World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Propane and Prayer

On Sunday, August 10 ’08, a series of explosions at the Sunrise Propane depot rocked the quiet Murray Road neighbourhood in North Toronto. The depot was in the vicinity of residential homes and the explosions were enormous. Yet, the blast resulted in only two fatalities. Many described the low death toll as a “miracle.”

On Sunday, August 9 ’09, the first anniversary of the blast, CBC Radio broadcast a story about the accident on their early morning program, Fresh Air. The CBC’s website describes the story, by producer Mary Wiens, as one that examines “the role of faith in protecting a community from harm.” Wiens interviews an elderly resident of the neighbourhood who is certain that her prayers and faith were the reason the death toll was so low. Wiens then ponders the link between the communal spirituality of the neighbourhood and the “miracle.

She then interviews Deepak Chopra, whose views support the idea that there is a causal connection between the inner-world of prayer, and the macro-world we live in. There are references to Chopra’s “quantum consciousness” (although I don’t remember Wiens actually using the term), as well as clinical studies of the efficacy of prayer in healing. Overall, Wiens paints a picture in which the collective faith of the community protected them from greater harm.

(Note that I’ve only been able to listen to the show once, during its original broadcast; it hasn’t been posted online as of yet. So, I’m writing this based on that single listening. If I get some of the details of the story wrong, I think my overall view of the piece is accurate. I’m also aware that Fresh Air is not a journalistic program; regardless, I think my views are no less valid.)

In fact, the low death toll wasn’t a “miracle” in any sense, religious or otherwise

That no more than two died is due to the simple fact that the explosion happened at 3:50am on a Sunday morning. Because it occurred during the wee hours of the morning, the streets were empty.

The low death toll was also due to the physical layout of the neighbourhood. While the distance between the depot and the homes is obviously inadequate when you consider the damage that did occur, at least the depot and homes were on opposite sides of the street. If they were directly adjacent, then it’s likely there would have been worse injuries and more casualties amongst the residents, even if they were in their homes.

What’s more, there are industrial lots to the north and south of the propane station. To the west, there is Mt. Sinai Cemetery. In other words, the depot was surrounded on three sides by empty lots.

Besides, if prayer offers protection, why didn’t the communal spirituality of the residents prevent the two deaths? (I’m sure the victims’ families don’t consider the event “miraculous” in any way.) Does this mean the two were atheists or in some way deserved to die? For that matter, when something bad happens to people anywhere in the world, does that mean they didn’t pray enough?

And if there is indeed a connection between the residents’ spirituality and the low death toll, why was it that they experienced the bad luck of having a poorly-run propane depot explode in their midst in the first place? There are many other neighbourhoods in Toronto in close proximity to propane depots that haven’t experienced such an explosion. Does that mean those residents prayed more than the Murray Road residents?

What makes the piece particularly misguided is the interview with Deepak Chopra. Along with Wiens’ speculation about the prayer-protection link, his comments take what could have been a legitimate human-interest story and turn it into speculative pseudo-reporting disguised as investigative journalism. It starts with the elderly woman and her thoughts on prayer. Then Wiens poses her question about the connection and seeks out Chopra as if he is an expert on the matter. Chopra intones authoritatively that yes, indeed, there is a connection.

The connection? Central to their argument is an idea sometimes referred to as quantum consciousness. (It’s the key concept in the pseudoscientific, pseudodocumentary film “What the Bleep Do We Know.”) According to quantum consciousness, the universe is constructed from thought, and a conscious observer can affect physical reality. In other words, it explains how a person’s prayers can have a real effect in the physical, macro world.

The scientific community overwhelmingly rejects this idea. I won’t go into all that has been written to debunk the concept (you can find plenty of information online) except to say that it is based on a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of aspects of quantum theory, particularly Heisenberg’s Principle and wave function collapse. And I’ll quote Micheal Shermer, of Skeptic Magazine and Scientific American magazine, who challenges anyone who believes in this idea to throw themselves out of a 20-story building and “consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground’s tendencies”. (For more, read Chopra and Shermer’s debate on life after death.)

In the story, Wiens also alludes to clinical studies into the effect of prayer on the sick. Rather than stating the truth—that there is no empirical evidence of a connection between prayer and healing—she disingenuously and misleadingly categorizes the research as “inconclusive” or “contradictory” as if, because the research hasn’t disproved the notion, it’s therefore still possible. In fact, in 2006, Harvard University Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson conducted the most extensive study ever into the effects of prayer on the health and recovery of surgery patients. The findings, based on some 1,800 patients in six U.S. hospitals, were definitive and published in the American Heart Journal: there is no statistically measurable effect.

Wiens (or was it Chopra?) then mentions the counter argument that clinical studies haven’t shown a connection between prayer and healing because the studies involved random participants; i.e. they lacked the conditions of true community or empathy that exist in the “real” world. This is typical of people making extraordinary, paranormal claims whose conjectures are contradicted by a controlled, scientific experiment. They invent—ad hoc and after the experiment—reasons why they failed the test. For example, when so-called psychics fail to demonstrate their “powers” in controlled studies, they claim the failure was due to the “negative energy” in the room, or because they simply weren’t “feeling” it that day.

The explosion of the propane depot was a significant event that continues to affect the lives of the residents. Some, a year later, still can’t return to their homes because they remain uninhabitable. Some, a year later, still suffer emotional and psychological damage caused by the traumatic event. It’s a shame the piece wasn’t simply a story about these people, what the event meant to them, how they are coping, and how they view the disaster one year later.

It’s a shame the story wasn’t about the real role of faith in protecting a community, psychologically and emotionally. That’s one I’d be interested in hearing. Ignore for the moment whether God exists and prayer works, what is the relationship between a person’s belief in a supreme being, and their overall outlook toward disasters, or their ability to accept catastrophic events and recover? Of the Murray Road residents, is there a difference between the atheist’s and the believer’s response to the explosion?

For that matter, who were the two victims? What do their families think and feel when they hear about the “miracle”? Are propane depots in Ontario any safer today? And, by the way, why is the owner of Sunrise Propane still in the propane business, as was revealed recently?

Instead of one of these stories, we have one that is oblivious to the realities of the event and goes in search of “understanding” and “truth” in Deepak Chopra and quantum consciousness. Once again, because we see things that aren’t there, we miss the wonderful, fascinating and meaningful things that are.

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