Pharyngula

That prayer boondoggle

The best analysis of American Heart Journal prayer study that I’ve seen yet is over at Rhosgobel. It uses solid methodology, and its results are clear: prayer didn’t help, and might even have hurt.

I’ve read the paper. It was hard. Every time I saw the word “prayer” on the page (and it’s used like several times per paragraph), my eyes would cross and I’d giggle, and then I’d get cranky because millions of dollars were wasted on this stupid, if well done, study. There was absolutely no justification given for this work, other than “Many patients report using private or family prayer to cope with this stressful experience [coronary artery bypass graft].” No mechanism was discussed. Its closing paragraph simply disavows any interpretations about religion…in a study whose sole motivation is a widespread religious belief.

The whole thing is based on a wild-assed guess plucked out of thin air, with an expectation that no matter which way it turned out, the results would be meaningless. That isn’t science, and it doesn’t matter that they carefully followed the forms of a scientific study—it was a waste of time. It wasn’t going to change medical or social practice, and wasn’t going to lead to any insight on how to better heal people. No one is going to discourage people from praying because of its result, although if the data had skewed the other way, you just know we’d never hear the end of it.

Comments

  1. #1 Aa
    March 31, 2006

    Let us all now sing “Nothing fails like prayer”

  2. #2 John M. Price
    March 31, 2006

    Why am I not surprised?

    BTW, excellent octopus photo!

  3. #3 PaulC
    March 31, 2006

    The whole thing is based on a wild-assed guess plucked out of thin air, with an expectation that no matter which way it turned out, the results would be meaningless.

    I’m not going to argue that it was money well spent or that it will change anybody’s mind, but I have to disagree with the phrase “plucked out of thin air.” On the contrary, the study addressed a very common belief that was plucked from the fabric of our common cultural assumptions. There is no scientific reason to give the belief itself any credibility, but the fact that many people hold the belief is a significant, empirically provable observation.

    For instance, a study done to test whether Pekingese dogs have great powers of levitation than Chihuahuas would indeed be testing a guess pulled out of thin air (which is how I came up with it). This would be a very different kind of study than one intended to test a belief, however misguided, that had a large constituency.

    A study on prayer will probably not convince anybody who believes in its power, but the fact remains that some suprisingly large percentage of Americans practice intercessory prayer despite the lack of any scientifically reasonable mechanism. This study tested that belief. People can be reasonably expected to want to see the claim tested even if they ultimately reject the outcome. By contrast, nobody I can think of would find much utility in studying levitation in dogs.

    The utility of doing the study is not based on an objective expectation of finding anything surprising, but rather on the value that human beings attach to it. I’m not really sure who paid for this study. I wouldn’t want tax dollars funding it, or any money that might otherwise be directed to doing something that could be reasonably expected to help heart patients. On the other hand, in purely economic terms, I imagine somebody felt they got their money’s worth out of doing this.

  4. #4 PaulC
    March 31, 2006

    I wonder if the negative outcome for people who know they’re being prayed for is real or just a statistical outlier.

    It could be a case of “moral hazard” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_hazard in which a person who erroneously believes themselves protected by prayer will not follow competent medical advice as judiciously as if they believed that their doctors were primarily responsible for their outcome.

    Alternatively, it could probably give some people a coronary just to know they were part of this study.

  5. #5 Kurt
    March 31, 2006

    I wouldn’t be so down about the waste of reseach dollars. Sometimes it’s necessary to waste (money/time/personal energy/etc.) in order to move ahead. To the extent that spiritual claims can be made testable, I think it’s worthwhile to go ahead and do the studies and put the issues to rest. Certainly it’s not going to change the minds of very many of the older generation. But for students and others who are still forming opinions about such stuff, having results like this might provide just the kind of “nudge” that they need to free themselves from superstition.

  6. #6 Mike Fox
    March 31, 2006

    I always thought prayer was to help those praying. Kinda like how funerals don’t help the dead, either.

  7. #7 SteveG
    March 31, 2006

    Philosophers of science draw a distinction between the context of discovery (the psychological sphere from which hypotheses spring), the context of justification (the means by which we test hypotheses and determine which are worth elevating to best current theory), and the context of pursuit (where we determine which of the wild, hairbrained new hypotheses are worth our time, money, and effort). Kurt’s notion that the context of pursuit is influenced not only by rational factors — e.g., which hypotheses are likely to be legitimate challengers to our best current theory or which hypotheses are easily disposed of — but also political and cultural factors is a good one. I just wish that I shared your optimism about the cultural and politcal effects of the negative results. If someone is not pre-disposed to be influenced by the empirical to start with, but comes loaded with religous or cultural predispositions, I’m not sure that these results won’t be dismissed out of hand. But it’s an empirical question. I hope you are right.

  8. #8 Molly, NYC
    March 31, 2006

    The study cost $2.4 million, and most of the money came from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research into spirituality. The government has spent more than $2.3 million on prayer research since 2000.

    The money from the Templeton Foundation, I don’t care about. Funding this sort of research is what they do. They don’t try to mess with the education and sex lives of the general public, they don’t try to jimmy elections–they just try to find out if there’s some real proof for this stuff they believe. On their own dime.

    BUT the Bush administration has thrown away $2.3 million of MY money on this crapola?

    To whom? Falwell? Robertson? Chuck Colson? Which GOP-sucking Holy Joe had his palms greased under the pretext of “investigating prayer”?

  9. #9 isabelita
    March 31, 2006

    Yet another instance of funding going to faith-based activities. I think it does hurt, this sort of crap, since it’s another little gouge out of already declining research funding for actual science. No front should be allowed to slide in the battle we’re in.

  10. #10 impatientpatient
    March 31, 2006

    I honestly think that this is the beginning of the end of medicine as we know it. If prayer and faith and good feeling is posited to help, (a Christian alternative to alternative New Age medicine,) then people will be once again told that their ability to HEAL lies within their faith. Which is then going to put the onus on the patient, when the onus SHOULD BE on the medical community to provide diagnosis, treatment and follow up in a timely manner. This is way cheaper than all of those. The reason I think that the government is funding all this crazy whoo hoo crapola is because A- It has the support of its base, and B- to look at ways to cut spiralling medical costs. If they could consistently “prove” that this stuff works, it would be just one more “tool” in their medical arsenal. And even if they can’t prove it, oh well- they still BELIEVE.

    Don’t laugh. These are the same people who believe in demons causing illness, and so they employ exorcists to get them out. These are the people who look at disease as spiritual warfare- being caused by the devil and his minions. These are the people who, under their veneer of concern and civility, honestly believe that anyone not like them is going to suffer a fiery end.

    Prayer is not going to change anything. Especially not when Christrians talk about their answer to prayer being Yes, No and Wait. So even if it all goes to sh#t in their lives, it is still god’s will. You cannot argue that- it is just the way the system is set up.

    I have written extensively on some of this stuff, because I passionately believe that unless you have heard the stories of those who have been in these shoes with full brainwashing going on, you honestly cannot understand how prevalent these attitudes are in the faith community.

  11. #11 Lou
    March 31, 2006

    Aren’t there studies that show that praying for oneself to heal can sometimes help? I’m not talking about there actually being a supernatural cause for that, but more along the lines of it working like a placebo effect.

    If nothing else, prayer can sometimes keep the individual calm and relaxed, which may help expedite healing in some cases, right?

    Now, before you label me a fundie or anything, I consider myself a very, very lapsed Catholic who is agnostic or deist at best — certainly not a “true believer,” and certainly not one who buys into Creationist claptrap or anything similar. That said, I still follow many Catholic ceremonies, mostly out of respect for tradition and my upbringing, and I admit certain ones (such as a Catholic funeral) were conforting to me during a painful time of loss, if nothing else.

    I’m just arguing that sometimes prayer may have some sort of psychological benefit, even if it doesn’t truly have a physical benefit to the sick and injured. It’s also very probable that a non-religious person could get similar benefits from similar activities that may help calm and relax them.

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    March 31, 2006

    I would agree that it would be worth the money to pursue these common but ridiculously improbable fallacies IF there was the slightest chance it would persuade people to avoid wasting their time in the future.

    This won’t.

    I promise you — in ten years, there will still be people begging for the opportunity to “test” the power of prayer. The people who are pursuing this are not doing so on the basis of reasonable evidence, but on pure faith and delusion. Scientific results won’t touch that.

  13. #13 cereal breath
    March 31, 2006

    unfortunately this study has one singular, massive flaw… the people invovled were not praying to me. i dispense miracles like pez, and for the low low price of just $19.95, i can touch your life or a loved one’s. or alternatively, some foundation could just give me a million dollars and i’ll tell them i’m full of shit. it’s win-win, they save a million and change and i gain a million. i’ll even buy 100 children ice cream cones with my share of the loot, thereby making 100 kids happier than this study did. it’s really win-win-win, and it’s for the children.

  14. #14 Erin S.
    March 31, 2006

    It does hurt, if only because it takes money away from real scientific studies that might actually do some good. As a researcher, I can attest to the fact that budgets are getting tighter and tighter. And crappy, useless studies like this frustrate me incredibly!

  15. #15 lemur boy
    March 31, 2006

    Actually, I would have structured the study a bit differently…

    Control group: no prayer, no mention of prayer.
    Test group A: prayer, not told they’re being prayed for.
    Test group B: prayer, told they’re being prayed for.
    Test group C: Told they’re being prayed for, but in reality a rap group is making up songs about them.

    Let’s see how THOSE results correllate.

  16. #16 Aris
    March 31, 2006

    I couldn’t disagree more. I think it was money very well spent, and I’d love to see more of my money spent on debunking supernatural claims, from religious BS to astrology, magic, ghosts, etc.

    As long as the experiments are well designed and conducted by legitimate scientists, the results will undoubtedly not be supportive of supernaturalism. Sure, fundies will never surrender faith in BS but more and more debunkings through the scientific method may embarrass more and more mainstream reporters and prevent them from giving credibility to stupid ideas.

  17. #17 Coragyps
    March 31, 2006

    “in ten years, there will still be people begging for the opportunity to “test” the power of prayer…”

    Who was that – one of C Darwin’s cousins, maybe? – that did a study on prayer back before 1900 and got this same null result? I guess the $2.4 million tossed away here ultimately did go to buying some little kids new shoes and some grad students beer and condoms, but, damn! I’d rather see it all go directly for the former.

  18. #18 cereal breath
    March 31, 2006

    “Test group C: Told they’re being prayed for, but in reality a rap group is making up songs about them.”

    is said rap group on the positive tip? i’m thinking some gansta shit could really bring ’em down.

    what about a Test group C that were told there was prayer but actually invovles a bunch of randomly selected people pointing and laughing at the subject behind a two-way mirror? i would really like to know the results of this becuase thats what it feels like when i walk down the street.

  19. #19 Shygetz
    March 31, 2006

    That isn’t science, and it doesn’t matter that they carefully followed the forms of a scientific study–it was a waste of time.

    I disagree with the good doctor on this. While I agree that it was a waste of time and money, I think it is valid science. Science measures effects without known causes or mechanisms all the time. It’s quite useful for forming new models. As long as the study was well designed and controlled, I don’t think you can discount it as “not science” although you can call it a waste of time and money.

  20. #20 cp
    March 31, 2006

    Doctors are above all humans. There may be experienced, informed, caring and dedicated but they may also be bad professionals, which managed to get job by networking and only care about money.
    In this case, I’d rather say a prayer…Honest.

  21. #21 dhoeflin
    March 31, 2006

    the control groups are, to say the least, somewhat suspect. It would seem doubtful that the patients were controlled as to whether they or their families, friends, etc., prayed or did not pray for the concerned individuals’ own health. Thus the experiment failed to have a true control group and a true trt group. Waste of time and money.

  22. #22 ben
    March 31, 2006

    It is a waste of time and money because it basically debunked a strawman. The purpose of prayer is not to ask for things, and no theologian would say that God is supposed to answer prayers. The people who do use prayer to ask for things will never be aware of these results (because they are morons), and the results don’t apply to people who pray for the “right” reasons.

    NB: I’m an atheistic non-prayin’ heathen, and I don’t know exactly what the “right” reasons are, but I do know that asking for things and expecting God to answer is not one.

  23. #23 andy
    March 31, 2006

    PZ, have you been reading my blog again? 😉

    While I’m happy that such a large study shows nothing fails quite like prayer, it’s equally saddening that we have to waste time and money on such nonsense and that we actually publish the results in a scientific journal. Maybe next year we can research whether voodoo chicken blood rituals cure impotence.

    I fully expect that Christians will now trot out the line about “thou shall not test the Lord thy God.” However, I don’t recall any of them being concerned about that when smaller studies indicated some possible beneficial effect (I guess their memory of the Bible ranks right up there with their knowledge of statistically-valid sample sizes).

  24. #24 TP
    March 31, 2006

    Lou,

    There are a host of such studies. While the notion of distant intercessory prayer as having therapeutic effects is both more controversial and less established, as P. Myers points out, there are thousands of studies, many of which are methodologically sound, which demonstrate therapeutic effects for the individual patient arising from praying or engaging in other kinds of spiritual activities.

    Most of the best of these studies are compiled in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health, and the Journal of Religion and Health also has spent some time on the notion, which is termed (sorry if this makes you cringe, Professor Myers), the ‘epidemiology of religion.’

    Full disclosure: I am an atheist interdisciplinary Ph.D student who studies the medical humanities and has done some study of the interplay between religion and health (though my primary focus is clinical medical ethics and health policy, not religious studies).

    Though I am well aware that not all or even most of the studies on the therapeutic effects of religious practice on health are legitimate, it seems difficult to dispute the notion that there are more than a bare few which are methodologically sound. I respectfully disagree with P. Myers, to the extent he disagrees, that religious praxis is not correlated with therapeutic health effects. NOTE: I am certainly not suggesting that providers ought to ‘prescribe’ religion or any such notion, at all, nor am I asserting ANY kind of causal relationship, nor am I offering any conclusions as to the significance of the findings. I am merely suggesting that there are sufficient valid studies on the issue to justify the opinion that there is some statistically significant correlation between the two.

    The notion of distant intercessory prayer, which was at issue in the AHA study, is a related but different inquiry, one in which, as noted, the studies are much, much less compelling, IMO.

  25. #25 Aero
    March 31, 2006

    There was important knowledge gained from this study. It can be harmful to your health to be prayed for especially when someone tells you they will pray for you.

    from that bit of information we should require that no one be allowed to tell someone they will be preayed for on penalty provided for other forms of assault with intent to harm.

    I think this is a stricking outcome from this study. When it was started and promoted that it would prove the amazing power of prayer, I thought it was stupid. If prayer worked, those people should not have suffered heart disease in the first place and West Texas would be a rain forest.

  26. #26 PZ Myers
    March 31, 2006

    “Oh no, Andy,” says PZ, all wide-eyed and innocent, “I never read your blog.”

  27. #27 decrepitoldfool
    March 31, 2006

    I just saw two talking heads – a doctor and a priest – on FOX news agreeing with each other that the study was a complete waste of money, and that it had severe methodological errors. For this reason alone, I think the study was a great idea.

    In the Chicago Tribune article about the study, a priest concluded, “perhaps the best prayer is ‘Thy will be done'”.

  28. #28 jbark
    March 31, 2006

    “It would seem doubtful that the patients were controlled as to whether they or their families, friends, etc., prayed or did not pray for the concerned individuals’ own health. Thus the experiment failed to have a true control group and a true trt group. Waste of time and money.”

    That’s implicitly controlled by randomly assigning the patients to your different experimental groups.

  29. #29 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    March 31, 2006

    There was absolutely no justification given for this work, other than “Many patients report using private or family prayer to cope with this stressful experience [coronary artery bypass graft].”

    The justification ultimately has to be made to the people who are funding the research – apparently the Templeton foundation (which exist specifically to fund this sort of stuff) and the taxpayers. It’s a safe bet that the average taxpayer is more likely to approve of this use of some research money than, say, investigating the water on Enceladus.

    Sad, yes, but I doubt this particular study is going to be complained about by Joe Average Taxpayer as a waste of money. (Joe Average Taxpayer might have problems with the RESULTS, on the other hand, which clearly show that there’s no measurable benefit to praying for someone.)

    No mechanism was discussed.

    Is any mechanism necessary at this point? Wasn’t this mainly a study to see if this kind prayer had any measurable effect?

  30. #30 PaulC
    March 31, 2006

    Erin S.:

    It does hurt, if only because it takes money away from real scientific studies that might actually do some good.

    This is far from self-evident. I don’t know where the money would have gone if this study was not done. Given the institute funding it, I doubt it would have gone to “real scientific studies.” Anyway, this is a dangerous argument, since it can be applied to any basic research depending on how you want to define “might actually do some good.” It is an argument often trotted out to criticize legitimate science such as sending probes to the outer planets. I strongly disagree in that context, but there’s actually more legitimacy in that case since we’re talking about the allocation of public funding. I have no say in what a private foundation chooses to do with its money.

    There would be some argument to make if defunding one project that you did not favor actually implied that the money would go to one that you favored. But this is almost never the case when such arguments are made.

  31. #31 Great White Wonder
    March 31, 2006

    Control group: no prayer, no mention of prayer.
    Test group A: prayer, not told they’re being prayed for.
    Test group B: prayer, told they’re being prayed for.
    Test group C: Told they’re being prayed for, but in reality a rap group is making up songs about them.

    Test group D: a computer reciting a prayer once each second, 24 hours a day, for a week.

    Test group E: prayer to Lucifer, Angel of Light.

  32. #32 Jake Blues
    March 31, 2006

    I’ve a fundy friend who mentioned that there was a successful study on prayer that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I have been unsuccessful in Googling and was wondering if anyone here knew the details of the study.

  33. #33 Great White Wonder
    March 31, 2006

    Is any mechanism necessary at this point? Wasn’t this mainly a study to see if this kind prayer had any measurable effect?

    Nobody can tell us what “this kind of prayer” really means. You can pretend that you can tell us, but in fact: you can’t do it.

    That’s why using a computer to recite different prayers would be a “better” “experiment”.

    Surely you aren’t going to argue that God that can tell the difference between a human praying and a computer praying? That would be ad hoc bullshit of the lowest order.

    The next study would be if rending your clothing has an effect on curing impotence. We don’t need to worry about “mechanisms” in that case either.

    Finally, we can study if picking your nose in South Dakota has an effect on the litter size of squirrels in Golden Gate Park. We needn’t worry about “mechanisms” in that case either.

    Who’s going to fund me?

  34. #34 Just Another Sucker
    March 31, 2006

    I’ll fund you.

  35. #35 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    March 31, 2006

    (I guess their memory of the Bible ranks right up there with their knowledge of statistically-valid sample sizes).

    They may be a little confused. In some places in the Bible, testing god seems just fine. Exodus 33, where Moses gets god to show himself, comes to mind.

  36. #36 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    March 31, 2006

    The next study would be if rending your clothing has an effect on curing impotence. We don’t need to worry about “mechanisms” in that case either.

    Get most of the US population or a foundation with lots of disposable cash interested in the answer to your question (or your others), and then we’ll talk.

  37. #37 dr_igloo
    March 31, 2006

    How can a study like this POSSIBLY cost $2.4 million dollars?!?!?! No reagents to buy, no consumables, no specialized equipment. Just a couple of computers with statistical analysis software, a statistician, a data manager, a study coordinator. That don’t add up to $2.4M as far as I can tell.

  38. #38 Molly, NYC
    March 31, 2006

    Dr_igloo, you know how the money spent on the war in Iraq won’t stand up to an audit?

    Same sort of contractors, same sort of deal.

  39. #39 N.Wells
    March 31, 2006

    I apologise for not contributing to a serious discussion, but Dr. Igloo’s comment reminded me of a great story:

    God was chatting with his angels one day, and one of them brought up the topic of NSF grants. God thought about it a bit, and said, “You know, that sounds like a really sweet deal. We should write a proposal for some research, submit it to NSF, and then sit back and let the money roll in.” So God and the angels set to work, created a grant proposal, and FedExed it off. Months went by, and they heard nothing. Finally, God phoned up NSF, and asked, “What’s the news about my proposal?”. The program director apologised and said that the proposal had been rejected. God was apoplectic: “Rejected? Rejected? How in heaven’s name could you possibly reject my proposal? We worked so hard on it.” The program director explained that the decision was out of his hands, beceause the peer reviews had been really bad. God asked for the details. “Well,” said the program director, “the first reviewer noted that You had done all Your significant work early in Your career, the second noted that You had only one publication, and the third complained that You never explained Your methods and no one had ever been able to duplicate Your results.”

  40. #40 wamba
    March 31, 2006

    I’ve a fundy friend who mentioned that there was a successful study on prayer that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I have been unsuccessful in Googling and was wondering if anyone here knew the details of the study.

    Why Google? Go straight to the NEJM site. You could also reminf your Fundy friend to check out Exodus 20:16.

    Here’s some other things you can Google on:

    Elisabeth Targ wired

    Columbia prayer fraud

  41. #41 phototaxi
    March 31, 2006

    Above and beyond the methodological problems of many studies and the negative outcome associated w/ intercessionary prayer lies the ontological problem:

    What would be the implications if it were EVER found that intercessionary prayer affected outcomes?

    I’ve been in this debate w/ (I’m sorry) knuckleheads who seem to think that the issue of the effectiveness of proyer is distinct from any metaphysical superstructure in which prayer is justified, which is clearly false.

    First, tell me WHY prayer should make any difference. Tell me what AGENCY achieves prayers purported effects. Tell me HOW you know this. Then tell me what the possible effects might be.

    Of course the efficacy of prayer at a distance is non-existent. How could it be otherwise?

  42. #42 Coragyps
    March 31, 2006

    “The next study would be if rending your clothing has an effect on curing impotence.”

    I’ll volunteer, instead, for a study involving rending Sharon Stone’s clothing………..

  43. #43 dhoeflin
    March 31, 2006

    JBark,
    I agree that randomization controls for hidden characteristics, e.g. general state of health, prior to the treatment and as such is a good statistical practice. However, here post randomization, there was no treatment control. both the control and treatments subjects could have and likely did receive the treatment of intercessionary prayer. Think of testing a drug X from company A. You randomize the subjects into two groups I and II. Then give the drug to group II. Unknown to you however, another “experimenter” is dispensing drug X, however from company B, on the same set of subjects but gives the drug to everyone. Assuming the effectiveness of the drug only depends on it being present or not, then this experiment is a waste as you’ve no control group.

  44. #44 afarensis
    March 31, 2006

    My home town paper ran the story as Scientists fall short of answers on prayers for sick but the article didn’t mention how science actually fell short…

  45. #45 oldhippie
    March 31, 2006

    Ok If I understand it right, what this study says is that when George Bush next gets sick we must all let him know we are praying for him.

    “I’ve a fundy friend who mentioned that there was a successful study on prayer that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I have been unsuccessful in Googling and was wondering if anyone here knew the details of the study. ”

    http://www.randi.org/ has something on this….

  46. #46 JP
    March 31, 2006

    The next study would be if rending your clothing has an effect on curing impotence.

    Do tear-away pants count? If so, the anecdotal evidence says “Yes!”

  47. #47 ceejayoz
    March 31, 2006

    My home town paper ran the story as Scientists fall short of answers on prayers for sick but the article didn’t mention how science actually fell short…

    One would think the headline should be about prayer falling short. Heh.

  48. #48 Marcia
    March 31, 2006

    Brian Williams on NBC NEWS introduced the study at the top of the show by stating that a new study indicates no link between prayer and healing. Then, he asked his viewers, “Does science have ANY business deving into faith?”

    Well, I’ll ask you, Brian (with your biased tone, and BTW, you ended it in a biased way with a wisecrack about how people don’t care about the study):

    Does faith have any business rooting around in science?

  49. #49 Marcia
    March 31, 2006

    Why are the faithful so freaked out about this study?

    One: there’s lots of money to be lost if people don’t pay others to teach them how and why to pray.
    Two: I think the emotional answer lies in this book:

    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/archives/2005/05-07-15.html#Krause

  50. #50 Kagehi
    March 31, 2006

    Afraid I have to agree with the money well spent people here PZ. If money wasn’t going to “legitimate” people doing empirically valid tests, it would be going by some other route to people with no morals at all, no compunction to do valid tests, every self interest to fake the results and one single agenda. And without real scientists “wasting” money on debunking them with valid studies, all you end up with is the religious version of male enhancement pills. I.e., “No evidence or real facts need apply. Its easier to just make shit up and ‘claim’ it is all legitimate.”

  51. #51 Mike Procario
    March 31, 2006

    Well they probably should have started by praying for the recovery of mice. Most medical studies start in with test tubes and then progress to mice.
    Mice are unlikley to have family praying for them so the controls should be better. It could also have been done more cheaply. If you are really trying be scientifically serious that would seem to be the right approach.

    If the proponents take exception to praying to kill the bateria in a culture dish, or to remove tumours from mice, then it probably is not something that can be really rigorously studied.

  52. #52 Chris
    March 31, 2006

    Marcia,

    The majority of “the faithful” are on the giving end, not the receiving end of the financial issue. Hence, it’s unreasonable to think they are “freaked out” because they’ll no longer be receiving money to teach others “how and why to pray.” Your conclusion is a good example of a hasty generalization.

  53. #53 Torbjorn Larsson
    March 31, 2006

    Normally, I would like to see a follow up to a medical study, since the study methods and/or statistics are notoriously uncertain.

    But here there is not only no apparent mechanisms, but these studies goes against what we now know of fundamental interactions; there is no gap that gap that ad hoc interactions may use, the constraints are too tight.

    So I would say that these investigations only confirm the obvious. But it’s a good thing that Templeton Foundation waste it’s money on next to conventional harmless nonsense instead of funding fundies harmful nonsense.

  54. #54 Torbjorn Larsson
    March 31, 2006

    Err- I meant “its money”, of course.

  55. #55 Marcia
    March 31, 2006

    Chris,
    Let me put it another way as I wasn’t clear. The average churchgoer gives money to the church for various reasons, but I bet he or she will give less if he or she realizes that prayer doesn’t work. They didn’t get what they prayed, er paid for. They’ll go less often, give less, and the ministers and priests interviewed on the news shows tonight might see their incomes drop.

    I used to give a lot of money to the spiritual movements to which I belonged. Now I spend my money on environmental causes, something I can see and that directly affects me and others. For me, this wasn’t easy. It was frightening to give up the “hope.” I’m sure many religious people may take a little baby step to freedom after a study like this (and there are more coming shortly).

    “God isn’t responding to prayers for health.”
    “God isn’t responding to prayers.”
    “God isn’t responding.”
    “God isn’t.”

    Makes sense to me.

  56. #56 tommy
    April 1, 2006

    The study is of no value, and if anyone had thought about it beforehand they would have known it because it fails to address the single most important fact concerning prayer, or religion in general, faith. Simply put, the prayers of a person lacking faith are not worth studying, and the faithful would never consider not praying, thereby depriving the researchers of the possibility of actually having a valid control group. It’s the issue of faith that pretty much makes all scientific evaluation of religion fairly pointless.

  57. #57 Maria
    April 1, 2006

    Are the differences between the group who was told they were being prayed for, and the group who was actually prayed for, significant?

    If they were, it could suggest that being told you are prayed for makes you “relax”, but prayer actually makes up for the difference…

    Heh. Not that I think that’s the case. Although had they prayed for the FSM…

  58. #58 cp
    April 1, 2006

    Now I spend my money on environmental causes, something I can see and that directly affects me and others.
    Many church people (not churches as such) do that, too. If you are not fanatic, you can both be religious and follow the changes. Problems start when someone takes religion’s suggestions as direct orders.

  59. #59 Marcia
    April 1, 2006

    The analysis can be paralyzing. How about this:

    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 blunt response when asked why he thought the study found no effect of prayer.

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

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/03/31/ap/health/mainD8GM804G0.shtml

  60. #60 jbark
    April 1, 2006

    Dhoeflin:

    Ah, okay, I see what you’re saying. I was thinking of it in terms of more vs. less, not some vs. none. If the latter is what they’re after, you’re absolutely right. Though if amount and something like “earnestness” aren’t expected to matter, the whole belief in prayer becomes even more bafflingly bizarre to me.

    How weird to be sitting here dissecting the methodology of such silliness, huh?!!

  61. #61 G. Tingey
    April 1, 2006

    4 Prayer has no effect on third parties.
    (Ref. F. Galton; “Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer.”; 1872. )
    I originally wrote that: “This should be given further examination, and fresh tests should be devised and performed”. This is where experimental, falsifiable scientific tests can be made, as they can for proposition 1. But, now attempts have been made to do double-blind tests over a reasonably large number of subjects. The results so far certainly seem to show that prayer has no discernible effect whatsoever.
    Note that religious believers always say that both: (a) “prayer works” AND (b) “It doesn’t work like that, and cannot be tested.”
    Why not? If prayer has any effect, or works at all, then that working or effect will be measurable.
    Thus: (i) Prayer will affect first parties: those who are doing the praying. In the same manner that any organised directed thought by an individual may, and usually will affect the actions of the person thinking those thoughts.
    (ii) Prayer may, and probably will, have an effect on second parties. People who are being prayed at, or over. Thus, even if the effect is to increase the resistance of the victim, it will have an effect. Typical examples would be: A group of Scots’ evangelicals praying at / over a woman who has had a baby out of wedlock, or the condemnation of Shostakovitch for musical formalism in1948
    (iii) Third parties, who are not present, will not be affected in any way, provided they are not informed of the prayers. In other words, provided they are kept in ignorance of others’ intentions. Some double-blind trials of this, similar to those used in medicine and experimental psychology have now been performed. The results are being carefully ignored into the ground by the believers.

    Corollary: 4a ] There is no such thing as “Psi”.
    Similarly, any so-called “Psi” forces and supernatural powers have no real effect, or existence.
    If these had any reality whatsoever, consider the enormous evolutionary advantage that such a talent, skill, or ability would give to any person, or any other animal, so endowed. No such advantage has ever been seen, or noted. The simple reason is that “Psi” is not merely a myth, but a possibly comforting lie. It is also a source of great exploitation of the gullible by stage magicians and unscrupulous fraudsters.
    All of the above applies to “miracles” as well.
    Thus ; superstition: – “If you pray hard enough, you can make water run uphill. ……… How hard do you have to pray? ….. Hard enough to make water run uphill, of course!” ( R.A.H.)
    Hence, prayer is superstition.

  62. #62 John M. Price
    April 1, 2006

    Wamba:

    I posted a direct link (Let us Pray) to the fraud perpetrated by Elizabeth Targ’s group in the previous prayer thread. It is (for the google impaired:

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.12/prayer.html

    A must read for anyone interested in this topic.

    The Columbia fertility study seems much more of a greed issue to me (could be wrong) than the manipulation of results in the Targ fraud.

  63. #63 sara
    April 1, 2006

    Are there statistical studies that show that religious Christians are less healthy? Corrected for SES, age, and being Southern? If you think God or angels are looking out for your health, you might not take care of it. Furthemore, caring for your body might lead you to sexual temptation (the main reason young secularists attend gym is to look attractive to the gender of their choice).

    Seventh-Day Adventists may be excepted, as their sect focuses on health.

  64. #64 John M. Price
    April 1, 2006

    TP:

    The notion of distant intercessory prayer, which was at issue in the AHA study, is a related but different inquiry, one in which, as noted, the studies are much, much less compelling, IMO.

    When you actually follow the work, read the commentary, etc., even read the articles carefully, these studies are not only much, much less compelling, the exhibit all the earmarks of a flat out null result.

    Would that people could actually understand and accept that.

  65. #65 John M. Price
    April 1, 2006

    decrepitoldfool:

    I just saw two talking heads – a doctor and a priest – on FOX news agreeing with each other that the study was a complete waste of money, and that it had severe methodological errors. For this reason alone, I think the study was a great idea.

    Just what were these errors, or, better, any suggested design to more accurately test the hypothesis?

  66. #66 386sx
    April 1, 2006

    John M. Price: Just what were these errors, or, better, any suggested design to more accurately test the hypothesis?

    Well, the first thing, I guess, is that the people doing the praying have to have the right theology. And I guess from the article Red State Rabble cites, Mr. Harris doesn’t think control groups are appropriate when doing prayer studies: “Telling some people they were going to be prayed for was unusual and disconcerting, he said, and may have affected the way patients responded because they may have been more worried about their conditions, knowing they were prayer subjects.”

    Marcia: The average churchgoer gives money to the church for various reasons, but I bet he or she will give less if he or she realizes that prayer doesn’t work.

    We’re talking about theology here, where excuses are a dime a dozen.

  67. #67 The Atheist Jew
    April 1, 2006

    The study was found to be a hoax. http://tinyurl.com/e4pv4

  68. #68 Carlie
    April 2, 2006

    “The study was found to be a hoax.”

    Now see what you’ve done? Your blog entry is going to be the headline on every conservative web site, with the part about the atheist hating god in bold and italics, and the dateline conveniently removed. *sigh*

  69. #69 TP
    April 3, 2006

    John,

    I do not disagree that the results have been a “null” result. I never said otherwise. I said the results of the studies were much less compelling than of spiritual practice for the individual. Nothing you said undermines that point.

  70. #70 impatientpatient
    April 8, 2006

    Read this:

    http://www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/04/06/griffin.fakedoc/

    Not only does a patient make a decision that costs her her back and thousands of dollars by relying on a fake doctor, now this:

    Gerling has given up on other treatment programs. She said she manages her scoliosis now through prayer.

    Science and logic and how to look things up are skills not being taught in schools today, methinks……

    How sad.

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