Prayer Studies

Here is one from last year reported in the New York Times. It is held up as being very carefully done–reflecting Matt’s comment to an earlier post–and conclusive that praying for a stranger did not effect the target of the prayers. (Also reported here.)

This sort of megastudy came out after the article from Sojourner I quoted below. Also, here is a link to an interview with Dr. Larry Dossey, cited by the article as documenting how Western science is catching up in this area.

So, in addition to the value prayer has for the person praying, including the as yet unmentioned therapeutic value of verbalizing what concerns you, prayer may help a person you know while praying for him. I have not yet foreclosed the notion that a person who knows other care for him will be more capable of helping himself heal. Just as I think it is reasonable that a person may “give up” in a struggle against an illness after his spouse dies. (Although, according to Wikipedia, the placebo effect I was hoping to reference my not be real. Ug.)

In moments like these, my dad would say he was letting the spirit move.

12 replies on “Prayer Studies”

Am I missing something? “[P]rayer may help a person you know while praying for him.” The people who knew they were being prayed for did worse in the cited study. Maybe I am just not understanding you.

The people offering the prayers and those for whom the prayers were offered didn’t know each other. (Know as in, English for conocer.)

Everyone knew they were praying for someone or were being prayed for. (Knew as in, English for saber.)

This study demonstrates that prayer doesn’t work like magic. It doesn’t address more complex mechanisms in play with a community praying for its members.

I jumped into this debate back at the original post, my long post of quotes and comments are reposted here for reference (turns out I found the same NY Times article, but I also included a 2005 paper from The Lancet):

I apologize, but I was booked all Friday and the weekend so I didn’t get back to you.

The Lancet (one of the big few medical journals, and is based in Britain) had this paper in 2005:

The Lancet 2005; 366:211-217

This is the abstract:

“Data from a pilot study suggested that noetic therapies—healing practices that are not mediated by tangible elements—can reduce preprocedural distress and might affect outcomes in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention. We undertook a multicentre, prospective trial of two such practices: intercessory prayer and music, imagery, and touch (MIT) therapy.”

This is from the findings:

“371 patients were assigned prayer and 377 no prayer; 374 were assigned MIT therapy and 374 no MIT therapy. The factorial distribution was: standard care only, 192; prayer only, 182; MIT therapy only, 185; and both prayer and MIT therapy, 189. No significant difference was found for the primary composite endpoint in any treatment comparison.”

So Music helps, but prayer does not. If you have access to the Lancet’s website (free registration):

Unfortunately the American Heart Journal charges $30/article, and I’m going to pay that. The NY Times wrote about the major study on intercessory prayer that’s been going on 10 years involving 1800 patients.

Turns out (,

“Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery”

and further:

“And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.”

So the take home message here is: don’t pray for me, Argentina.

The NYTimes goes on to say, im n discussing the speculation about the study over the last ten years:

“[the study] is the most scientifically rigorous investigation of whether prayer can heal illness”

Directly to my point about the inverse relationship between the quality of the study and the size of the observed effect:

“At least 10 studies of the effects of prayer have been carried out in the last six years, with mixed results. The new study was intended to overcome flaws in the earlier investigations.”

This study was about strangers praying for strangers, by the way, so take that for what you will:

“Dean Marek, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a co-author of the report, said the study said nothing about the power of personal prayer or about prayers for family members and friends.”

I think Dean Marek is being hopelessly politically correct to argue that you should still pray for your loved ones. I think the most responsible advice would be: “pray away, but don’t tell them since the best scientific evidence we have at this point is that it appears to do more harm than good amongst heart patients.”

It comes down to whether you want science to help provide you with information or whether you don’t.

Jim, you referenced Dr. Larry Dossey. from his website, I read this: “Dr. Larry Dossey is a well known authority on spiritual healing.”

Given that he says (indescribing his Three Eras of Medicine:

“Era Three includes the ability of consciousness to reach out beyond ourselves to make a difference in other people. Intercessory prayer is an example of an era three therapy&endash;healing intention. Gaining information from the world, such as through premonitions and dreams, that are relevant to health, is also an example of Era Three.”

Does this not sound like the worst load of crap? Especially in the light of what we’re actually learning from studies cited above?

I was wondering why you cited him?

He does indeed think Western science is catching up in this area, I would argue that if it is, it’s a bad direction to be going. Chinese life expectancy has been horrendous until it has collided with Western medicine — this would have to be the opposite relationship were Chinese traditional care the panacea we always hear about.

Wow. Okay.

First, I cited Dr. Larry because he was the guy cited in the article I linked to in an earlier post. I used the italics around catching up intending to indicate that I didn’t really think Western medicine was catching up and cited to the interview to indicate that he was pretty out there.

Second, I acknowledged that the prayer study of anonymous people was bad news for the prayer as magic words crowd. What is left open for me is prayer when it is an expression of a community.

More later.

Jim, I got pretty much all that, I was searchign for a clarity of opinion, which I think you provided. I realized fully that you weren’t endorsing Dossey, but I couldn’t let it go, since he is clearly a crackpot. My pointing out his crackpottiness was not an argument to anything you had said. I actually was wondering why you referenced him since your writing did indeed make it clear that he was in the magic-words crowd.

My large post here was just a paste from the earlier post, since the conversation was more current in this post.

Anyway, I hadn’t considered the idea that prayer performs a community service. That’s a new idea for me, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

It comes down to whether you want science to help provide you with information or whether you don’t.

Right. I’m pretty convinced that having a bunch of people pray for something, with nothing else, does not cause anything to happen. This is not much of a leap for me.

However, I am slower to generalize from a specific study or to be convinced by scientific findings.

I think the mind-body connection stuff is over the top, but I don’t think it is ridiculous. I think that my friend Ed could have benefited from his friends at Chalice praying for him as a result of the reason listed in my sermon.

There is something interesting here about which of us is showing wisdom. Is it more wise to avoid closing doors and concluding too early, or is it more wise to call superstition what it is?

I am perhaps faster to accept scientific findings than you, but you implied I came to a conclusion based on a single study; in fact I would point out that there are three datapoints just in my post — two studies and the recognition of a trend (better data/smaller effect). Also, there is more to my belief (conditional conclusion) than just studies:

We can know things about the world. We have all sorts of knowlege that we’ve gained from an accumulation of science over the last few hundred years. Even when we don’t know the mechanism, when an effect can be reliably tagged to a cause, we conclude that there is a phenomenon at play, and we can go about undertanding more about it as time goes on. To date, there is no mechanism we can point to that gives prayer any plausibility (from stranger to stranger; placing aside the mind/body effect of an individual). Plausibility is a real tool we use every day based on a torrent of data. I would aruge that the vast majority of the data we have puts intercessory prayer on the extreme end of the curve.

The other refutation I would make of your characterization of me is that I am closing doors. I am quite willing to have my mind changed, and in fact I conceded that I hadn’t considered the impact of prayer on a community and that I’d incorporate that into my thinking. But unless there is any data to support intercessory prayer as efficacious in the treatement of disease, I just can’t pretend there is. I promise that if a credible study shows otherwise, my skepticism will creep toward the other end of the curve. I obey that first principle of science that all conclusions are conditional.

Perhaps a better way to phrase what I’m getting at is this: I do not believe in Big Foot. Why? Is it because it is impossible that a heretofore undiscovered primate exists in North America? No, that’s not why I don’t believe in Big Foot. I don’t believe in Big Foot because there is no evidence that he exists, and in the absence of evidence or any plausible mechanism for something’s existance, it is reasonable to conclude that there is nothing there.

Always pending additional evidence.

I am perhaps faster to accept scientific findings than you, but you implied I came to a conclusion based on a single study;

I agree that my response above implies this, and that was not my intention. Sorry about that.

I would say that you come to conclusions faster than me. Of course, if you are proven wrong, you’ll change your opinion, but I don’t think you spend much time thinking, “Hmm, I don’t know. It could be either way.”

I do not mean that as a criticism. Decisiveness is pretty universally considered a virtue. It is just something I see as a difference in our personalities.

And, of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I’m thinking of Matt 1990. It happens.


Perhaps a better way to phrase what I’m getting at is this: I do not believe in Big Foot.

It’s a good analogy (at least for the purpose here of considering the supernatural benefits of prayer). For me, it would be just like everything we have about Big Foot, but that I would know a whole bunch of people who report having seen him.

I certainly am decisive, but I am less dogmatic than 15 years ago. I am more willing to be (and admit being) wrong than 15 years ago. I’m also much more willing to believe that it is okay to think differently than I do, and not only that, but that there isn’t always truth to be uncovered about one belief vs. another.

At the same time, I do believe there are things we can know definitively, but I am more willing to agree that some things don’t have one truth we can know.

Central to this theme is something I read recently (but it was writting in 2005, I think). The author (Julian Baggini) made a very good point, challenging a paradigmatic phrase I have used a lot. He said he hates it when people say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” He says this is bunk — if you stand on the shore of Loch Ness and don’t see Nessie’s head, the phrase applies just fine. If, as has been done, you meticulously map the loch with sonar down to 10cm of precision, twice, and then dredge 80% of the bottom, nd the best evidence you have of his existence is a photograph that has been admitted to as a hoax, that absence of evidence of the Loch Ness monster is very much evidence of absence.

His analogy is that if you search your refrigerator for butter and don’t find any, is it reasonable to hold out that you don’t have enough evidence of absence?

Anyway, it’s illuminating to have a useful aphorism shattered. As is always the case, when I find out more, I have to spend more time explaining things because nature has no clean boundaries.

Thanks for the discussions by the way, these have been a lot of fun.

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