Friday, March 24, 2006

The "Science" of Prayer-Based Healing?

I read an interesting article this morning (click on "interesting article" for the link") about scientists attempting to run studies testing the healing properties of intercessory prayer. You won't be surprised to read that the findings are "at something of a crossroads." As with all inaccurate science it's being reported now even though "the largest, best-designed project is being published in two weeks. Its eagerly awaited findings could sound the death knell for the field, breathe new life into such efforts, or create new debate."

It could "create a new debate"? No way!

Part of me wanted to cheer for the study all the way. I wanted all of it to read like this:
San Francisco cardiologist Randolph Byrd, for example, conducted an experiment in which he asked born-again Christians to pray for 192 people hospitalized for heart problems, comparing them with 201 not targeted for prayer. No one knew which group they were in. He reported in 1988 that those who were prayed for needed fewer drugs and less help breathing.
But then I stopped to really think about it and, really, what good does that tell us? The faithful take it as sure evidence and the skeptics critique it as bad science. And the article brings up a good point too - how do you quantify prayer? Would those that received daily prayer do better than those with weekly prayer and those with five prayers a day do best of all? And what about the prayers, as in the ones who pray? Would a pope's prayer invoke more healing than a six-year-old's requests? Perhaps there would be bonus effects from a prayer who spoke in tongues or those that truly interceded for their prayees?

What do you think of it all?
Do you agree with behavioral researcher Richard Sloan?
"I would like to see us stop wasting precious research dollars putting religious practices to the test of science," Sloan said. "It's a waste of money, and it trivializes the religious experience."
"There's nothing we know about the physical universe that could account for how the prayers of someone in Washington, D.C., could influence the health of a group of people in Iowa -- nothing whatsoever"
Or maybe you side with Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence?
"God is beyond the reach of science. It's absurd to think you could use it to examine God's play."
Or maybe you're more hopeful and waiting for more proof like John A Astin or Mitchell W. Kurcoff?
"Yesterday's science fiction often becomes tomorrow's science," said John A. Astin
"When quantum physics was emerging, Einstein wrote about spooky interactions between particles at a distance," Krucoff said. "That's at least one very theoretical model that might support notions of distant prayer or distant healing."
Does the whole thing belong more to the Twilight Zone or Time Magazine?
*All quotes are borrowed from MSN article from The Washington Post, as linked above, for purely conversational debating purposes

1 comment:

DJ Sybear said...

As a person who's put a lot of his life into praying for people, even (and especially) for physical conditions, I think I have a unique perspective on the matter.

1) I don't think just getting prayer vs. not getting prayer will ever show much definitive difference in recovery statistics.

2) I don't think quantity of prayer will show much difference either.

3) Any study worth its salt ought to account for placebo. Either this has to be subtracted out (which is nearly imposssible to quantify) or some double blind system has to be used.

4) The real problem here is one of effect. Popular thinking on this front is just bad. Simply put, some people are better at praying than others. Quality is far more important than quantity, and no study I've ever seen tries to analyze this factor. Personally, I believe much of prayer-effectiveness is trainable as a discipline, rather than some property of personal gifting or grace. Where I think the church has failed at this is in passing this heritage onward.