Why so green and lonely? Everything's going to be alright, just you wait and see.

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Power[lessness] of Prayer

Mike the Mad Biologist just posted about a study that searches for any tangible (read: real) effects of prayer:
Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to try to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.

The study of more than 1,800 heart bypass surgery patients found that those who had other people praying for them had as many complications as those who did not. In fact, one group of patients who knew they were the subject of prayers fared worse.
Update: The results of this study on the effects of “retroactive prayer” (since God is independent of space and time!) are absolutely hilarious and what makes it fun instead of scary is that its author, Leonard Leibovici, designed the study to show how statistics can be used to reach ridiculous conclusions. I don't know if the study was really conducted properly or not, but Wikipedia's article on prayer cites it without criticism. Nice.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This study is much more interesting as it is double blind: http://home.regent.edu/frandec/smj.pdf

The study released yesterday is a little weak, given that everyone knew who was and who was not being prayed for. But I guess we'll all just look for the evidence that backs up our own opinions...

1:01 PM

 
Blogger Andrew said...

Hi there, thanks for posting!

> But I guess we'll all just look
> for the evidence that backs up our
> own opinions...

Guilty as charged, I must admit; I didn't particularly question the methods used in this latest study before posting.

Anyway, what bugs me about Byrd's study is that even though the prayer groups were explicitly praying for "prevention of death" the results show that prayer only decreases the likelihood of death from 9% to 7%. Surely high-quality health care produces more significant results than that, so isn't modern medicine more helpful to us than God? What does such a study say about God's benevolence?

I suppose if I was dying and believed that prayer could help my chances by a few percent, I wouldn't refuse it :~)

Since Byrd's study is a bit old (not that age implies it was a bad study), you've inspired me to look for related studies. Not surprisingly, I ended up on Wikipedia at their experimental evaluation of prayer page.

My personal favourite is this one by Leibovici, conducted in a similar (double blind) manner to Byrd's. He found that retroactive prayer on old patient records (N=3,400) showed a statistically significant retroactive improvement in their conditions. He then facetiously suggests that retroactive prayer should be used in clinical practice.

The vast majority of studies cited by Wikipedia seem to conclude things like "insignificant", "null results" or "inconclusive". Is it possible that you're a little guilty too with respect to cherry picking the evidence? I think that, until very consistent and very significant peer-reviewed evidence confirms the power of prayer, any reasonable person would be skeptical.

Happy April Fool's day!

7:27 PM

 

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