Thursday, March 30, 2006

Power of Prayer: Negative Test by Harvard Scientist Principal Investigator

According to MSNBC News, reporting on The Associated Press March 30, 2006:

“In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.”

Full story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12082681/

Full scientific article:

Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW, Jr., Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, Hibberd PL. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J 2006;151:934-42.

“Critics said the question of God's reaction to prayers simply can't be explored by scientific study.”

One wonders what those critics would have said had the study turned out positive.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who didn't take part in the study, said that science "is not designed to study the supernatural."

That conclusion, of course, assumes the existence of the supernatural, for which science finds no evidence.

The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, makes a strong argument for religion, and its adherents’ belief in a deity that wields supernatural powers, as a “natural phenomenon”. By that he means, as I interpret it, that religion and the belief in the supernatural emerged naturally in the course of human evolution, based on the natural selection of genes for particular mental structures (e.g., the predilection for detecting or assigning agency; the intentional stance) and the natural selection of cultural replicators (memes). As a natural phenomenon, religion and its belief in the supernatural admits of scientific inquiry just as does other natural phenomenon.

See: Dennett DC. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Group, 2006.

Michael Shermer has reviewed numerous intercessory prayer studies and notes the flaws in those claiming positive results. See:

Shermer M. Flying carpets and scientific prayers. Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed. Scientific American 2004;291:34.

Shermer ends his article thus:

“The ultimate fallacy is theological: if God is omniscient and omnipotent, he should not need to be reminded or inveigled into healing someone. Scientific prayer makes God a celestial lab rat, leading to bad science and worse religion.”

One must remember that negative studies like the Harvard study indicate only absence of evidence not evidence of absence. The Harvard study could not exclude a small positive effect (less than 10%).

Added 040404: Also see:
http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060327/full/060327-16.html

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