I’ve previously defended psychology as a science on the grounds that there is a material component that can be measured as cause-and-effect, even if the immaterial component may not be measured. To sum up, it is valid to measure IQ as, say, puzzles solved per minute but it is invalid to conclude from this measurement that “consciousness”, “miracles”, “magic”, “tampering”, etc are impossible. In any specific case, we can’t even prove that a miracle did not occur- we can only prove that the outcome wouldn’t have been surprising in the absence of a miracle.
Prayer studies are different. These assume that the logic of physical cause and effect must apply to supernatural, conscious entities. This is a laughably naive assertion.
Imagine a Satanist doodles some backwards Latin in a pentacle on the ground and a small blue fire results. He did not create the fire himself by physical cause and effect, but rather requested a miracle from Satan or one of his demons. It’s just as possible that the fire could have been green. Or maybe the demon sees the Satanist’s polite request for blue fire and thinks “Not today, work was hell and I’m just going to take a nap instead.”
Now, imagine instead that the Satanist writes some different backwards Latin requesting $1,000 fresh off the press. If the demon thinks the Satanist’s motives are sufficiently nefarious, he might grant the request. But if the demon decides the Satanist is one of those neopagan slackers who’s just going to pay his rent, smoke some weed, and stay home playing video games all day, the request will be ignored. Indeed, the demon knows that $1,000 in the hands of the neopagan slacker may ruin one life, but in the hands of a banker who can lend $100,000 using the $1,000 as a fractional reserve, that $1,000 can be used to ruin one hundred lives.
It’s possible that all the demons can get together and say “Hey guys, let’s pretend we follow a certain set of rules so these idiot Satanists think they’re the ones in charge. Anytime they make a pentacle, just do the thing they say. (Unless you’re worried it might damage our future plans. In that case, just lie and tell them they lack willpower or something and ask your immediate supervisor for help.)” If they do this, then there will be a perfect correlation between drawing a pentacle and getting a miracle, but this correlation will be purely illusory.
In a more pedestrian example, imagine you ask your friend for a dollar. He gives you one. You ask again. He refuses. What gives? You asked the same question of the same person, in the same tone, in the same location, etc. What happened to the cause and effect? There was none to begin with. Like in the case of the demons, it was illusory.
Now imagine you approach your friend with a clipboard and a wheelbarrow and say “Hi, I’m doing a study to see how often I can ask you for a dollar and then receive one. I will be analyzing the correlating variables of time, place, mood, etc to determine the most efficient way to ask you for money so that I am constrained only by the volume I can cart away in this wheelbarrow.” You might find that asking for a dollar has a statistically insignificant effect on the outcome of receiving a dollar, or not.
That’s why prayer studies are stupid.