Has my neighbour confused me with God?

11th April, 2009

Dear Economist,
When my neighbour was desperately searching for staff to run her guesthouse, I, after due deliberation about whether to get involved and much trouble, eventually found her a married couple who complied with all her demands. She now thanks God for bringing them to her.
Do you think she’s confusing me with God? If so, should I gently remind her that I’m a simple earthly being and such high praise is making me feel a little uncomfortable? I would prefer you not to use my real name; I don’t want any more people contacting me in search of miracles. In any case, my husband thinks this business has gone to my head.
Mrs S., South Africa

Dear Mrs S.

I would say that a more likely explanation of your neighbour’s actions is that she is trying to ingratiate herself with God, not you. I can imagine how aggravating this is for you, given the trouble you’ve gone to, but this attitude makes sense if God is subject to flattery. God is, after all, omnipotent, so it must be better to have God on your side than plain Mrs S.

The question is, does God pay attention to supplicants? No less an authority than Nobel laureate James Heckman has investigated the answer using highly fashionable statistical techniques. (Some claim that Heckman’s paper is a parody of sloppy statistical practice. I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Heckman observes that “the empirical conclusion from this analysis is important. A little prayer does no good and may make things worse. Much prayer helps a lot.” This is fascinating, suggesting that sit-on-the-fence agnostics are choosing a very foolish approach. Your neighbour has taken this lesson to heart: given the importance of extremely fervent prayer, small wonder that she is giving God all the credit for your hard work.

Also published at ft.com.

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