Every few years, a group based at Hertford College at Oxford puts together a statistical analysis of all the studies conducted to date that have looked at whether praying for sick people helps them get better (or at least stay alive).
The latest has just been published, and it contains something pretty radically new in their conclusions: the evidence is now so clear cut that they think that no more studies should be done. The book is shut. Praying for sick people simply doesn't work.
Now, the odd thing is that there haven't actually been any new studies on this since their last report, back in 2007. So why the change of heart? There are a couple of reasons.
First off, this analysis is done under the auspices of the Cochrane Collaboration, which is an international group of experts devoted to pooling together the results of clinical trials to answer medical questions with unprecedented precision. The Cochrane Collaboration sets out the guidelines for the best ways to do this.
Last year, they upgraded their guidelines, a recommended a better statistical method (technical note: they used a random effects model this time, rather than fixed effects model). The previous analysis found a hint that praying for sick people might actually help them live longer. The improved analysis squashes that idea.And the other new thing is some information on one of the studies they had previously included. This one looked not at death but the opposite: birth. The premise of the study was that people in the US, Canada and Australia prayed for couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. The result was, apparently, a doubling of the fertility rate in those couples who got prayed for - a fantastic increase.
I say 'apparently' because it turns out that the study was a fraud. Not only that, but the guy who ran the prayer groups was later jailed for an unrelated fraud. Strike one for the power of prayer.
Now, overturning the conclusions on technical grounds might make some people suspicious. Perhaps this is just a bunch of cynical scientists looking for an excuse to bury data they don't like.
But you'd be wrong. The lead author, Leanne Roberts, is not a scientist at all but in fact Chaplain of Hertford College. In previous editions of their analysis they were actually quite hopeful that they might see an effect.
All credit to them, they took a good hard look and the evidence and concluded that there was nothing there.
Roberts L, Ahmed I, Hall S, & Davison A (2009). Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2) DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000368.pub3.
This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.