must at least mention the risk his patient is taking by staying at home on Sundays.

Consider the magnitude of this public health problem. Every year in the US, 2.5 million people die; if we consider the frequency of church attendance and adjust robustly, the number of deaths that can be attributed to missing church is 568,000 (9, 11, 12, 13). Every year, half a million people die because they missed church. This is one-fifth of the total mortality rate. In 2004, a paper was published to try to calculate the actual causes of death in the US (14). They tabulated that smoking causes 435,000 deaths per year. Church attendance is more important than smoking. Inactivity and poor diet cause 400,000 deaths per year. Church attendance is more important than diet and exercise. Deaths attributable to car crashes, alcohol, illicit drugs, sexual behavior, microbes, and incidents involving firearms together add up to 324,000 deaths per year. Church attendance is more important than all of these combined. Church abstinence is the single strongest association with mortality in the United States, but it doesn’t even get mentioned in a paper on the subject.

[All references are listed under the first post]

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Living an Extra Seven Years - Clarifications

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5
This effect is very interesting because it is so tightly linked to behavior, not belief. It doesn’t matter how ‘spiritual’ you feel or how religious you say you are (6). You only live longer when you actually go to church (though there is some suggestion that private religious practice counts). It’s very much like the behavior of smoking: people who do X, die. People who smoke, die. People who stay home on Sunday, die. It’s as simple as that.

Because the models have been adjusted, we can’t recommend anything other than the thing itself. For example, if it were the case that church only worked by reducing smoking, then we could say: either go to church OR quit smoking (if you can...). When they found out smoking was bad, they didn’t know entirely what parts of the cigarette caused the cancer; they could only recommend quitting altogether (today they understand the mechanisms better and sell ‘smokeless’ cigarettes). One day, that might be possible for church; but for today, we can recommend nothing but simply attending church.

It is important to note that we don’t have final ‘proof’ that church causes lower mortality. ‘Proof’ in a modern medical sense demands a particular kind of study called a Randomized Control Trial. Correlation is not causation (4). We cannot be absolutely certain that this effect is caused by church. That is to say, if a doctor recommends a non-churchgoer to go to church, we are not certain that the effect would remain.

The skeptic might say that there might be some other effect (maybe a yet-unobserved healthiness factor) which makes people go to church and also makes them live a long time. But it’s also possible that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, but that there is some yet-undiscovered sickness factor which makes people who smoke get lung cancer (we could certainly have argued this in 1950). To silence the skeptic, we’d have to get a big group of people and have them each flip a coin. Heads gets treatment 1 (smoking/no church); tails gets treatment 2 (no smoking/church). The problem is that we have good reason to suspect that treatment group 1 is going to die, and for better or worse, we decided killing people for science advancement was generally a bad idea. And even if we weren’t sure, nobody objecting to recommendations on church attendance would support an experiment randomly assigning people to church or no church. The experiment is ethically impossible. We package cigarettes with a warning label and doctors push patients into smoking cessation programs without ever having done a perfect study on their deadliness. How is church abstinence different?

[All references are listed under the first post]