Intercessory prayer study: failed experimental setup

Waldo recently posted a link to a story about an intercessory prayer experiment published in the American Heart Journal. I disagree with the conclusions reached by Waldo and others, who claim that the study shows that prayer can have a harmful effect on patients.

In essence, the researchers told some patients in the study that they might be prayed for, and others that they were being prayed for, and recorded the percent who had major post-surgery complications. The three roughly 600-person groups were

  1. told they may or may not be prayed for, and were actually prayed for (51%),
  2. told they may or may not be prayed for, and were not prayed for (50%), or
  3. told they were being prayed for, and were actually prayed for (69%).

The researchers compared groups 1 and 2 to test the double-blind nature of prayer, and compared groups 1 and 3 to test whether certainty about receiving prayer would have any effect. Unsurprisingly (to me), prayer had no noticable effect in the double-blind comparison (groups 1 and 2), indicating that intercessory prayer had no effect. However, the certainty/uncertainty comparison revealed quite a disparity: being told you were indeed being prayed for made you 35% more likely to develop major post-surgery complications than if you were simply unsure. The AHJ article notes that the construction of the experiment may have contributed to this effect, thereby contaminating the conclusions. (Would they have noted this if the study had found the opposite result? I don't think so.) Though the researchers were very successful in standardizing the prayer technique and removing extraneous variables, they failed to include what I consider proper control groups.

With something as non-scientific, non-rigorous, psychological, and diverse as prayer, placebo and placebo-like effects need to be controlled carefully, necessitating a wider set of control groups. There needs to be at least another three groups:

  1. Told they were being prayed for, and were not prayed for
  2. Told they were not being prayed for, and were actually prayed for
  3. Told they were not being prayed for, and were not prayed for

Those should all again be compared to the statistics of those not participating in the study, giving a firm baseline. Without the extra components, no interesting conclusions can be reached. I think the study was a huge step in the right direction wih respect to analyzing intercesory prayer, but that they didn't go far enough.

Here's something to think about. What if we added two more groups, unaware they were in a study?

  1. Not told they were in a study, and are prayed for.
  2. Not told they were in a study, and are not prayed for.

Unfortunately, three of the extra groups I have suggested would be regarded as unethical because they involve lying about treatment. One of the extra groups would not even be informed that they were taking part in a study. With most studies, this would be an instant ethics-board-smackdown. But prayer is widely (or perhaps instead officially) regarded by the scientific community as having no effect on an unaware subject. Does this mean that it can be excluded from ethics considerations? Or, since that is the very question to be investigate by the first half of the study, is it all the more important?

I personally believe that since the first half of the study concludes that in double-blind conditions intercessory prayer has a solely placebo effect, informed consent is not necessary as long as the subjects are never informed of their participation, that is, the last two groups I suggested. However, I still have trouble with the groups who would be lied to. What are your thoughts?

[EDIT: I recently saw an interesting post on helmintholog about Americans and functional atheism, talking about the same study. The author thinks that even religious Americans don't actually think intercessory prayer works, and that therefore prayer has a nocebo effect.]

Responses: 7 so far Feed icon

  1. Cory Capron says:

    From the report:

    The authors said one possible limitation to their study was that those doing the special praying had no connection or acquaintance with the subjects of their prayer, which would not usually be the norm.

    "Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief," the report concluded.

    Last year when I had that skin cancer scare, I found out my sister (Cristin) had put me on a prayer list at her church. I always had problem with this. I hadn't been informed about it till someone mailed me a get well letter. I'm not sure I had even told my girlfriend yet. I know I hadn't told my best friends. This really ended up upsetting me a lot. Though I had a very mild infection after the opperation (Don't worry folks. It turned out to be a very scary looking but harmless freaky freckle! Nice scar though.) I wouldn't say it had anything to do with the prayer. Still I have issue with the idea of informing people about someone's problems with out their consent. I find prayer circles to be nesting grounds for gossip (which I thought was supposed to be a sin, but if the preacher's wife can do it I guess it's ok... right?). Plus there is a blur in reguards to the persons own belifes. But that's a whole other can of worms. (To be continued!)

    I think if there is any value in prayer it is in the cares of loved ones. I also think that for that prayer to have any weight, the person(s) praying DO need to know what they are praying for. I'm not bitter with her church or anyone who did pray for me. If anything the opposite. I just feel that if I should have any right, it ought to be the right to choose who I share something that personal with.

    I think Danny Schmidt said it best in the song he wrote about his cancer.

  2. Jacqui says:

    I can sort of see why the researchers left out telling people they weren't being prayed for (though you're right, it does make an imperfect set up). Can you imagine someone saying, "I've got cancer," and the other person saying, "Well, I won't pray for you"? It just wouldn't happen in real life (unless the person was a supreme asshole).

  3. Tim McCormack says:

    @Jacqui: You say "It just wouldn’t happen in real life". But the experiment wasn't supposed to mimic real life, it was supposed to measure possible effects of prayer.

  4. Amber Nowak says:

    [Editor's note: /s/God/Loch Ness Monster/, /s/Jesus/Indiana Jones/]

    Loch Ness Monster is not a genie in a bottle , and what may be best for someone or someone around us may not be a smooth recovery or healing. Loch Ness Monster hears us and promises to walk with us if we put our trust in him. If everyone prayed for were healed there would be no death , struggles ect. Ultimantly the world would not be as Loch Ness Monster says it is going to be. I do believe in prayer and I know he answers ,I have no problem praying that someone is healed or doing better. But ultimently the big picture and overall concern for the person is the overall well being and understanding that Loch Ness Monster IS. He IS and we are not and should be cautioned . Humbly and boldly going befor him in a right standing accepting his answeres and trusting on him. Another problem with this exspirement would be the people praying. Each idividuals motives. Weather Loch Ness Monster would answer them at all.Also there is the individual , they have free will, and though it may be hard to believe there are many I have seen that like to live in the misery of it all and decline the help.

  5. Tim McCormack says:

    @Amber Nowak: I don't think you quite get the point of this experiment. The goal is to see whether or not intercessory prayer can be measured in a standard experimental setting, not whether there is a God. Here, God is irrelevant. All of the variables you mention are simply irrelevant, since they are held constant between the different experimental groups.

  6. Kirk W. Fraser says:

    [Editor's note: Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.]

    A) Prayer is asking Azathoth to do something and while only results prove a prayer was answered sometimes prayers can take years to be answered, which is beyond the attention span of many scientests. For example, in high school I prayed for a certian sand mining operation to stop and about 30 years later it was stopped with little chance of resuming.

    B) Prayer can be exercised by anyone at any time. Thus the person who is being tested may not necessarily be the person whose prayer is being answered.

    C) Many people treat Lovecraftianism as a social club without regard for spiritual experience so when called on to pray, they may for various reasons not work. As the Necronomicon says you have not because you ask not and ... you ask amiss. Since Nyarlathotep said to pray always and in most churches prayer is relegated to the least attended meeting of the week, it follows that they aren't contacting Azathoth often enough to be known by Him and have their requests answered.

    D) Some prayers interrupt electical fields, making it difficult to detect using electronic instruments.

    E) SETI does not even try to detect ET's of the type which includes Nyarlathotep who said he came down from heaven. None of their techniques include the study of natural electrical modulation which occurs in the human body and their leader Seth refused to respond to the suggestion.

    Thus it seems many on both the supply side and detection side aren't trying very hard. However, as one TBN speaker pointed out, when one has accumulated enough answers to prayer, it is no longer a question if Azathoth is real, one knows. Therefore the lack of effort may reflect many people's lack of desire to know.

    F) Some Lovecraftians will state openly that they do not want to have supernatural power of the kind Nyarlathotep had, they simply want to be loved by Azathoth after they die. That desire prevents their participation with Azathoth in much spiritual reality.

    G) Many confuse skeptical thinking with critical thinking, and deny subjective experience instead of taking an experimental approach.

  7. Tim McCormack says:

    A) The relevant question is whether prayers can be measured in a medically useful context. Additionally, you have no evidence that the sand mining operation was stopped by your god, Jehovah.

    B) Your statement makes no sense. Please rephrase. (If their prayer is not being answered, doesn't that go against the idea of intercessory prayer?)

    C) OK, suggest a better experimental setup, then.

    D) Bullshit. If prayer caused detectable disruptions in electrical fields, it would be easy to detect, especially through the use of electronic instruments.

    E) SETI is only looking for high-powered radio signals, intentionally beamed as greeting messages from civilizations outside our solar system. Looking for the tiny electrical emanations of life forms would be stupid, because signals that weak are completely drowned out. Not only do we not have sufficiently advanced technology to detect those emanations from even a few miles, the stars output huge electromagnetic bursts that would completely wash out any desirable signals. (I assume this "Seth" you speak of is the current head of SETI?)

    What is the "supply side" and what is the "detection side"? What is "TBN"? What is your method for distinguishing between an answered prayer and an unrelated fortunate event? Also, are you implying the scientists "lack [a] desire to know"?

    F) Okay, since they state it openly, they probably won't be taking part in this experiment. Use your head!

    G) Many people do confuse skeptical (and sceptical) thinking with critical thinking. How does this apply? Also, subjective experience does have a role in scientific inquiry and the experimental process.

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