In vitro fertilization prayer study (June 29, 2004)

This page has moved to my new website.

High on my priority list is a page talking about the recent prayer studies. These are interesting studies because they highlight important issues about causation. I've already discussed a retrospective prayer study that highlights the importance of temporality. Issue #22 of the eSkeptic newsletter discusses apparent fraud in a different prayer study.

An additional report on fraud in the prayer study appears in the news and comment section of The Scientist, an open source publication of BioMedCentral. Thanks to a reader of this weblog for sending in this link.

The study in question,

showed that the prayer group had a doubling in the pregnancy rate (50% vs 26%) and in the implantation rate (16% vs 8%) compared to controls. Like many prayer studies, the researchers did not seek informed consent from the patients.

I've always been perplexed by this omission. The reasoning is that you avoid selection bias, but you would still have randomization after getting consent. So the internal validity of the study would be just fine. Perhaps this might affect external validity, but I view this as a minor problem. We should bend over backwards to respect patient autonomy, even if it means sacrificing some level of scientific validity. There are times when the loss of scientific validity is so severe that it would justify bypassing the consent process. But not with these prayer studies.

I can't find much coverage of the fraud issue, which is a complaint mentioned in the eSkeptic newsletter. It seems that these studies make a big splash when they are first published but no one remembers or cares about the later retraction. If anything, most web pages cite this study in support of the hypothesis that prayer can heal.

I've only started to accumulate a bibliography on this topic, but here are a few references and web sites.

Update: January 21, 2005: A letter to the editor pointing out some of the criticisms of the In vitro fertilization prayer study was published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine

and appears on the web at

This is a rather generic web address, so I suspect it will change when the next issue of this journal appears.