"How do you explain the ‘fact' that scientists have done studies to show that prayer seems to work. I wish I could site the exact study, but I forget. Anyway, in 1 of them they had two houseplants &1 of them was prayed for & the other was not. The first plant thrived & the other did poorly. There were many experiments like this & most showed that prayer seems to work. What do you think about it all?" - Scarlet Ibis, 8/21/00
Dear Scarlet Ibis:
Thanks for raising an issue I've been meaning to address for some time now. Although I am even less familiar with these studies you refer to than you are, they do remind me of one allegedly conducted back in the 1970s on people who talked to their plants. Supposedly such plants grew better and faster than plants exposed to stern silence. I believe the tentative explanation was that exposing plants to speech just happens to also expose them to increased levels of exhaled carbon dioxide, which in the end seems to have been what was really responsible for their better, faster growth (as opposed to, say, love of attention or a need to be reassured that elderly owners have the ability to speak as well as to putter). Despite this, I've since seen few farmers out talking to their crops, or hiring migrant workers to whisper sweet nothings to the corn on their behalf. In fact, this whole area of research seems to have been dropped by the scientific and agricultural communities alike in favor of other, better ways to boost the world's food supply. Bowing to their superior wisdom, I'd now like to drop the subject myself.
As for the alleged benefits of prayer...
The (Toledo) Blade newspaper devoted more than a full page of its Religion section on August 12 to an examination of this issue. Here is how the article began:
"Jane Weber doesn't need statistics to prove to her that prayer works. She believes in prayer because Bryan, her 3-year-old grandson, is in remission from a disease that turned 98% of his bone marrow cells into abnormal blood cells. The only explanation she can find is prayer."
The article goes on to say that Ms. Weber and others have started a program at a local hospital where patients and staff can have a volunteer pray for them. In this, she seems to be part of a growing trend in America which is injecting more and more prayer and religion into the practice of medicine.
Although the article is quite sympathetic to both Ms. Weber's beliefs and this trend, the facts suggest such sympathy is misplaced.
Doctors say that boys like Bryan will go into remission at some point 90% of the time, prayer or no prayer. Some 70-80% will recover.
Chemotherapy - which Bryan received - is the key, as Bryan's own doctor points out. Children, she says, are much more sensitive to the drugs used than adults are, and they can produce what seem to be almost miraculous results all by themselves.
A point lost on Ms. Weber and many others.
Dr. Richard Sloan of the psychiatry department at Columbia University wishes it wasn't.
"In February, 1999, Dr. Sloan was the lead author of a study published in the respected British medical journal Lancet. The study was the first comprehensive review of past prayer studies and concluded there are no valid studies establishing a beneficial link between religion and health. All the major studies, it found, are seriously flawed."
"Because of the number of studies that have been reported in the media, Dr. Sloan and eight other researchers and chaplains published an article in the June 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine saying, ‘We are troubled by the uncritical embrace of this trend by the general public, individual physicians, and American medical schools.'"
The Journal's very interesting article can be read in its entirety here:
The (Toledo) Blade newspaper article can be found here: