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In this week’s eSkeptic, Gary J. Whittenberger investigates whether the prayer of Georgia State Governor Sonny Perdue correlates to an increase in precipitation and how likely it was to have actually caused the increase.

Gary Whittenberger is a free-lance writer and psychologist, living in Tallahassee, Florida. He received his doctoral degree from Florida State University after which he worked for 23 years as a psychologist in prisons. He has published many articles on science, philosophy, psychology, and religion, and their intersection.


A Governor’s Prayer for Rain
An Empirical Analysis of a Supernatural Claim

by Gary J. Whittenberger

On Tuesday, November 13, 2007, Sonny Perdue, the Governor of Georgia, led a group of approximately 250 persons, including many state officials, in a prayer for rain on the steps of the state capitol in Atlanta.1 Georgia had been suffering an extreme drought, and the level of Lake Lanier, an important water reservoir near Atlanta, had been decreasing dramatically over several months. Governor Perdue believed that a divine intervention was necessary and so he boldly asked God to bring rain. Fully expecting his prayer to be effective, Perdue said “Hopefully we will be better conservators of the blessings God’s given us as he gives us more [rain].”1 At the time and place when the state’s highest ranking officer pleaded to the Almighty, it was cloudy, but it did not rain. However, sure enough, the next day there was light rain in Atlanta and much rain came to the area over the next couple of months. Many Georgians considered Perdue a hero and thought that his prayer had influenced God to increase rainfall to the drought stricken vicinity of Atlanta. But did it? Although there may have been constitutional problems with the Governor’s prayer,2 the purpose of this investigation is to determine whether the prayer was correlated with an increase in rain, and if so, how likely it was to have caused the increase.

Methodology
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When asked by reporters what outcome he expected from his prayer, Governor Perdue replied “God can make it rain tomorrow, he can make it rain next week or next month.”1 Although this is rather vague, I decided to give Perdue some leeway and use his own words to help define a time period to be assessed. The Governor presented his prayer on November 13, 2007, so “next month” was December 2007. It seemed reasonable to examine the amount of rainfall during the 48 days after the day of prayer, from November 14 through December 31, 2007, which I shall call the “post-prayer period.” For comparison, a “pre-prayer period” was defined as the 48 days from September 26 through November 12, 2007. The day of prayer itself was not included in either of these pre- and post-periods since part of that day fell before the prayer and part of it fell after the prayer, and only daily rainfall totals, not hourly totals, were selected for use in this study. Because the Governor presented his prayer on the steps of the capitol in Atlanta and he was especially concerned with that city and the surrounding area, I decided to use rainfall data from one site — the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. Rain is collected and measured at numerous sites in and around Atlanta, but I thought that the data from the airport site would be as good or better than the data from the other sites since accurate weather information is essential to the safety of airline traffic.

I obtained daily rainfall totals from a well-respected website, The Weather Source,3 for a time period of a little more than ten years from August 30, 1997 through January 27, 2008. There were no missing data points for this time period. The daily rain totals from the website are reported to the nearest hundredth of an inch, and for some days a “T” is recorded to indicate a “trace amount.” In order to ensure that every day had a numerical value, each “T” was converted to “.005” inches.

The total amount of rain during any 48-day period was calculated by simply summing the daily totals for the time period. Thus, the amounts of rainfall during the 48-day pre-prayer period (A) and during the 48-day post-prayer period (B) were determined. From these two numbers, two change scores were then calculated: (1) the amount of rain in the post-prayer period minus the amount of rain in the pre-prayer period (B-A), and (2) the percent change in the amount of rainfall from the pre-prayer to the post-prayer period (100 (B-A)/A).

Similar calculations were made for “control days,” which were defined as days within about the last ten years on which Mr. Perdue had not delivered an official public prayer at the capitol for rain to come to the Atlanta area. These control days were the 3,631 days from October 17, 1997 through September 25, 2007. Thus, for each of these days, the amounts of rainfall during the 48 days before (X) and 48 days after the control day (Y) were calculated by summing the daily totals for the respective time periods. For each of the control days, two change scores were then calculated: (1) the amount of rain in the 48-day post-control period minus the amount of rain in the 48-day precontrol period (Y-X), and (2) the percent change in the amount of rainfall from the pre-control to the post-control period (100 (Y-X)/X).

Two special samples of control days were examined. One was the sample of all control days occurring in the months of November from 1997 through 2006. Another was the sample of all control days with 48-day pre-control periods having low rainfall. These particular “low rainfall” pre-control periods had rainfall at the same level as, or at a lower level than, the actual 48-day pre-prayer period.

Results

The intuitions of many Atlanta residents were correct. There was an increase in rainfall from the 48-day preprayer period to the 48-day post-prayer period. The amount of rain in the former period was 2.485 inches and the amount in the latter was 5.765 inches, an increase of 132%! So, the Governor’s prayer was correlated with an increase in rain, an apparently large one.

Although upon first reflection, this 132% increase in rainfall seems impressive, it seems less so after comparing it to changes in rainfall for the non-prayer or control days. For the 3,631 control days, the change in rainfall from pre-control period to postcontrol period was a decrease for 49.8% of the control days, no change for .2% of the days, and an increase for 50% of those days. Thus, if any nonprayer (control) day were selected at random, we could expect this day to be followed half of the time by an increase in rain from the pre- to postperiod. So, any increase in rain after a prayer cannot be considered extraordinary at all.

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For the 3,631 control days, there was an increase in rainfall of 132% or more from pre- to post-period in 10.8% of the cases. So, although increases of 132% in rainfall are somewhat infrequent, they are not rare. Any increase in rainfall after a nonprayer day is likely to be as great or greater than the increase after the Perdue prayer day 21.6% of the time. Stated another way, the amount of rainfall increase following the Governor’s prayer is similar to what we would find about a fifth of the time for increases following days of no prayer from Georgia’s highest official.

To control for time of the year or season and its role in the frequency of increases in rainfall, I examined a subset of all control days, i.e., the set of nonprayer days occurring only in the month of November from 1997 through 2006. Of the 300 days which fell in this November subset, 17% were associated with increases in rainfall of 132% or greater from pre- to post-control periods. So, time of the year or season did play some role. Compared to all nonprayer days, it was about 1.5 times more likely for an increase in rainfall of at least 132% to occur after November nonprayer days (17% vs. 10.8%).

To control for the tendency for the amount of change in rainfall after a control day to be related to the amount of rainfall in the pre-control period, I noted that the total rainfall in the 48-day pre-prayer period was only 2.485 inches. Of the 3,631 nonprayer or control days, only 297 (8.2%) had pre-control periods with 2.485 inches of rain or less. Thus, the 48-day preprayer period could be considered even by a layman to be one of “drought.” So how likely was a large increase in rain — an increase of at least 132% — to occur following a nonprayer day preceded by a 48-day period of low rainfall, in which 2.485 inches of rain or less fell? Such large increases in rainfall followed 48-day periods of low rainfall in 49.8% of the relevant control days! For purposes of comparison, the 297 of the 3,631 control days (8.2%) with the highest rainfall in the pre-control periods were also examined. Of these, not a single one was followed by an increase in rainfall of 132% or more! Thus, a rather large increase in rainfall (≥132%) is likely to follow a low rain period about half the time, and to follow a high rain period none of the time when a governor’s prayer is not involved.

Discussion

The results of this study show that Governor Perdue’s official public prayer for rain on November 13, 2007 was followed by a 132% increase in rainfall from the 48-day period prior to his day of prayer to the 48-day period after his day of prayer. However, no evidence was found for a causal relationship between the prayer and the increase in rain. The Governor did not produce the increase, despite the claims of many that he did! This is clear from comparing the outcome of his day of prayer to the outcomes of nonprayer days. Nonprayer days were likely to be followed by rainfall increases equal to or greater than what followed the Governor’s prayer day approximately 11% of the time for all nonprayer days, 17% of the time for nonprayer days in November, and 50% of the time for nonprayer days preceded by periods of low rainfall. Any belief that the Governor produced an increase in rain by his prayer on November 13, 2007 can be considered to be wishful thinking.

What would it take to reject the null hypothesis that prayer does not cause rain (and therefore conclude that it does)? If the rainfall increase after the prayer had been greater than any increase seen after any nonprayer day in the previous ten years, would that evidence have been sufficient to reject the null hypothesis? An increase of more than 1400% would have been required since this increase actually occurred from pre- to post-control periods for the date of September 13, 2002. This is an increase more than ten times greater than the increase occurring after Perdue’s prayer. But even then, just because a record would have been broken, would that have necessarily meant that the prayer was the cause of the rainfall increase? Suppose that the increase in rainfall after the prayer day had been twice the greatest increase ever observed after a nonprayer day in the last ten years, i.e., an increase of 2800%? Would we consider that evidence enough to reject the null hypothesis? It is hard to say. Extraordinary claims regarding the magnitude of changes which occur naturally are quite different from extraordinary claims regarding events which have base rates of zero (e.g., a resurrection, virgin birth, a man passing through a wall, etc.).

Perhaps a single blockbuster recordbreaking increase in rain after a prayer will never be enough, nor should be enough, to justify the inference that the prayer caused the increase. Perhaps replication is needed. If Governor Perdue were asked to deliver several prayers for rain, not on a schedule of his own choosing, but on a random schedule, and each time his prayer was followed by a record-breaking increase in rain, then we might have the extraordinary evidence required to believe this extraordinary claim. Until then, we should remain skeptical.

References
  1. Salzer, James and Jim Galloway. 2007. “Perdue Asks Crowd to ‘Pray Up a Storm’: Drought is Message from God to Conserve Better, Governor Says.” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 13. Available at www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/stories/2007/11/13/rainprayer_1114.html
  2. Youthment, Steve. 2007. “AFS Protests Governor Perdue’s Prayer Meeting.” Atlanta Freethought News, 13(12): 3.
  3. The Weather Source. 2008. Available at www.weather-source.com

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46 Comments »

46 Comments

  1. jaffo says:

    Look, I’m not saying that the Governor’s prayer made it rain, but this article is exactly the sort of thing that caused me to not renew my subscription to Skeptic magazine. Skepticism is one thing, but going this far just to assault the religious beliefs of people is pathetic, pompous, and sad. Get a life, Skeptic. If people want to believe in the power of prayer, how about you just let them? You don’t know anymore or less about whether there is a God than do the people who believe him, her, or it to exist and that’s a fact. Hell, the fact of the matter is that for all of your rambling, the best statistic you could come up with to even remotely try and deny a causal connection between the prayer and the result was to say that 50% of the time, when it has not rained very much before a given day, it tends to rain more after that day. That’s the exact odds of pure chance. And to be honest, the numbers show that the increase in rain is LESS than what they saw in Georgia 80% of the time. Yet you ignore this particular number and plod along in this ridiculous attempt to ‘prove’ that even if there were a God, he, she, or it would never answer prayer. Again, I don’t for one minute buy that a God of any sort made it rain because the guy prayed, but I think going this far in a lame attempt to prove that to be the case is both pathetic and sad, not to mention pompous.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

      “You don’t know anymore or less about whether there is a God than do the people who believe him, her, or it to exist and that’s a fact.”

      How would you observe and test that fact?

      But the fact here is, that contrary to your claim, a religious claim have been tested and found falsified. That means that the veracity of religious claims is in question. But it also means that the existence of such an object that the specific model of gods portray is in question. And further the existence of any such objects, no matter the model, is questionable by the same test.

      Returning to your claim, it is an often repeated religious claim on nature which neither have empirical value nor has stood up to tests. We _do_ know a lot about nature and the firm rejection of gods as explaining any of it.

      [This is actually surprisingly easy to test after hundreds of years of scientific work.

      The null hypothesis is that natural (scientific) theories explains nature, specifically if they pass tests consistently. The opposite and falsification of the null hypothesis would be that, say, intercessory prayers were found to work. To be on the safe side use max error in a binomial test to establish the conventional 3 sigma on physics hypotheses as “beyond reasonable doubt”.

      Then AFAIU ~ 250 000 empirical tests would suffice. Scientific production is currently ~ 600 000 papers per year if I’m not mistaken; say on the safe side that a mere 1/10 makes only one actual test of a theory. Here a test can be any specific prediction of course. Then ~ 5 years worth of scientific work will tell you if the natural (if you ask me, but also considering the nature of valid theories) hypothesis that nature is fully natural is warranted.

      As it happens, no supernatural claims have been found to explain features of nature within this period, or more exactly they have never done it, despite being considered as above. I.e. no falsification occurred. So FWIW we _know_ that gods doesn’t exist, after a falsifiable test and beyond reasonable doubt no less.

      Now whether that tells us more about nature and science than of the religious state of mind is doubtful.]

  2. Ron says:

    Praying for rain, how ridiculous that this is being discussed at all

  3. Dr. Sidethink says:

    I would like to read more important things than this.
    There are guys who claim that the proper prayer is needed to cause the sun to rise each day.

    The real issue isn’t even whether the prayer is needed or not, but whether folks will waver in their voting decision ,based on the Gov’s demonstrated loyalty to Fundie madness.

    Dr. I.B. Sidethink Hp.D
    69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
    Reformed Church of the Subgenius

  4. Dorothy Thrower says:

    How do you know the non-prayer days were non-prayer days?

    Lots of people pray all the time for no-rain, since they like to play outdoor sports, and rainy days make the ground slippery and they might fall and get their whites all icky. Were their prayers rejected?

    And how many people were praying for rain before the Guv led the Prayathon. Why were their prayers rejected? Does God like public-attention-grabbing grandstanders?

    Probably.

    And did the Guv pray for rain before that day? And if not, did he not-care before? Or did he pray and his prayers weren’t answered?

    I suggest a massively-funded study in which everyone in the State of Georgia prays daily that it rain forty days and forty nights, full-bore, straight.

    If it comes to pass, I’ll be really impressed.

    The atheists (or is it atheist?) in Georgia will have to be compelled, of course, suggest confined at gun-point.

  5. Marc Blackburn says:

    This kind of article is a waste of time. Imagine the time spent on an analysis that the author knew ahead of time couldn’t prove anything: even if the day after the prayer there was a torrential downpour, the author wouldn’t have accepted it as caused by the prayer.

    This is not skepticism, it’s silly and counterproductive. Jaffo has every right to be frustrated he can’t learn to think critically from examples like this.

  6. Alan Donald says:

    Gary Whittenberger’s careful analysis reveals a splendid example of a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean”, first observed in the Nineteenth Century by the polymath Francis Galton. Put blandly, regression to the mean (RTM) says that extremes tend to be followed by moderation. Droughts are followed by rainfall simply because droughts are periods with less than average rainfall.

    The source of the phenomenon is not meteorological: it is statistical. Generate a sequence of random numbers (Excel will do that for you), and you will find that the very large or very small random numbers are followed immediately by numbers that are closer to the mean. In this context RTM is obvious. You chose those extremes simply because they were higher or lower than their neighbours.

    Here are some more examples.

    Give a class of students an IQ test and record the scores. Give the same class the same test three months later. The high-scoring students will score high again, of course. But if you isolate the students who scored high on the first test, you will find that their average score is lower on the second test. Their scores have regressed to the mean.

    Patients with chronic illness experience the most severe symptoms just before they improve. This makes money for quacks since the patients seek alternative medicine treatments just before they are about to get better anyway.

    Galton noticed the phenomenon when he recorded the heights of men and their adult sons. Sons of tall men were, of course, taller than average; but the sons of tall men tended to be shorter – closer to the mean — than their fathers. And the sons of short men tended to be taller than their fathers. RTM.

    Galton – an odd duck whose biography you may be interested in digging up – was initially baffled by this observation, for it seemed to him that it implied that after several generations everyone should be the same size. He had fallen into a logical trap now known as the “regression fallacy”. Check it out on the web.

    RTM is not obvious, but the bottom line is that if you pray for rain, you have probably chosen a day just before the drought is about to break. It’s been an uncomfortably hot and dry summer here in Vancouver, Canada’s rain capital. But I bet it rains within the next month. Without prayer.

    Alan Donald, Ph.D. (Statistics)
    Vancouver, BC.

  7. Concerned GA Citizen says:

    I really don’t think it’s a waste of time to discuss topics like this, or put scientific effort behind it. When you brush things like this off, it’s the same as saying it’s okay. If you have kids you’ll know what I mean, otherwise you probably won’t (and you probably go to church every sunday too).

    Anyway, the article was great and just goes to show that if you do have a *brain*, and you use it, prayer, god, jesus, santa, the easter bunny, and any other mythical beings man can create are just that.

    And it does take a “rocket scientist” to prove it. Too bad all of us aren’t rocket scientists!

    • Zonniemon says:

      If you have ever been out of the house you must know that many people of faith do indeed have brains and use them. Could you possibly believe that you are smarter than all the Christians in Georgia? And we are the the dumb ones?

      • seriously? says:

        yes zonniemon, clearly georgia is world renowned for being a bastion of free-thinking and model intelligence. bravo, i think i will eat my hat

  8. Richard says:

    I think Jaffo is wrong to say that this sort of exercise should not be done, to just let people go on with their beliefs. In fact, most of the people in the Atlanta area (and elsewhere) will be completely unaware of and unaffected by Whittenberger’s analysis. But it will show some people a way that this kind of thing can be rationally addressed. As for assaulting religious beliefs, if they don’t make sense, they should be assaulted.

    Governor Purdue was asking for rain, but a simple short-term increase in rain is insignificant if the long-term dry spell is not broken and the water level in Lake Lanier doesn’t return to “normal” (which of course may not be long-term normal for the area). Gov. Purdue appears to have been canny enough not to ask explicitly for that low-probability occurrence.

  9. Bjørn Østman says:

    Jaffo said, “If people want to believe in the power of prayer, how about you just let them?”

    Come on! This is the Skeptic Magazine. What did you expect? Why do you suggest religion should be off limits? Because being skeptical about it offends more people than being skeptical about astrology or homeopathy?

  10. Rodrigo H says:

    It is important for a vast array of reasons. One is that ignorance and obscurantism never takes a chance. They always try to nail science and reason.

    We in the social and public scenes need this exercises. We don´t vote for witch doctors.

    Let them go?

    Come on! Who wants to be Norway (70% non believers) when you can be Somalia (1%)?? I mean…Geezus!!

  11. Valentino Eigensinn says:

    Clarification please:

    What is the difference between the following two statements other than the percentage?

    “For the 3,631 control days, there was an increase in rainfall of 132% or more from pre- to post-period in 10.8% of the cases.”

    “Any increase in rainfall after a nonprayer day [i.e. 3,631 control days] is likely to be as great or greater than the increase after the Perdue prayer day [i.e. 132%] 21.6% of the time.”

    Thank you.

  12. Zonniemon says:

    This guy is supposed to be some kind of PhD and a professional? He should at least attempt to learn the rudiments of the Christian faith if he is going to presume to discredit it. God is not Aladdin’s genie. Christians know that God does not always give us what we ask for. He answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. Every Christian knows we dont command God. A prayer for intercession is a request, not a demand. This study is so basically flawed this mutton-head should be laughed out of academia. He wont because he is an atheist so he must be smart. Give me a break!

    • Valentino Eigensinn says:

      You make it almost too easy for us, Zonniernon. (It’s called ad hominem argument.)

      • Zonniemon says:

        Maybe you need to look up the term. I explained how his study is flawed based on reason and explanation of his subject. The criticism is based on this not anything personal. It is a bad study. He assumes that in order for a prayer to ‘work’ or God to be responsive there must be more rain after the prayer. I explained how this is not the case. If this guy doesnt know the function of prayers in the Christian religion, his study is flawed. But nice try…

        • Don says:

          Well, you did criticize him personally too. The study just looks at how likely the increase was a chance event – it doesn’t necessarily assume anything about the cause or how God works.

          • Chet Twarog says:

            An Atheist because there are no gods/goddesses.
            Actually, to be fair, the only god of this solar system is a spectral class G2 yellow dwarf star. The one god most worshipped by only Homo sapiens is the Solar Deity also known as RE, AMUN, APOLLO, Sol Evictus, etc. The Second most worshipped goddess: our moon Luna, Diana….

  13. Valentino Eigensinn says:

    And that is called straw man argument, Zonniernon. Rhetorics aside, what exactly is it you are trying to say?

    • Zonniemon says:

      The argument of the study is that since there was no evidence that the drought ended or that rainfall saved Georgia that prayer must not work. This study is obviously designed to discredit prayer and Christianity, not get at some truth. Sonny Purdue asked those people to come together to ask for God’s help. He did not suggest in any way that he knew it was going to produce rainfall. He knows God does not grant all wishes (I have met Gov. Purdue and is is not some dumb zealot). Based on that there is no way to test prayer scientifically. Prayer is a spiritual connection to the divine, not a wishing well.

      • Valentino Eigensinn says:

        As I said, a straw man argument. The study is saying that “no evidence was found for a causal relationship between the prayer [for rain] and the increase in rain.” That is the relationship Whittenberger tested scientifically, not less, not more.

        If “God does not grant all wishes”, as you say, what then is the purpose of praying FOR something?

      • Marc Blackburn says:

        “He assumes that in order for a prayer to ‘work’… there must be more rain after the prayer.” “The argument of the study is that since there was no evidence… that prayer must not work.”

        How else do you determine if something works? Christianity teaches that prayer works. To point at the times that it seems to work and say “See!” and then when it doesn’t work say “God decides when to answer prayer” is no more meaningful than flipping a coin.

        “Maybe you need to look up the term.” (ad hominem)

        No, you do. Your 2:29 post is an ad hominem attack from the first line to the last. “The criticism (that is based on) not anything personal” is nowhere to be found. Simply saying that Christians don’t have to expect prayer to work to still be believe it works is not an argument on how to test prayer.

      • Flash says:

        The truth is, you can pray to ‘god’, allah, santa, or bigfoot, and get the same results. Amazing the people and instances that yahweh supposedly chooses to say “no” and “yes” to. Yet the excuses for why ‘he’ decides to make these judgements are explained away as “only ‘he’ knows why ‘he’ decides what ‘he’ does”, no matter how lacking in common sense it may be. The same excuses are made for madmen, dictators, and mass murderers like Hitler, Manson, or Dahmer. Which coincidentally enough are the same attributes of yahweh. Only we are not expected to worship, follow, love, obey, or emulate men such as these, but it is expected to be so for ‘gods’…why is this ok and ‘acceptable’?

  14. Zonniemon says:

    Sorry guys, you are still missing the point . He assumes that the only way these prayers ‘work’ is if he can show some statistics for all of Georgia or some region that rainfall increased. Unless this guy can ask everyone involved what exactly what they prayed for and weather or not they got some kind of benefit he cant know what the outcomes were. There is no way to have enough information to test this. If Gov. Purdue were just grandstanding, God may not look favorably. The point is, again, this test is not valid because he doesnt understand the subject fully and he assumes too much about this particular prayer. This is not a valid test of prayer. Even this specific one. Do you think this guy has an agenda? Do you think this is a good scientific study? I’ve seen this kind of thing before.

    • Valentino Eigensinn says:

      I thought I grant you a rational discussion, Zonniemon, which was a far reach given your ad hominem attacks on Whittenberger. I gave you the benefit of the doubt. You didn’t deserve it.

    • Flash says:

      The best way to deal with this is to ask you of just ONE example of a documented scientifically tested prayer challenge where the ‘validity’ of prayer can be PROVEN to work. Then you have to deal with being able to prove that it was divine in nature and not caused by the power of the minds of the individuals praying or by any other explainable means or by that yet we do not understand as yet. There are MANY instances of ‘miraculous’ recovery by patients and events in nature that involved people who do not believe in your ‘god’. Is it not more logical to assume these instances are just naturally occuring events, as the odds for these things happening have exactly the same kind of odds as any other random events on the chance bell curve?

  15. Zonniemon says:

    You have given no argument to refute any point. There are variables concerning this prayer and these people Whittenberger cannot know. He doesnt know the faith of the people who prayed. He doesnt even acknowledge faith or personal relationships with God and the importance of that concept to Christians. This is not something that can be tested with general rainfall stats. Nothing ad hominem about that. It’s not an attack (you are the only one doing that). It’s the reason I believe this is a flawed study. I dont need benefit of the doubt from you. Do you have any counter argument or just insults? I really want to know if you think this is a good study and why. If you think this guy has an agenda.

  16. Toon says:

    Guys, Zonniemon has a point. Christians have long maintained that prayer is not a sure way to get a wish granted. So, while this article might seem like a scientific examination, it’s just preaching to the choir. Using one instance of prayer to prove/disprove whether it works or not is just bad science.

    Also, the percentage changes are rather useless, since they only convey a *difference* in rainfall, not actual rainfall. The same percentage increase on different dates can mean completely different rainfall rates.

    I found what Dorothy Thrower said, much more interesting. Christianity often projects itself as a religion that favours the modest, the weak, the innocent, etc. Yet somehow God decides only to answer a prayer if it comes from the governor? I bet it was some poor toddler praying for rainfall in his bed at night that actually caused the increase. God probably has some punishment in store for the hubris of the governor and his followers.

    In order to prove/disprove the effectiveness of prayer, you’d need to do a controlled study to find out if there is a statistically significant difference between praying and non-praying people with regards to their wishes being granted. If the research suggests there is no significant difference, then there is no use in praying. Whether God ‘occasionally’ grants a request voiced through prayer would be irrelevant, since he would be no better at it than chance.
    I believe this has been researched already and that the results support the ‘chance’ hypothesis. Sorry, Zonniemon.

  17. lou says:

    hmmm,

    the only thing I’m skeptical about is the fact not much information here is “free”. I tried to find your points disproving the validity of the Bible but i have to admit I’m struggling.

    I’m happy to hear “skeptical” points of view and actually came to this site to do so, but I’m finding it very hard as I have to either subscribe (and be a target of endless spam) or buy items through your store.

    Is it possible it is my money skeptics are after? If anyone can point me in the right direction or post a link, that would be much appreciated.

    Cheers :)

    P.S This has actually STRENGTHENED my faith in the Lord my God, as he would prefer to have me than my money!

    • lou says:

      And apologies for being off topic, but since this is active I thought I would have a better chance of a reply.
      IMHO I’ts a very dodgy article though, does nothing for the skeptics reputation. I agree with Jaffo, Dorothy, Mark and most others opinions on this “analysis”
      Lou.

    • Flash says:

      Here’s a link for you…

      http://www.EVILBIBLE.com

      I mean really…who would want ANYTHING from a ‘god’ such as this let alone a prayer being ‘answered’? As far as I’m concerned, yahweh is a ‘god’ YOU can have. I prefer to put my faith into beings that are not as obsessed with death, destruction, anger, jealousy, worship, damnation, etc. This would include MEN of peace and logic such as Ghandi, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Nietzsche, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc. And the great thing is, you won’t be damned if you choose not to believe in these men, but WHY you wouldn’t have faith in the beliefs of these men is beyond me, but consistant with the dogmatic beliefs of the ‘logic’ of cristianity.

  18. dmmaxwell says:

    Interesting discussion, and one worth having, I think. Here’s my $0.02.

    This article is not about the general effectiveness of prayer, though I could see how it could be interpreted that way. The premise here is: Did the governor’s prayer have a specific causal relationship to any increase in rainfall after the prayer? In this case, no.

    I hear this a lot from Christians: “God does answer all prayers, but sometimes his answer is no.” To argue about whether or not god decided to answer the prayer reduces god’s involvement to a coin flip, which is functionally no different from there being no god at all. Meaning – if gods answers are random, and if there were no god, it would still be random, then how do you tell the difference between the two? Until you can, we start with the null hypothesis. No god.

    @lou – I have a subscription, and I am not a ‘target of endless spam’. That speculation is unfounded. As for disproving the validity of the bible, I suggest reading several different versions of it cover to cover, as I have done. It’s a long task, true, but it’s worth it, I think. (Start with King James. That’s the really funny one.)

    P.S. – Do you tithe or give money to the church? How is that different?

  19. John C. Snider says:

    Maybe this is trivial, but you got the name of Atlanta’s airport wrong. It’s not “Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport,” but rather Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (HJAIA for short). I used to work there and they drilled that into our heads. I know, it’s a ridiculously long and complicated name–blame the politicians. Most Atlantans just call it “Hartsfield” or “The Airport.”

    Great article, though!

  20. lou says:

    dmmaxwel,

    I was wary of subscribing because in my experience more often than not unsolicited email almost always ensues. I am pleased to hear that it is not the case here, and therefore may consider it in the future.

    Thankyou for your recommendation, very sensible. As a result of being put/forced through a religious schools, I do actually own a few “different versions” of the Bible. And am working my way through a NKJ, Living Bible and Good News Bible. I have also been reading the freemasons Bible (KJ I believe?) when I have time.
    I have also stumbled across an online parallel Bible which as far as I can(so far)see kind of disproves your theory.
    But I would be grateful if you would point out an example?

    I do tithe, but only the percentage to the church, as sadly many churches are already quite wealthy and as we all know too well some in power abuse this. Needless to say if the Pastor drives a mercedes I would change my church!. rather I do as I believe the Bible (New Testament) encourages and prefer to donate to charity, my preferences being the Salvation Army (Christian) and Medicans Sans Frontiers (non-demoninational). I also volunteer a day a week at the local salvo’s store. You asked how is this different, well for starters its actually helping someone who needs it.

    I’m all for critical thinking, its something not widely taught in school curriculum anymore. And I’m not expecting something for nothing I was just suprised there were a limited number of articles to “enlighten” me without committing to a subscription.

    “I hear this a lot from Christians: “God does answer all prayers, but sometimes his answer is no.” To argue about whether or not god decided to answer the prayer reduces god’s involvement to a coin flip, which is functionally no different from there being no god at all. Meaning – if gods answers are random, and if there were no god, it would still be random, then how do you tell the difference between the two? Until you can, we start with the null hypothesis. No god.”

    I actualy agree with this to a point, because prayer can be a complicated issue. At least two people must pray together and be united in their motivation and selflessness before they can expect anything. And do not expect anything if you are holding grudges or have mistreated another without first asking sincere forgiveness. And I can tell you as I’m sure you know, due to basic human nature this really does not happen often!

    Please as I mentioned earlier try and be patient with me as I am also here to learn.

    Cheers, Looking forward to a reply

  21. AZ says:

     For me the take-home point for this article could have been more simply put (and pulled fewer chains – intentional or not) by using the fine description of the statistical term “regression toward the mean” put forth by Alan Donald. It’s a neat concept to think about and apply for us statistics consumers.
    Thus informed, the plus side of the Believer’s Answered Prayers tally would be hugely
    diminished!

    jaffo’s – don’t pick on the praying public even tho I don’t agree with them – comment pulled my chain real good.
    I’m tired of keeping polite at the dinner table so as not to upset granny. Why should anyone be silent about their identity? Atheists are discriminated against by the whole spectrum of social difference. Try running for political office as an outed atheist. Maintaining a polite reticence only enables the oppressors and doesn’t move forward the discussions about separation of powers and doctrine-free public education.

    AZ

  22. Mark A. Craig says:

    Forget the statistical nonsense: what I’d like to see is the use of a Georgian equivalent of a FOIA request to find out exactly how much PLANNING went into the selection of that date for the governor’s publicity stunt. How many people were involved in the process, and how much SCIENCE did they use to pick the date?

    That’s a far better route to debunking this sort of “disingenuity” than any amount of statistical manipulation.

  23. Gary Whittenberger says:

    Author of Article Weighs In on Comments

    I want to thank those who made comments on my article. I’ll certainly reflect on them some more. However, here are my thoughts on some of them:

    In #1, Jaffo said: “Get a life, Skeptic. If people want to believe in the power of prayer, how about you just let them?”

    Jaffo seems to want popular religious beliefs, related to a deity’s interactions with the natural world and held intensely by many people, to be immune from empirical investigation and rational analysis. I’m pleased that Skeptic does not conform to his wishes.

    In #2, Ron said: “Praying for rain, how ridiculous that this is being discussed at all.”

    People frequently pray for rain (and other desirable outcomes) and a large percentage of them actually believe that their prayers work to bring rain (or the other outcomes). What would be ridiculous is to not investigate and discuss these common beliefs! Are they true or false? Are they probably true or probably false?

    In #4, Dorothy Thrower said: “How do you know the non-prayer days were non-prayer days?”

    I gave a precise definition of “non-prayer days” in my report. These were not defined as days during which nobody prayed, but they were defined as days on which the Governor did not render a public prayer for rain on the steps of the capitol building (with 250 people joining him). I suspect that there was some praying for rain for Atlanta going on during the “non-prayer” days. However, this may be considered to be background noise. The background noise, the random praying of the populace, would not be expected to be any greater during drought periods when the Governor did not make a public prayer than when he did. (If anything, you might expect the opposite, i.e. that background praying might be a little greater during the Governor’s public prayer, which would lead to a greater expectancy among religious people for the prayer’s effectiveness.) The study investigated the efficacy of a particular prayer by a group of people, led by the Governor, which took place at a specific time and place. Many people in Georgia believed that the Governor’s prayer worked and caused an increase in rain. My study found no support for that belief.

    In #4, Thrower also said: “Lots of people pray all the time for no-rain, since they like to play outdoor sports, and rainy days make the ground slippery and they might fall and get their whites all icky. Were their prayers rejected?” A scientific study could be conducted to see whether or not prayers for no rain work any better than prayers for rain. Whenever deities are hypothesized to interact with the natural world, then a scientific study can probably be done to investigate the hypothesis.

    In #5, Mark Blackburn said: “This kind of article is a waste of time. Imagine the time spent on an analysis that the author knew ahead of time couldn’t prove anything…”

    The hypothesis was that the Governor’s prayer worked to cause an increase in rain. By intuition, many people in Georgia already considered the hypothesis to be proven. But, in science we don’t prejudge the results before collecting data and analyzing it in a rational way. In the study the hypothesis was not supported by the results.

    In #5, Blackburn also said: “…even if the day after the prayer there was a torrential downpour, the author wouldn’t have accepted it as caused by the prayer.” This topic is actually covered in the Discussion section. How great must the rainfall be to think that a prayer caused it? Does the latency of the rainfall make a difference to peoples’ beliefs? Should it? Interesting questions. I concluded that replication under different conditions is a very important consideration.

    In #6, Alan Donald talks about Regression to the Mean.

    I think he is right on target here. People often perceive causal relationships in phenomena which are merely instances of Regression to the Mean. And politicians and religious leaders sometimes play on this tendency.

    In #7, GA Concerned Citizen said: “When you brush things like this off, it’s the same as saying it’s okay.”

    Yes, it’s not okay to believe propositions about the world are definitely true when they are probably false. Science helps us make fewer errors of this type.

    In #11, Valentino Eigensinn asked for a clarification, about the difference in meaning of two sentences. Good question.

    10.8% of all 3631 nonprayer days is 392 days which is the total number of nonprayer days for which there was an increase in rain of 132% or more. On the other hand, as stated earlier in the article there was some increase in rain on 50% of the of the 3631 nonprayer days, which amounts to 1816 days. Thus, among all nonprayer days on which their was some increase (1816 of them), on 392 days there was an increase of at least 132%. And thus, 392 is 21.6% of 1816.

    I think my two statements referenced by Valentino, as they are written, are accurate, but I can see why they could be confusing to the reader. I think I could have written them to be more clear and less confusing.

    In #12, Zonniemon said: “Christians know that God does not always give us what we ask for. He answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.”

    Even if God exists, it appears from a systematic examination of the evidence that God probably never gives us what we ask for. Think about what the evidence would have to look like to support the hypothesis that God provides favorable outcomes for requests of a specific type. How can “prayer works for that type of problem” be discriminated from coincidence? Only properly designed scientific studies can help make this judgement. Intuition doesn’t cut it.

    Zonniemon also said: “If this guy doesnt know the function of prayers in the Christian religion, his study is flawed.”

    A great many people in the Christian religion say that one function of prayers is to cause desirable outcomes. But do they have this effect? Only scientific studies can shed light on the question. If positive and negative outcomes have the same distribution of occurrence after prayers as not after prayers, then the belief that prayers work is undermined.

    In #13, Zonniemon said: “The argument of the study is that since there was no evidence that the drought ended or that rainfall saved Georgia that prayer must not work.”

    No, this describes neither the results nor the conclusion of the study. The increase in rain after the one specific prayer by the Governor was not different from what we would expect after no prayer; his prayer did not work to produce his desired result.

    Z also said: “This study is obviously designed to discredit prayer and Christianity, not get at some truth.”

    The study was designed to get at the truth of the matter– Did the Governor’s prayer work to cause an increase in rainfall? No, there was no support for that idea in the results from the study. Do the results discredit prayer and Christianity? The results do undermine the beliefs of many Christians in Georgia that the prayer worked to produce an increase in rain. Sorry, it didn’t. The results could have turned out differently, but they didn’t.

    Z also said: “He [the Governor] did not suggest in any way that he knew it was going to produce rainfall.”

    Actually he did! The Governor said “Hopefully we will be better conservators of the blessings God’s given us as he gives us more [rain]” The Governor expected his prayer to produce a favorable outcome; many people believed it did. Sorry, but it didn’t.

    Z also said: “Based on that there is no way to test prayer scientifically.”

    Actually there are quite a few ways to test prayer scientifically. My study only demonstrated one way. Prayer has been tested scientifically many times. One of the best designed recent studies is this one: Benson, Herbert, et al. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.” American Heart Journal 151.4 (2006): 934-42. Check it out.

    Anytime deities are assumed to interact with the natural world, then science can be used to test hypotheses about the claimed interaction.

    In #14, Z said: “There is no way to have enough information to test this.”

    Actually, there is. To test the hypothesis that the Governor’s prayer worked, enough information was collected in this study. I wasn’t testing the efficacy of all prayers, only this one, but the results might possibly be generalized to some extent to other prayers for rain or prayers by Governors or to prayers of Governors for rain. I wouldn’t stretch it too far, but I would stretch it a little.

    However, I’ve never seen a well-designed scientific study that supported the efficacy of intercessory prayer. If anyone has seen one, let me know. Send me the reference at TallySkeptic@comcast.net.

    Z also said: “The point is, again, this test is not valid because he doesnt understand the subject fully and he assumes too much about this particular prayer. This is not a valid test of prayer.”

    Please Z, specify exactly when you think intercessory prayer will work. Who would be the persons doing the praying? Who would be the persons being prayed for? What religious faith would both groups need to endorse? What would be the desired outcome? What would be the problem being addressed? At what place and what time would the prayers be given? How would we guard against a placebo or expectancy effect? How many subjects would we need? Maybe we could design a solid scientific study to ascertain whether or not prayer works when you believe it should work. If you want to answer this question, send me a response to TallySkeptic@comcast.net.

    In #16, Toon says: “Guys, Zonniemon has a point. Christians have long maintained that prayer is not a sure way to get a wish granted.”

    But Christians have long maintained that prayer does get wishes granted, whether or not it is a sure way or not. I haven’t seen any well-designed scientific study to support the claim that prayer works for any particular class of problem (rainfall, medical problems, cruelty, violence, etc.), and so I think the claim is probably false.

    Toon also says: “Also, the percentage changes are rather useless, since they only convey a *difference* in rainfall, not actual rainfall.”

    The percentages are calculated for differences which are differences in actual quantities of rainfall. The conclusion would have been the same if the analysis had been conducted using data at the more basic level. It wouldn’t matter.

    In #18, dmmaxwell said: “I hear this a lot from Christians: “God does answer all prayers, but sometimes his answer is no.”

    Yes, I agree; I hear that a lot also. It is common for Christians to confuse a “no” with “no desired response”. They just aren’t the same thing. A “no” is an actual communication indicating that somebody in the position of granting a request has actually decided not to grant the request. With a “no desired response”, there is not an actual communication. In this situation, a person does not know whether there is anyone hearing, listening, or deciding. The lack of a desired outcome is the same in both instances, but the conditions are very different. “No response” is just not equivalent to “no”; they have very different meanings. Very few Christians actually claim to hear the voice of God saying “no” and even fewer claim that when they hear such a voice, it is heard by others around them.

    Dmmaxwell also said: “Meaning – if gods answers are random, and if there were no god, it would still be random, then how do you tell the difference between the two?”

    Excellent point. I cannot improve on that concise statement.

    In #19, John C. Snider said “It’s not “Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport,” but rather Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (HJAIA for short).”

    You are correct. My apologies to Mr. Jackson. I think that at one time the “Jackson” was not in the name.

    In #20, Iou said: “At least two people must pray together and be united in their motivation and selflessness before they can expect anything.”

    Approximately 250 people prayed together with Governor Perdue on the steps of the Capitol and were presumably united in their motivation and selflessness before they expected any increase in rain. Their prayer did not work! Would you be willing to screen out unmotivated and selfish people ahead of time before we used them as people to pray in a scientific study? How would you do that? Could you also screen out people holding grudges or who have mistreated another without first asking sincere forgiveness? Maybe your conditions for prayer to “work” are so extreme that nobody should ever expect a prayer to work. Come to think of it, maybe that is why there is no solid scientific evidence to show that intercessory prayer works for any class of problems.

    Thanks for the comments, except for the ad hominem attacks.

  24. Dr. Sidethink says:

    Ad Hominem stuff

    My previous post asserts
    “The real issue isn’t even whether the prayer is needed or not, but whether folks will waver in their voting decision ,based on the Gov’s demonstrated loyalty to Fundie madness.”
    loyalty to Fundie madness.

    Clearly an Ad Hominem

    AH is not a refutation of someone’s position so much as a caution that his/her( “hier” PC) accuracy, logic or rhetoric may be suspect .

    I think it’s OK to use AH as a warning, and that it is incorrect to declare an argument invalid or unsound based on this.
    But after all, who could trust anyone who is a Subgenius??!!

    Dr. I.B. Sidethink Hp.D
    69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
    Reformed Church of the Subgenius

  25. Melany says:

    The governor was in a position over his people at the time of said prayer. As someone with opposing views, I am greatly upset by this guys pompous belief that his prayer made it rain. What will he pray for next? The recession to end? Murders to stop? Mixing religion and government is a big issue, and this is a big deal to some.

  26. Brewddhist says:

    The governor’s prayers were answered, just a bit later than expected, when a huge storm swept across the southeast and killed around 50 people in February, 2008.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/06/us/06cnd-storm.html

  27. Stacy M. says:

    I’ve lived in Georgia for roughly twenty years. Praying for rain in Georgia in November is like going out at six in the morning and praying for the sun to come up.

    A cynical move on the part of a typically useless southern republican. I notice that he hasn’t been praying for the legislature to put the stars and bars back on the state flag per the central plank of the campaign that carried him into the governors office to begin with. Misdirecting clueless hillbilly morons seems to be all his brand of politician is capable of doing.

  28. Ron Knox says:

    Our Founding fathers guaranteed us freedom of religion ? Or freedom FROM religion? The belief in God is a personal one. In my personal experience I was forced from a committee on human rights in Florida by asking the members to have a moment of silence instead of a Christian prayer at lunch meetings. The food was state bought, state cooked on state land by state employees during a state meeting yet the claimed the it had nothing to do with separation of Church and State. Non of them could see the point being made. If you could force me out of chair because I belief in separation of church and state then you are not understanding WHY we need separation of church and state.
    The Governor committed a crime of honor by misrepresenting the state natives who are not Christian and yet voted for him. Your belief is fine and good but it has no business in law and government. Like in my problem is was against that tenet yet they bent it to there own needs.

  29. peter says:

    How far off the mark the arguments fall

    The claim is made that a prayer leads to certain results.
    Statistical analysis simply says the resulting rainfall can more easily explained by natural causes instead implying divine intercession.

    So – what is the fuss? Where were the christian critical outcries when a fraudulent study – later exposed as such – was circulated claiming that prayer over patients has beneficial effects? That one was – because it fits nicely within a magical belief system – just accepted as fact. Too bad the guys perpetrating that study were just your regular sort of academic crooks, with a whiff of christian aroma.

  30. Diell Louis says:

    One cannot prove or disprove that God answers prayers with any number of anecdotal cases, especially when the test prayer is something that can easily happen in the scientific or medical world without the assistance of prayer. Praying for more rain and getting more rain is as old as the earliest native tribes in America and probably a lot older.

    A real test for prayer would be to pray for something that has never happened in the medical or scientific world, like a human growing a new limb where none existed before. If after a prayer for a new limb a person grew one where none existed before, that would go a long way to demonstrating that God at least does answer some prayers.

    Another test would be to pray to part the Red Sea, give it a few minutes, and then watch it part. If it does, in fact, part within a few minutes and people are able to cross it on foot, those who believe in the power of prayer will have taken their case to a new level. But just praying for stuff that happens everyday in our world anyway, proves nothing.

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