Does it help to pray for seriously ill patients? The results of well-designed clinical trials of intercessory prayer generally say no.
But a not-so-recent study published by the British Medical Journal (22 December, 2001) brought a new twist to the issue. The experiment randomized 3393 patients with bloodstream infections to two groups. The treatment group received intercessory prayer; the control group received none. Both groups received appropriate medical treatment.
The twist? The patients got the prayer intervention four to ten years after they had recovered or died.
Yes, you read that correctly. The subjects were patients at a British hospital between 1990 and 1996. The trial was done in 2000.
The report led Dr. Steven Novella, host of the podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, who discovered it recently, to fulminate at length about the absurdity of the study.
No argument there, Steve.
Until the following week, a listener informed the skeptics that the BMJ has a “Christmas fools day” tradition of publishing hoaxes around the time of the winter solstice.
Novella and his fellow skeptics declared themselves honestly fooled.
Interestingly, the prankster author, Leonard Leibovici, included enough information in the abstract to entice readers to investigate further. Prayer had no effect on mortality, but it did significantly reduce hospital stay and length of fever. Such reports from genuine studies are usually the result of cherry-picking: researchers perform statistical analysis on dozens of outcome measures and pick the few that (inevitably) come up significant.
And, of course, Leibovici included a recommendation that post-morbid intercessory prayer be a part of clinical practice.