Study: Prayer Doesn’t Cure COVID. Jury Still Out on “Thoughts”

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Here in the United States of America, our conservative Republican politicians are constantly whining about scientific research they think is a waste of money. For instance, Senator Jeff Flake’s list of 20 scientific studies he felt weren’t worth doing, like research on whether or not being in a group makes cheerleaders hotter (which was, in fact, psychology research meant to explore how we observe collections of people in the hopes of improving the safety performance of autonomous vehicles). In that case, of course, the research did have a possible important future application, but scientists point out that humanity benefits even from research that is just done for the sake of understanding more about our universe, like another of those 20 studies that wondered if body size affected the amount of time it takes mammals to pee (it does not! We all take the same amount of time to pee, except for me when I’m in a bathroom stall next to someone else because I get nervous that they will hear me pee for some reason).

My point is that I look askance at anyone who balks at published research and claims that it’s a waste of time and money. Until today. I’d like to tell you about some published research that is a complete and utter waste of time and money: The remote intercessory prayer, during the clinical evolution of patients with COVID -19, randomized double-blind clinical trial.

There are a number of interventions that we have very solid scientific proof worked to improve the outcomes of people infected with COVID-19: being vaccinated beforehand, obviously; antivirals like Paxlovid; maybe immune modulators like Olumiant; maybe even just using a neti pot to flush out your snot. What we don’t have evidence for but seems to be used quite a bit by people who are skeptical of those proven treatments is “thoughts and prayers.” If you follow r/HermanCainAward on Reddit you already know that it’s inevitable, after the posts about how evil Fauci is, how the vaccine creates zombies, how no one really dies from COVID, it’s completely obvious that the final posts will be “please pray that I live through this horrific disease.”

Now, it’s one thing to dunk on these people for rejecting science in favor of the opinion of single-neuron racists and ending up miserable and on a ventilator for it. We can quibble over whether or not that’s funny, ethical, or healthy.

But personally I draw the line at launching a randomized double-blinded clinical trial just so I can go to their death beds and yell “Prayers??? Don’t bother, idiot!”

Okay, no, my objections to this study aren’t actually due to sympathy for rightwing nutjobs. My objections are twofold: one, this study has already been done repeatedly since six years before the lightbulb was invented. I’m not being sarcastic: in 1872, famous scientist, eugenicist, and half-cousin of Charles Darwin Francis Galton published a paper in which he first notes that members of royalty live the shortest lives despite their economic advantages AND the fact that people are constantly praying for them. Suspicious! He then goes on to say that he found that the incidence of stillborn babies “appears wholly unaffected by piety.” Similarly, he notes that clergy and missionaries don’t lead longer, healthier lives than others, and the ships of missionaries sink about as often as those of the nonreligious.

Galton concludes by admitting that despite his findings, “the mind may be relieved by the utterance of prayer. The impulse to pour out the feelings in sound is not peculiar to Man. Any mother that has lost her young, and wanders about moaning and looking piteously for sympathy, possesses much of that which prompts men to pray in articulate words. There is a yearning of the heart, a craving for help, it knows not where, certainly from no source that it sees.”

In other words: sure, prayer doesn’t really do anything, but at least it soothes the person who is praying.

Now, was Galton’s methodology perfect? No. But over the next 150 years, has anyone found any evidence that he was wrong? Also no.

Well, almost: there have been a few studies that have found that praying for sick people might cause those patients to have WORSE outcomes–possibly because they’re like “holy shit, am I doing so badly that you need to beseech a deity??” 

Seriously, there have been so many of these studies over the past century and a half that there have been several meta-analyses of the literature, including one by the Kings and Queens of this shit, Cochrane. In 2009, Cochane researchers looked at ten studies encompassing 7,647 patients, finding no evidence that prayer worked to decrease the risk of death or complications after treatment. They concluded, “We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.”

However, they knew that scientists will never stop conducting research on a topic that’s extremely easy to investigate and gets lots of publicity with every publication, even if no new information will ever be found. And so, they suggested an ideal experiment set-up for whoever wanted to waste their time in the future: a minimum of 300 patients in order to detect a 10% difference in improvement with 80% certainty; a minimum of six and a half months’ duration; and a list of pre-established metrics for establishing success of the intervention.

So, how did this new study do? Well, they considered exactly none of that and just farted out another data point for the next meta-analysis in a few years. 

The study was conducted in Brazil, with only 199 patients instead of 300, a few weeks’ duration instead of six months, the exact prayers weren’t specifically scripted out, and the protocols changed halfway through the study when data protection laws changed and the people who were praying could no longer know the initials of the people they were praying for, so they switched to bed numbers.

The result was still the same as every other halfway sane study on intercessory prayer: no difference between the control group and the people who were prayed for, in terms of death, ventilation, hospital time, or anything else. So what did we learn? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Who will be convinced by this? No one. Every rational person on the planet who thinks about this issue for more than a few minutes already understands that if an omniscient, benevolent god exists, she’s not just watching a child die of leukemia because she’s waiting for you to ask her directly for her intervention.

Everyone else–the irrational, and the people who have not spend a few minutes thinking about it–do not care what this study, or the dozens that came before it, found. Because, and this is my second problem with this study, it is ultimately NOT A TESTABLE HYPOTHESIS because it’s LITERALLY MAGIC. MAGIC! We aren’t looking at, say, an isolated and specific superstition people have, like “if I knock on my desk three times, the child mortality rate will go down. Im not sure why but that’s what I believe!” We can test that. We can prove it wrong.

We cannot test and prove or disprove something as generic as “When I think certain thoughts, an all-powerful deity can hear them and will often be persuaded to do what I want it to do.” Because that is magic, and magic is a gas. It expands until it fills all the little gaps in your knowledge. “Oh, this study found no difference between people who are prayed for and those who aren’t? Well, that’s because:

  1. My deity doesn’t like to be tested and so he purposely did nothing, because proving He exists makes faith pointless
  2. My deity will only listen if the plea is made by someone who knows and loves the patient, not from a stranger hoping to prove something to scientists
  3. Protestant?? PROTESTANT???? You’re lucky my Catholic god didn’t smite everyone in the treatment group. He’s like that, you know.
  4. It’s part of god’s plan for the people in that treatment group to die.
  5. What exact words were in the prayers? My deity needs certain magic words, like “in the name of the father,” “amen,” and also “please.”

And on and on, and you cannot reasonably argue with any of those points because your initial hypothesis was just as ridiculous: a random person in another location thinking once per day “I hope the stranger in bed number 68834 doesn’t get ventilated” will actually prevent that patient from being ventilated. I’m sorry, it’s stupid. Money and time and energy was spent on this and it’s absolutely pointless.

Meanwhile, not only do we have dozens of these studies already showing no benefit to prayer, but we also have a lot of other data points you can just, like, think about for a few minutes: a 2017 Gallup poll found that 73% of the Swedish population is atheist or agnostic compared to 39% of Americans. Sweden’s infant mortality rate is 1.716 deaths per 1,000 live births and the US’s is 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. Are Sweden’s minority Christian population just WAY BETTER AT PRAYING than the US Christian majority? Does God just hate American babies?

Or there’s the fact that many studies show how religious people were negatively affected by COVID-19. For instance, this 2022 paper found “that declared attendance at religious services is related to more COVID-19 infections and deaths.” Or this study from 2021 that found that compared to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, “Those who affiliated with no religion had the lowest risk of COVID-19-related death before and after lockdown.”

Anyway, my point is this. Charles Darwin’s eugenicist half-cousin had it right way back in 1872: it’s pretty damned obvious that prayer is not an effective way to manipulate the universe to your benefit. But if it makes you feel better, if it brings you some comfort in times of stress, great! Go for it. Knock your socks off.

Just don’t pretend it’s the answer to our large systemic problems. In that respect, you are slightly better off voting.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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