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

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Science & Prayer (ii)

A group of mothers at prayer
In yesterday's posting (here), I introduced a research project conducted by an American team in Mozambique, which found that "proximal intercessory prayer" (PIP) resulted in measurable improvements in hearing or seeing among a group of 24 visually or hearing impaired evangelical Christians.  Objective hearing and seeing tests were conducted on each subject before and after church leaders prayed with them for their healing.  The published version of their research is available online (here).

As we saw yesterday, Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale University School of Medicine has posted a critique of this research project (here), which dismisses its findings as being meaningless.  The study failed to "blind" the subjects (i.e. keep them from knowing they were being prayed for) or establish a proper control group.  The results, thus, were caused by suggestion.  The subjects were susceptible to that suggest because they already believed in prayer.  The results, therefore, were merely subjective.

Dr. Novella has evidently misread the results of the research, apparently because of his own theological biases.  In the course of his critique, he writes, "I find that argument that a deity is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for absurd, lame, and convenient."  He believes that such an argument is just a way to justify doing loose research.  Interestingly enough, the Mozambique study does not refer to God as being involved.  It does not provide any theological explanation for the healing that took place.  The researchers merely observe that PIP resulted in measurable healing (by standard measures) of 24 research subjects.  They, furthermore, intentionally unblinded the subjects and sought out subjects who believed in prayer in order to expand the field of research regarding intercessory prayer.  Dr. Novella dismisses the attempt, and one of his key points in doing so is theological.  He does not find a god that answers PIP but not "distance intercessory prayer" (DIP) credible.  Belief in such a god is "absurd, lame and convenient."  At the same time, Dr. Novella does not actually account for the measurable differences in seeing and hearing the Mozambique researchers claimed resulted from PIP.  He dismisses them was being "subjective" without explaining how they could fake standard eye and hearing tests.  The Mozambique research report contains the numbers, but Dr. Novella does not respond to them.  He dismisses them.

This seems to be an odd thing for a him to do—simply dismiss apparently objective measures of a physical phenomenon for patently theological reasons.  He is after all a scientist.  He doesn't accuse the Mozambique researchers of intentionally falsifying evidence, but he himself does not address the data directly.  He dismisses it on methodological grounds, but he seems to have a theological agenda in doing so.  Methodologically, what is "wrong" with seeing what happens when unwell individuals who believe in prayer are prayed for in a personal way?  One-on-one prayer is a common form of prayer, one especially important in pastoral ministry.  Why should it not be studied?  The researchers found that under such conditions prayer contributed to healing in a measurable way.  Honestly, Dr. Novella seems to dismiss these findings because he does not want to entertain any data that contradicts his bottom line conclusion that "intercessory prayer does not work."  He seems to want to consider only those research methods and results that confirm his own theological perspective (prejudice, actually) about prayer.

Instead of being intrigued by the possibility that PIP "works" where DIP does not, he is offended.  It turns out that Dr. Novella is President of the New England Skeptical Society, an activist organization dedicated to ferreting out quackery of various kinds.  That's fine.  It's just that he is a man with an agenda, and in the case of his critique of the Mozambique research findings that agenda is showing big time.

There's more to say tomorrow.