Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Prayer as a medical procedure

[written originally several weeks ago, but I think this deserves to be on the blog]


This article makes some valid points, naturally, but also commits some amusing fallacies. "A miracle may be defined as a violation of the laws of nature through willful intervention. By asking an SB or energy to interfere with the ordinary course of natural events, one is requesting a miracle. To believe in miracles, as David Hume argued several centuries ago, is to go against the universal experience that there is an inexorable order and lawfulness to our sense perceptions." Obviously this is not qualitatively different from the argument that "all things witness that there is a God." In both cases the speaker is elevating his personal perceptions to the level of universal experience. [Obviously it's possible to legitimately subscribe to either opinion--Alma did--but I hold with Joseph Smith, that God can be known only through revelation.] Anyway, this paragraph was particularly amusing to me:  

"The latest and largest of the scientific studies was conducted by Herbert Benson et al. The results were published in the American Heart Journal in April 2006 (" 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"). Patients at six U.S. hospitals were randomly assigned to one of three groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer (also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer); and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality. The results indicate no effect from prayer. In the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not. Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer. Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the three groups."  

I haven't read the study itself (it's $30 and I'm really not that curious), but the fallacies inherent in treating prayer (or any social interaction) as a medical procedure are obvious and numerous. 1.) There's no way to guarantee that people you say aren't receiving the procedure aren't. Other people outside your control could be praying for them. 2.) There's no way to guarantee that people you say are receiving it are, in any meaningful way. By which I mean it's really hard to show that your assigned pray-ers are praying for their randomly-assigned subjects in anything like the same way that people who extoll the benefits of prayer pray for themselves or their loved ones. 3.) The term is very short (30 days). Results from prayer would show up only if they were essentially instantaneous.  

The guys designing the study did as well as they could--randomized control groups are responsible science--but it would have to be an extraordinarily strong effect to overcome the noise that factors #1 and #2 introduce into the system. I'd be surprised if you could use this methodology to show that, e.g., sending thank-you cards for birthday presents increases the likelihood of receiving a present next year. (Randomly separate them into three groups, one of which is told that thank-you cards will be mailed on their behalf to those who gave them presents last year and the other two are told that they may or may not be mailed, mail the cards for two of the groups, see if there's a statistically-significant effect on next year's presents.) Same goes for saying "please," although that would be hard to do without the recipient knowing (one of the major goals of this study was to see if it was the prayer that mattered or the knowledge that they were being prayed for--ironically, those who were told they were being prayed for did worse in this trial, 59% complications vs. 52% for those not so informed.). I suppose you could do the equivalent by selecting people threatened by mortgage foreclosure and mailing letters to some of their banks asking for leniency, but there are obvious problems with that idea and I'd be very surprised if results were found.  

Oh well. I try not to take these people seriously, but they're really fabulously wrong. I feel the same way about a lot of religious writers, too, of course.  


"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

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