More Questions on Healing Prayer

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My July 1, 2004 column reported that “an apparently fraudulent study threatens to tarnish the reputation of two respected institutions: New York’s Columbia University and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM).” In light of developments since that date, the reputations of both are now indeed stained.

To recap, a Columbia University study published in the JRM in 2001 reported that women in a South Korean hospital who received in vitro fertilization were twice as likely to conceive if they were the recipients of prayers by Christians who were complete strangers and thousands of miles away. Even more remarkable, the women were unaware that these so-called intercessory prayers had been uttered, and those saying the prayers had seen only unidentified photos of the women.

Among the eyebrows raised were those of Dr. Bruce Flamm, a University of California professor of gynecology and obstetrics, who reviewed the study, found inconsistencies and unsound methodology, and cast doubt on its authenticity. Last summer, after three years of letters and phone calls to Columbia and the JRM and after publishing his critiques in other journals, Dr. Flamm saw his efforts rewarded when both the university and the journal removed the study from their Websites. Columbia’s Dr. Rogerio Lobo, originally described as the “lead author” of the study, said he had only reviewed and edited the report, and the JRM, without acknowledging Flamm’s efforts, revealed that at long last it was investigating the study.

All’s well that ends well? Not really. Columbia, without admitting fault or making any reference to the validity of the study, has now removed Dr. Lobo’s name from it, ostensibly because he had no role in conducting the research. At the same time, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, supposedly after an investigation, has published a defense of the study by another of its authors, Dr. Kwang Cha, once head of the Columbia’s fertility center, and no longer at the university. Strangely, in printing the Cha article, described as a “reply… to correspondence we received,” the JRM has never published any of that correspondence critical of the study, sent by other doctors over the years. And, most incredible, the journal has returned the study, now missing Lobo’s name, to its Website.

Oh yes, and then there is the third co-author of the intercessory prayer study, lawyer Daniel Wirth. He has no medical training, has a degree in parapsychology, has published other articles claiming miraculous, supernatural healing and has a 20-year record of fraud. He set up and managed the prayer groups in the disputed study. He has just been sentenced to five years in a Federal prison for financial skullduggery unrelated to the study.

Columbia’s actions are incomprehensible. Does the university think that simply removing Dr. Lobo’s name from the fertility study gets it off the hook for giving its imprimatur to the prayer paper? And what about the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, which stonewalled for more than three years before launching an “investigation” and now has seemingly abandoned any scientific objectivity by refusing to print, or even acknowledge, its critical mail? Dr. Flamm is indignant. “In my opinion,” he says, “the cover-up continues. The amazing results of the absurd study will remain posted on the JRM Internet site to be cited by others as strong scientific evidence for the supernatural healing power of distant prayer. This is a scientific atrocity.”

Both Columbia and the JRM would have been better advised to issue mea culpas three years ago. Columbia might have admitted that it was remiss in allowing the participation, in a supposedly scientific study, of a con man. And the JRM could have conceded that, despite Columbia’s pristine reputation, the journal’s referees should have spotted the study’s flaws and inconsistencies.

Here’s an idea. Both institutions might yet be able to save face by co-sponsoring a legitimate intercessory prayer study, this one with proper controls and conducted by researchers who have no preconceived notions. While I have no doubts about the outcome, it seems an appropriate way to remove the tarnish from their once-impeccable images.