Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Great Prayer Study

By Luis Granados

Ten years ago today, while America was still reeling from the attacks of September 11 and troops were gathering to invade Afghanistan, America was given stunningly good news – perhaps the most important news story of all time. The New York Times breathlessly reported the results of the first scientific study proving the existence of God. Better yet, the study demonstrated the existence of not just any kind of God, but of a God who actually responded to people’s prayers. And not just to any prayers, but to prayers offered up by Christians. Take that, Muslim devils!

The Times was reporting on a study published in the prestigious Journal of Reproductive Medicine, not in some fly-by-night religious or paranormal rag. The authors were prestigious as well, led by Rogerio Lobo, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, the alma mater of President Barack Obama. Columbia proudly issued a press release trumpeting the results of the study, which involved a group of Korean women who had sought medical help in becoming pregnant. One of the most extreme procedures used in these cases (called in-vitro fertilization, or “IVF”) involves fertilizing eggs outside the womb, then implanting the fertilized egg in the hopes that it will stick and a full-fledged pregnancy will result. Most of the time, the procedure doesn’t work, but thousands of women longing for a child try it anyway in the hopes of being in the successful minority.

Many who believe in an active God will pray for women in these circumstances, in the hopes of persuading God to favor these women with the blessing of a child. Do these prayers make any difference? That is a question that can be tested scientifically. Just set up organized prayer for one group of women undergoing the procedure, but not for another, then see if the first group has a greater success rate than the second. It is essential to conduct the study carefully, however, to avoid things like the “placebo effect.” For example, if women know they are getting the extra benefit of third party prayer, the “power of positive thinking” might take hold and influence the results, without God lifting a finger.

So the study Dr. Lobo published carefully avoided that kind of bias by not giving the women in either group the slightest clue that prayers were being said on anyone’s behalf, or that there was any kind of study going on. Medical personnel attending them were kept in the dark as well. Moreover, the study planners carefully assigned women so that there were no differences between the two groups based on age, length of infertility, type of infertility, or number of prior IVF attempts. Prayers for the women in one of the groups were said by members of a variety of different Christian denominations in the United States and Canada, thousands of miles away. Prayer-offerers were not given the names of the women, but only their pictures, five at a time, and were simply asked to pray “in a directed manner with a specific intent to increase the pregnancy rate of the patients.” To gin up the prayer potency, a second group of prayer-offerers prayed not directly for the Korean women, but for the first group of prayer-offerers, that their prayers might be rewarded.

The results were spectacular – there’s no other word for it. “It was not even borderline significant,” Dr. Lobo crowed to the Times. “It was highly significant.” In fact, the pregnancy success rate for the women in the prayed-for group was double the success rate for the women in the ignored group – 50% vs. 26%. No other combination of factors could explain such an enormous difference. And the sample size was large enough (169 women completed the process) to eliminate any realistic possibility of a statistical fluke.

There could be no other explanation: God must have heard the North American Christian prayers, and chosen to respond positively to some of them. (The half of the women in the prayed-for group who got no help from God may well have been sinners.) No other possibility, that is, unless the whole study was a gigantic fraud.

That’s what California obstetrics professor Bruce Flamm suspected when he read it. His first tipoff was the confusing structuring of the prayer-offeror groups, which were separated into “tiers” that made little sense. So Dr. Flamm contacted the authors of the study for clarification, as is customary in the scientific community. No response. He continued trying to contact them for years on end, and still got no response. Maybe they were just shy; maybe they were busy praying. Meanwhile, in the spring of 2004, the Observer broke a story suggesting a different explanation for their reticence: co-author Daniel Wirth, the one who had arranged for the prayer-offerors, had just been convicted of fraud.

Not fraud in connection with the prayer article, but fraud against US cable company Adelphia Communications, involving the steering of $2.1 million of contracts to an accomplice. After pleading guilty to bank fraud and mail fraud, the pair was sentenced to up to five years in prison and forfeiture of $1 million of fraudulently obtained assets. Evidence introduced at trial also showed Wirth guilty of Social Security fraud, prior jail time for embezzlement, and impersonating a doctor. His accomplice had also been found guilty of arson to claim insurance funds. The accomplice committed suicide while in jail.

You might have expected Columbia University and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine to have launched some sort of investigation, and to have issued abject apologies for having been so easily duped, if that turned out to be the case. But you would have been wrong. The only thing that happened was that Dr. Lobo asked to have his name removed from the article, while telling the press that he had nothing to do with the study and had merely provided “editorial assistance.” That sure wasn’t what he was saying when he was listed as the lead author and first started bragging to the New York Times.

Not long afterwards, a much larger, non-fraudulent study of the power of prayer for the benefit of cardiac patients was funded by the Templeton Foundation, a well-endowed organization that seeks (largely in vain) to reconcile religion with science. You can read more about it here; the bottom line, as you might expect, is that prayer didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. (Actually, a subgroup that knew it was receiving prayers fared a little worse than the others, perhaps because of added stress.) Nor has any properly designed study ever found the slightest impact of prayer on anything – especially not for horses I’ve wagered on.

For hundreds of years, alchemists spent their money and energy trying to figure out how to turn base metal into gold. They finally gave up. How long will it take before the same conclusion is reached with regard to the power of prayer to cure disease?

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