Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Prayer Study Called into Question Several years ago (October of 2001 to be exact) the newspapers were buzzing about a study stemming from Columbia University that seemed to show that anonymous, intercessory prayer could effect people's medical condition. Specifically, the people being prayed for were a group of Korean women about to undergo in vitro fertilization. Their pictures were shown to people in the US, Canada and Australia, who then prayed for the people they were shown. Accoding to the study, the women who were prayed for were twice as likely to conceive as those who did not.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the study has now been called into serious question. It has now been revealed that one of the three authors on the study is a notorious con man who recently pleaded guilty to fraud chrages (though these charges did not relate to the study itself). In addition, Wirth has no scientific credentials to speak of, and has frequently collaborated with a fellow named Joseph Horvath, widely considered a scientific crank.

England's Guardian newspaper has the full story here:

It was a miracle that created headlines around the world. Doctors at one of the world's top medical schools claimed to have scientifically proved the power of prayer.
Many Americans took the Columbia University research - announced in October 2001 after the terror attacks on New York and Washington - as a sign from God. It seemed to prove that praying helped infertile women to conceive.

But The Observer can reveal a story of fraud and cover-up behind the research. One of the study's authors is a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth, now under house arrest in California awaiting sentencing, has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child.

Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research, often working with co-researcher Joseph Horvath. Horvath has pleaded guilty to fraud, has used a series of false names and is accused of burning down his house for insurance money.

Many scientists are now questioning how someone with Wirth's background was able to persuade Columbia University Medical Centre to unveil his research in such a high-profile way. They also want to know why it appeared in the respected Journal of Reproductive Medicine, whose vetting procedures are usually strict. 'We are concerned this study could be totally fraudulent. It is an amazing saga,' said Dr Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor at the University of California.

The article goes on to note that Columbia is distancing itself from the study, claiming their contribution was only editorial.

The New York Sun also published an article on the subject, available via the Skeptic website here.

Want to guess how many papers are going to pick up this story? Or how many editors are going to feel even a moment's regret for lavishing so much attention on a pile of superstitious malarkey?