Ho hum. It must be Easter season because in addition to the routine debunking Jesus articles we have a rehash of so called scientific studies to “prove” that prayer works.

The latest rehash is literally a “rehash”. In scientific terms, this is called a “meta-analysis” of seventeen studies, showing that if you put all of them into your statistical blender, you’d end up with a slight increase in cures in the prayer group.

These pseudoscientific studies all took a group of sick people, and divided them into two groups. In one group, they ordered an “intercessory prayer” group to pray for the patients, but they didn’t ask anyone to pray for the second group, i.e. the “control group”. Presumably, God will be so impressed that these prayer groups are praying that he will go zap and cure more of the first group, but will ignore the second group and let them live or die according to chance.

My, these scientists have a cynical view of the deity.  

Which brings me to the scientific flaw in all these studies: There is no control group.

Those doing the study could not assume that no one prayed for those in the control group. Every patient has parents, friends, neighbors, children, spouses, or siblings. Even if the studies were not done in the USA, where the majority of people pray daily, one cannot assume that somewhere there is not a pious little old lady who says to God: “God someone out there has no one to pray for them. So I ask you to bless them.”
One can, of course, attack the study as superstition, but as one of my professors told us in Medical school: Few doctors are pious believers, but few are outright athiests, because we see too many things. We see good people dying, but we also see cures that should not occur. And without the belief that somewhere we will find a reason for all of the suffering we see, we’d go nuts.

The problem of pain, and finding meaning in suffering and death has been a major philosophical problem since the dawn of time. And the presence of flowers and toys in the graves of primitive man suggest that we are not the first ones to hope that there is hope beyond the grave.

The answers can be explained in myth, in religion, and in philosophy. Science cannot quantitate prayer any more than it can quantitate the meaning of love, or sacrifice, or greed, or evil, or the meaning of suffering.

To try to do so is folly. 


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines, Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and fishmarket.

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