Templeton prayer study meets expectations


I have no idea how this stuff gets published. I’ve been sent a new paper that tests the effect of prayer, and I was appalled: it’s got such deep methodological problems that nothing can be concluded from it, but that doesn’t stop the authors, who argue that they’re seeing that Proximal Intercessory Prayer improves vision and hearing in people in Mozambique.Proximal Intercessory Prayer (PIP) is their very own term for what they do, to distinguish it from distant prayer. What is it, you may ask? Here is their protocol.

Western and Mozambican Iris and Global Awakening [two evangelical/missionary organizations that cooperated with the research] leaders and affiliates who administered PIP all used a similar protocol. They typically spent 1-15 minutes (sometimes an hour or more, circumstances permitting) administering PIP. They placed their hands on the recipient’s head and some- times embraced the person in a hug, keeping their eyes open to observe results. In soft tones, they petitioned God to heal, invited the Holy Spirit’s anointing, and commanded healing and the departure of any evil spirits in Jesus’ name. Those who prayed then asked recipients whether they were healed. If recipients responded negatively or stated that the healing was partial, PIP was continued. If they answered in the affirmative, informal tests were conducted, such as asking recipients to repeat words or sounds (e.g. hand claps) intoned from behind or to count fingers from roughly 30 cm away. If recipients were unable or partially able to perform tasks, PIP was continued for as long as circumstances permitted.

Vision and hearing tests were carried out before and after the procedure using eye charts and an audiometer. Subjects were recruited from a self-selected population of rural Africans who were attending a charismatic/evangelical revival…that is, people who knew they would be rewarded with acclaim if they publicly demonstrated dramatic improvements in their health under the influence of a priest. This experiment did not use single-blind trials — in fact, the subjects were hammered repeatedly with the protocol until they reported that it worked for them, subjectively.

It also wasn’t double-blind. Not only were the experimenters fully aware of what treatment the subjects received, but they knew that every single subject they tested had reported a positive effect. This study was wide open to experimental bias, and given that two of the authors of the study were not medically trained at all, but were instead members of schools of theology, and that all of the work was funded by the Templeton Foundation, we can guess what answer they wanted.

Most damning of all, there were no controls.

I repeat, no controls anywhere in the experiment.

No controls, experiment not done double-blind or even single-blind, a small number (24) of subjects self-selected from a suggestible population predisposed to demonstrate an effect…this study is total crap. All it would take to get their results is a tendency for people coming in for magical healing to exaggerate their afflictions, and minimize them after a few minutes of personal attention, and presto, PIP works. And that seems like an extremely likely situation to me.

Now there could be a real physiological effect: compelling attentiveness, physical stimulation, and just generally waking people up could generate an increase in blood flow to the head, which would lead to better sensory performance — I know I wake up bleary-eyed and wooly-headed until I’ve snapped myself awake with a little cold water and some physical activity, so we also know that sensory performance varies over time. But can we determine that from this work? No! No controls! This is completely worthless work.

What’s particularly galling is that the investigators go on to suggest that maybe the suffering people in the undeveloped world could benefit from PIP.

Although it would be unwise to overgeneralize from these preliminary findings for a small number of PIP practitioners and subjects collected in far-from-ideal field conditions, future study seems warranted to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatment is limited. The implications are potentially vast given World Health Organization estimates that 278 million people, 80% of whom live in developing countries, have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears, and 314 million people are visually impaired, 87% of whom live in developing countries, and only a tiny fraction of these populations currently receive any treatment.

No, I think those hundreds of millions of people deserve something a little more substantial than a witch-doctor dribbling oil on their heads and chanting to their Jesus juju. And no, nothing in this work can warrant further investigation.

By the way, you may wonder why they had to go to rural Mozambique to find subjects. There is no shortage of crazy preachers and gullible believers willing to be healed by magic in the US. They reveal the answer to that in an aside.

Conducting similar studies under controlled clinical conditions in North America would be desirable, yet neither Iris nor Global Awakening claims comparable results in industrialized countries (arguing that “anointing” and “faith” are lower where medical therapies are available)—see Supplemental Digital Content for our unsuccessful attempts to collect data in the US.

Ah, the incredible shrinking god — he just doesn’t work where conditions are amenable to more thorough examination. I am not surprised.

I’m also not surprised that this garbage was funded by the Templeton Foundation. It could only have been supported by an organization that places scientific rigor a distant second to making excuses for faith.

Brown CG, Mory SC, Williams R, McClymond MJ (2010) Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal
Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and
Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique. Southern Medical Journal, 4 August 2010.