Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Prayer Studies and Atheist Propaganda: Empirical Not Double Blind

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An article published in pub med
April 2006.
Am Heart J. 2006 Apr;151(4):934-42.

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.


Mind/Body Medical Institute, Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.



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.


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. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. 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, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

The first thing to notice is we are talking about a difference of 1% or less. Many atheists in using this study try to spin it to mean that prayer is actually harmful. That's an erroneous conclusion that assumes the 1% difference can be guaranteed. The two outcomes are so close statistically there's no margin of error. So that means it may just be the result of not being able to control for outside prayer. At best it's proof that prayer has no effect, it can't prove that it's harmful even though the not prayed for group seemed to fare better, they are really too close to call.

The Second most important thing to notice is that its a double blind study, that means it's got two groups, experimental group and a control group. The experimental group will be prayed for and the control group will not be. Then they check the comparison. They are going to do ti "blind" so there can't be bias. For that reason no one knows for sure what group they are in, that's to control the placebo effect. That's pointless in this case becuase there's something even more basic they can never control for and that is outside prayer.

Say we have a man, Sam Jones. Sam is in the study he might be in the control group (no prayer). He tells his mother the basic nature of the study. His mother says "they think I'm not going to pray for my boy? Of cousre I am." Or even if no one says this, someone who knows him knows he's in the hospital and prays for him without knowing about the study.So while Sam is marked as 'no prayer" he's getting prayer a lot. Moreover, there are people out there who pray every day for the sick and those in hospitals even if they don't know them. There's no way to stop it, no way to mark it. With 80% of the country being Christian it's not unrealistic to assume everyone in the study got plenty of prayer. It's really not comparing two groups one prayed for and one not prayed for, but both are prayed for. So you can't say prayer is ineffective because one group that prayed for did better than another that got prayed for. Their study assumes that the only prayer in the world is in their study, they can't assume that.

Double blind is the wrong methodology for this study. Many people are led to think that all studies must be double blind, that shows they really don't understand study methodology. You use double blind when you assume you have good control over the control group. If you don't, like you can't keep out outside prayer it's worthless. They are assuming that prayer is automatic, God has to heal just like taking a pill the pill has to work it has no say in the matter. That's bogus, God has a say. God doesn't have to heal. God can say "I'll show them I'll never heal anyone again" and there would be no way to know if he doesn't tell us. We can't treat god like a field trial for a new wonder drug. The only rational way to do it is to use the empirical appraoch. Go case by case, study each one in isolation and don't worry about hit rates (or the rate at which people are healed). Don't focus on comparing experimental group to control group, just take each case as it comes and use empirical results of the person and how his sickness progressed.

This is the method they use with Lourdes. Compare the person with himself. Did he get better immediately after prayer? Lourdes evidence does not need to be double blind First of all these are not "studies." They are not set up as a longitudinal study to see if healing works. These are real people and their journey to Lourdes is part of their journey in life in a search to be healed, they are not white lab mice plotting world conquest.
Secondly, double blind is used as a means of control so we know data is not contaminated by the subjects knowledge of the test. People suffering from an incurable disease cannot cure themselves. So it doesn't matter if they know. If the data shows the condition went away immediately and it can be documented that all traces are gone, the of course can assume healing, provided there is no counter cause such as he took a wonder drug before he left for Lourdes; they do certainly screen for that.

Of course there are still epistemological problems. There will always be such problems. That's why you can't prove you exist. But just as the answer to that problem is "Make epistemic judgment based upon regularity and inconsistency of data," so it goes with miracles, proving smoking causes cancer or anything else.

Thomas Reid got it right, we are justified in assuming empirical evidence provided it's strong evidence.

One more problem. When I say "correlation" this invites the question "how can you find a correlation if you don't know the hit rate? A correlation implies X and Y are seen together a lot, not just in one instance. But we can't go around giving people cancer and praying for them over and over to see if they ar always healed. We have to let multiple cases stand for correlation. But since we can't say why healing didn't take place we have to use empirical means to assert on a case by case basis.

This is the whole fallacy of the God hates amputees thing. You might as well say God hates breakfast because not once in my Christian walk has God ever made me scrambled eggs in the morning.

St. Augustine proved that there is no correlation between worldly prosperity or success and God's love. Rome was sacked by the vandals and everyone was saying "this disproves Christianity." but Augie said "no it doesn't, divine favor is not based worldly success. Stuff happens to Christians too, God causes it rain on the just and unjust."

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