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Further Reading

Special Forces: Deprogram

Livin' on a Prayer

At Least That's What One Much-Maligned Scientific Study Would Seem to Show

by Denyse O'Leary

William S. Harris, a cardiologist at the Mid America Heart Institute at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, made medical headlines in 1999 with a study of remote intercessory prayer. The study, described as a randomized, controlled, double-blind, prospective, parallel-group trial, reported that 466 prayed-for coronary-care patients had easier recoveries than 524 controls. They were prayed for by anonymous Christian intercessors from a variety of denominations who knew nothing beyond the first names of the patients. The conclusion, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, was that "prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.”

In the view of some practitioners, that was a conclusion begging for refutation. If gullible people want to pray for the sick . . . well, maybe there shouldn't be a law against it, but no one should study their efforts. By definition, prayer can't have any effect, and if it seems to, the facts are wrong.

Pages and pages of critical letters appeared in the journal's subsequent issue. Several broad groups of complaints predominated, among which nitpicking and don't-bother-me-with-facts skepticism were to be expected. But by far the most interesting group was the "medical God squad.”

The study was, in their view, "offensive” and "blasphemous,” "putting God to the test.” After all, "faith is not a matter of scientific proof” and thinking otherwise is "arrogance.” And "will those who believe in God's existence want to see God's will put to the test? What message, if any, will such a study have for those who firmly believe in only the theory of evolution?”

It became quite clear that some physicians professed a God whose existence and actions can—in principle—never be observed. Indeed, for this group, the strongest demonstration of one's faith is to joyously plead guilty to the atheist's accusation that one believes without any evidence at all.

In a recent discussion with me, Harris mused on the hyperactive nitpicking, particularly the claim that patient assignments to either the prayer or the control group were not random. He recalled:

Each morning, the secretary to the chaplain—a woman who did not even know where the CCU [coronary care unit] was located in the hospital—turned on her computer to find the day's list of new admissions to each unit, including the CCU. At the CCU page, she would look at the medical record number of each new patient—if they were even, they were assigned to the prayer group, odd, to the control group.

If that wasn't random, then a higher power must have manipulated it.

What is most striking about the allegation of non-random assignment, along with other allegations from critics, is that the authors could have obtained this and other information by contacting Harris, as I did. They chose instead to publicize their unsupported suspicions in the journal.

A masterful response by internist Larry Dossey appeared in the same issue, noting that the more scientifically focused detractors resembled Isaac Newton's critics. Just as some prayer-study detractors refused to accept the results because no mechanism was proposed for the action of prayer, Newton's critics denounced the theory of universal gravitation because no mechanism was proposed for the action of gravity. In the end, Newton's theory was favored because it correctly predicted events. Shouldn't the same rule apply to prayer studies? If not, why not?

Dossey also quoted UCSF medical school's David Grimes's observation that "a double standard is perhaps being applied to prayer research, according to which levels of proof are demanded that may not be required of conventional therapies—the 'rubber ruler,' the raising of the bar, the ever-lengthening playing field.”

After his brush with infamy, Harris did no more prayer research. He went on to a rewarding career studying the linkages between fish oils and heart health. When I asked him recently whether the multi-pronged attack had discouraged him, he replied diplomatically, "Not really.”

What dissuaded me were: (1) the lack of funds for such research; (2) a boss who was less than supportive of these types of studies; and (3) a long and productive track record in the area of fish oils and heart disease research that I did not want to relegate to the back burner.

He then added, "Others are continuing this research . . . it will not go away.”

No, it will not. But neither will the detractors. And their goal is as unified as their viewpoints are disparate—to discredit prayer studies as a matter of principle. 

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