A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Healing Prayer & Distant Healing
Robert Todd Carroll
part 2
(posted March 6, 2008)

3) 1999. The Harris Study (St. Luke’s Hospital). "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit" by William S. Harris, M.D. et al., published in The Archives of Internal Medicine (Vol. 159 No. 19, October 25, 1999), a publication of the American Medical Association. Harris was joined by four M.D.s, two Ph.D.s, one M.A., and one doctor of divinity in this peer-reviewed study. According to their report, there was no significant difference in time spent either in the hospital or in the coronary care unit for the experimental and control groups, yet the authors still managed to come up with a scoring system (what they call a "CCU course score") that satisfied them that the group that was prayed for didn't suffer as much as the control group.

The study took place at the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, over a 12-month period. There were 466 patients in the experimental (prayer) group and 524 in the control (usual care) group. The patients were randomly assigned and the IP group was prayed for by five of randomly assigned (from a pool of 75) intercessors for 28 days. The prayer was to be for "'a speedy recovery with no complications' and anything else that seemed appropriate." The intercessors knew only the first names of their subjects and had to believe in the efficacy of prayer, among other things.

Despite the fact that the prayers were aimed at a speedy recovery with no complications, the authors did not consider the fact that there was no significant difference in either hospital or coronary care unit stay between the prayer and control groups to be that important. They concluded that "prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care."

The authors claimed that "it was anticipated that the effect of prayer was unlikely to be evident in any specific clinical outcome category (e.g., the need for antibiotics, the development of pneumonia, or the extension of infarction), but would only be seen in some type of global score." Why a specific outcome, like length of time in the hospital or death, was considered irrelevant is unclear, especially since measuring specific outcomes was in their original proposal. They do admit that the CCU score they devised was "intuitive" and "has not been validated."

The authors write:

Since the score itself is only an estimate of overall CCU course, there is no known way to ascribe a clinical significance to it, other than to say that as a group, the patients in the prayer group "did 10% better." The score should be viewed only as a summary statistic designed to detect the impact of a mild global intervention on overall health in large groups, not in individual patients.

Perhaps the authors should have concluded: Study Shows Prayer Does No Harm!

"It's a weak measure," said Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia who has been critical of prayer research. "You're collecting 30 or 40 variables but can't even specify up front which ones" will be affected. (Carey).

Dr. Harris corrected for this problem, experts say, but he then found significant differences between prayer and no-prayer groups only by using a formula that he and his colleagues had devised, and that no one else had ever validated.” (Carey).

4) 2001. The Columbia University fertility study. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine Online (vol 46. no. 9, September 2001) featured an article called "Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization–Embryo Transfer? Report of a Masked, Randomized Trial" by Kwang Y. Cha, M.D., Daniel P. Wirth, J.D., M.S., and Rogerio A. Lobo, M.D. The answer to the question in their report’s title, say the authors, is "yes, quite a bit." For example, "The IP [intercessory prayer] group had a higher pregnancy rate as compared to the no-IP rate (50% vs. 26%, P=.0013)." This study has been plagued with problems since its publication. Dr. Kwang-Yul Cha has a company that owns fertility clinics and a large hospital in Seoul, Korea. Wirth is in federal prison for fraud and Lobo admits he didn't participate in the study.

The researchers went to quite a bit of trouble to do their controlled, double-blind experiment. They even had the ones doing the praying in a different country from those getting the in vitro fertilization. They even had people praying for the success of the people praying for the women in the IP group! (One thing they didn't do, however, was define "prayer" or explain how it might influence anything in the universe, much less the outcome of their little experiment. Nor did they address an even more serious issue. If prayer works by influencing God to influence the outcome of an experiment, then God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time. If God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time, then no controlled, double-blind study can be sure of the meaning of whatever outcome results. Any result could be the result of direct influence by God. In other words, the assumption the study is based on is self-defeating. No science at all would be possible if God could be interfering with the laws of nature at will. Science requires a backdrop of lawfulness in nature in order to discover any causal connection between anything and anything else.)

Here is what the authors say about the prayers: “All prayer participants in this study were of various Christian denominations. There were two tiers of prayer groups. Tiers 1 and 2 each consisted of four blocks of prayer participants (A–D). Most intercessors were known by one of the authors (D.P.W.), and others were referred by known intercessors. Within each block (A–D), intercessors knew each other. Prayer participants in tier 1 prayed in a directed manner with a specific intent to increase the pregnancy rate of the patients. Tier 2 prayer participants prayed in a directed manner for tier 1 prayer participants with the intent to increase their prayer efficacy.”

The patients were 219 women aged 26–46 years who were consecutively treated with IVF-ET over a four-month period. [50 (23% of the original pool) were eliminated for various reasons, 20 due to "fragmentary e-mail transmission," which is not explained.] Randomization was performed after stratification of variables in two groups: distant IP [88] vs. no IP [81]. The authors concluded that “we view these data to be preliminary and that they may not be confirmed in future investigations.” So far, nobody has tried to replicate the study.

In any case, on June 14, 2004, The Journal of Reproductive Medicine withdrew the study from its Web site. On May 30, 2004, it was reported that one of the study's authors is “a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with a $2 million business fraud in Pennsylvania. [He was sent to federal prison.] Wirth has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child.” According to The Observer, “Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research.”

Dr. Bruce Flamm of the University of California commented that he is “concerned this study could be totally fraudulent.” Flamm has been publicly criticizing the fertility prayer article since its publication.

Wirth has a law degree and a master’s in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University, but has no medical qualifications. He has co-authored numerous pieces of research claiming to prove paranormal activities. He headed something called Healing Sciences Research International, which appears to have been nothing but a mailing address.

Dale Beyerstein of the University of British Columbia has been investigating the work of Wirth and his frequent partner in crime, Joseph Horvath, for several years. He likens them to a pair of conmen.

The Observer reports that shortly after the prayer and fertility study was published, the Department of Health began an investigation into Columbia University's research. “It found numerous ethical problems. After Wirth was indicted, Dr. Lobo of Columbia University, a respected scientist who was named initially as the lead author of the research, announced that he had provided only "editorial review and assistance with publication." He asked that his name be removed from the study. Lobo's lab was not involved in the study in any way and his name never should have been on the paper.

Nevertheless, “No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study's authors stand behind their data” (Carey). Still suspicions remain. Wirth was the one who provided Dr. Kwang Cha, a Korean fertility specialist, with “a roster of the women he said had been prayed for” when they met at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side. Allegedly, Wirth had not seen Cha’s pregnancy results yet. Lobo’s name was added to the study, though he admits he made no contribution to it and received it as a “fait accompli.” Lobo admits the data could have been manipulated but he says he doesn’t see how (Carey).

5) 2001. The MANTRA studies. MANTRA I. Mitch Krucoff et al. "Integrative Noetic Therapies as Adjuncts to Percutaneous Intervention During Unstable Coronary Syndromes: The Monitoring & Actualization of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) Feasibility Pilot," American Heart Journal, 2001; 142:760-769.

This study was to examine the feasibility of applying 4 noetic therapies—stress relaxation, imagery, touch therapy, and prayer—to patients in the setting of acute coronary interventions. Eligible patients had acute coronary syndromes and invasive angiography or PCI [percutaneous coronary intervention]. Patients were randomized across 5 treatment groups: the 4 noetic and standard therapies. Questionnaires completed before PCI reflected patients' religious beliefs and anxiety. Index hospitalization end points included post-PCI ischemia, death, myocardial infarction, heart failure, and urgent revascularization.  Mortality was followed up for 6 months after hospitalization.

Of eligible patients, 88% gave informed consent. Of 150 patients enrolled, 120 were assigned to noetic therapy; 118 (98%) completed their therapeutic assignments. Results were not statistically significant for any outcome comparisons. All mortality by 6-month follow-up was in the noetic therapies group.

Another experiment led by Krucoff, a cardiologist, was billed as "the world’s largest study into the effects of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery..." It involved 750 angioplasty patients in nine hospitals who were randomly divided into two groups of 375. Both groups were given normal medical treatment. One of the groups was prayed for by 12 groups who followed various religions: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. They were alerted by E-mail as soon as possible after the patient was enrolled in the trial. This was a double blind study; none of the hospital staff, or the patients, or the patients' relatives were aware of which 375 patients were receiving prayer. The patients were studied for six months to see how they progressed. The data showed no difference in outcome between the two groups. Prayer neither helped nor hindered their recovery. (Religious Tolerance) (BBC News)

MANTRA II July 2005

This study was published in The Lancet, a respected medical journal in the UK. The research team was led by Krucoff of the Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, North Carolina. The study followed 748 patients either having a thin tube inserted through an artery to the heart to check for blockage or a procedure to clear a blocked artery.

Patients were divided into four groups: 192 received just the standard care, 182 were assigned prayer, 185 got bedside music, imagery and touch (MIT therapy), and 189 prayer and MIT therapy. There was no significant difference between the four treatment groups when comparing clinical outcomes. Prayers, as well as music, imagery and touch therapies, were started before the patients had their procedures done.

Patients receiving MIT therapy were taught how to relax their breathing and told to imagine a beautiful, peaceful place while listening to either classical, easy listening or country music. The therapist then applied 21 “healing touch” hand positions, each for 45 seconds. The patient could then wear headphones with musical background during the heart procedure.

A little data mining permitted the researchers to claim that MIT therapy appeared to cut the rate of death six months after the procedure. It was also associated with significantly less “pre-procedural distress,” the authors said. It's not clear whether this is because of the “presence of a compassionate human being at the bedside” or the therapy, the study said. Another alternative is that the statistic might be a fluke.

During the first two years of the study, the name, age, and illness of each patient assigned prayer therapy was given to each of 12 prayer groups. The prayer groups chose their own prayers, and prayed for their assigned patients for 5 days to 30 days. Patients were not told that people were praying for them.

In the third and final year of the study, an additional 12 prayer groups were added and asked to pray for the prayers of the original 12 groups, which researchers described in the study as “high-dose” praying. Skeptics might describe it as high-dose magical thinking.

In short, the prayers of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups failed to reduce serious medical complications of patients undergoing heart procedures. Patients being prayed for were as likely as others to develop complications such as heart attacks, be readmitted to hospital, or die. MIT therapy didn't have a significant effect, either.

Although the study showed no therapeutic effect of prayer, the researchers refuse to give up hope.  In what sounds like little more than wishful thinking and a refusal to admit the ineffectiveness of healing prayer, the authors boldly claimed that “secondary analyses can be useful for hypothesis generation to guide future trials.” In other words, this study failed to find anything of interest but you should still give us money to do more of the same.

Others were quick to come up with the familiar ad hoc hypothesis that prayer works only if you have faith. If you didn’t get better from prayers it was because you didn’t believe strongly enough. “The power of praying lies more with the receiver,'” said Lars-Vilhelm Palle, a priest at Borbjerg Church in the north of Denmark. “If he doesn't believe, then the praying is less likely to work. Faith can definitely give you extra strength to help fight a disease.” Fr. Palle’s belief, however, seems to be based on nothing more than blind faith or faith in the placebo effect.*

The Lancet apparently is willing to expand the boundaries of science to anything of interest to people. "The contribution that hope and belief make to a personal understanding of illness cannot be dismissed so lightly,'' the Lancet said in an editorial accompanying the publication of the Krukoff et al. study. “They are proper subjects for science, even while transcending its known bounds.” However, since the sick people didn’t know they were being prayed for, the only thing hope and belief might affect here are the ones doing the study. They hope for a good result and believe that even if they don’t get one, they should be applauded and encouraged to continue their research.

6) 2006. The Benson Study. "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer," by Herbert Benson et al., American Heart Journal, April;151(4):934-42.



Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. [The bold indicates an area of study to see if the “relaxation effect”—the supposed effect that comes from praying and praying for oneself—but the group that knew people were praying for them fared no better than the other two groups. In other words, they found no evidence for the relaxation effect when patients knew others were praying for them.]


Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG surgery. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG surgery. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.


In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.


Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG surgery. Certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications but this was probably a statistical fluke.

Dr. Benson acknowledged that at least two medical journals had turned down the study after asking for revisions. (Carey).

Comment: this study suffers from the same problem that all such studies suffer from: there is no way to control who, among all those people who are praying but are not involved in the study, is praying for the patients. It’s possible, for example, that those who are praying for every sick person in the world are having an effect that can’t be measured. Perhaps all the people in this study would have fared worse had these generic prayers not been said! Perhaps by chance the people in the control group had extra people praying for them and had they not been praying the control group might have fared worse than the IP group! Or, perhaps the IP group had more extra people praying for them but the control group had an equal number of people praying that they would not recover and their prayers were answered by a different god than the one who answered the IP group intercessors’ prayers!

Criticisms of the healing prayer  studies

Even those who defend prayer research concede that such studies are difficult. For one thing, no one knows what constitutes a ''dose'': some studies have tested a few prayers a day by individual healers, while others have had entire congregations pray together. Some have involved evangelical Christians; others have engaged rabbis, Buddhists and New Age healers, or some combination.

Another problem concerns the mechanism by which prayer might be supposed to work. Some researchers contend that prayer's effects—if they exist—have little to do with religion or the existence of God. Instead of divine intervention, they propose things like ''subtle energies,'' ''mind-to-mind communication'' or ''extra dimensions of space-time'' -- concepts that most scientists dismiss as nonsense. (Carey).

Another problem is the same one we’ve seen with the ESP and PK experiments: researchers assume that “not due to chance” is logically equivalent to “my hypothesis is supported.” As with the psi studies, there is no known mechanism by which HP might occur and as with them, if HP were really occurring then no controlled study would be possible. There would be no way to control for the effects of supernatural or paranormal interference in any study.

Finally, it would be really interesting if the prayers of one group seemed to work against the prayers of all other groups. Maybe then we would know who the true God is. Perhaps we should have a worldwide prayer study, pitting all religions and energy healers against one another, to determine the true religion. I think such a contest would make a great reality TV show.

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