Investigating the Power of Prayer

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Dr Elizabeth Targ must be doing some very important work. The National Institutes of Health has already awarded her grants of $611,516 for one study, $823,346 for another. Even greater Federal largesse may be forthcoming before her studies are completed.

Targ is studying the therapeutic effects of prayer on AIDS and cancer patients. That sounds reasonable enough. The presence of a compassionate person reciting soothing prayers has apparently helped some patients, if by nothing more than a placebo effect. Measuring that effect might be useful, but Targ goes a step further. She is investigating what she calls "distance healing," in which those offering the prayers are far removed from the patients, who themselves are not even aware that incantations are being recited on their behalf.

It's an effect that would seem to defy reason — yet Targ reports striking results. In a 1998 study, after selecting practicing healers from a number of traditions — Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Indian shamans — she supplied them with the first names, blood counts and photographs of 20 patients with advanced AIDS. For an hour a day, over a ten-week period, the healers concentrated their thoughts on the pictures of these patients, but not on those of a control group of 20 other AIDS patients.

According to Targ, the prayed-for patients had fewer and less severe new illnesses, fewer doctor visits, fewer hospitalizations and were generally in better moods than those in the control group. The technique, she believes, can even work on nonhuman species. In a speech, she described an experiment performed by another group in which remote healing was used to shrink tumors in mice. And, she reported, the greater the distance between healer and mouse in that experiment, the greater the effect! The connection, Targ suggests, "could be actuated through the agency of God, consciousness, love, electrons or a combination."

Mayo Clinic researchers have found no such connection. They reported last month that in their trials of distant prayer on 750 coronary patients, they found no significant effect. Why the difference?

Skeptics suggest that subconsciously, or perhaps consciously, Targ is emulating practitioners of the paranormal. With preconceived notions about the outcome of an experiment, they generate reams of data from tests that are not rigidly controlled and then sift through the data to find numbers supporting their original thesis, while ignoring anything to the contrary.

Then, there's the circumstantial evidence. Writing in the journal Skeptical Inquirer, columnist Martin Gardner noted that Elizabeth Targ is the daughter of Russell Targ, best known for collaborating with physicist Harold Puthoff at the former Stanford Research Institute, where the duo was duped into believing that Israeli magician Uri Geller had paranormal powers. While a teenager, Elizabeth immersed herself in psychic experiments and developed what she claimed were powers of remote viewing — the ability to visualize events and objects at distances far beyond the range of vision. In a 1984 book co-authored by her father, she is credited with correctly predicting winners of horse races, as well as the 1980 Presidential victory of Ronald Reagan-feats that I modestly admit to having performed myself.

This might all be amusing if Targ's research were not being funded at taxpayer expense by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a controversial branch of the NIH. The least we can demand in a time of growing budget deficits is that NCCAM appoint rational, qualified observers from outside the paranormal and quack communities to monitor the work of some of the eccentrics it so generously endows. Past experience suggests that under such safeguards miracles do not occur.