A $2.4 million study on the effect of intercessory prayer came out last week and received a bunch of coverage. Researchers studying 1,800 heart-bypass patients at three hospitals found that intercessory prayer by strangers has no effect on the health of the person being prayed for. They also found that people fared worse — in the short-term at least — if they knew they were being prayed for.
But the study was a bit more complex than that. Over 3,000 patients were asked to take part in the study and over 1,800 agreed. Patients were randomly divided into three groups:
• people who were prayed for but were told they may or may not be prayed for
• people who were not prayed for but told they may or may not be prayed for
• patients who were prayed for and told they would be prayed for.
Some of the ways this study was done well (and it should have been for $2.4 million!) were that patients were randomly assigned, doctors were not told what group the patients were assigned to, the sample size was large and data collected about the participants showed there weren’t big differences across the three groups.
But there were problems, too. Patients may or may not have been prayed for by people who cared about them and knew them. The study didn’t capture that information — instead it farmed out first names and the first letter of last names to strangers in three different congregations (two Catholic and one Protestant). God had only 14 days to work healing. Or, rather, congregants only prayed for the patients for 14 days. My congregation prays for people as long as they are in need of prayer. In some cases, we have been praying for people for years. It never occurred to us that this meant intercessory prayer was failing!
Stories were sort of all over the map, but most reporters did a good job of characterizing the study. Here’s Michael Conlon of Reuters:
A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said on Thursday.
And here is Rob Stein in the Washington Post:
Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.
It’s just interesting to see two reporters in action. The first lead emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the prayers. While the second lead shows the study looked at prayer by strangers, it makes it seem like the study proves all prayer is ineffective — which is much more broad than the study itself purports.
Anyway, I know the unemployed, sick and dying at my church will still be prayed for. Speaking of lead paragraphs, this satirical one made me laugh:
A team of scientists today ended a 10-year study on the so-called “power of prayer” by concluding that God cannot be manipulated by humans, not even by scientists with a $2.4 million research grant.