About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Nothing fails like prayer
The study was conducted by a team led by Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson, who is sympathetic to the idea that prayer has healing effects, and funded in large part by the Templeton Foundation, an organization devoted to the scientific improvement of our understanding of spirituality (whatever that latter phrase may mean).
Benson’s group studied 1,802 patients undergoing coronary bypass, divided into three groups: patients who were prayed for (by three different type of congregations) and knew it, people who were prayed for but did not know whether that was the case, and a group who was not prayed for. The results? 59% of the patients in the first group were affected by post-operative complications, as opposed to 51% of the second group; moreover, 18% of people prayed for suffered serious complications, against 13% of the non-prayed for group. Such differences were not statistically significant, and at any rate they would go against the hypothesis: if anything, being prayed for, or knowing you are being prayed for, makes things slightly worse! (As Jon Stewart pointed out, the real troublesome finding here is that more than half of the patients had complications, no matter what group they were assigned to...)
Other studies, conducted on smaller samples and for shorter time periods, have found conflicting results. However, the few cases were a statistically significant result was found detected a tiny effect of prayer (apparently, god ain’t that powerful), which disappeared once researchers took into account other variables that were a more likely explanation (for example, in a study on the effect of prayer on recovery from hip surgery, researchers forgot to correct for the age of the women involved!).
This is, of course, not only a waste of money and energy, but makes for really bad theology. A moment’s reflection immediately suggests so many theological complications as to make the whole “field” a hopeless mess: to whom exactly is the prayer being addressed? Why doesn’t s/he know that someone needs help regardless of prayer? Which religious groups are allowed intercessory prayer? If the effects are either null or tiny, are we justified in concluding that there is no god, or that she’s out to lunch?
As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (in Hocus Pocus), “it is embarrassing to be human.” Faced by such desperate attempts to prove one’s fantasies about a big daddy in the sky one would have to agree.