Thursday, April 19, 2007

Intercessory prayer

There have been a slew of "scientific" studies lately purporting to measure the efficacy of intercessory prayer. This would all be rather silly if large amounts of money -- including taxpayers' dollars -- were not being spent on what may be the world's least useful medical research.

The granddaddy of the recent spate of interest was Doctor Randolph Byrd's investigation published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988. Over a 10-month period, Byrd randomly divided nearly 400 patients in a coronary care unit at the San Francisco General Medical Center into two groups. One group was prayed for by born-again Christians outside the hospital; the control group received no assigned prayer. Neither physicians nor patients knew which group the patients had been assigned to. According to Byrd, patients receiving intercessory prayer required less ventilation therapy and fewer antibiotics and diuretics than the control group. The differences were statistically marginal. Nevertheless, Byrd's conclusion: God intervened.

However, no significant differences were noted in such variables as length of hospital stay or mortality. (Curious that God would moderate a few symptoms but let just as many of the prayed-for patients die.) Furthermore, Byrd's study has been faulted on statistical and procedural counts, even by some who believe in the power of intercessory prayer. Also, given the impossibility of knowing who has actually been prayed for, by whom, and how often -- many prayers are offered by the faithful for "the sick" in general -- it is hard to imagine how any study of Byrd's sort can be conclusive one way or the other.

What is true of Byrd's investigation is also true of other medical studies of intercessory prayer. Most have shown no positive result, and in every case differences between prayed-for patients and the control group have been statistically marginal. If God chooses to answer prayers, he certainly doesn't do so in a forthright way.

Of course, any such project is futile. Surely the creator of the universe has better things to do than participate in pseudoscience. Doctor Gil Gaudio, writing on Medscape, proposes (tongue in cheek) an experiment that would put the matter to rest. Enlist a large number of amputees, identified by a DNA sample. Have millions of believers pray that a designated half of the subjects regenerate missing limbs. A control group would not be prayed for. No need to worry about statistics. Even a single regenerated limb among the prayed-for amputees would give a skeptic pause.

The creator of a hundred billion galaxies should have no more trouble adding limbs to amputees than diminishing the need for diuretics in heart patients. A substantial number of regenerated limbs among prayed-for subjects would be a stunning indication of the effectiveness of prayer (I would certainly take notice), but a negative result will have no effect on believers. They will go right on offering petitionary prayers, and mistaking coincidence for answers.

I suspect most amputees would rather put their faith in the scientists and engineers who are devising ever more lifelike prostheses. And, who knows, maybe genetic researchers will discover a way to actually regenerate limbs. After all, some species do it. Without magic.

If this posting sounds unnecessarily cynical, here is some balance.