Monday, October 11, 2004

Prayer and Medicine

The New York Times carried a story yesterday about medical research into the effectiveness of prayer in healing. Apparently, there have been some interesting-looking correlations published, which has fueled more interest and study. Some naturalistic-leaning, non-religious types are displeased that the federal government is investing in prayer research. I think this is just closed-mindedness.
Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science. "Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science," said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. "It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money."
This is just a mistake. No one is presupposing anything that is "by definition beyond the reach of science". If they were, they wouldn't even know how to design the experiements. But they have designed the experiments -- they're really simple, actually. All you have to do is get a bunch of people who have some common illness or injury or disorder or whatever, and divide them into two groups, where the people in one of the groups gets prayed for and the people in the other are not. It might be especially interesting to run the experiment such that each person doesn't know which group he's in. Then, see if there's a statistically significant difference between recovery/improvement/whatever rates between the two groups. If there is, that counts as evidence that prayer makes a difference. That's science. It's one thing to dismiss the possibility as so unlikely that it's not worth studying. I have some sympathy with that point of view -- but to make an informed decision about it, one really ought to look at the data. I haven't looked at the data, and the summary in the NYT seems very confused and muddled. Suffice it to say that after reading the fairly long article, I'm still skeptical that prayer for people who don't know they're being prayed for helps people. But I don't think it's something to be rejected out of hand. Ordinarily, I'd say that we should let the qualified scientists look at the data and come up with an informed decision about whether this is worth looking further into, but said scientists seem to be rejecting the possibility before even really considering it, which is unfortunate.

1 comment:

  1. There have been previous studies done before. I'm not happy federal money is going to this, but they throw quite a bit of money around in ways I'm not happy so what the hey :)

    If interested, the previous studies state that if you know you're being prayed for, there is a healing power to prayer. There is a statistical significance showing that. However, if you do not know, your outcome is the same as those in the group who were not prayed for. And they didn't have just Christians pray in these studies--that had Muslims praying to Allah, Budhists monks, Jews, Mormons, etc etc all praying for the same person, so it wasn't religious or god/doety specific :)