Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species in 1859. His grandfather, Erasmus, was an important natural philosopher and evolutionist as well. So, it should be no surprise that his half cousin, another grandson of Erasmus, was also scientifically inclined.
A mugshot-esque photo of the masculine Galton
Francis Galton was the prototypical polymath, a true renaissance man. He studied anthropology, heredity and genetics, meteorology, astronomy, geography, statistics, and even invented a thing or two. Perhaps his most notable of his contributions are developing fingerprinting techniques in forensics and coining the term eugenics and the phrase “nature versus nurture.” In 1872, Galton authored a statistical analysis that was surely not appreciated by many of his colleagues and contemporaries.
“Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer” was written in the British Fortnightly Review, an influential magazine which also featured the likes of James Joyce, W.B, Yeats, and George Orwell. The magazine covered any and all topics with a fairly liberal bias. It was surely an honor for Galton to publish in the equivalent of today’s Nature, not that he was otherwise an intellectual slouch, having written over three hundred other articles as well. This one in particular, however, spoke to an important aspect of the scientific thought process. Sure, it has a specific aim in discussing prayer, but within it are discussed similar beliefs. Astrology, witchcraft, luck, and superstition are just a few topics touched along the way. Essentially, he formulated a thesis, made observations pertaining to it, analyzed the results, and drew conclusions, following proper scientific methodology 140 years ago.
Dalton realized that prayer ought to be the subject of scientific study. It had long been, and is still today, the church’s contention that prayer is above human understanding and that god works in mysterious ways. They would argue that the effectiveness of prayer, therefore, cannot be measured. How could we humans possibly know the mind of god? In retrospectively looking at statistics of longevity, Dalton thought you could at least determine whether or not the pious lived longer. In his time, heads of British state, or sovereigns, were routinely prayed for. Still today the whole of England is quite fond of saying “God save the queen.” Holy men should also be expected to live relatively longer lives; they devote their life to performing intercessory prayers and surely god would look favorably on them. By looking at longevity data, however, Galton showed the contrary.
Without reproducing all of the data here, the members of the royal family were shorter lived than any other class, including lawyers, medical professionals, the aristocracy, Army officers, the gentry, and the clergy. The clergy actually did live longer than most classes; however, of the eminent men of the day, those whose biographies were recorded publically, clergymen lived shortest of all. Galton concludes that once the plush, easygoing life of most rural clergy is factored out, those that actually worked hard to become “eminent” lived no longer than anyone else. The data generally is not very subtle, either. The sovereigns lived about 4 fewer years than medical professionals and 6 fewer than the gentry.
This entire analysis, like I said earlier, can be extrapolated beyond Galton’s intention. There is a large push, and reasonably so, for evidence-based or science-based medicine today. Modalities like chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture, naturopathy, and herbalism offer many promises to the patients who use them; however, there is no data to any of it. In fact, most “complimentary” and “alternative medicine” techniques have either strong evidence against their use or are based on wholly nonsensical theories, which themselves are not based on evidence.
Chiropractic practitioners, I won’t call them physicians, believe that spinal manipulation is capable of relieving subluxations, which otherwise interfere with the body’s innate intelligence. Many of them believe they can treat not only back pain, but also the common cold. Homeopathists make the claim that like cures like, so poisonings can, and should, be treated with things like arsenic. Of course, they also make the claim that water has memory, so diluted arsenic is more potent. The dilutions are not small, either. In order for there to be one molecule of active ingredient in one pill of the popular “flu remedy” Oscillococcinum, that pill would be the equivalent of the mass of the entire universe, five times over. Obviously, their claims are subject to scientific treatment, similar to Galton’s analysis of prayer. The same can be said for the other alternative modalities.
What medicine needs is proven treatment options. When a loved one is diagnosed with leukemia, you do not tell them to go to church. You should also not tell them to go to the naturopath. Bone marrow ablation therapy has been shown to offer more hope than acupuncture, which has not stood up to peer review. You can also look to the size of institutions to see how effective they are. MD Anderson practically owns a corner of Houston by providing the very best in cancer treatment. The Cleveland Clinic is a giant, multi-national health system that has been ranked number one in cardiac care for sixteen straight years. They do not get that way by using unproven treatments. Galton would be proud of them for using the scientific method to provide such impressive care.
The Streitberger Placebo needle. In one intital study, five patients said they felt the placebo needle, but not the actual needle
Even though alternative medicine advocates generally state that their treatment options are not amenable to scientific testing, they simply must be if they offer any effect. There are even placebo acupuncture needles available, so double blind studies, the highest level of research, can be performed. These studies, using an acupuncture needle which looks and feels like a real one, but sticks to the skin only with suction and a retractable needle, generally show no superiority for real needles, just as there is no evidence for longer life in those who are prayed for.
Galton wrote his piece a long time ago. He never could have expected the type of anti-science sentiment that would take hold of much of the civilized world. He could not possibly have thought that people 150 years after him would think the Earth is under 10,000 years old. And he must have thought it absurd that people with those thoughts could be elected to political office in America. It is important to note that Galton’s way of thinking is absolutely relevant today. His thought process is applicable to someone trying to determine efficacy in a research study or the same person in simple decision making. We should be weighing our beliefs against evidence that is available, not simply accepting them as dogma. Beliefs do not deserve respect on their own. The people who hold them due, but they also should be expected to be rational and introspective. It seems to be the only way to prevent more embassy bombings, doomsday cults, and ant-vaccination efforts.