The Sciences

Let Us Prey

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitAug 8, 2005 7:00 AM


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I am always amazed at the capacity of people to misunderstand the most basic aspects of science. Imagine that you want to test, say, the efficacy of prayer on the sick. If you set up a test where sick people are prayed for, you can test if there is an effect or not. You can divide the sick people into groups, being careful to make the groups big enough that one or two individuals can't have too big an effect on the outcome. Then you have one group prayed for by people, and another group that isn't. A third group gets non-traditional therapy, like soothing music and images. A fourth group gets prayer plus the non-traditional stuff. Then you let 'em rip, and see what happens. Guess what? Someone did exactly this. They tested this method on 748 heart patients, and followed them for six months afterwards to see what happened. Guess what again? There was no difference between the four groups. Well, that's not strictly true, since the ones receiving soothing music did slightly better, which you'd expect: a relaxed body would naturally heal somewhat better. But the important result is that the prayed-on group did no better statistically than the unprayed-on group. What I find funny about all this (besides the huge duh factor that prayer doesn't do anything) is how people interpret these results. The Washington Post article linked above quotes a Reverend:

But the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence, director of pastoral care at New York Presbyterian Hospital, disputed any suggestion that the study disproved the power of prayer. "Prayer can be and is helpful," Lawrence said. "But to think that you can research it is inconceivable to me. Prayer is presumably a way of addressing God, and there's no way to scientifically test God. God is not subject to scientific research."

Maybe this guy missed the idea that scientifically testing prayer is exactly what the study did. A lot of people say you can't test faith; it's beyond scientific measurement. Baloney! You can have all the faith in the world that if you drop an anvil over your toe, your prayer will be heeded and the anvil will miss. Anyone care to test this hypothesis? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Perhaps it's not scientifically possible to test if prayers actually do communicate with God (for one thing, there are a lot of assumptions in simply stating that). But it is not only possible to test prayers to see if they help heal people, but in a sense you can test whether God answers prayers to heal people. Either way, this study showed that prayers don't help. I'm not surprised the Reverend said the testing shows nothing. But I wonder what he would have said if the testing had shown that prayers help heal the sick? Maybe this question isn't fair, since we don't know. But others have trumpeted studies which do show prayer helps, even when those studies are repeatedly shown to be fatally flawed. My advice? If you get sick, go see a doctor. Seems simple enough.

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