"Prayer's effect on health called nil by Duke study" 


Research published this week apparently has found that prayer is ineffective in helping heart patients. Or has it? The study appears to be mostly sound, but journalists are drawing--and spreading--unwarranted conclusions. Prayer research is inevitably flawed, anyway, because of its inability to account for God's choices as a participant in the research. 

The Baltimore Sun interpreted a recent scientific study as showing that prayer has no healing effect on the ill--at least it appears that's the impression it wants to leave, in spite of the facts it reports.

The article's headline is "Prayer's effect on health called nil by Duke study," and its lead line says,
 
"Praying for someone who is ill and preparing to undergo a risky medical procedure appears to have no effect on the patient's future health. 
 
"That's the finding of one of the largest scientific investigations of the power of prayer conducted to date. Scientists said the study, published today in The Lancet, will undoubtedly renew debates over whether prayer has a measurable effect on illness and even whether it's a suitable subject of scientific inquiry." 
 
Now, for those of you who have studied journalism, what are the headline and first paragraph supposed to do for an article? Their purpose is to summarize, isn't it? The idea is to catch readers' attention and draw them into the rest of the article; but for those who don't continue down the column, it should also state the main point in condensed form. The purpose is not to state the topic misleadingly so you can spend the rest of the article correcting yourself.  
 
That's what this writer has done here, though. The article begins by clearly stating that this research has found prayer to be ineffective. But if we read on, we find out the lead researcher never intended the study's results to be generalized this way: 
 
"Mitchell Krucoff, the Duke University cardiologist who led the study, says the research - sponsored by several medical centers and foundations - was not intended to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether prayer works." 
 
(Poor guy--he's going to be blamed for a lot of things he never said.) Later, we discover there are significant methodological problems with drawing conclusions like those the writer led with. 
 
"Even researchers who study prayer concede that the discipline is fraught with potential pitfalls. In a standard clinical trial of a new drug, for example, researchers carefully monitor how much medicine a volunteer receives. 
"'But how do you define a "dose" of prayer? Sloan asks." 
 
Other reports I've seen (not in this article) also mentioned the extremely important confounding effects of family members and friends praying for the ill person.Then there is this: 
 
"Other thorny questions arise. Does individual prayer confer different benefits from group prayer? Are the prayers of one religion more potent than another?" 
 
That last question is significant: the prayers of Christian, Jews, Muslims and Buddhist were all included in the study, and their results were apparently not broken out in the statistical analysis. This is why it's so ironic the article said this, about previous research that found prayer did make a difference: 
 
"While some studies have found measurable clinical effects, critics say they are often riddled with statistical flaws. The results of others have been too ambiguous to draw conclusions." 
 
The researchers are not to blame for this newspaper's misinterpretations (except for their one major methodological error, not mentioned in the article; see below). The purpose of the study, by the way, was not to measure the effects of prayer but to explore how to research the matter of prayer. That's buried in the middle of the article. 
 
Ahh, but what difference does it all make? Even if prayer were someday proven scientifically to be completely ineffective, we benighted Americans still wouldn't give it up. Am I wrong to get the impression the writer is bemoaning our national inattention to science here? 
 
"It's also unclear what effect, if any, the outcome of prayer research would have. A large 2004 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, found that 41 percent of Americans already prayed for their own health while 24 percent asked others to pray for them." 
 
Would that the writer had at least ended the article with a disclaimer: "For those who have managed to read this far and actually to think about what I've written, by now you've discovered I didn't really mean what I said at the beginning."  
 
As for that other methodological flaw, it's a huge one, and it will plague every conceivable study of prayer. The current research undoubtedly used a double-blind method, meaning that neither the patients nor their direct caregivers knew whether they were being prayed for by members of the study group. This is important, and it's standard for medical research (when feasible), because knowledge of one's part in a research study can influence attitudes and behaviors, which are known to affect outcomes.  
 
A prayer study has another participant, however. If there's any reality to prayer at all, at least as Christians, Jews, and Muslims view it, then there's another Person involved who is not blind, and who refuses to be manipulated. We can't design a study to eliminate God's free choice regarding the outcomes. Those who question the usefulness of statistically-oriented prayer research are on the right track. 
 
P.S. It's not just the Baltimore Sun. Bloomberg.com's headline reads, "Prayer Doesn't Improve Outcome for Heart Patients, Study Finds." The lead paragraph was more accurate than in the Sun, though. 

Posted: Sat - July 16, 2005 at 02:08 PM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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