A widely publicised trial which appeared to show prayer was effective in enhancing fertility now appears to have been fraudulent.
In 2001 an extraordinary paper, from the highly regarded Columbia University Medical Center, New York, appeared in the also highly regarded Journal of Reproductive Medicine. About 100 women in South Korea who were undergoing in vitro fertilisation treatment were divided into two groups; half had their photographs prayed over anonymously by persons in the US, the other half were not so prayed over. Astoundingly, the conception rate in the “prayed for” group was twice that in the “not prayed for” group. The work was hard to fault from internal evidence, as it had apparently been done using all the procedures of a modern clinical trial, and it became widely quoted as firm evidence for the efficacy of prayer. Publicity was aided by a press release from the university.
This intrigued Dr Bruce Flamm, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at California University. The scandalous nature of his findings is described in a recent Skeptical Inquirer. He wrote to the three authors and the journal editor, asking, as one would of a colleague in the same field, for access to the raw data of the experiments. Over a period of some years repeated similar inquiries have elicited no answer, not even an acknowledgment, from either journal or authors. Such behaviour is not only unusual and discourteous, it is also unethical, and inviting of suspicion.
In his article, Dr Flamm first comments on the unnecessary complication of the praying arrangements. Not only were the Korean women prayed for, but the Americans who were praying for them had their prayers “fortified” by themselves being prayed for by another group. And yet a third tier of prayers was added, praying that the prayers of the middle tier would be answered. The paper offered no reasons for this complexity, which would seem to introduce unnecessary confusion into the trial. Some prayers asked that “God’s will be done”, so, in the absence of knowledge of what God’s will is, any result is a “success”. How much prayer was offered, and whether the prayer and the prayed-for acknowledge the same God, were not enquired into.
The Korean women were quite unaware of all this praying, and the university had later to admit it was wrong not to have obtained informed consent. The university had initially described one man (Lobo) as lead author, but when Dr Flamm did get a reply from the vice-chancellor, this person was said to have not known of the work until well after it was done, and had had a merely editorial role in the paper. Another author had recently left the university, while the third has a long criminal history, and is now in jail for fraud. This man, Daniel Wirth, has also a history of publishing reports of “healing” in several papers in obscure paranormal journals.
Why a respectable journal was conned into publishing such a bizarre paper remains a mystery, because the editor refuses to communicate with Dr Flamm, or media inquirers. Despite the criticisms of Dr Flamm and others, the journal kept this paper on its website until a few months ago. Were the claims made in this paper true, they would represent possibly the greatest discovery of all time. That the journal was so incredibly sloppy in its editing, and so obdurate in retracting the paper, is highly damaging to its reputation, and suggests the editor is blinded by his religion.
Another miracle paper
Reading Dr Flamms critique, I am reminded of the now notorious homeopathy claim of Benveniste et al published in Nature. Some useful comparisons can be made. In 1988, as in 2001, reports containing claims of events that should not have occurred according to current scientific understanding, arrived in the respective editorial offices. We are told that the question of publishing Benveniste’s was fiercely argued at Nature, and printed, most unusually, with an explanatory note. As far as is known, the other paper, from workers at the Columbia University Medical Center, had a smooth ride editorially, and was printed without comment.
Nature received a flood of letters to the editor, and several critical of the paper and of the editor for publishing it were printed. Whether anything similar happened at JRM was never admitted. Dr Flamm’s repeated requests for information and discussion were never acknowledged.
Benveniste’s extraordinary claims led the Nature editor to an extraordinary action; he sent a team of investigators to Benveniste’s laboratory in Paris to observe what was done “at the bench”. The flaws in technique thus revealed destroyed Benveniste’s claims. The team’s findings, when published in Nature, caused the authorities to close Benveniste’s laboratory, and almost ended his scientific career. The Columbia University Medical Center appears unmoved and unchanged in the face of Dr Flamm’s criticisms, and two of the three authors of the “Prayer” paper are pursuing their careers apparently unhindered.
L’Affaire Benveniste is now well in the past. Science is still, as before, opposed to homeopathy, and Nature retains its position at the top of the heap of scientific journals. On the contrary, thanks to Columbia University Medical Center and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, the issue of the efficacy of prayer remains to clog the stream of medical thinking and inhibits progress. And what researcher who values his reputation and the standards of his work will now wish to offer papers to the JRM?
Published with acknowledgment to, and approval of, Skeptical Inquirer, Buffalo, NY,USA.