Sunday, December 4, 2011
Week 9, "The Great Prayer Experiment."
"As amusing, if rather pathetic, case study in miracles is the Great Prayer Experiment: does praying for patients help them recover? Prayers are commonly offered for sick people, both privately and in formal places of worship. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton was the first to analyze scientifically whether praying for people is efficacious. He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn't they, therefor, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us, who are prayed for only by our nearest and dearest? Galton looked into it, and found no statistical difference. His intention may, in any case, have been satirical, as also when he prayed over randomized places of land to see if the plants would grow any faster (they didn't).
More recently, the physicist Russel Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an initiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improve their health.
Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently that would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.
The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous measure of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:
"What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the
control group? ...Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr. Evans
in the next-door bed... What was that Lord?...Mr. Evans received a thousand
prayers per day? But Lord, Mr. Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh,
they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean
John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used our omniscience to work out which John E.
they meant. But Lord..."
Valiantly shouldering aside all mockery, the team of researchers soldiered on, spending $2.5 million of Templeton money under the leadership of Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston. Dr. Benson was earlier quoted in a Templeton press release as "believing that evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer in medicinal settings is mounting." Reassuringly, then, the research was in good hands, unlikely to be spoiled by skeptical vibrations. Dr. Benson and his team monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals, all of whom received coronary bypass surgery. The patients were divided into three groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn't know it. Group 2 (the control group) received no prayers and didn't know it. Group 3 received prayers and did know it. The comparison between Groups 1 and 2 tests for the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Group 3 tests for possible psychosomatic effects of knowing that one is being prayed for.
Prayers were delivered by the congregations of three churches, one in Minnesota, one in Massachusetts and one in Missouri, all distant from the three hospitals. The praying individuals, as explained, were given only the first name and initial letter of the surname of each patient for whom they were to pray. It is good experimental practice to standardize as far as possible, and they were all, accordingly, told to include in their prayers the phrase 'for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.'
The results, reported in the American Heart Journal of April 2006, were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. What a surprise. There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other' but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not. Was God doing a bit of smiting, to show his disapproval of the whole barmy enterprise? It seems more probable that those patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered additional stress in consequence: 'performance anxiety,' as the experimenters put it. Dr. Charles Bethea, one of the researchers, said, 'It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?' In today's litigious society, is it too much to hope that those patients suffering heart complications, as a consequence of knowing they were receiving experimental prayers, might put together a class action lawsuit against the Templeton Foundation?
It will be no surprise that this study was opposed by theologians, perhaps anxious about its capacity to bring ridicule upon religion. The Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, writing after the study failed, objected to it on the groups that God answers prayers only if they are offered up for good reasons. Praying for somebody rather than somebody else, simply because of the fall of the dice in the design of a double-blind experiment, does not constitute a good reason. Bob Newhart satire, and Swinburne is right to make it too. But in other parts of his paper Swineburne himself is beyond satire. Not for the first time, he seeks to justify suffering in a world run by God:
"My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience.
It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my
suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not
to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of
suffering...Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely
that each of us shall show patience, sympathy, and generosity and, thereby,
form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and
some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in
that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the
sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable."
This grotesque piece of reasoning, so damningly typical of the theological mind, reminds me of an occasion when I was on a television panel with Swineburne, and also with our Oxford colleage Professor Peter Atkins. Swineburne at one point attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled, 'May you rot in hell.'
Another typical piece of theological reasoning occurs further along in Swineburne's article. He rightly suggests that if God wanted to demonstrate his own existence he would find better ways to do it than slightly biasing the recovery statistics of experimental versus control groups of heart patience. If God existed and wanted to convince us of it, he could 'fill the world with super-miracles.' But then Swineburne lets fall his gem: 'There is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God's existence, and too much might not be good for us.' Too much might not be good for us! Read it again. Too much evidence might not be good for us. Richard Swineburne is the recently retired holder of one of Britain's most prestigious professorships of theology, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. If it's a theologian you want, they don't come much more distinguished. Perhaps you don't want a theologian.
Swineburn wasn't the only theologian to disown the study after it had failed. The Reverend Raymond J. Lawrence was granted a generous tranche of op-ed space in the New York Times to explain why responsible religious leaders 'will breathe a sigh of relief' that no evidence could be found of intercessory prayer having any effect. Would he have sung a different tune if the Benson study had succeeded in demonstrating the power of prayer? Maybe not, but you can be certain that plenty of other pastors and theologians would. The Reverend Lawrence's piece is chiefly memorable for the following revelations: 'Recently, a colleague told me about a devout, well-educated woman who accused a doctor of malpractice in his treatment of her husband. During her husband's dying days, she charged the doctor had failed to pray for him.'
Other theologians joined NOMA-inspired skeptics in contending that studying prayer in this way is a waste of money because supernatural influences are by definition beyond the reach of science. But as the Templeton Foundation correctly recognized when it financed the study, the alleged power of intercessory prayer is at least in principle within the reach of science. A double-blind experiment can be done and was done. It could have yielded a positive result. And if it had, can you imagine that a single religious apologist would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not.
Needless to say, the negative results of the experiment will not shake the faithful. Bob Barth, the spiritual director of the Missouri prayer ministry which supplied some of the experimental [prayers, said: 'A person of faith would say that this study is interesting, but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started.' Yeah, right: we know from our faith that prayer works, so if evidence fails to show it we'll just soldier on until finally we get the result we want."