Questioning Healing Prayer

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An apparently fraudulent study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two respected institutions: New York's Columbia University and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM),. The study, conducted by a trio of Columbia researchers and published in 2001 in the supposedly peer-reviewed JRM, purportedly demonstrated that prayer could help infertile women to conceive.

In their report, the Columbia researchers claimed that women who received in-vitro fertilization at a South Korean hospital were twice a likely as others to conceive if, unknown to them, prayers were uttered in their behalf. And these were no ordinary prayers. They were made by strangers, Christians thousands of miles away in the U.S., Australia and Canada who were shown only unidentified photographs of the Korean women in question. This so-called intercessory prayer supposedly resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50% for those who received it, compared with only 26% for those who did not.

With its validity attested to by the imprimaturs of Columbia and the JRM, the study was heralded in the press, printed in the New York Times, featured on ABCs Good Morning America and widely syndicated.

But some eyebrows were raised, especially those of Dr. Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the University of California. Reviewing the protocol of the study, he found it bewildering, relying on different groups of prayers addressing their attention to different groups of Korean women, and some actually assigned to pray for some of their fellow prayers.

And, though the Columbia report stated that "we set out with the expectation that we would show no benefit of IP (intercessory prayer)," Flamm discovered that one of the Columbia researchers probably believed otherwise. He was Daniel Wirth, who had previously published many research articles claiming miraculous, supernatural healing. Furthermore, Wirth was not a medical doctor — he has a law degree and a masters degree in, of all things, parapsychology.

Dr. Flamm immediately began dispatching E-mails and critical letters to Dr. George Wied, the editor of the JRM, tried repeatedly to reach him by phone, and now, nearly three years later, has still not received a response. When I contacted the the Journal, I was told that the only comment the JRM would make would be in the text of a "forthcoming" issue. The Journal also ignored my E-mail request to identify the peer reviewers of the study. Turning to Columbia, Flamm found that another author of the report, Dr. Kwang Cha, had left the university, and would not respond to inquiries about the study. The third author, Dr. Rogerio Lobo, until recently chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia, originally identified by the university as the teams leader, also refused calls for comment.

But Dr. Flamm has been unrelenting. Since 2001, he has published critiques of the study in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and in the current issue of Skeptic magazine, blew the lid off the scandal. He reported that in the years following publication of the prayer study, Wirth and an accomplice had been indicted on felony charges, including 13 counts of mail fraud and 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money. The two men have since pled guilty, and face fines and prison terms; Wirth is refusing to talk to the press.

Embarrassed, both Columbia and the JRM are fending off phone calls by the press and beating a hasty retreat. The university now says that Dr. Lobo had only provided "editorial review and assistance" with publication of the study, and it has removed from its Website the press release announcing the study. The JRM, at long last, has announced that it is investigating the matter, and just removed the discredited study from its site.

Still, questions arise. How could Dr. Lobo, a respected scientist, have permitted the release of a flawed study co-authored by a medically-illiterate con man like Wirth? And why did the JRMs peer-review system fail, before publication, to detect the inconsistencies and unsound methodology in the in-vitro study? Who were the peers who vetted it? And why did both Dr. Lobo and Dr. George Wied consistently stonewall for nearly three years when challenged about the study?