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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

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 Is God a celestial lab rat?

In the current issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer writes that scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed and fraught with methodological problems:
In 2001 the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study by three Columbia University researchers claiming that prayer for women undergoing in vitro fertilization resulted in a pregnancy rate... double that of women who did not receive prayer.... [O]ne of the study's authors, Daniel Wirth, a.k.a. John Wayne Truelove, is not an M.D. but an M.S. in parapsychology who has since been indicted on felony charges for mail fraud and theft, to which he has pled guilty....

Many of these studies failed to control for such intervening variables as age, sex, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, marital standing, degree of religiosity and ignored the fact that most religions have sanctions against such insalubrious behaviors as sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse, and smoking. When such variables are controlled for, the formerly significant results disappear....

When experiments are carried out to determine the effects of prayer, what precisely is being studied? For example, what type of prayer is being employed? (Are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan and shaman prayers equal?) Who or what is being prayed to? (Are God, Jesus and a universal life force equivalent?) What is the length and frequency of the prayer? (Are two 10-minute prayers equal to one 20-minute prayer?) How many people are praying, and does their status in the religion matter? (Is one priestly prayer identical to 10 parishioner prayers?) Most prayer studies either lack such operational definitions or lack consistency across studies in such definitions.

The ultimate fallacy is theological: if God is omniscient and omnipotent, he should not need to be reminded or inveigled into healing someone. Scientific prayer makes God a celestial lab rat, leading to bad science and worse religion.

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