Friday, March 31, 2006

Prayer is still a dud

Oh but wait! Prayer might just be evolving into a nocebo.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.


The work, which followed about 1,800 patients at six medical centers, was financed by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion. It will appear in the American Heart Journal.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications'' for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.


The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

In fairness, the difference between the two groups may not be statistically significant. If I read it right sample size of those who've been told they were prayed for is 600, while the sample size of those who were told being prayed over was only a possibility is 1,200. For a 95% confidence level the margin of error for the former group (n = 600) is 3.9% and for the latter group (n = 1,200) is 2.8% So the confidence intervals are 59% ± 3.9% and 52% ± 2.8%, respectively (see footnote for equations). Since the two intervals don't overlap the difference is statistically significant at the 95% level. But at the 99% confidence level the intervals are: 59% ± 5.2% and 52% ± 3.7%. Because of the overlap the difference isn't statistically significant. (I'm not really sure of the sample size for the second group. If n = 600 and not 1,200 all the more reason not to make a mountain out of this difference)

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who didn't take part in the study, said the results didn't surprise him.

"There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either,'' he said. "There is no god in either the Christian, Jewish or Moslem scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted.''

If even on theological grounds we can't expect any results then why pray?!

Within the Christian tradition, God would be expected to be concerned with a person's eternal salvation, he said, and "why would God change his plans for a particular person just because they're in a research study?''

Ah yes. God's concern is to ferry souls as quickly as possible to the pearly gates. It was a mistake on His part to design Intellligent doctors who're getting better and better in messing his salvific timetable.


margin of error = z[f(1-f)/n)]0.5

z = number of standard deviations to achieve the desired confidence level. For a 95% confidence level z = 1.96; for 99%, z = 2.58.
f = sample frequency
n = sample size


Anonymous said...

I would like to think that this will put some brakes on funding implausible - and often blatantly religious - SCAM research, but my inner cynic doubts it.

Maybe it is time to throw in the skeptical towel. Maybe I could write a book about overlapping the magisteria blah blah. How hard can it be? I'm serious. Lowly health care worker to Templeton laureate; I could use the money.

Mood: cranky

Thomas McLaughlin said...

I love your blog and have added it as a link to my own blog. I like the way you express your cynicism with a mixture of humour, scorn and anger. I shall keep coming back for a read.