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Prayer-Fertility Study: Where was the skepticism?

Prayer-Fertility Study: Where was the skepticism?

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When the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study that purported to prove that intercessory prayer can heal people, there were many reasons to be doubtful, regardless of one's religious beliefs.

The study said that Christian prayer groups in the United States, Canada and Australia had asked God to cure infertile women in South Korea. This caused those women to become fertile. All of them. The women didn't know about the prayers. They just knew they were suddenly pregnant.

If the content didn't leave you scratching your head. How about the authors?

One was the head of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, Dr. Rogerio Lobo. He was the only U.S.-licensed doctor in the trio, allowing them to conduct the study in the U.S., and he was the prestige name that cast a warm light over the other two.

The other author with medical training was a South Korean fertility specialist named Kwang Yul-Cha who, through his family's network of clinics and schools in South Korea, had become a wildly successful businessman and had set up his own fertility clinic at Columbia. He was, and is, a licensed M.D. in South Korea, but he was not licensed to practice medicine in New York. The women in the study were patients one of his clinics in South Korea.

The third was Daniel Wirth. Not a doctor anywhere. Instead, Wirth was a self-proclaimed expert in paranormal research. Until this study, he had only published his work in fringe journals.

Yet, when this study was published, the media all but showered it with confetti. Good Morning America's chief medical editor, Dr. Timothy Johnson said, "A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results."

Surprising, indeed. As is this fact not printed on ABC's official bio for Johnson: Johnson, a medical doctor, also serves an evangelical minister at the Evangelical Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Mass.

So, perhaps we can understand why Johnson was so excited. But what about all the other reporters outside the ministry who took the study at face value and asked few tough questions?

Here's an example from theNew Scientist:

Prayer can double the success rate of IVF treatments, according to a double blind study published in the respected Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

A team in the US asked groups of people around the world to pray for pregnancy in one half of almost 200 women undergoing the fertility treatment in South Korea. The prayer groups were given only photographs of the women, and the women were unaware of the study.

Despite controls for age, length of infertility, type of infertility and number of prior attempts to become pregnant following IVF, 50 percent of the women who were prayed for became pregnant, compared with 26 percent of women in the control group. An independent statistician in the US had randomized the women into two groups.


"Several factors are known to either positive or negatively affect the success of IVF procedures. The majority of physicians, however, would not consider prayer intervention to be one of them," write the team, lead by Rogerio Lobo at Columbia University in New York. "We set out with the expectation that we would show no benefit of prayer."

This study continues to be cited to this day, often by well meaning bloggers wanting to give people hope that their prayers can have a dramatic effect on people they have never met. (If you want to read a much deeper discussion of how science and religious faith intersect, check out this column by Larry Dossey and Harold Koenig at Science & Spirit.

In the years since, the foundation of the study has started to crumble. The National Institutes of Health told Columbia that it violated federal rules by conducting a study without the permission of the research subjects. Lobo was demoted and then took his name off the paper. Wirth was convicted of fraud in federal court for helping steal millions from the now-defunct Adelphia cable company.

Cha moved his business to Los Angeles where he applied for a piece of California's stem cell research funding but withdraw after his application drew criticism. He has remained a steadfast defender of the prayer paper. "The study was completely blinded, and it is impossible for Mr. Wirth to have influenced the outcome," Cha wrote in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine after Wirth's legal troubles emerged.

Despite repeated calls by researchers that the paper be withdrawn because of its inherent methodological problems, the journal has stood by the paper, albeit silently. Dr. Bruce Flamm, whom I interviewed in a previous post, has written about this study repeatedly over the years again and again precisely because it is still out there as a medical fact, on PubMed and in journal citations for other studies.

There have been a handful of stories in the mainstream press about the study's problems, but there has never been a true accounting of how this study miraculously appeared in a peer-reviewed journal in the first place. The editor who accepted the paper. The reviewers who, supposedly, combed through it for problems. The editorial board of the journal. And, most importantly, the editor-in-chief, all deserve a measure of blame. As do all the reporters who touted the study's claims without bringing in a single dissenting voice and without ever returning to the subject.

This is an understandable tendency. Who are we as reporters with a deadline looming to second guess medical experts who have had their work vetted by a major research journal? We're just supposed to translate it into eighth-grade English, right? And then there is the tendency to avoid offense. We can't possibly write anything that would look like we were doubting core Christian beliefs. After all, we're still a nation of churchgoers, right?

You don't have to. Science and religious faith do not have to be mutually exclusive. It's why a kid who attends a Catholic school can know more about evolutionary science than a kid who went to public schools and had a biology teacher who was afraid to say anything "controversial." When people purporting to be scientists publish a study that examines some aspect of religion, you should ask the same tough questions as you would any other study suggesting that patients in one group were 100% better off than the patients in the other group.

The South Korean Prayer Study may turn out to be the beginning of the end for scientific journal credibility unless there are serious steps taken to insure a return to intellectual rigor. The ongoing pharmaceutical ghostwriting scandal should be a reminder to all health writers that nothing can be taken for granted.

Take a cue from writers like Time magazine's Leon Jaroff and push back when something sounds too good to be true. It doesn't matter if it's a prayer study or a study that says a Korean doctor cloned an embryo.

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There are studies for heart patients that are not attacked. Why? There are studies for infertility that attacked. Why?

The only people who make money from miscarriage are people like Harvard with the Mind Body Institute.

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