Researchers seek distance from distance-healing “hoax”

Researchers seek distance from distance-healing “hoax”

Jeff Grossman

For years a dedicated band of scientists has been testing the power of prayer to heal the sick–even when patients haven’t known they’re being prayed for.

This area of research–known as distance healing–made the news in 2001 when researchers at Columbia University in New York City announced breathtaking results: A group of South Korean women using in vitro fertilization had double the pregnancy rate when they were prayed for by strangers around the world.

Now, distant-prayer researchers are facing a setback with the news that the Columbia study may be a hoax. Its lead researcher, Daniel Wirth, is a criminal with a string of false identities. This spring he pied guilty to stealing millions of dollars from Adelphia Communications Corp., a Pennsylvania-based cable company. His sentencing is set for September.

Although his attorney William Arbuckle says Wirth’s legal predicament “has absolutely nothing to do with his work in psychology,” even distant prayer’s defenders say the study needs to be reconsidered in light of Wirth’s background. Columbia is reviewing the research. The well-regarded Journal of Reproductive Medicine, which published the paper, declined to comment.

Where does this leave the study of prayer and health? For the most part, researchers say the Columbia work should be seen separately from other projects. Mitchell Krucoff, a cardiology professor at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina and a leader in prayer research, says the Columbia study was always considered ethically questionable because the patients weren’t told they were part of it. However, he says the controversy could make funding scarce for prayer projects.

Consensus may be reached this fall, when results from several large projects are due to be released. Krucoff has completed a study of nearly 800 cardiac patients. John Astin, a psychologist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco has continued a study of AIDS patients begun by distant prayer pioneer Elizabeth Targ, who died in 2002. A study of brain tumor patients, begun by Targ, is under way. Also pending are the results of a study of 18,000 heart patients by Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group