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Scientific American

Flying Carpets & Scientific Prayer

published November 2004 | Comments Off
Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed
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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 help.

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 praying.
Patton: I don’t care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying done.

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 methodological problems.

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 inquires from Flamm, the journal removed the study from its Web site and Columbia University launched an investigation.

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 attend church.

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.

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