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Cross-Check: A Free Journal

This journal is free in two senses: you can read it for free, and I am free to say whatever I like.

Can Mass Curses Topple Tyrants?

I recently received an email from the Templeton Foundation about whether prayer works. The email gave me an idea for ridding the world of tyrants like Putin.


Here's the backstory. The Templeton Foundation, a nonprofit created decades ago by John Templeton, a savvy stock-picker and devout Christian, seeks greater harmony between science and spirituality. As the foundation's website puts it: "We fund research and catalyze conversations that enable people to create lives with purpose and meaning." The multi-billion-dollar foundation has been generous to me, even though I have said mean things about it.


The foundation has long supported research on whether prayer works. Prayer might work in a non-controversial way. Let's say you are recovering from heart surgery. If you believe in a deity who answers prayers, your prayer might aid your recovery via the placebo effect, the tendency of hope to be self-fulfilling. Anything can serve as a placebo: a homeopathic pill, rosary beads, a physician exuding optimism. Research suggests that the placebo effect accounts for much if not all of the efficacy of many treatments, notably antidepressants.


But if you pray for someone else, like a friend recovering from an operation, will your prayer help? Sure, if she knows you are praying for her, then your prayer might activate her placebo effect. But can your prayer help your friend if she doesn't know you are praying for her? That outcome would be remarkable indeed, because it would suggest that prayer works via a mechanism that eludes conventional science, such as a deity's intercession or telekinesis, the mind's paranormal ability to move matter. I know smart people who are open-minded about telekinesis, including spoon-bending, but I'm skeptical.


Back in 2006, believers in "intercessory prayer," defined as asking God to help others, were dealt a setback by a Templeton-funded study. A group led by Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard open-minded about mind-body links, studied the effect of volunteers' prayers on patients recovering from heart surgery. Prayed-for patients fared no better than non-prayed-for ones. In fact, patients who were prayed for, and knew it, fared slightly worse than those who were prayed for and didn't know it, or those who weren't prayed for at all!


But the Templeton Foundation has not given up its hopes for intercessory prayer. According to the official who emailed me, Templeton-funded scientists continue to study prayer with approaches "more nuanced" than the Benson study, which was "flawed." Frank Fincham, a psychologist at Florida State University, claims to have found tentative evidence that intercessory prayer works, albeit in subtle ways. See his report here.


I asked the Templeton official if anyone has looked at the efficacy of cursing, in the sense of wishing someone ill. I meant it as a joke, but the official responded that another Templeton grantee, psychologist Kevin Ladd of Indiana University South Bend, has examined the possibility that prayer can lead to harmful outcomes.


That got me thinking. The evil twin of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect, the tendency of our fears to be self-fulfilling. Cursing someone, wishing him ill, might work if he knows you are cursing him, via the nocebo effect. Cursing might also work on oblivious targets via divine intercession or telekinesis. You should probably let your target know, just to cover your bases.


Then I thought of a way to test whether cursing works while also, possibly, making the world a better place: Convince opponents of tyrants to wish them ill at the same time, which would presumably amplify the effect. We could start with a mass curse of Putin organized on social media. If you are morally squeamish, you might wish for a calamity that disables Putin rather than killing him. Putin is reportedly superstitious; perhaps he suspects that his pal Trump lost the 2020 election because witches hexed him. The prospect of a global curse might freak Putin out, triggering a nocebo effect.


I could see @elonmusk getting behind organized mass curses, which could boost engagement on Twitter. Putin and his admirers would probably call for a counterstrike of prayers for the Russian tyrant and curses against his enemies. All these prayers and curses might cancel each other out, leading to no net effect--an outcome that is of course consistent with prayers and curses not working at all. 


But imagine if something bad happens to Putin after the organized mass curse! Even if it's just a coincidence, that outcome could turn Twitter into a hellscape of curses and counter-curses. Wait, that's pretty much what Twitter is like already. Hmm. I need to think through this cursing idea more carefully. I should apply for a Templeton grant.


Synchronicity: Argentina and France are playing in the World Cup final tomorrow, and The New York Times reports that Argentinian brujas, or witches, are casting spells for their team and against the French team.


"Praying hands" by Albrecht Durer. Or are they cursing hands?



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