THE celebration of Mary MacKillop's miracle cancer cures is a worrying example of the lack of scientific literacy in the community, says an expert in evidence-based medicine.
The question is not whether the NSW mother Kathleen Evans recovered from her cancer after praying to MacKillop but how many others prayed and did not go into remission, said Chris Del Mar, a professor of primary care research at Bond University.
Professor Del Mar said popular acceptance of MacKillop's miracle was part of a wider problem of people not understanding scientific and mathematical methods, exemplified by newspapers printing horoscopes and people using alternative medicines that had little evidentiary support.
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"These things betray a false thinking that is not limited to Mary MacKillop or religion," Professor Del Mar said.
Research had also shown people were more likely to take notice of things which supported their beliefs.
"We are very good at making positive associations in our brains," he said.
"If a black cat walks in front of you, you think it is going to be unlucky or lucky depending which way your superstition runs. Then when something unlucky or lucky happens you will attribute it to that cat".
An associate professor at the University of Sydney medical school and a medical oncologist for 15 years, Nicholas Wilcken, said he had four patients who had defied his expectations in the past 10 years.
Two had gone into remission and two had lived far longer than expected.
"Personally … I don't think it is terribly helpful to say that it is because someone prayed to a God who said 'well normally I would make one thing happen but now I will make something else happen'," he said.
Putting too much emphasis on religion and positive thinking could make patients feel continued sickness was their fault. But all patients needed hope, and that often came from religion.
"The problem is when it becomes completely unrealistic when people who … have a short time to live are not doing things they need to do," he said.
The chief executive of the Cancer Council, Ian Olver, said the jury was still out on whether praying helped with cancer.
"But there are a myriad of anecdotal reports of praying helping,'' he said.
Professor Olver said spiritual well-being was an important predictor of quality of life.
"My own view is that prayer as an adjunct to conventional medical treatments is fine," he said.
Doctor Ian Olver states that the "Jury is out" only to Non-believer in God. He goes on to say that spiritual well-being was important in one's quality of life though. Medicine and Faith in God are undeniably powerful tools of curing.
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