[Paleopsych] NYT: Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach
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Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach
NYT October 10, 2004
By BENEDICT CAREY
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
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
The 'Placebo Effect'
Since 2000, at least 10 studies of intercessory prayer have
been carried out by researchers at institutions including
the Mind/Body Medical Institute, a nonprofit clinic near
Boston run by a Harvard-trained cardiologist, as well as
Duke University and the University of Washington.
Government financing of intercessory prayer research began
in the mid-1990's and has continued under the Bush
In one continuing study, financed by the National
Institutes of Health and called "Placebo Effect in Distant
Healing of Wounds," doctors at California Pacific Medical
Center, a major hospital in San Francisco, inflict a tiny
stab wound on the abdomens of women receiving breast
reconstruction surgery, with their consent, and then
determine whether the "focused intention" of a variety of
healers speeds the wound's healing.
Two large trials of the effects of prayer on coronary
health are currently under review at prominent medical
Even those who defend prayer research concede that such
studies are difficult. For one thing, no one knows what
constitutes a "dose": some studies have tested a few
prayers a day by individual healers, while others have had
entire congregations pray together. Some have involved
evangelical Christians; others have engaged rabbis,
Buddhist and New Age healers, or some combination.
Another problem concerns the mechanism by which prayer
might be supposed to work. Some researchers contend that
prayer's effects - if they exist - have little to do with
religion or the existence of God. Instead of divine
intervention, they propose things like "subtle energies,"
"mind-to-mind communication" or "extra dimensions of
space-time" - concepts that many scientists dismiss as
nonsense. Others suggest that prayer may have a soothing
effect that works like a placebo for believers who know
they are being prayed for.
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."
Prayer and Heart Disease
Proponents of prayer research
often cite two large heart disease trials to justify
further study of prayer's healing potential.
In one study, Dr. Randolph Byrd, a San Francisco
cardiologist, had groups of born-again Christians pray for
192 of 393 patients being treated at the coronary care unit
of San Francisco General Hospital. In 1988, Dr. Byrd
reported in The Southern Medical Journal, a peer-reviewed
publication of the Southern Medical Association, that the
patients who were prayed for did better on several measures
of health, including the need for drugs and breathing
At the end of the paper, Dr. Byrd wrote, "I thank God for
responding to the many prayers made on behalf of the
In the other study, of 990 heart disease patients, Dr.
William S. Harris of St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City,
Mo., and his colleagues reported in The Archives of
Internal Medicine in 1999 that the patients who were prayed
for by religious strangers did significantly better than
the others on a measure of coronary health that included
more than 30 factors. Dr. Harris, who was one of the
authors of a paper arguing that Darwin's theory of
evolution is speculative, concluded that his study
supported Dr. Byrd's.
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.
Dr. Harris corrected for this problem, experts say, but he
then found significant differences between prayer and
no-prayer groups only by using a formula that he and his
colleagues had devised, and that no one else had ever
validated. A swarm of letters to the journal challenged Dr.
Harris's methods. One correspondent, a Dutch doctor,
jokingly claimed that he could account for the results
because he was clairvoyant. "I have subsequently used my
telepathic powers to influence the course of the
experimental group," he wrote.
Still, some religious leaders and practitioners of
alternative medicine argue that because prayer is so common
a response to illness, researchers have a responsibility to
"We need to look at this with what I call open-minded
skepticism," said Dr. Marilyn Schlitz, the lead
investigator of the federally financed wound healing study
and the director of research at the Institute of Noetic
Sciences, an alternative medicine research center near San
Questions About Data
It was a former associate of Dr. Schlitz's, Dr. Elisabeth
Targ, who first helped draw federal money into research on
so-called distant healing. The daughter of Russell Targ, a
physicist who studied extrasensory perception for
government intelligence agencies in the 1970's, Dr. Targ
made headlines with a 1998 study suggesting that prayers
from assorted religious healers and shamans could protect
AIDS patients from some complications related to the
The findings, and Dr. Targ's reputation, helped win her two
grants from the complementary and alternative medicine
center at the National Institutes of Health - one for a
larger study of distant healing among AIDS patients,
another to test the effect of prayers by outside healers on
the longevity of people with deadly brain tumors.
Both trials are continuing at the California Pacific
Medical Center in San Francisco, which has a complementary
medicine wing, but Dr. Targ is no longer running them. She
herself died of brain cancer in 2002.
Shortly after Dr. Targ's death, her methods came under
attack. An article in Wired magazine charged that she and
her co-authors had massaged their data on AIDS to make the
effects of prayer look better than they were.
Officials at California Pacific conducted an investigation
of the study and concluded that the data had not been
manipulated. Dr. John Astin, who is running the second AIDS
study, said the biggest weakness of Dr. Targ's first trial
was that it was too small to be conclusive.
But in a letter defending the study, the hospital's
director of research also acknowledged that he could not
tell for sure from the original medical records which
patients had been prayed for and which had not been.
"Each subject's name, age and date of birth were blinded
with what appears to be a black crayon," he wrote.
The quality of original data is also at the center of the
controversy over the 2001 Columbia fertility study, which
was reported by many newspapers including The New York
Times. Dr. Kwang Cha, a Korean fertility specialist
visiting the university, was the study's lead author.
Daniel Wirth, a lawyer from California who had conducted
research on alternative healing, was his principal research
associate. In the spring of 1999, the two met at a
Starbucks on the Upper West Side to exchange data,
according to Dr. Cha, who provided details of the meeting
through a colleague.
Dr. Cha had the pregnancy results with him, and Mr. Wirth
had a roster of the women he said had been prayed for. The
two had never shared the information before, and Dr. Cha
was surprised enough by the results that he took them to a
former mentor, Dr. Rogerio Lobo of Columbia, to make sure
the study was done correctly.
In a recent interview, Dr. Lobo said that the study had
come to him as a "fait accompli" and that he had
interrogated Dr. Cha to make sure his study methods were
sound. He decided they were and helped write the study.
"We had these results, we didn't believe them, we couldn't
explain them, but we decided to put them out there," Dr.
In May, Mr. Wirth pleaded guilty to conspiracy in
connection with a $2 million business fraud in
Pennsylvania. He is awaiting sentencing.
Dr. Lobo said he had met Mr. Wirth but knew little about
him or about his contributions to the study. He
acknowledged that the data could have been manipulated, but
said he did not know how.
"I didn't actually conduct the study, so I can't know for
sure," Dr. Lobo said.
Mr. Wirth's lawyer, William Arbuckle, said his client was
not available for comment.
'This Is No Routine Paper'
One study that many people believe could either bolster
prayer research or dampen interest in the topic has been
completed, but has not yet been published. Dr. Herbert
Benson, the cardiologist who founded the Mind/Body Medical
Institute, began the trial in the late 1990's with $2.4
million from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports
research into spirituality. The Mind/Body Institute,
according to its Web site, is a "scientific and educational
organization dedicated to the study of mind/body
The study included some 1,800 volunteers, heart bypass
patients at six hospitals. They were monitored according to
strict medical guidelines and randomly assigned to be
prayed for or not. One doctor who has seen a final version
of the study said it was the most rigorous trial on the
subject to date.
Other experts say they wonder whether the study will be
published at all, and what is holding it up.
"He's got nothing, or we would have seen it by now," Dr.
Sloan of Columbia said, referring to Dr. Benson.
In an interview at his office, Dr. Benson acknowledged that
at least two medical journals had turned down the study
after asking for revisions. He said that the study was
currently under review at another journal and that talking
about the results could jeopardize publication.
"This is no routine paper," he said. "What you're looking
at obviously is not a typical intervention, not at all. We
are at the interface of science and religion here, and
there are boundary issues that you would not have for
almost any other paper."
Dr. Benson, who has studied the links between spirituality
and medicine for many years, declined to answer when asked
if he himself believed in the effects of intercessory
prayer, saying only that he believed in God.
"We know that praying for oneself can influence health, so
that's what led us to this topic," he said.
If researchers are struggling to prove that intercessory
prayer has benefits for health, at least one study hints
that it could be harmful.
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.
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