Here’s another bunch who don’t understand science: an article on research on prayer. You know, the creationists are always complaining that all those scientists out there (waves hand vaguely towards the nearest university) are biased and reject supernatural phenomena out of hand, and that their weird metaphysical research program can’t get any funding. Can we just face the fact that there are plenty of crackpot scientists and sloppy bureaucrats in the world, and that lots of nonsense gets funded and studied?
(More below the fold)
But the most controversial research focuses on “intercessory” or “distant” prayer, which involves people trying to heal others through their intentions, thoughts or prayers, sometimes without the recipients knowing it. The federal government has spent $2.2 million in the past five years on studies of distant healing, which have also drawn support from private foundations.
This is kind of the bottom rung of the research ladder; there’s a lower limit, a sort of “your proposal must be this credible to be funded” level, and Intelligent Design doesn’t even rise to that point. How bad is that? You have to read this article to see just how godawful bad some research is…and be embarrassed for the creationists that they are even worse.
This whole “intercessory prayer” business does at least make specific predictions, unlike creationism, so I can sort of see how they might be able to bamboozle some funding for it. You can design a protocol to evaluate any outlandish claim, and you could even design it competently. Unfortunately, the prayer researchers seem to throw out any good design in favor of biasing the results towards the answer they want.
But these and other studies have been called deeply flawed. They were, for example, analyzed in the most favorable way possible, looking at so many outcomes that the positive findings could easily have been the result of chance, critics say. … Other studies have been even more contentious, such as a 2001 project involving fertility patients that became mired in accusations of fraud.
Good scientists don’t waste their time testing prayer. This has nothing to do with the religious beliefs or absence thereof in good scientists, but rather that you have to want it to be tested true to even bother. Look at these justifications:
“Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism — every religion believes in prayer for healing,” said Paul Parker, a professor of theology and religion at Elmhurst College outside Chicago. “Some call it prayer, some call it cleansing the mind. The words or posture may vary. But in times of illness, all religions look towards their source of authority.”
Yes, it’s common—but that makes it a sociological phenomenon. That we look for succor in situations beyond human control does not mean that there is a superhuman source of help.
“It’s one of the most prevalent forms of healing. Open-minded scientists have a responsibility to look into this,” said Marilyn J. Schlitz of the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
She’s assuming her premise. It is not a prevalent form of healing, it is a prevalent way of expressing helplessness. That it helps at all with healing is what remains to be determined.
Oh, and this is just the worst:
“I don’t think it [results of a study] will alter my beliefs one way or the other,” said Trish Lankowski, who started a healing room at Immanuel’s Church in Silver Spring this past Sunday night. “I believe in the power of prayer wholeheartedly. I know it works.”
Then why bother studying it?
I do dismiss prayer research out of hand, for a couple of reasons that have nothing to do with my rejection of gods. If there is a phenomenon that people ascribe to gods, then it may still be worth pursuing to determine if the phenomenon is real, and we can worry about the causal agent later. A good example is native medicine; we don’t reject something out of hand because it is dispensed by a shaman, but will at least look to see if it has effects similar to the concrete ones claimed for it.
So why reject prayer? For three reasons:
- It has failed multiple prior tests. The effect ascribed to it, that people who are prayed for heal better than those who are not prayed for, doesn’t seem to exist. It is empirically dead.
- There is a lack of mechanism. When a shaman claims chewing tree bark cures malaria, there’s at least a hypothetical pharmaceutical mechanism there. If I were to pray over a photo of an infertile woman in South Korea, there isn’t much of a testable conduit for that information or power or whatever to tickle her ovaries and induce conception. The premise is simply silly, and even if a statistical correlation popped out of the results, there is no prospect for deeper understanding. It lacks predictive utility.
- The real killer, though, is personified by Lankowski’s comment above. When we design an experiment, the ideal is to establish ahead of time a set of results that would support the hypothesis, and a set of results that would contradict it. Most grant proposals will spell out these conditions fairly explicitly. However, in the prayer tests, there are no possible results that would cause them to reject the healing power of prayer. At best, you get a laundry list of rationalizations to explain why the absence of any effect is meaningless. It is unfalsifiable.
Here’s an excellent example of the kind of pathetic rigamarole these “researchers” go through to excuse their failures.
Krucoff, a cardiologist, published a study last summer involving 748 heart patients at nine hospitals. That study failed overall to show any benefit. But Krucoff said he did find tantalizing hints that warrant follow-up: A subset of patients who had a second group of people praying that the prayers of the first group would be answered may have done better.
Praying for prayers increases their effectiveness? O Lord, if only we had realized that we could potentiate our signal if our prayers were in series rather than parallel!
Here’s another catch-all rationalization from Krucoff.
“Human physiology is a very delicate equilibrium. When you throw energy you don’t understand into this, it would be naive to think you could only do good,” he said.
So sometimes patients will die when you pray for them, sometimes they will live—there’s some kind of imponderable dosage effect. I think I know who is being naive here.
OK, I have an experiment in mind. I want the first person who comments on this thread to pray that my prayers will work. I want the second person to pray for the effectiveness of the first person’s. The third should pray for the second, and so forth. We’ll get a powerful series going. Then tonight I’ll pray for George W. Bush’s good health.
Let’s try for an overdose.
If it doesn’t work, though, that doesn’t mean Krucoff is full of bologna. <pseudoscientist>All it will take is one commenter breaking the chain for it to fail.</pseudoscientist> Or maybe <pseudoscientist>I’ll cheat and pray that I win the lottery.</pseudoscientist> The excuses are near-infinite in number.
John M. Price tried to get a letter to the editor on this article published, but the WaPo let it slide…so here it is:
“I don’t think it will alter my beliefs one way or the other[.]” Thus Trish Lankowski identifies herself as overly credulous and immune to facts or reasoning. It is a true shame and likely the blame rests on our educational system. The ability to think critically and with information is not an innate trait, and must be learned. Ms. Lankowski has not learned that skill.
As a commentator+ on the Harris et al paper that was lauded in this report, then properly called flawed, I find it disturbing that such studies are still going on. Indeed, for that paper I demonstrated that the effect the Harris group found was due to one item, and one item alone. Removing the catheter from the results would have given a null result. As it was, Harris published a significant F result without any underlying causal component. Essentially a statistical fluke. Further, and missed in this report, he failed to replicate the Byrd study. (I note that Mr. Stein did not comment long on that older paper – he should read it, even Byrd was unconvinced. I’d also suggest that if not yet a part of his repertoire, using Medline would be an excellent skill – it will list the comments on the original papers.)
Listen, as in this part of my life I am a dead to rights atheist (and I will try to be polite toward the credulous in this letter), I can say that prayer does work. It follows all the basic rules of, and has effects to which any social animal would respond. Only that, and for my money, that is no small issue, but nothing more. However as it is limited to this realm of human life, the prayed for person should know that prayers are being said, and it helps, too, if they believe in their efficacy. Even the animistic tribal religions had prayer effects, and likely no god(s) in the sense of our modern culture. (Spirits ruled the attribution of agency.)
Intercessory prayer, though, is an entirely different matter. One’s thoughts don’t reach beyond one’s hair, let alone to a magical being(s) in the sky. This is the basis of the criticism that there is no rational basis for the effect. Let alone that critique, know that in all of the studies of intercessory prayer, there has never been a solid, replicated positive result. One has to wonder why, after what, at least eight of these papers, people are still obsessed with the concept. People: Intercessory prayer does not work. You, the credulous, are not being open minded in that you are refusing to take to heart the results of the work to date.
If you want to pray for folk, and be effective, then it is likely best to follow these little guidelines that I have gleaned from my reading. First, be part of the person’s family and or friends. Second, if the person is involved with a church group, involve them as well – share, for instance, the bulletin listing them as a subject for group prayer. Third, if they themselves pray, pray with them. Finally, I’d suggest praying for and in the present, not any after death material. (I’d also drop the ‘thine will be done’ bit, too – after all, within that belief system you are attempting to change what is already obviously ‘the will.’) Again, from my read, even those who do not pray, or for that matter even believe in the ‘other world(s)’, will benefit from knowing deep down in their very social human nature that they are 1) part of a group and 2) that group actually wants them around and well.
As to spending money on this ‘research’, for my money we might as well be studying how well the spells in Harry Potter work in establishing machine free flight! The question is answered. It is time for the credulous to stop beating this dead horse.
I’ll close paraphrasing a small comment my now deceased father made regarding cloistered, and praying, Catholic orders: It would be of much more good if they got out and worked for the people for whom they pray.
+Arch Intern Med. 2000 Jun 26;160(12):1873; author reply 1877-8.