October 10, 2004

I'm praying for better science policy.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at October 10, 2004 10:49 PM

Over the weekend, the NYTimes published a story on the Bush health care plan*:

Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach
In 2001, two researchers and a Columbia University fertility expert published a startling finding in a respected medical journal: women undergoing fertility treatment who had been prayed for by Christian groups were twice as likely to have a successful pregnancy as those who had not.

Three years later, after one of the researchers pleaded guilty to conspiracy in an unrelated business fraud, Columbia is investigating the study and the journal reportedly pulled the paper from its Web site.

No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study's authors stand behind their data.

But the doubts about the study have added to the debate over a deeply controversial area of research: whether prayer can heal illness.

Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

So the US government is paying people $2.3 million to pray? I remember an episode of The West Wing where the Bartlett administration agonized over a $100k grant for intercessory prayer research in exchange for a conservative congressman's vote, and decided against it. But that's what makes it fiction, I guess.

Now, I'm not opposed to using science to investigate religious claims, but this sort of research has been done for over a century with no result, and at some point you just have to give up. On top of that, I don't really understand the reasoning. There's a god, and he has the power to heal, but he won't use it unless a bunch of people in a scientific study ask him to? Critics cited in the article complain about the lack of a physical mechanism, but I don't even see a theological mechanism for this. I can't imagine what the grant proposals look like.

*Yeah, cheap shot.

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