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Monday, April 12, 2010

For novelty purposes only?

I sometimes hear about how prayer can heal people's illnesses or alter the course of history. Such claims are almost always "supported" using vague evidence- if any- and often appear to refer to a more metaphorical level than a literal one.* Alternatively, it always seems like the purported healing power of prayer only works on particular kinds of disorders.** This might seem odd at first but makes perfect sense once you realize that if you were to make a more explicit and testable claim for the efficacy of religious ritual, you open the door to falsification. And, particularly, to embarrassing falsification. Which brings us to Sanal Edamaruku who challenged India's foremost master of tantra to kill him with mystic power on live television:

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

Mr Edamaruku had been invited to the same talk show as head of the Indian Rationalists’ Association — the country’s self-appointed sceptic-in-chief. At first the holy man, Pandit Surender Sharma, was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to perform a series of rituals designed to kill Mr Edamaruku live on television. Millions tuned in as the channel cancelled scheduled programming to continue broadcasting the showdown, which can still be viewed on YouTube.

First, the master chanted mantras, then he sprinkled water on his intended victim. He brandished a knife, ruffled the sceptic’s hair and pressed his temples. But after several hours of similar antics, Mr Edamaruku was still very much alive — smiling for the cameras and taunting the furious holy man.

Indeed, it is still on YouTube and is really quite a joy to watch:

I'm not sure what you can really say in a situation except for, "Rock on Sanal Edamaruku!" As for the tantric guru- maybe he just needs to start labeling his work with "for novelty purposes only".***

* In other words, it sometimes goes like this: "Sure the praying didn't keep him from dying, but he sure reconnected with his son first!" Yes, well, that's nice, but not really what we were talking about.

** Or, put differently, why does god hate amputees? Because with all the healing miracles floating around, limbs just don't seem to grow back. Ever.

*** For my non-US readers: medical products in this country have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Part of that approval is demonstrating that your product actually works, which seems only fair. It's possible to sidestep this requirement, however, by creating highly suggestive packaging and adding a note, often in small print, somewhere on the box that indicates that the product is "for novelty purposes only" or "is not certified to prevent or cure any disease." It's a little like selling something called "Influenza-buster" and then writing in nanometer scale print that "this product is not intended to treat influenza". Dishonest? Yes. Legal? Yeah. Kinda funny? Oh, hell yes. Something we should keep around? No. Regardless, however, actual products use this loophole and I see no reason why one kind of quack remedy should be treated differently from another.

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Blogger Jay Livingston said...

Too bad. I was waiting for the punch line: "Said Mr. Edamaruku's widow, 'Well, that's show biz.'"

Monday, April 12, 2010 2:20:00 PM  
Blogger Marf said...

Another loophole is if they use "all natural ingredients" there's not really any approval process and they don't have to work.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 1:14:00 AM  

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