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Effectiveness of "distant healing" prayer

Early history. Byrd's study of 1988. Targ's
study of 1998. Duke University study of 1998.

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Early history of distant healing prayer:

In 1872, an anonymous Britisher suggested that a study be made involving "one single ward or hospital." It would be subjected for three to five years to sustained prayer by "the whole body of the faithful." The proposed experiment would keep records of healing and mortality rates, comparing them to other hospitals elsewhere in England. This triggered a national "prayer-gauge controversy" in Britain during 1872 and 1873. 1

Francis Galton, a scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, analyzed the life span achieved by  "...people who were the objects of much prayer—kings, clergy, missionaries," He found that they lived no longer than average in spite of prayers on their behalf. 1

Apparently, this field of study did not progress for eleven decades.

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Randolph Byrd: Coronary Care study in 1988:

Byrd randomly divided 393 patients at San Francisco General Hospital's coronary care unit into a prayer and no prayer group. It was a double blind study: neither the patients and staff knew which group each patient was in. The first names of the prayer group was given to three to seven born again intercessors. The latter were also supplied with each patient's diagnosis, condition and occasional updates. In his 1988 report, Byrd wrote that for six out of 26 outcomes (the need for diuretics, antibiotics, ventilation therapy, etc) the prayed-for patients did better than the control group. The media widely reported that prayer had proven to work!

Skeptics pointed out that there were 20 outcomes for which the test group did not fare better than the control group. 1

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Elizabeth Targ: Small AIDS patient study in 1998:

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Targ at the Pacific College of Medicine in San Francisco, CA, conducted a six month study among 40 persons with AIDS using what she called "distance healing."  It was funded by a grant of over $600,000 from the National Institutes of Health. All patients were given normal medical treatment for various AIDS-related illnesses. Pairs of subjects were selected, matched with CD4+ level, age and number of previous AIDS-related complications. One in each pair was then prayed over by 40 healing practitioners, "ranging from rabbis to Native American medicine men to bioenergetic psychics." This was a double-blind test. Neither the patients nor the professionals conducting the tests were aware of which patients were being prayed for. The results showed that those who were not prayed for spent six times as long in hospital and contracted three times as many illnesses. The chance of this result occurring randomly is less than 1 in 20. 2

In another study, she evaluated the effectiveness of distance healing to shrink tumors in mice. She found that the greater the distance between the healer and mouse, the greater the effect. Targ suggested that the connection "...could be actuated through the agency of God, consciousness, love, electrons or a combination."

Leon Jaroff, author of an article in Time Magazine commented:

"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." 3

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Duke University studies - Small scale pilot study of 1998:

The Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina studied 150 patients who had undergone angioplasty between 1997-APR and 1998-APR. This procedure involves positioning a balloon inside a hardened and narrowed artery. It is then inflated to force the artery open. This is followed by a second procedure: stenting: A flexible mesh tube is inserted into the artery to keep it open. The patients were divided randomly into five groups of 30. One group received standard treatment. The other four groups received an additional treatment, using one of the following alternative therapies: guided imagery, stress relaxation, healing touch, or intercessory prayer. Prayer was provided by seven prayer groups around the world, composed of followers of various religions. The various alternative treatments did not affect the clinical outcomes of the patients. However, those receiving alternative therapies "had lower absolute complication rates and a lower absolute incidence of post-procedural ischemia during hospitalization." Of the four alternative therapies, intercessory prayer seemed to provide the greatest therapeutic benefits.

These results were particularly important. Unlike many previous studies on the effect of prayer on patient recoveries, this was a double blind study. Neither the researchers nor the patients knew which of the 60 patients who did not receive guided imagery, stress relaxation, or healing touch had received intercessory prayer. Many previous studies of this general type were not double blind and thus allowed researcher bias to adversely affect the results.

Unfortunately, the Duke study only involved 30 patients who were the recipients of prayer. A much larger group needed to be studied in order to provide definitive results. Duke University followed up the pilot study with a second larger investigation.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David G. Myers, "Is prayer clinically effective?" Hope College, at: http://www.davidmyers.org/
  2. Po Bronson, "The third-most odds-defying, eye-popping discovery in the life and work of Elisabeth Targ, MD," Wired Magazine, Issue 10.12, 2002-DEC, at: http://www.wired.com/
  3. Leon Jaroff, "Investigating the power of prayer," Time, 2002-JAN-16, at: http://www.time.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-NOV-04
Author: B.A. Robinson
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