Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Keep your Prayers to Yourself!

“I’ll pray for you.”

How many times in your life have you heard that comment? Have you ever wondered what, if anything, prayer actually accomplishes? Have you occasionally felt somewhat .. uncomfortable? .. or threatened, perhaps? .. knowing that complete strangers were praying for you? A scientific study will be published next week that examines these questions regarding the so-called power of prayer.

This research studied 1800 heart bypass surgery patients. Heart bypass surgery is a procedure where a clean artery is removed from the patient’s leg and is used to “bypass” an artery in the heart that is blocked by plaque.

These 1800 patients were divided into three groups of 600 patients each. The first group received the prayers of christian volunteers after being told they may or may not get them. The second group of 600 were told the same thing, but were not prayed for. But the third group of patients received prayers and knew about it.

Beginning the night before their surgeries and continuing for two weeks afterwards, each group of patients were prayed for by christian volunteer groups. These prayers were for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”

If prayer had any effect on patient recovery, one would see the fastest recoveries among those two groups of patients who were prayed for, whether they were aware of it or not, while those 600 patients who did not receive any prayers would recover slowest. However, that is not what researchers found at all.

Instead, they found that prayer had no effect on recoveries among patients in the first two groups of heart patients; those who were informed that it was only a possibility they might receive prayers, whether they actually did. But the most surprising result was seen in the third group of patients; those who knew they were being prayed for;

But among patients who did receive prayers, 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

So it appears that prayer actually harmed those patients whom it was supposed to benefit, but only when they knew they were being prayed for! Some of the study’s authors offered explanations for the surprising results.

“Did the patient think that, ‘Am I so sick that they had to call in the prayer team?'” proposed physician Charles Bethea of the Oklahoma Heart Institute.

“A single study does not answer the question,” noted co-investigator Jeffrey Dusek, a Harvard Medical School psychologist. “I strongly suggest that that not be the case. I’m hoping that family and friends will continue doing what they have done for years and pray for whomever they want to and [pray for their] loved ones before surgery.”

Paul Kurtz, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, had a different interpretation regarding the supposed power of prayer.

“Because there is none,” he stated flatly. “That would be one answer.”

Based on these data, it appears that good christians should minimize the harm caused by their prayers by never letting their victims know that they are praying for them. On the other hand, could a person be legally prosecuted if he or she tells someone, “I’ll pray for you,” only to have that person drop dead soon afterwards? (I refer to this as the “voodoo effect”). Hrm.

This study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion, along with one of the participating hospitals. It will be published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal, the American Heart Journal.

Thanks, Sara and Mike!

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  1. #1 Gorbe
    March 31, 2006

    A reverse placebo effect – a Complaceny Effect? — for those who knew they were receiving prayer. I wonder if this dovetails with the semi-fatalist mentality I see among fervent believers: those who are less inclined to take responsibility for their own decisions; and more likely to trust prayer, feelings, intercession and intution.

  2. #2 Orac
    March 31, 2006

    The 59% versus 52% is probably just a statistical fluke. There probably was no difference in that group as well.

    I do have one thing to note: A complication rate of over 50% seems quite high to me, even if they were reporting minor complications like minor wound infections. I’m surprised they were willing to admit to such a high rate of complications.

    I’ll have to look up the original research article to see what they were reporting.

  3. #3 pablo
    March 31, 2006

    Well, you know what the faithful will say about this apparently disappointing finding: the deity is not to be tested. The almighty will not submit to such a clinical view. Prayer did not work this time because science was casting a cold eye on the matter and the deity would have no part in such shenanigans. Left to the privacy of megachurches, however, prayer will still have its effect they would say.

    Such an argument does give a new perspective to the notion that god is not a testable hypothesis!

  4. #4 Orac
    March 31, 2006

    I was listening to talk radio this morning, and the rationalizations that one of the hosts was coming up with to dismiss the study were truly amazing.

    Blog fodder!

  5. #5 Nancy Toby
    March 31, 2006

    There is a good discussion on the AHJ website about the negative effects of prayer on the people who KNEW they were being prayed over. Why was this statistically significant effect dismissed out-of-hand, when it was a) deleterious to the patients; and b) would certainly NOT have been dismissed if it had been a positive/healthful effect? To dismiss those findings is just bad science!

  6. #6 ericnh
    March 31, 2006

    If this study doesn’t bring James Randi back to full health, I don’t know what will (obviously prayer won’t)

  7. #7 Orac
    March 31, 2006

    I’ve also looked at the study itself. Actually, the difference in complications was pretty significant; it’s probably real, at least for this study.

  8. #8 Harlan
    March 31, 2006

    The 59% vs 52% was statistically significant (I checked), with p = .02. So, there’s only a 2% chance that that difference would be observed if there is (in fact) no effect of knowing for certain you’re being prayed for. But yes, I suspect a fluke as well…

  9. #9 Bro. Bartleby
    March 31, 2006

    Do you suppose they factored in the prayers from the monastery that we pray each morning? We pray for all those folks who no one else is praying for.

    Bro. Bartleby

  10. #10 Dr. Marco
    April 1, 2006

    What I found surprising is that time was found so that a study like that one could be done. Prayer is a perfect example of a concrete process of thought. Lack of logic and of abstract reasoning. Everything is possible. A lightning can strike what we do not like, money can fall from the sky. Healing, of course, that is easy. A religious fundamentalist might say that “God did not want scientists to find out if HE was working or not. HE works whenever HE wants to”. As I always say, the focus should be in high quality education that would make impossible for people to believe in superstitions like prayer.

  11. #11 Helena Constantine
    April 17, 2006

    This was a very silly thing.

    I suppose the ignorant (such a fudnamentalists) might think prayer operates in the way presuppsoed by this so-called study, but anyone with the slightest degree of sophsitication knows that prayer affects the interior condition of the person praying. So what was the point of this exercise?

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