Thursday, March 15, 2007

Prayer works, not!

A new study at Arizona State University shows that prayer works.

David Hodge, an assistant professor of social work in the College of Human Services at the West campus, has conducted an exhaustive meta-analysis on the effects of intercessory prayer among people with psychological or medical problems.

In other words, does God – or some other type of transcendent entity – answer prayer for healing?

According to Hodge's study, “A Systematic Review of the Empirical Literature on Intercessory Prayer,” the answer is yes.

That's funny, I thought that the Benson study last year settled that issue. I wonder what new information Dr. Hodge has found.

“There have been a number of studies on intercessory prayer, or prayer offered for the benefit of another person,” says Hodge, a leading expert on spirituality and religion. “Some have found positive results for prayer. Others have found no effect. Conducting a meta-analysis takes into account the entire body of empirical research on intercessory prayer. Using this procedure, we find that prayer offered on behalf of another yields positive results.”

? What's that? And which studies is he talking about? Since I'm not about to spend my own money to buy a paper which I have good reason to believe is total dreck, I decided to see what Victor Stenger had to say about intercessory prayer in his book GOD: The Failed Hypothesis (which I just got in the mail today)

I discussed several specific examples in Has Science Found God? and will not repeat these here.

Oh well, that figures. I'm batting 0 for 2. But he did discuss some studies that came out since his last book. One of these was the Columbia "Miracle" Study.

One of the authors, Daniel P Wirth, is a lawyer without a medical degree. However, he does have a degree in parapsychology and has authored several articles in parapsychology journals claiming documented evidence for faith healing. In an unrelated matter, Wirth has since been imprisoned after being convicted of fraud, which included the use of names of dead people for financial gain.

The lead author of the paper was originally identified as Rogerio Lobo, then head of the Columbia University department of obstetrics and gynecology. However, shortly after publication, Columbia University announced Lobo was not even aware of the study until being informed by Cha six to twelve months after the study was completed. Lobo has since withdrawn his name from the study and any connection between Cha and Columbia has been severed. The paper, however, has not been formally withdrawn--a black mark on a great university.

Do you suppose that might be one of the studies Hodge meta-analyzed? It hasn't been formally withdrawn, so my guess is yes. But let's hear more about meta-analysis.

“Some people feel (Herbert) Benson and associates' study from last year, which is the most recent and showed no positive effects for intercessory prayer, is the final word,” says Hodge, referring to a 2006 article by Benson, of the Harvard Medical School, that measured the therapeutic effect of intercessory prayer in cardiac bypass patients. “But this research suggests otherwise. This study enables us to look at the big picture. When the effects of prayer are averaged across all 17 studies, controlling for differences in sample sizes, a net positive effect for the prayer group is produced.

“This is the most thorough and all-inclusive study of its kind on this controversial subject that I am aware of. It suggests that more research on the topic may be warranted, and that praying for people with psychological or medical problems may help them recover.”

Wow, his study is absolutely worthless! Let me explain why. The earlier studies he looked at had one of two possible results: either prayer had no effect, or it did. Now according to Stenger, many of those studies were suspect. The most recent Benson study which showed no effect, for example, was a follow-up to an earlier (heavily criticized) study he did which actually showed a slight effect. In last year's study, Benson took extra care to make sure that the study was very rigorous. So what Hodge did was to take all these studies (those with 0 effect, and those with >0 effect) and averaged them together to get ... surprise, surprise ... >0 effect. And then he has the audacity to claim that it's "scientific" because he used weighted averages. That's simply plain dishonest.

Just in case you're not completely with me, allow me to make an analogy. I'm going to take Hodge's own quotes and substitute a few words of my own.

There have been a number of intelligence reports on WMD's in Iraq ... Some have found evidence for WMD's. Others have found none.

This study enables us to look at the big picture. When the estimates of WMD's are averaged across all 17 intelligence reports, controlling for differences in sample sizes, a net positive effect for the presence of WMD's is produced.

This is the most thorough and all-inclusive study of its kind on this controversial subject that I am aware of. (I didn't have to change a single word of that sentence)

The best part of the ASU study is that even after averaging together all the different studies, Hodge still had to use his own standards to get a positive result.

Is it effective enough to meet the standards of the American Psychological Association's Division 12 for empirically validated interventions? No.

Averaging results from rigorous studies with those of not-so-rigorous and maybe even fraudulent studies then using your own standards does not good science make.

1 comment:

Peter Mc said...

Hi Javier,

fixed code for beagle widget (sorry, can't find email) at

Ta! Peter