from Scientific American
November 2004 issue
Flying Carpets and Scientific Prayers
Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed
By Michael Shermer
In late 1944, as he cajoled his flagging troops to defeat the Germans in the
Battle of the Bulge, General George S. Patton turned to his chief chaplain for
Patton: Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather.
I'm tired of these soldiers having to fight mood and floods as well as Germans.
See if we can't get God to work on our side.
Chaplain: Sir, it's going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of
Patton: I don't care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying
|Although few attribute Patton's subsequent success to a
divine miracle, a number of papers have been published in peer-reviewed
scientific journals in recent years claiming that distant intercessory
prayer leads to health and healing. These studies are fraught with
Suspicions of fraud. In 2001 the Journal of Reproductive
Medicine published a study by three Columbia University researchers
claiming that prayer for women undergoing in vitro fertilization resulted
in a pregnancy rate of 50 percent, double that of women who did not
receive prayer. ABC News medical correspondent Timothy Johnson cautiously
enthused, "A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports
surprising results, but many physicians remain skeptical." One of
those skeptics was from the University of California at Irvine, a clinical
professor of gynecology and obstetrics named Bruce Flamm, who not only
found numerous methodological errors in the experiment but also discovered
that one of the study's authors, Daniel Wirth, a.k.a. John Wayne Truelove,
is not an M.D. but an M.S. in parapsychology who has since been indicted
on felony charges for mail fraud and theft, to which he has pled guilty.
The other two authors have refused to comment, and after three years of
inquiries from Flamm, the journal removed the study from its Web site, and
Columbia University launched an investigation.
Scientific prayer makes God a celestial lab rat
|Lack of controls. Many of these studies failed to
control for such intervening variables as age, sex, education, ethnicity,
socioeconomic status, marital standing, degree of religiosity and ignored
the fact that most religions have sanctions against such insalubrious
behaviors as sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse, and smoking. When
such variables are controlled for, the formerly significant results
disappear. One study on recovery from hip surgery in elderly women did not
control for age; another study on church attendance and recovery from
illness did not consider that people in poor health are less likely to
Outcome differences. In a highly publicized study of cardiac
patients prayed for by born-again Christians, of 29 outcome variables
measured only six showed a significant difference between the prayed-for
and nonprayed-for groups. In related studies, different outcome measures
were significant. To be meaningful, the same measures need to be
significant across studies because if enough outcomes are measured, some
will show significant correlations by chance.
Operational definitions. When experiments are carried out to
determine the effects of prayer, what precisely is being studied? For
example, what type of prayer is being employed? (Are Christian, Jewish,
Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan and shaman prayers equal?) Who or what is being
prayed to? (Are God, Jesus and a universal life force equivalent?) What is
the length and frequency of the prayer? (Are two 10-minute prayers equal
to one 20-minute prayer?) How many people are praying, and does their
status in the religion matter? (Is one priestly prayer identical to 10
parishioner prayers?) Most prayer studies either lack such operational
definitions or lack consistency across studies in such definitions.
The ultimate fallacy is theological: if God is omniscient and
omnipotent, he should not need to be reminded or inveigled into healing
someone. Scientific prayer makes God a celestial lab rat, leading to bad
science and worse religion.
|Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic (www.skeptic.com)
and author of The Science of Good and Evil.
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