For my reply to the part of the article in the OP discussing prayer studies, I googled my way to the original site
so I could incorporate the hyperlinks used there in the quoted portion:
The scientific studies we have on prayer are actually compatible with a “realistic” interpretation of the biblical statements on prayer (contrary to what GII says). The only catch is this: some types of prayers appear to be more effective than others. The least effective ones seem to be prepackaged, one time prayers, from a distance for people one doesn’t know or care much about. A famous 2006 study indicates this. But when people pray fervently for people they care about, then the statistics change: such prayers have a statistical effect. Truth-seekers may wish to investigate studies referenced here and here.
Clicking on the second "here," the first thing one ought to notice is diversity of results. The linked page not only includes a number of studies that show no effect from prayer, they also include other studies showing health benefits from things like Buddhist Vipassana meditation. This shows us the importance of Methodology
and Locating the Hypothesis
Methodology is extremely important in studies like this (or any statistical study). There are many ways health studies in particular can be flawed. Insufficient sample size, failure to correct for variables in the study groups like smoking, diet, ethnicity, lifestyle, etc. (human beings are just chock full of idiosyncrasies), flaws in the statistical methods being used to collate the data, and so on. We see this all the time in health studies not related to prayer. It's so common to see a headline saying, "Studies show [X] reduces heart disease!" followed, not too much later, by a headline saying "Studies now show [X] causes increased rates of prostate cancer" or "Studies show [X] has no effect on heart disease" that it's a cliche. Or you can look to the latest re-re-re-ordering of the Food Pyarmid. I remember when it was "the Four Food Groups." Designing studies to test the effects of something (whether it be boiled cabbage or prayer) on human health is hard
, especially if the proposed effect is subtle.
Let's look at the first study cited on the link from the first "here," an apologetics site called "godandscience.org:"
1. "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population"
Cardiac patients from the San Francisco General Medical Center were randomly divided (using a computer-generated list) into two groups. The names of the patients in the "test" group were given to a group of Christians, who prayed for them while they were in the hospital. The intercessory prayer team members were chosen on the following basis:
Born again Christians on the basis of John 3:35
Led an active Christian life on the basis of
Daily devotional prayer
Fellowship in a local Christian church
The "placebo" group received no prayer. Neither the "test" nor the "placebo" group of patients knew if they were receiving prayer. Likewise, the hospital staff, doctors, or nurses were "blinded" since they did not know which patient belonged to which group.
Statistics were acquired from the prayer and placebo groups both before and after prayer, until the patients were discharged from the hospital. There were no statistical differences between the placebo and the prayer groups before prayer was initiated. The results demonstrated that patients who were prayed for suffered "less congestive heart failure, required less diuretic and antibiotic therapy, had fewer episodes of pneumonia, had fewer cardiac arrests, and were less frequently intubated and ventilated."
Here are some of the methodological flaws in this study, based on the description given:
1) The so-called "placebo" group is actually a control
group, not a placebo group. A "control" group is a group where nothing is done, to get an idea of what baseline results would be.
2) The study should have had a placebo group--a group of people being "prayed for" by people just going through the motions, who are not
Born Again Real, True Christianstm
. In ordinary medical trials testing for the efficacy of a medication, placebo patients are given inert pills (usually sugar pills) by doctors who do not know they're giving out placebos. The inclusion of a placebo group in addition to the test and control groups is a necessary part of any legitimate clinical trial. For a prayer study then, it would be necessary to find a way to produce "fake" or "inert" prayer.
3) The study should have incorporated one or more test groups of devout practitioners of other belief systems that employs prayer or "focused intention" or whatever for purposes of healing. The purpose of this would be to (try to) rule out the possibility that spiritual devotion and focus (without regard to which god/s or spiritual tradition/s is/are being invoked) is not the efficacious factor. This has to do with the issue of "Locating the Hypothesis" below.
Here's the methodology from the second study cited:
Cardiac patients from the CCU at the Mid America Heart Institute (MAHI), Kansas City, Mo, were randomly chosen and assigned to control or prayer groups. In this study, patients were not told about the prayer study and doctors did not know which patients were assigned to which groups. According to the paper, "The intercessors represented a variety of Christian traditions, with 35% listing their affiliations as nondenominational, 27% as Episcopalian, and the remainder as other Protestant groups or Roman Catholic. Unlike the Byrd study, the intercessors of the MAHI study were given no details about the medical conditions of the patients, but were only given their first name.
(bold emphasis added)
Here, the prayer comes from a variety of Christian traditions, without any mentioned effort to make sure that they're sufficiently devoted. At least some of those "Christians" (Catholics, Episcopalians) would likely be considered Vile Heretics by the Born Again Real, True Christianstm
of the first study, and vice versa. That this study also ostensibly shows results actually contradicts the implicit claim of the first study, that the prayer of devoted Born Again Real, True Christianstm
is the prayer that's efficacious. We have yet to see whether the prayers of Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, Animists, etc. are comparably effective.
Here's the third study:
This study involved 3393 patient subjects whose bloodstream infection was detected at the hospital from the years 1990ï¿½1996. Remote, retroactive intercessory prayer was said for the well being and full recovery of the intervention group. Results were measured through mortality in hospital, length of stay in hospital, and duration of fever. Mortality was reduced in the intervention group (28.1%) compared to the control group (30.2%) although the difference did not reach statistical significance. However, length of stay in the hospital and duration of fever were significantly shorter in the intervention group than in the control group (P = 0.01 and P = 0.04, respectively). According to the author of the study:
"Remote, retroactive intercessory prayer said for a group is associated with a shorter stay in hospital and shorter duration of fever in patients with a bloodstream infection and should be considered for use in clinical practice."
The citation here does not tell us what sort of Christians the intercessors were, or even if they were Christians.
If you look at the actual results of the cited studies, they show, at best, a modest statistical nudge produced by prayer. Look at Table 2 (for some reason, there is no Table 1) and you'll see that most of the health effects tested for show "NS" (Not Significant, i.e., no results). In Table 3, the p (significance) values are all well above (that is, statistically closer to chance) than the the scientific "standard level of significance" of p=.05 cited in the article. This seems like pretty weak sauce for the mighty acts of an "omnipotent" deity.Locating the Hypothesis:
One of the most difficult tasks a scientist has is "locating the hypothesis," that is, identifying, out of a wide range of possible explanations for an unknown phenomenon, which hypothesis is the one most worth testing. The author of the apologetic article cited above (and Cory Tucholski) already "know" what answer they want to get ("Yay Christianity!"), so they start there and go looking for evidence that will confirm their preferred answer. This is lousy, backwards methodology. The most important work--identifying and eliminating possible hypotheses and finally converging on the one most likely to explain the data--is skipped
, as they jump straight to Christianity.
First, you have to eliminate the null hypothesis (nothing out of the ordinary is happening). This means eliminating all non-prayer related possible explanations for the effect. If, as a matter of pure, dumb luck, the prayed-for group of patients happened to have better diet on average, or more income, or be members of an ethnic group with a higher average heart health, or have fewer smokers or coffee-drinkers among their number, or have better familial or community support, etc., etc., they could easily show a noticeable statistical "boost" that is not related to prayer. Likewise if the control group happens to score worse than average on variables like those. Eliminating these types of variables is very difficult to do, which is a major reason why "Studies Showtm
" headlines fluctuate so much.
But lets say, for the sake of discussion, that there is some kind of genuine effect that cannot be explained within the confines of currently known medicine, biology, or physics. There are a number of hypotheses which could explain such an effect. Here are a few:
1) Christianity is true! Halleluiah!
2) There is a prayer-answering Divine agency (one Deity or many) which does not care which sect praying people belong to, but responds equally to all without discrimination.
3) Humans possess presently-unknown powers of the mind (psi)
that operate by means of focused intention and/or mystical states of consciousness. Under this hypothesis, the specific religious trappings would not be important in themselves except that they help the believer achieve the necessary state of consciousness. IOW, a Born Again Protestant, a Carmelite nun, a Buddhist monk, a Wiccan, and a Golden Dawn Ceremonial Magician could all generate comparable effects by reaching comparable states of consciousness.
4) There is an impersonal cosmic Force that responds to focused human intention.
6) A malevolent, deceptive spirit is working false miracles to trick people into believing in Christianity instead of [insert One True Faith here].
7) The Simulation Argument
is true, and prayer/focused intention/mystical states of consciousness act as cheat codes. There is no spoon, Neo.
I could probably go on, but the above ought to be sufficient to show that it wouldn't be easy to pick the best hypothesis to explain a "prayer effect." I consider "Yay Christianity!" to be the least
likely hypothesis because it seems to me that we ought to anticipate that a god as infinitely big and awesome as the Christian (or any of the Abrahamic omnimax god-concepts) is supposed to be would produce commensurably awesome effects. The observed subtlety of effect is more consistent with the null hypothesis
or something like a modest level of psi ability in humans. This is also consistent with the fact that traditionally most humans have believed that prayers to their gods and/or magic spells (i.e. focused intention) are efficacious. It is not as if Christians are the only people who have come to believe that prayer is worthwhile.
However, to actually
narrow things down, we would need to devise tests that would falsify hypotheses one by one, until only the most probable was left standing. Given the difficulties inherent in this type of study to begin with, that wouldn't be an easy task, to say the least. This is why the automatic "leap-to-Christianity" method employed by Mr. Tucholski is such a crappy way to go about this. It would be just as bad if it was Raven Silverwolf doing an automatic "leap-to-Wicca" method.
We skeptics tend to employ a "leap-to-the-null hypothesis" method, but there is an important distinction to be made here. The null hypothesis has an automatic advantage of parsimony, in that it is not calling upon us to alter the body of currently validated scientific theory or add any new entities or principles to our understanding. The claimant bears the burden of proof, whether they're claiming to have found a new sub-atomic particle, or a psi ability, or a god. The null hypothesis has earned
its status as the most probable default on the basis of all of the accumulated evidence upon which present understanding of reality is based.
For example, the third study is described as being based on retroactive
intercessory prayer. If I'm understanding this properly, it would be claiming that people can influence events in the past
(retroactively) by praying in the present! That is an extraordinary claim, to say the least! If true, it would overturn causality as we know it and imply the possibility of time travel and superluminal signaling. It would overturn the well-established theory of relativity and arguably imply temporal paradox. What if lots of people prayed really hard
for a different one of Alois Schickelgruber's spermatozoa to win the race, resulting in the birth of someone other
than Adolf Hitler?
It should be obvious that the null hypothesis holds a huge advantage of prior probability ("extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence") in cases like this.