Well the study on the effects of prayer on the health of heart patients has come out. It has been covered by the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and Reuters. This is being treated as big news. The results are negative, from the Post
The long-awaited results, the latest in a series of studies that have not found any benefit from "distant" or "intercessory" prayer, came as a blow to those hoping scientific research would validate the popular notion that people can influence others' health, even if the sick do not know that someone is praying for them.
I blogged about this the other day. As I expected people who believe in the power of prayer do not think this study has any merit as stated in the Post.
The findings are unlikely to change the minds of the faithful, several pastors said.
"We welcome and appreciate the involvement of scientists researching faith," said Rob Brendle, associate pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. "But this is just one study. We believe wholeheartedly that prayer changes things. So many of us have experienced that in our lives."
and from the New York Times
Other experts said the study underscored the question of whether prayer was an appropriate subject for scientific study.
"The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion," said Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia and author of a forthcoming book, "Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine."
It has struck me that this kind of study would be very hard to do, and the Times story confirms that despite very careful experimental design, it is not possible to to really control all of the variables.
The new study was rigorously designed to avoid problems like the ones that came up in the earlier studies. But experts said the study could not overcome perhaps the largest obstacle to prayer study: the unknown amount of prayer each person received from friends, families, and congregations around the world who pray daily for the sick and dying.
In his recent book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett has argued for these kind of studies. He would expect religions in the spirit of truth in advertising to stop claiming the prayer is useful, if it cannot be scientifically confirmed. That seems unlikely to occur.