Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Can Prayers Heal?

There’s an article in today’s The New York Times asking, Can Prayer’s Heal? (Critics Say Studies Go Past Science’s Reach). The article talks about a number of studies that apparently show a correlation between being prayed for and better medical results. The article also talks about how flawed some of the studies are, once you have a statistician examine them in depth.

Unlike many of the scientists quoted in the article, I’m not opposed to small funding for these efforts. If you believe that being prayed for means that a very small stab wound will heal better, fine, lets test that theory. Any supreme being I’m willing to credit will be ignoring the experiment, but the nice thing about experiments is that they can prove people wrong. (The Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr, whose title is too long to quote in full, says that it cheapens god, which seems like a fine stance to take. Faith isn’t supposed to be proven, that’s why it’s faith.)

On the other hand, if patients being prayed for do better, or patients thinking they’re being prayed for do better, then great! Let’s pray for them. The most interesting studies are the fully-blinded ones, where the patients don’t know they’re being prayed for. That sometimes raises concerns for the human research boards, since people are supposed to be given a chance for informed consent. It may even be offensive to some folks to be being prayed for, or to be prayed for by heathens of one stripe or another. On the other hand, it would seem to be needed to really prove the effect of prayer, absent a placebo effect. The final line of the article mentions that alcoholics “who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse.”

So, the studies, even without a theory for how they work or what they’re testing, show interesting behaviors. Other scientists will step in to explain those, and we may well end up learning something, if we’re not careful.