March 24, 2006
Without a prayer
In how many ways can our theocratic government squander taxpayer dollars—and “scientists” waste their time? Let me count them:
At the Fairfax Community Church in Virginia, the faithful regularly pray for ailing strangers. Same goes at the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington and the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg.
In churches, mosques, ashrams, “healing rooms,” prayer groups and homes nationwide, millions of Americans offer prayers daily to heal themselves, family, friends, co-workers and even people found through the Internet. Fueled by the upsurge in religious expression in the United States, prayer is the most common complement to mainstream medicine, far outpacing acupuncture, herbs, vitamins and other alternative remedies.
… The outpouring of spiritual healing has inspired a small group of researchers to attempt to use the tools of modern science to test the power of prayer to cure others. The results have been mixed and highly controversial. Skeptics say the work is a deeply flawed and misguided waste of money that irresponsibly attempts to validate the supernatural with science. And some believers say it is pointless to try to divine the workings of God with experiments devised by mortals.
… The contentious enterprise is [also] at something of a crossroads. Two new studies are about to report no benefit of having people pray for the sick, the only study underway is nearing completion, and the largest, best-designed project is being published in two weeks. Its eagerly awaited findings could sound the death knell for the field, breathe new life into such efforts, or create new debate.
… [T]he most controversial research focuses on “intercessory” or “distant” prayer, which involves people trying to heal others through their intentions, thoughts or prayers, sometimes without the recipients knowing it. The federal government has spent $2.2 million in the past five years on studies of distant healing, which have also drawn support from private foundations.
So exactly how rigorous are these studies?
San Francisco cardiologist Randolph Byrd, for example, conducted an experiment in which he asked born-again Christians to pray for 192 people hospitalized for heart problems, comparing them with 201 not targeted for prayer. No one knew which group they were in. He reported in 1988 that those who were prayed for needed fewer drugs and less help breathing.
William S. Harris of St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and colleagues published similar results in 1999 from a study involving nearly 1,000 heart patients, about half of whom were prayed for without their knowledge.
But these and other studies have been called deeply flawed. They were, for example, analyzed in the most favorable way possible, looking at so many outcomes that the positive findings could easily have been the result of chance, critics say.
“It’s called the sharpshooter’s fallacy,” said Richard Sloan, a behavioral researcher at Columbia University. “The sharpshooter empties the gun into the side of a barn and then draws the bull’s-eye. In science, you have to predict in advance what effect you may have.” […] “I would like to see us stop wasting precious research dollars putting religious practices to the test of science,” Sloan said. “It’s a waste of money, and it trivializes the religious experience.”
But the “research” keeps on coming:
[Duke University’s Mitchell W.] Krucoff, a cardiologist, published a study last summer involving 748 heart patients at nine hospitals. That study failed overall to show any benefit. But Krucoff said he did find tantalizing hints that warrant follow-up: A subset of patients who had a second group of people praying that the prayers of the first group would be answered may have done better.
Wow, real science—those “tantalizing hints” that one group “may” have done better are so much more convenient than hard data.
Two smaller, more recently completed studies illustrate yet another problem. Each involved about 150 patients with brain tumors or AIDS. Only some were targeted by “distant healing” and only some knew they were the recipients. But in addition to traditional prayers, many of the dozens of “healers” used other approaches, such as visualizing patients and sending a “healing intention” or “energy” or “light.” Both studies, which will be published later this year, did not show any effect. But neither of the researchers who led them is advocating giving up, saying their studies may have been doomed by including too many healing variations.
Pass the shotgun.
TrackBack URL for this entry: