Monday, October 11, 2004

Prayer Studies

Have a look at this properly skeptical article from The New York Times about studies into the healing effects (or lack thereof) of prayer.

In 2001, two researchers and a Columbia University fertility expert published a startling finding in a respected medical journal: women undergoing fertility treatment who had been prayed for by Christian groups were twice as likely to have a successful pregnancy as those who had not.

Three years later, after one of the researchers pleaded guilty to conspiracy in an unrelated business fraud, Columbia is investigating the study and the journal reportedly pulled the paper from its Web site.

No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study's authors stand behind their data.

But the doubts about the study have added to the debate over a deeply controversial area of research: whether prayer can heal illness.

Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

“Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science,” said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. “It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money.”

Prayer researchers, many themselves believers in prayer's healing powers, say scientists do not need to know how a treatment or intervention works before testing it.

Dr. Richard Nahin, a senior adviser at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, said in an e-mail message that the studies were meant to answer practical questions, not religious ones.

“We only recently understood how aspirin worked, and the mechanisms of action of various antidepressants and general anesthetics remain under investigation,” Dr. Nahin wrote.

He said a recent government study found that 45 percent of adults prayed specifically for health reasons, and suggested that many of them were poor people with limited access to care.

“It is a public health imperative to understand if this prayer offers them any benefit,” Dr. Nahin wrote.

Some researchers also point out that praying for the relief of other people's suffering is a deeply human response to disease.

I think a distinction needs to be made between studies where the patients know they are being prayed for and those where the patients do not know this. There is some evidence that prayer provides some benefit in the former case, but the effects are small enough that they are almost surely explained as the result of a placebo effect. It would be interesting to see a study in which the patients are divided into those who believe that prayer is effective and those who do not.

Anyway, the more interesting situation is when the patients do not know they are being prayed for. There are a handful of studies suggesting that prayer is effective in this case as well. Sadly, all of them reside under dark, stormy clouds. One common flaw is described in the article:

In the experiments, the researchers did not know until the study was completed which patients were being prayed for. But experts say the two studies suffer from a similar weakness: the authors measured so many variables that some were likely to come up positive by chance. In effect, statisticians say, this method is like asking the same question over and over until you get the answer you want.

“It's a weak measure,” said Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia who has been critical of prayer research. “You're collecting 30 or 40 variables but can't even specify up front which ones” will be affected.

The article also points out that if a properly conducted study does eventually show a connection between prayer and healing, some serious theological problems would be raised:

Either way, even many churchgoers are skeptical that prayer can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. For one thing, prayers vary in their purpose and content: some give praise, others petition for strength, many ask only that God's will be done. For another, not everyone sees God as one who does favors on request.

“There's no way to put God to the test, and that's exactly what you're doing when you design a study to see if God answers your prayers,” said the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr., director of pastoral care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer.”

Exactly right. It's hard to see how such studies could actually end up benefitting religion. If they are unsuccessful, that would be evidence that prayer is ineffective. But if they are successful, you are left with a fickle God who makes life and death decisions based on who asks him nicely for intervention.

The article contains several other interesting nuggets. Definitely worth your time.


At 10:14 PM, Blogger L said...

I really like this blog...

-- I read an article discussing this as well, and one particularly interesting paragraph (regarding the placebo effect) caught my eye: apparently, one group of researchers found that people (a group of recovering alcoholics I think) actually did WORSE when they knew people were praying for them...


At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the fertility study in question is still online here:

I have looked at in the past and noted some oddities in the statistics that - while far from conclusive - seem to me to suggest that that the data may have been manipulated.

Heres some of the points I noted:

1) There were 19 women under 30 in the group receiving prayer and only 6 in the group that did not. This group has a higher success rate. An uneven split of this nature also seems quite unlikely to be due to chance.
While far from the whole story it does influence the headline figures.

2) There were 24 women who received a treatment called ICSI in the group receiving prayer versus 17 in the group that did not. This group has a higher success rate overall. However the group receiving prayer had a lower success rate - and a lower success rate than the women receiving prayer without ICSI. The group receiving ICSI but not prayer on the other hand had a dramatically higher success rate than the group receiving neither the ICSI treatement nor prayer.

3) We do not have a full breakdown by provider even though there were quite large variations in success rates amongst providers. For the worst provider - with only an 11% success rate (2 out of 18)- even the percentage figures for the two groups are not included. Another had equal success with the two groups - at a rate in line with the overall success rate.

4) The difference is partly due to an increase in the overall number of successes - but the paper does not claim it to be significant. More than half the difference is in the distribution. This is consistent with manipulation of the data.

This falls short of hard evidence of manipulation but in my eyes it is enough to be very suspicious of the results until there is a thorough investigation.

Paul King

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I read, this paper was the baby of the guy convicted of fraud. Before he went to jail he refused to share his data and notes with people investigating the report. In fact, he threated to sue them if they didn't stop asking for his data. This tells me that the data is probably made up.

Reed A. Cartwright

At 12:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes God answers prayers and the answer is "No!"

In a 1997 experiment involving 40 alcoholics in rehab, psychologists at the University of New Mexico found that although intercessory prayers did not have any effect on drinking patterns, the men and women in the study who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse.

"It's not clear what that means," said Dr. William Miller, one of the study's authors.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Jason said...

L: Thanks for the kind words about the blog. Glad you like it!

As for the rest of you, thanks for the excellent comments. I will include them in a subseqeunt posting.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Jason said...

L: Thanks for the kind words about the blog. Glad you like it!

As for the rest of you, thanks for the excellent comments. I will include them in a subseqeunt posting.


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