DATE November 14, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon discusses
new options for Iraq
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for The Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
President Bush has made it clear he understands American voters are frustrated
with the war in Iraq. He met yesterday with leaders of the Iraq Study Group,
the bipartisan panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and
former Congressman Lee Hamilton to explore policy options on the war.
Democratic congressional leaders have said they want American troop
withdrawals to begin in four to six months. But the president cautioned
yesterday that any military options must depend on conditions on the ground in
For a look at what's happening on the ground and what military leaders think
about policy alternatives being discussed, we're checking in again with
Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He's the
author, with General Bernard Trainor, of the book "Cobra II: The Inside Story
of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq." Gordon returned recently from several
months in Iraq.
Well, Michael Gordon, this is the time when a lot of people in Washington are
beginning to rethink Iraqi policy. And you wrote in a piece recently that the
military actually embarked on its own effort in September to assemble some of
its best minds to begin considering what some alternatives might be. Who are
some of the folks that the Army taps for this, and are there new ideas that
Mr. MICHAEL GORDON: It's interesting what's happening in Washington now,
because for the longest time the Bush administration insisted that they had a
good strategy for Iraq. In fact, they called it a strategy for victory. They
talk about in somewhat less ambitious terms now. But nonetheless, they
started out with a strategy for victory, and the officials and the military
were reluctant to acknowledge that they were doing any work on a plan B,
because that might indicate that the strategy for victory wasn't going to be
successful. Well now, particularly in light of the election, everybody is
advertising that they're doing new thinking, recognizing that the initial
strategy, basically, failed and needs to be adapted, at a minimum. And the
military is very much like that, so General Pace, who's the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff was saying recently that, stressing that he's taking a
new look at our strategy in Iraq.
And really what has happened is, in the September time frame, General Pace
pulled together roughly a dozen or so officers and gave them the task not only
to look at Iraq, but also Afghanistan and other areas in the Middle East and
Southwest Asia, and kind of brainstorm and come up with new ideas. What's
interesting to me is, these are people who've been on the ground in Iraq,
who've fought there--at least many of them are--fought there and had some
success there, spent significant amount of time there. For the Army, it's a
year-long tour. For the Marines, it's seven months. And sometimes these
people have spent several tours there. So these are some of the brainier,
more innovative guys in the military, and they've been pulled together in what
is still a pretty close hold operation. No one's talking too much about what
they've come up with. But what I've been told is that they're not looking for
the lowest common denominator. They're not trying to produce a consensus
document that all 13 or so of them can agree on, but rather throw out an array
of ideas that General Pace can select from in advising the president.
DAVIES: You know, you wrote in early October, apart from this effort that you
just described, you wrote in early October that the Army and Marines were
finishing work on a counterinsurgency doctrine that makes the welfare and
protection of civilians an essential element of military strategy. And I'm
wondering has that effort, has that doctrine, affected the practice of
soldiers and Marines in Iraq that you can tell?
Mr. GORDON: Well, that effort, actually, should be formalized any day now.
I was writing from an earlier draft of the document, and sort of really,
essentially the final draft, and it will officially be released I think very
soon. I think the drafting of the new counterinsurgency doctrine is an
important step in changing the culture and mindset of a lot of people in the
Army and Marines.
But I think it is more informed by the experience in Iraq than informing it.
And by that, I mean, you know, for three years now, the American military's
been in Iraq. And when you're out there, you see a lot of units. And they
know all of this. And they've been--they've learned that if you want to win
over the population, you have to be very discriminate in the use of force, and
that it's important to get the Iraqis to do as much as possible.
And the doctrine is really drawn on the lessons of Iraq, but it's with an eye
toward training the American military for Iraq and future contingencies,
because whatever you think of all the different recommendations in Washington,
I suspect we'll be in Iraq for years to come in one capacity or another.
DAVIES: You know, there was a set of pictures that were going around on the
Internet, and I think it may have been captioned something like, `pictures you
won't see in The New York Times,' but they were a series of photographs from
Iraq which showed civilians expressing enthusiastic support for American
presence and posing in friendly ways with American troops. And I wonder what
your impression is of the extent to which Iraqis welcome and value the
American presence. I'm sure it varies around the country, but what's your
Mr. GORDON: Well, first of all, those are pictures you would find in The New
York Times. I mean, but there was a drive-by killing, and I was with a
captain who was trying to be with the Iraqi police and stop these sorts of
killings and find out what they were all about. And we were leaving the Iraqi
police station, and there was a woman sitting there, standing there, a very
sad expression on her face with an old man. They'd been there all morning.
No one was paying them the slightest attention to them. Turned out it was the
wife of the guy that was killed. She was just trying to get into her own
police station and get a document so that she could get the body of her slain
husband and bury him. No one was giving her the time of day.
So this American caption, Albertos, he was coming out and he says, `What's
this?' And the interpreter, the "terp" as they call them, says, `Well, this is
the wife, and that's the father.' And he says, `What do they want?' And he
says, `Well, they just want a piece of paper so they can get her husband's
body out of the morgue.' So the captain turns around, he goes back into the
police station, and he talks to the Iraqi police and says, `Listen, can you
give her this paper?' And the guy says, `No problem. Can do.' But you just
got the feeling that this is just going to go into some big in basket
somewhere and nothing would happen. So this American captain said, `No, no,
we're going to take care of this right now.'
So he grabbed this Iraqi police captain, a police commander, he took the wife
and the father and we all headed off to the Yarmulk Hospital together. And he
said, `We're going to get this solved and squared away right now,' because I
think he had the sense it wasn't going to happen. So we get to the
hospital--again, lot of runaround. `There's nothing we can do. You need
this, you need that.' American captain says, `Where's the morgue?' He marches
to the morgue, presents the documents.
And there's a problem for Iraqis even to retrieve their dead, and this is the
problem: they're fearful that the very people that killed, you know, their
relatives will be watching the hospital to see the relatives, because they
know the relatives will come to get the dead. And then they'll target the
relatives. So they're in jeopardy sometimes when they go to a hospital to get
their dead. And also there's concern that some of the ministries, the Health
Ministry, in particular, is run by the more radical Shiite elements.
But anyway, we got the body back, they put it in kind of a plywood casket,
strapped it to the hood of a Chevy Caprice, which was their car, and then the
Americans Stryker vehicles provided the escort across the city so she could
get to some protected area and bury her husband. It was very unfortunate, I
thought, that it took American intervention for this woman to safely retrieve
the body of her dead husband and get him to a cemetery to bury him. And I
have to think--I don't know what she thinks now, but I have to think that
there's some measure of gratitude, at least, if not to the American forces who
she may blame for this whole problem, at least to that captain who took the
time to help her out in her distress, when nobody else would.
DAVIES: My guest is Michael Gordon. He is chief military correspondent for
The New York Times. He is also author, with General Bernard Trainor, of
"Cobra II: the Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq."
Well, I want to talk a bit about some of the policy alternatives that
Americans are now going to be exploring in Washington now that the elections
are over, and the American public seems to have sent President Bush a message
of disapproval about the Iraq war. Of course the Iraq study group is going to
be, this bipartisan group is going to be looking at policy alternatives. It
spoke this week with the president and some senior administration officials.
And a lot of Democratic leaders in Congress are saying they will press to
begin withdrawing troops in four to six months. Republican Senator John
McCain says he thinks more troops are needed. Do the military leaders you
speak with think they can succeed in Iraq with fewer troops?
Mr. GORDON: No. I think that--well, you know, the military, as an
institution, has a variety of voices and opinions, just as the media does and
just as the political class does, so there's no one viewpoint within the
military. But I think that most of the people I've talked to who've been in
Baghdad think that the notion of reducing American forces there on a fixed
timetable is not useful. And I, too, see some problems there. And the
situation in Baghdad is pretty precarious right now, and the situation in
al-Anbar province in western Iraq, particularly the provincial capital of
Ramadhi, that's essentially up for grabs. And I don't see how having even
fewer forces in the near term makes the situation more secure.
You know, for years, people have been complaining that Rumsfeld didn't send
enough troops, which I believe is true. And now that we're in a very critical
phase of this operation in Baghdad, people are saying, `Well, we need to have
fewer troops.' So I'm not quite sure how I follow the logic of that argument,
especially if you're doing it on a fixed timetable, something has to happen in
a few months. Well, then the argument becomes, the people who propound this
view, that, well, the reason we need to reduce is to prod the Iraqis to do
more so that their security forces can take on more responsibility. Well,
we've already seen that their security forces don't always acquit themselves
well. So just turning things over to them might encourage the prospects of
civil war more than reduce it.
I mean, Iraq is a very, very complicated place and what concerns me a little
bit is that some of these policy alternatives that are being discussed in
Washington seem to be fashioned with an aim to gaining a concensus of what
might be acceptable in Washington, not necessarily what would work best in
DAVIES: Michael Gordon is my guest, he is chief military correspondent for
The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is Michael Gordon. He is chief
military correspondent for The New York Times. And he's author, with General
Bernard Trainor, of "Cobra II: the Inside Story of the Invasion and
Occupation of Iraq."
You know, I guess there are something like 140,000 troops in Iraq now. Is
that about right?
Mr. GORDON: That's about right. It fluctuates because we're in a transition
phase where the 4th Infantry Division is going to be coming out and the 1st
Cavalry Division's coming in, so there's a bit of overlap while that occurs,
but you know, it's in that range of 140 to 150.
DAVIES: Well, you know, I just think back to the mid-`60s and Vietnam, when
you had a small American presence go to a substantial American presence, and
as it went poorly, you know, more troops and more troops were added to try and
stabilize the situation, until by, I guess, `69 you had 540,000 American
troops. And it still didn't go well. And I guess I'm just wondering, those
who look at the impact of increasing the American presence in Iraq, would
doubling the troops make a big difference? Would you triple the amount of
troops? What are people thinking?
Mr. GORDON: Well, if you look at the number of forces we have in Iraq,
what's pretty striking is it's stayed pretty constant. I mean, it's
fluctuated between 150, 140, you know, down to, you know, towards 100, but
it's always been within that kind of range. So my sense is, the reason we
have the current number of troops in Iraq is not because it's the correct
number--it's not, it's too few if you really wanted to secure Iraq--but it's
because it's all we're capable of deploying, because our Army is too small for
all of the missions that's been thrust upon it.
We haven't even talked about Afghanistan. That's beyond the scope of this
conversation, but Afghanistan's become a very difficult situation. NATO's
involved in there. There are 20,000 American troops in there and they're
probably not enough. In fact, the senior British commander in Afghanistan
recently said that, implied, that they needed more forces there. As he put
it, if you want to win quicker, you need more forces, because he's trying to
be politic, not saying they don't have enough.
So we have the number of forces we have in Iraq because of--it reflects more
the size of our own military more than the requirements of Iraq. And I think,
certainly in the past, we should've had more if our goal was to secure Iraq
and fight the insurgency. Really, the hope and the calculation on the Bush
administration's part, and I think among many of the people in Congress, has
been, `Well, we'll need more forces, we're going to rely on the Iraqis to
provide the increased number of troops.' That's been the Bush strategy, that's
been General Casey's strategy, and I think that's the Democrats' strategy.
The question McCain, I think, and others are asking is, `What if they don't
provide those extra troops?' And the issue they're putting on the table is,
would it be worth sort of a one-time increase in Baghdad--let's say, I don't
know, increase 50 percent or 100 percent, I don't know--and just to try to
finally gain hold of the situation there. If you wanted to do it--and I don't
think we're going to do it--but if you wanted to do it, it could be done by
extending the troops that are currently in Baghdad as the new division comes
in. Because, as I said, we don't have enough forces to do it otherwise.
You'd have to prolong the deployment of the guys in Baghdad. That's the issue
McCain is surfacing.
The thing is, the elections seemed to cut in the other direction. It seemed
that the public is yearning for a way to extricate ourselves out of Iraq, not
for greater involvement. And there may be a bit of a paradox there, which is
that there is no easy way out of Iraq, and you may have to get a little more
involved in the short run in order to extricate yourself in the long run.
DAVIES: I don't want to leave without just taking stock just a bit of Donald
Rumsfeld's tenure at the Department of Defense. Of course, he was known for
trying to reshape the American military to be a leaner, lighter, quicker
force. It's acknowledged that he seems to have made some mistakes in Iraq,
not bringing in enough troops, particularly after Saddam Hussein fell. You
write about that in your book, failing to bring the 1st Cavalry Division in.
But I'm also curious about looking at Iraq war broadly, whether you think the
experience there renders any verdict for Rumsfeld's vision of the American
military. Did he make the kind of military that he wanted to, and what does
the experience tell us about how effective it was?
Mr. GORDON: Yes, it's a very good question. And one thing I would say is
that Rumsfeld's vision of what the American military ought to look like was
not Rumsfeld's alone. It was also President Bush's vision. People forget
that, as a candidate, Bush campaigned on a platform that he was going to bring
transformation to the American military, to essentially create a leaner and
more lethal military. And he gave a famous speech, at least famous to people
in defense circles, maybe nowhere else, at the Citadel in 1999, where he laid
out this vision. In fact, he said, `I'm going to appoint a strong defense
secretary to carry this out, because I know it's going to involve changing a
lot of bureaucracy and culture of the Pentagon.' So the president himself
chartered this course.
My sense is that there's some merit to that. I mean, getting the services to
work together better, what they called jointness. I mean, that certainly is a
good thing. And taking advantage of high technology weapons and precision
weapons and reconnaissance systems, that's good if you want to be effective.
But, you know, the problem was President Bush and Don Rumsfeld were so wedded
to this vision of what the military ought to look like in the future that it
really led them astray in Iraq. And, in fact, it's one reason why we have
this mess in Iraq. Because, you know, a force that if leaner and
meaner--that's great when the goal is to get to Baghdad quickly. And the
precision weapons come in very handy when you're trying to destroy, you know,
the Republican Guard. But once you topple the regime, mass has to substitute
And it doesn't matter whether you got to Baghdad in two weeks or three weeks
or four weeks, once a regime is toppled, you have effectively taken ownership
of that country. And in order to secure that country, you just need lots of
troops to do that. It's a very labor-intensive task. The precision weapons
can't compensate for that, the reconnaissance systems can't compensate for
that. All the whiz-bang gadgetry won't do the job. You need folks to close
the borders and seal them so the jihadists don't get in. You need to provide
security in the Iraqi capital so that the people feel they can walk on the
street without being molested by criminals. And they look on the occupiers at
least as a competent force that can protect them. You need to provide enough
security that different sects don't have to create their own militias. Why
did the Shiites begin to form Shiite militias? Because they're being attacked
by Sunni insurgents, and we didn't have enough forces to stop that.
It doesn't fit nicely with Rumsfeld's vision of a transformed military that's
smaller and which relies more on technology. So there is--he left office
with, I think, a pretty considerable tension and some confusion, really, in
terms of American defense policy, which I don't think is really going to be
sorted out anytime soon.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Gordon, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GORDON: Well, thank you.
DAVIES: Michael Gordon is chief military correspondent for The New York
Times. He's the author, with General Bernard Trainor, of the book "Cobra II:
the Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq."
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Richard Sloan discusses his book "Blind Faith:
the Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest Richard Sloan is troubled by the growing belief among Americans that
worship and prayer can help prevent or cure disease, or in some cases even
substitute for traditional medical treatment. Sloan acknowledges the comfort
religion brings to many people in times of difficulty, but he questions
studies purporting to show that distant prayers help cure illness, or that
regular attendance at religious services promotes health. Sloan is
particularly skeptical of physicians who believe medical exams should include
a spiritual history of their patients' lives. Richard Sloan is a professor of
behavioral medicine at Columbia University. His new book is called "Blind
Faith: the Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine."
One of the points you make in the book is that, typically, when one
investigates the efficacy of medical treatments, you do clinical studies, in
which both the recipients of the treatment, as well as those who are giving
it, don't even know in some cases who's getting the placebo and who's getting
the actual treatment. That's why they're called double blind. It's very hard
to do that in a lot of the questions involving faith in medicine, right? Why?
Dr. RICHARD SLOAN: It's impossible with one exception. The problem is that
in the conventional randomized clinical trial, both the investigator--the
investigator controls administration of the treatment agent under evaluation.
And so some patients with the medical condition receive the treatment, others
don't receive the treatment. Nobody knows. Neither the investigators or the
patient, know if they're receiving it or not. And then you measure the
The problem with studies of religion and health, by and large, is that you
can't control assignment to being religious or not religious. You can't make
a group of patients religious, half of them religious and half of them not
religious, and then follow them for 10 years and see whether the ones who were
made religious do better than the ones who don't. And so in the absence of
that ability to control, all you can do is look at people who differ in the
index of interest: religiosity, for example, self-reported church attendance,
reading the Bible. You look at those who vary in this dimension and then see
whether they perform differently, whether they do differently, whether they
survive longer or whether they develop less heart disease, or if they have
heart disease, develop fewer complications.
The problem is that those people are self-selective. The people who are
religious differ in many other respects beside their religiosity from those
who are not religious. And it's extraordinarily difficult to tease apart
which factors may contribute to the difference in the outcomes as a result of
that kind of self-selection.
DAVIES: You often read or hear people say that it's--that there are a number
of studies that show that regular attendance at religious services is
associated with better health. And you look, in particularly at one of them
that's better-known. It's based on interviews of almost 100,000 people from
Washington County, Maryland, which concluded that regular attendance at
religious services was associated with longer lives and better health. What
did you find inadequate about that study?
Dr. SLOAN: This study provides the classic example of the
failure--initially, at least to recognize that that another factor may be
responsible for the outcome variable. You're right, that 100,000 or so
residents of Washington County, Maryland, were surveyed in the `60s and then,
in the early `70s, they were examined to see how many of them were still
alive. And the reports indicated that those who, in the 1960s, reported that
they attended church services more frequently were more likely to survive than
those who reported they attended church service less frequently.
Several years later, the lead author of this study published another report,
essentially retracting these findings, suggesting that he failed to consider a
critically important factor, which we refer to as functional status, which
means how sick people are to begin with. Those people who, in the `60s, were
initially functionally disabled, where they were sicker than the others, were
the ones less likely to go to church, and they were also, of course, more
likely to die. So rather than having a religious factor contribute to a
survival difference or a health outcome, it was that a health outcome was
influencing the capacity to go to church. Those people who were too sick
couldn't get to church, and they were the ones more likely to die.
DAVIES: One of the points you make is that those who advocate religion as a
means of achieving better health, overstate, literally, the number of studies
which tend to positively associate religion and health.
Dr. SLOAN: Yes, there's quite a gross overstatement of the number of
studies. Some reports say the 1200 studies, others say 800, 900. It depends
upon when you read the reports. Yes, in fact, there are a great number of
studies that're about religion and health. But a far smaller fraction of
those are actually about the benefits of religious devotion for health.
There are comparisons of denominational differences, Jews vs. Christians,
Catholics vs. Protestants. Others were about health fairs in religious
settings, others were about the impact of religion on medical decision-making.
Still others were about religious devotion, religious involvement as an
outcome variable. For example, when some people become catastrophically ill,
their religious beliefs may change. They may become more devout, they may
become less devout. None of those other studies is really related to the
issue of the benefits of religious devotion for health.
DAVIES: Now, of course, there are some that do directly attempt to answer
that, those questions related to that. And one of them that you talk about is
a fairly well-known study at the Pacific Medical Center in California of 40
AIDS patients. And this was interesting. They randomly assigned half of the
patients to receive assistance from distant healers, people who were off site,
didn't know these people. But they were rabbis, Native Americans,
spiritualists, psychics, and they did whatever they thought would be helpful
for this person to promote their healing. And then the study found that, at
the end of the end of it, those who had received the benefits, or the
attempted benefits of the distant healers, did better, at least as measured,
by fewer AIDS-related illnesses and shorter hospitalizations. Now is that
Dr. SLOAN: No. We have a paper that's just recently published examining the
methods in these studies. And there are some fundamental problems with
studying the effects of distant intercessory prayer. Now we've talked about
the problem before, about--in most studies of religion and health, you can't
take a group of people, make half of them religious and half not. And so you
have to rely on pre-existing differences. The one area in this field where
you actually can conduct a randomized clinical trial is these studies of
distant intercessory prayer, because you can assign at random some people to
receive the prayers of the intercessors and others not.
Now on the surface, that appears persuasive. You can actually control the
exposure to prayer. But, in fact, you can't control the exposure to prayer.
You can only control the exposure to the prayer of the intercessors that you
select. If you don't control the prayer from friends, family, other
relatives, co-workers, community members, members of the religious
congregation, members of congregations around the world who pray for all the
sick all the time. So in the absence of...
DAVIES: Meaning, you mean that some in the control group may have been
receiving intercessory prayers that you don't measure.
Dr. SLOAN: A great many in the control group are undoubtedly receiving the
prayers from others. And we have no idea how many prayers they receive, and
how many prayers those in the experimental group receive. And in the absence
of that knowledge, we can never draw any conclusions about whether these
studies can be effective or not. So that's one fundamental problem.
Another fundamental problem in these studies, in these intercessory prayer
studies, and in the other studies and more generally, is the failure of the
scientists to make specific predictions about what the outcome variables are.
In these studies of intercessory prayer, far too often the experimenters
examine dozens of outcome variables, most of which are never significant and
then only one or two turn out to be significant, and then they say, `Aha!
There it is!' And this is a significant methodological failure best described
by what physicist Robert Park refers to as the sharpsooter's fallacy. The
sharpshooter's fallacy is that the sharpshooter empties the six-gun into the
side of a barn and then draws the bullseye. That's a violation, a fundamental
violation of scientific methods. You have to specify in advance what your
hypothesis is, what variable you're going to test, and then you test it. And
if it works, good. And if it doesn't, well, too bad.
DAVIES: Our guest is Dr. Richard Sloan. His new book is called "Blind
Faith: the Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is Dr. Richard Sloan. He has
written a book called "Blind Faith: the Unholy Alliance of Religion and
You know, one of the studies that you write about is called the MANTRA II
studies, and I forget what the acronym for MANTRA is. But this was aimed at
looking at the benefits of various spiritual activities on peoples' health.
And this study concluded that intercessory prayer had no effect. And yet you
write that, as it got reported in the media, it seemed almost as if the
opposite conclusion were drawn.
Dr. SLOAN: Yes. The problem is--this is a problem that occurs widely in
science, that research reports sometimes appear in the press long before they
appear in the scientific literature. To appear in the scientific literature
requires that the paper go through peer review, and sometimes that takes a
long time. Sometimes the paper is rejected by one journal and goes for review
by another, etc. And eventually, it appears. But before that, a discussion
of it may take place in the media, and the media coverage of the MANTRA study
suggested that, in fact, there were effects of distant intercessory prayer,
when in fact when the report finally emerged in the scientific literature, it
was clear that there weren't.
DAVIES: One of the interesting things I found about that MANTRA II study was
that while it debunked the idea that distant intercessory prayer had had an
effect on health, it did find that those patients who received what was
described as "music-guided imagery and touch therapy" did seem to do better.
I mean, did that--does that tell us something about spirituality and health?
Dr. SLOAN: I don't think it tells us anything about spirituality and health.
It tells--the interesting thing about that finding is that you're talking
about an intervention there at the bedside, in which somebody comes in and
interacts with the patients. In contrast to the distant prayer, where there
are intercessors at some great distance away from the patients. So there may
be something about engaging in some supportive interaction with patients prior
to and immediately following a medical procedure that may have an outcome.
And that's probably worth exploring. And of course, some people do explore
The problem with the MANTRA study is the discussion of the findings almost
exclusively revolved around the intercessory prayer outcomes and not these
DAVIES: My guest is Dr. Richard Sloan. He's written a new book called
"Blind Faith: the Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine."
You know, apart from looking at the data and the scientific methodology in
claims of the benefits of religion and health, I think a lot of people think
it makes intuitive sense, at least parts of it. I mean, the notion that
people who attend a religious service regularly have an hour or two a week
where they sit and engage in a quiet, contemplative activity surrounded by a
supportive community. And that can only be good for your mental health, it
can only reduce stress. Doesn't that make sense, in a way?
Dr. SLOAN: Well, it does make sense. But people attend religious services
for a great many reasons. Garrison Keillor is reported to have said that
anyone who believes that sitting in church makes you a Christian must also
believe that sitting in a garage makes you a car. You know, people go to
church for any number of reasons: social reasons, out of loneliness, out of
habit, to make business connections. Religious devotion is certainly one of
them, but it's--attending church is a complex phenomenon.
Nobody disputes that religion provides comfort to people in times of
difficulty, whether it's illness-related or otherwise. That's not in dispute.
The question is whether medicine can add anything to that, and I think the
answer is no. People ought to be entirely free to practice their religion in
any way they see fit in medical context. And physicians need to know about
that, but physicians shouldn't use that information to base interventions on.
DAVIES: Some would say you shouldn't proselytize religion, you shouldn't
advocate a faith, but that you do your patients a favor by suggesting that
they focus on positive spirituality, you know, things that we all agree would
be good: honesty, self-control, joy, love, hope, generosity. What about that
school of thought?
Dr. SLOAN: Well, you know, that's wonderful advice. Our mothers all gave us
that advice. The problem is, we don't have any idea whether that's related to
health. We don't know whether people who are joyful and honest live longer
than people who are cynical and dishonest. We just have no idea. So it
doesn't seem to me that that's the business of a physician, to be making those
kinds of moral judgments. That is the legitimate business of the clergy, to
make those kinds of recommendations, but not physicians.
DAVIES: Do you think there's a concern that if someone tends to look at their
physical health and what's happening in their physical life as a consequence
of their relationship with God, that they will, in effect, blame themselves
for an illness?
Dr. SLOAN: That's clearly the case. If you blame yourself as a result of
some failure, then you may increase the risk of becoming sick. Certainly, you
increase the distress that you experience in a way that's not conducive to
Let me give you an example that's related to this, one of the significant
ethical issues associated with attempts to connect religion and health: the
possibility that you can actually cause harm. About my first foray into this
field of religion and health was more than 20 years ago, when I was
interviewing young women who were about to receive the results of
gynecological biopsies to determine whether or not they had cervical cancer.
And I was interviewing a woman in a semi-private room. She was separated by a
thin curtain from the other patient, also awaiting the results of her biopsy.
And this other patient had her family with her. And while I was interviewing
my patient, the biopsy results for the other patient came back, and they were
negative, and her father exclaimed to nobody in particular, `We're good
people, we deserve this.'
Now that's a perfectly reasonable thing for the father of a potentially-sick
young woman to say, perfectly reasonable. But what was the young woman I was
interviewing supposed to say to herself when her biopsy came back positive?
Was she supposed to say, `I'm a bad person; that's why I got sick. I've been
insufficiently devout; that's why I got cancer.' It's bad enough to be sick.
It's worse still to be gravely ill. But to add to that the burden of guilt or
remorse over some supposed failure of devotion is simply unconscionable. But
that's precisely what you get when you make assertions about the health
benefits of religious devotion.
If you suggest that religious devotion is good for your health, then you
automatically imply that poor health may be associated with insufficient
devotion. And that's simply unconscionable.
DAVIES: You know, in the interest of giving voice to a different perspective
here, you know, there's a lot in the physical world that would seem like
magic. I mean, the fact that when I'm on the beach, that the ocean waves come
higher because the gravity of the moon in some respects just seems ridiculous.
And the very idea--take radio waves. I mean, the fact that your voice and
mine is being carried on these invisible transmissions that penetrates
peoples' bodies and their pets, but then a receiver can translate into sounds
would've seemed magical and absurd a couple centuries ago.
What about those who say that what's happening with prayer and spiritual
activity may represent a level of science we just don't understand yet?
Dr. SLOAN: Well, it's certainly true that science progresses by new
discoveries that may contradict the prevailing view. And we've seen that
throughout the history of science: the view of the universe, the view of the
position of Earth relative to the other planets in the solar system. In the
beginning of the Christian era, the Greek view, the Ptolemaic view was that
the Earth was the center of the universe, and that was superceded by the
Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun. We've seen
revolutions take place throughout science.
The problem is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And
the claims about the effects of distant intercessory prayer are quite
extraordinary, but the evidence is far from extraordinary. And there is
nothing that we know about the physical universe that can possibly account for
how the prayers or healing intentions of someone in Baltimore can influence
the course of patients in a coronary care unit in Los Angeles. There's just
nothing we know about the universe that can account for that.
Now that's not to say that at some point, we may not discover that there is
something. We certainly will discover other things about the universe. But
these kinds of extraordinary claims require absolutely extraordinary evidence.
And the evidence is far, far from extraordinary.
DAVIES: Richard Sloan, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Dr. SLOAN: It's my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
DAVIES: Richard Sloan is a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia
University. His new book is "Blind Faith: the Unholy Alliance of Religion
Coming up, David Bianculli on three new primetime TV series. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: TV critic David Bianculli does not recommend new shows
"Day Break," "Show Me the Money" or "3lbs."
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Three new primetime TV series are introduced tonight and tomorrow. Scripted
dramas on ABC and CBS and a new quiz show on ABC. This week also brings the
season finale of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," and lots of other activity
involving first-run weekly television shows. TV critic David Bianculli says
that all this action is related, and little of it is cause for celebration.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: Right now, we're just about at the halfway point of the
November ratings sweeps. The sweeps used to be a very big deal in television.
They were the times when all the broadcast networks agreed to set advertising
rates for the next fiscal quarter based on audience levels they attracted
during sweeps. So February, May, and November, especially, got to be hugely
competitive bloodsports. The networks used to show us all the big TV events
then, from "Winds of War" to "The Day After."
But sweeps months don't mean as much to advertisers as they used to, and they
certainly don't mean as much to the networks. Not if you're watching the
networks. The big broadcast boys, CBS, NBC and ABC threw in the towel years
ago on big budget, big idea movies and miniseries. And in the entire sweeps
month of November, there's only one special worthy of that title, next
Tuesday's NBC Tony Bennett special, directed by "Chicago" director Rob
Otherwise, what we're getting this month is the same old, same old. We're
getting fresh episodes of current weekly shows. We're getting newer shows,
rushed off the bench and onto the air, that are replacing the new fall shows
that already have been cancelled. And most of all, we're getting quiz shows,
competitions, and reality shows.
ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" presents its third season finale tonight and
tomorrow, with either Mario Lopez or Emmett Smith waltzing away with the
crown. Or tangoing, maybe; I'm not sure about that final dance. Also this
week, NBC is pulling big money stunts on what feels like its nightly showings
of "Deal or No Deal." Both of these shows are extremely popular with viewers,
and I confess to liking them, too. "Dancing" because it's a live talent
competition like "American Idol," and "Deal or No Deal" because, let's be
honest, it's about as mindless as a test pattern.
The networks love these shows for different reasons. One reason is that when
they hit big, as with "Idol" or "Dancing" or "Deal," they can reverse the
fortunes of a network. And even when they miss, they're cheap to produce and
can be yanked immediately if they don't catch on. "The Rich List," which
premiered earlier this month on Fox, was pulled after one episode. And that
was one too many.
That's why tonight ABC is preempting William Shatner in "Boston Legal" to
present William Shatner as host of a new quiz show, "Show Me the Money." It
takes the similarly- and scantily-dressed women from "Deal or No Deal," and
has them dance, as in "Dancing with the Stars," while Shatner asks "Who Wants
To Be a Millionaire"-type questions to giddy contestants. It's hard to
imagine a TV show put together more cynically or more ineptly. It's a train
But immediately following the final dance-off on "Dancing with the Stars,"
it'll get a big audience the first time out. By December, though, it ought to
be thrown back where it came from: the bottom of the barrel.
This week's two new drama series, at least, have actual scripts and actors who
are acting rather than hosting. But they, too, seem to be put together with
very cynical calculation. Tonight's CBS medical drama, called "3lbs.," stars
Stanley Tucci as a brain surgeon who's as brilliant as he is abrasive. If
that sounds like Hugh Laurie's character on "House," it's supposed to. Just
as all the hospital staff romances are supposed to evoke "Grey's Anatomy," an
even-more-popular TV medical series. TV this season feels a lot like deja vu.
Nothing feels more like it, though, than ABC's new drama series "Day Break,"
which premieres tomorrow night. Starring Taye Diggs as a cop framed for
murder, it's about deja vu. Specifically, it's like a dramatic version of
"Groundhog Day," with the character waking up each morning to the same events
and trying to change them. Here's how Diggs, as the cop, tries to explain
things to his girlfriend.
(Soundbite of "Day Break")
Mr. TAYE DIGGS: (As Brett Hopper) The day is the same. All right? But
different things happen. OK? It depends. Like...(soundbite of finger
snap)...this lady at the coffee shop. One day I save her, next
day...(soundbite of hands smacking together)...she gets hit by a bus. Right?
You don't see? You don't see.
Mr. BIANCULLI: I don't see. This might be an OK concept for a movie--in
fact it is, coming out later this month, starring Denzel Washington. But as a
weekly series, it doesn't make any sense. The hero is the only one in any
real danger here. Everyone else can die--lots of them do--before the hero
gets to reset his personal game clock and start all over. And then, everyone
else is fine.
The last episode is the only one here that really matters. And that formula
works only if the voyage offers drama as well as clues. On "Lost," when
somebody dies, they stay dead.
One final point about deja vu: we have seen one of today's TV trends before:
the eager greedy race to produce one quiz or competition show after another.
That happened in the 1950s, and the popularity of quiz shows like "The $64,000
Question" gobbled up time slots that used to go to such valuable shows as
Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now." Only the quiz show scandals of that decade,
proving that some of the shows were rigged, wiped out that TV genre as
effectively as a giant asteroid supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs. But "Who
Wants To Be a Millionaire?" brought the quiz show back, and now it's taking
over television again. The only way to stop it may be to pray for another
quiz show scandal, or a meteor.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.