We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, May 7, 2012

Science & Prayer (i)

A group of mothers at prayer
Recently, a group of American researchers studied the use of what they call "proximal intercessory prayer" (PIP) by evangelicals and Pentecostals in the African country of Mozambique to heal hearing and seeing disorders. They report that, "We measured significant improvements in auditory and visual function across both tested populations." And they conclude that, "Rural Mozambican subjects exhibited improved audition and/or visual acuity subsequent to PIP. The magnitude of measured effects exceeds that reported in previous suggestion and hypnosis studies. Future study seems warranted to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatment is limited." The published version of their research is available online (here).

The researchers very carefully do not claim anything about God or engage in theological explanations of why PIP worked in the 24 cases they studied.  They recognize that suggestion played a part, but they set up objective measures for improved hearing and seeing, which could not be achieved merely by their research subjects thinking they had received healing.  One goal of the research was to expand the research on prayer into a less studied area of that research.  To date, most of it has been done on "distance intercessory prayer" (DIP) in which those being prayed for had no knowledge of the prayers.  They were "blinded."  The Mozambique study purposely unblinds the research subjects to see if close, virtually hands on personal prayer would have an impact.  In this case, it did.  That is, in one rural setting in Africa one particular form of face to face intercessory prayer did help patients suffering from hearing and seeing disorders improve their hearing or their sight.  Those prayers, when used with individuals who believe in prayer, had therapeutic value.

The research has its critics including, for example, Dr. Steven Novella, an academic neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.  Dr. Novella has posted a critique of the Mozambique study (here), which discounts its results as being unscientific and meaningless.  He objects that, "There was no blinding or control group – so everyone in the study, subjects and experimenters, knew that every subject was getting the treatment. The treatment involves active physical intervention with the subject. The protocol also calls for multiple interventions if initial treatments are not effective – essentially the subjects receive repeat treatments as long as possible until they report a response."  He states that it is obvious that the failures to blind the subjects and to have a control group results in a study that "tells us nothing."  Dr. Novella refers to other studies in intercessory prayer that were poorly done, clealry suggesting that the Mozambique study is but one more example of such research.  He concludes, "Bottom line‚intercessory prayer does not work."  By this he means that it does not work when research subjects are "properly blinded" so that they do not know they are being prayed for.  He dismisses the improvements in hearing and sight as being subjective and exaggerated.

Let me stop here for this posting.  The issue before us is whether or not proximal intercessory prayer "works".  The Mozambique study suggests that under certain conditions its application as a therapeutic treatment results in improved hearing and seeing for test subjects who believe in prayer.  Dr. Novella rejects these findings as being based on an improper methodology.  More tomorrow.