March 30, 2006

Scientifically testing the power of prayer.

It failed! Whoops!
While many studies have suggested that praying for oneself may reduce stress, research into praying for others who may not even know they are the subject of prayers has been much more controversial. Several studies that claimed to show a benefit have been criticized as deeply flawed. And several of the most recent findings have found no benefit.

The new $2.4 million study, funded primarily by the John Templeton Foundation, was designed to overcome some of those shortcomings. Dusek and his colleagues divided 1,802 bypass patients at six hospitals into three groups. Two groups were uncertain whether they would be the subject of prayers. The third was told they would definitely be prayed for.

The researchers recruited two Catholic groups and one Protestant group to pray "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for 14 days for each patient, beginning the night before the surgery, using the patient's first name and the first initial of the last name.

Over the next month, patients in the two groups that were uncertain of whether they were the subject of prayers fared virtually the same, with about 52 percent experiencing complications regardless of whether they were the subject of prayers.

Surprisingly, however, 59 percent of the patients who knew they were the targets of prayer experienced complications.

Because the most common complication was an irregular heartbeat, the researchers speculated that knowing they were chosen to receive prayers may have inadvertently put them under increased stress.

Maybe God doesn't like being tested.


Robert said...

Perhaps. The Bible tells us that fervent prayer is effectual. It's hard to see how you can fervently pray for an initial and a name, though. You can fervently pray for a stranger - once you care about them. Don't see them implementing that in this test.

Also (as noted by one of the study authors), there's no way to disentangle the study prayers from the "background noise" of prayers being offered by the patients' friends, families, and other loved ones.

All in all, not a very impressive methodology.

Dave said...

John Templeton should have stuck to investing, and not trying to reconcile faith and science.

He had (has?), as I recall, a fascination with the idea that the two can be reconciled, or that faith can be conceived of in the context of scientific inquiry.

He seems to have had a more successful record as a pioneering international money man.

SteveR said...

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness he said, "do not put the Lord thy God to a test."

wv: zfuukue I've been told off by Blogger!

vnjagvet said...

What about the the philosophical conundrum that faith would not still be considered faith by many theologians if the object of that faith were scientifically proven?

downtownlad said...

And this is surprising???

Joan said...

How bizarre, that someone would actually put up cash to study this, and such a substantial amount, too!

I think studying things like this in any rigorous way is nearly impossible. It's not possible, really, to study the effects of having a positive outlook -- people can lie about what they're really feeling. People can also pray distractedly, or with great focus and fervor. Not all prayer is equal.

As someone who is pretty much perpetually on the "prayers requested for" list at my mom's church (mine doesn't have one... hmmm), I can say I like knowing that people (who know me) are praying for me. But my medical history is still a record of one horrible thing after another -- in spite of the prayers? I don't think of it that way.

Saying a prayer isn't like phoning in an order to a "desired worldly outcome" service. Just because you pray for something doesn't mean it will be granted. (And the non-granting of a prayer should not be interpreted as punishment.) You'd think that grown-ups would have figured all that out by now, and would thus realize that trying to "test the power of prayer" is absurd.

CB said...

Yeah, it's not like the Bible says "Ask and you shall receive." oh, wait a minute. Well, I guess technically it doesn't say what you will receive--pretty sneaky.

robert's argument seems to be:
1) The Bible tells us that fervent prayer is effectual.
2) If the Bible says it, it's true.
Therefore, if a study reaches a different result, the methodology must be flawed. But if you accept 1) and 2), what need is there for a study? Also, "'background noise' of prayer"??

Finn Kristiansen said...

Gawd, two Catholic groups and one Protestant? Everyone knows God only listens to evangelical prayers. Sheesh. Now had they all been born again, filled with the spirit spit fires, well then, everyone would have done peachy.


Actually there are so many factors to consider, and prayer, really, is not designed to be used as an automatic cure all. God's will comes into play, in addition to the will of the person being prayed for.

That is, my prayer for no complications might interfere with a given person's rejection of God or his power, or even, that person's own prayers. Or God's purposes for them. Perhaps a man with complications will lead a more serious life, and take greater care, than a man with none who feels he just breezed through the operation. Too many factors.

Further, if we know anything about Jesus, from what we can gather in Biblical accounts, it does not seem like he healed everyone, at every location, all the time. So praying for healing, or for anything, does not guarantee an automatic and timely payback, and if Christian, you have already submitted your will (and prayer results) to God's judgment.

Nice waste of money though.

Smilin' Jack said...

Obviously God is useless...why don't they try Satan? He can perform miracles too, and doesn't have God's snooty attitude about being tested.

J said...

It's possible that the study was constrained by misconceptions about the nature of God. If, say, time did not exist for God in our frame of reference (a situation that would explain a number of theological and biblical conundrums), and we prayed for something, it's possible an answer to that prayer would alter our history such that we were unaware the situation we were praying about ever existed. That would be tough to measure.

Simon said...

I have to admit that I think of prayer as being something very different to the suggestion that you can pray "for something to happen" - it seems to me that one can only pray for guidance from God, not to give guidance to God. If there really is a divine plan, prayer intended to change it is ineffective. But if there isn't a divine plan, what does that say about the Christian faith? The only way I can resolve this dilemma is by suggesting that the purpose of prayer is to seek guidance for how to deal with what has been ordained, not to change it.

Robert said...

CB, I note that the Bible tells us that fervent prayer is effectual, and that the prayer in this study doesn't seem to have been fervent. (And thus, if you're testing the Biblical conception of prayer, the methodology does not match what you would need to test.) How you get from that to your gross mischaracterization of my statement, I do not know.

And the "background noise" of prayer - as noted by the study author - is the fact that most of these people had family and friends praying for them. It's hard to test the effect of a garden hose during a rainstorm.

tom faranda said...

Here's a well-known study that came to the opposite conclusion ...

CB said...

Your criticism of the study seems to be like criticising an apple for not being an orange.
The study didn't claim to be testing the Biblical form of prayer (at least that's what I got from the article); it tested a very specific form of prayer: prayer for a stranger at a distance. That isn't really the Biblical conception of prayer, I don't think, plus it's a pretty dumb thing to study. But I took your comment to say that, because the study didn't support what you wanted it to support, it was flawed.

But the ways that Christians explain away problems of the Bible always puzzles me. They regard it as clearly authoritative, then come up with elaborate explanations when the plain language of the text (e.g., "ask and you shall receive") doesn't match up with reality.

Anil P said...

Strange! I don't quite buy the results. It only seems to use the curiosity factor vis a vis religion and worship.

1. at 59%, the group who knew they were subject of prayers is only seven percent off the other groups, hardly a difference which can help draw any conclusions.

2. Were the groups chosen to pray for the patients related to them? If not then how effective can prayers be if offered by people who do not have a 'stake' in the well being of the subject of their prayers, stake as in a sense of belonging.

3. How sincere would such prayers be in the first place if offered by folks who are just a part of a study?

4. What if the group that logged 59% had patients with conditions that were considerably more complicated than the others? Wouldn't that affect the outcome?

5. How can one be sure that the groups chosen were similar to each other, without any variables in terms of their health condition? Won't that introduce a skew?

Eli Blake said...

I've seen prayer work. So I know it does.

However, I would agree with you that God does not like being tested. If you prove something, then you no longer can have faith in it, because you know.

Then again, I'm surprised this study even got done, because people who have an agenda often don't want to even run the tests to find out about it. I once had a scientifically valid idea (and I have degrees both in Chemistry and statistics) about how one could scientifically test Intelligent Design, and I sent it off to a couple of creationists, and I have yet to hear back from them, which suggests to me that they have no interest in actually testing their hypothesis. They'd much prefer to keep it as a hypothesis and get it 'proven' by repeated assertion, legislation and politically motivated school board members.

The Editors said...

The study is being misreported. It does not test the effects of prayer.

It tests the effects of what subjects were told before the study began.

Barry Kearns said...

Joan wrote:

"But my medical history is still a record of one horrible thing after another -- in spite of the prayers?"

Have you considered the possibility that it might be, at least in part, because of the prayers?

And yes... I'm serious.

Ann Althouse said...

The Editors: I don't think you're right. Why were there 3 groups then?

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joan said...

Barry Kearns: no.

My Boaz's Ruth said...

Another part of prayer is that prayer changes the person praying, -- so that your will comes more in alignment with God's will.

What you pray for will not necessarily be what comes to pass. But through the process of prayer, (ideally) you come to want what God wants for you. Even Paul mentioned there was some thorn in the flesh he had that he prayed many times to have removed, yet God did not. He ended up, in the end, accepting it instead.