More Options

The Bizarre Columbia University ‘Miracle’ Saga Continues

Follow-up

Bruce Flamm

Volume 29.2, March / April 2005

Since publication of my investigative article ”The Columbia University 'Miracle' Study: Flawed and Fraud” in the September/October 2004 Skeptical Inquirer there have been several significant developments.

You'll recall that this all started more than three years earlier, when The New York Times reported on October 2, 2001, that researchers at prestigious Columbia University Medical Center in New York had made an astonishing discovery: faith healing actually works. Physicians used meticulous scientific methods to demonstrate that distant Christian prayers from the United States, Canada, and Australia increased the success rate of infertility treatments in Korea by 100 percent.

The media touted the astounding results, but to some readers it sounded preposterous. Within weeks of the “miraculous” study’s publication it became clear that something was indeed very wrong. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM), which published the study (K.Y. Cha, D.P. Wirth, and R.A. Lobo, “Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer?” 46:781-787, 2001), not only refused to publish letters critical of it, they refused to even acknowledge their receipt. As months went by the JRM steadfastly refused to respond to e-mails, calls, or letters about the study.

The JRM editors were not the only ones remaining silent. The study’s authors also refused to respond to questions about their apparently miraculous results. In December 2001 an investigation of Columbia University by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) revealed that the study’s lead author, Dr. Rogerio Lobo, first learned of the study six to twelve months after the study was completed. Professor Lobo subsequently denied having anything to do with the study’s design or conduct and claimed to have provided only editorial assistance. A year later study co-author Daniel Wirth was indicted by a federal grand jury on felony fraud charges involving various criminal activities.

The following significant events have occurred since my SI article was published. I comment accordingly.

Study co-author Daniel Wirth

On November 22, 2004, study co-author Daniel Wirth was sentenced to five years in prison followed by three years of supervised release (parole). At the conclusion of his sentencing hearing Mr. Wirth was taken into United States Marshal custody pending his transfer to a federal prison.

The Journal of Reproductive Medicine and co-author Dr. Kwang Cha

The following “Erratum” was buried on the very last page of the October 2004 issue of the JRM:

Erratum

In the article “Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization-Embryo Transfer? Report of a Masked, Randomized Trial,” by Kwang Y.Cha, MD, Daniel P. Wirth, JD, MS, and Rogerio A. Lobo, MD (2001;46:781-787), Dr. Lobo is listed as an author of the article and has requested that his name be deleted, as his name appears in error. He was not directly involved in conducting the research reported in the article; he was involved principally in redaction of the manuscript for stylistic and syntactic purposes. This alteration is in keeping with JRM authorship requirements.

How does one’s name appear, “in error” on a publication? Apparently everyone who reviewed the manuscript and everyone who reviewed the galley proofs, including the authors, peer-reviewers, and editors, did not notice this “error.” On the other hand, perhaps this is not so surprising since these same individuals did not notice that the study lacked any type of informed consent and claimed results that defy the laws of physics and several other fundamental scientific principles!

In November 2004, after three years of ignoring letters critical of the Cha/Wirth/Lobo study, the JRM took the unprecedented step of publishing a 1,000-word letter from Dr. Cha defending his absurd study. Thus, to the utter amazement of many readers, JRM allowed Dr. Cha to unilaterally present his side of the story unencumbered by critical comments from concerned physicians and scientists. The readers of JRM were thus partially informed of the controversy surrounding the study but only to convince them that any criticisms they may have read about in newspapers were unwarranted.

Among the highlights of Dr. Cha’s published letter is the statement that “It is regrettable that co-author Daniel P. Wirth has been accused of fraud. . . .” Cha also refers to “this alleged crime.” This implies that, regrettably, Mr. Wirth may have been falsely accused. Nothing could be further from the truth. Six months before Cha’s letter was published Mr. Wirth had pleaded guilty to all crimes contained in a forty-six-page federal indictment thus admitting to a twenty-year history of criminal fraudulent activities. Dr. Cha went on to defend the study’s convoluted study design by stating that Mr. Wirth felt it was the best design to use. This is nothing more than an argument from authority-"It’s fine because the authority says it’s fine.” However, in this case the authority is a convicted felon with a degree in parapsychology (ghostbusting) and a long history of publishing bizarre studies!

Finally, Dr. Cha repeatedly stated that it would have been “impossible” for Mr. Wirth to have influenced the outcome of this study and that “There is no reason to think that Mr. Wirth would have been motivated not to organize prayer groups when such groups are his area of interest.” How does the fact that Mr. Wirth has an interest in prayer groups prove that he did anything at all? The federal indictment makes it clear that Mr. Wirth was perpetrating several criminal schemes involving millions of dollars at the time the Cha/Wirth/Lobo study was allegedly conducted. In the midst of this criminal activity are we to believe that Mr. Wirth took the extensive time and effort needed to meticulously organize and manage several levels of prayer groups in three nations? Does Dr. Cha seriously believe that the idea that Mr. Wirth did not do so is impossible? Perhaps this explains why Dr. Cha will not answer questions about the study.

Columbia University and co-author Dr. Rogerio Lobo

Soon after publication of the SI critique of the study, Columbia University assembled a team of physicians and scientists to investigate the situation. However, on December 1, 2004, Columbia released a statement saying that the medical school “supports Dr. Rogerio Lobo’s decision to remove his name” from the paper. This move had already been announced by the JRM and seemed like a reasonable first step. However, to the surprise of many scientists, the university simultaneously announced that Dr. Lobo’s decision would put an end to the investigation of the study by the medical school’s Committee on the Conduct of Science. This unprecedented move implied that the controversy surrounding the ridiculous study involved only questions of authorship. This, of course, is absolutely not true. The real issue is that the study was absurd, flawed, possibly fraudulent, and claimed to document mysterious supernatural and/or paranormal events. Removing one author’s name from the paper resolved nothing. In any case, this maneuver did not successfully distance Columbia from the scandal because co-author Kwang Cha was also at Columbia when the study was published; in fact, he was head of the now defunct Cha/Columbia Infertility Center.

In the final analysis it is not the behavior of Mr. Wirth but that of individuals at Columbia University and the JRM that have seriously damaged the reputation of science and evidence-based medicine. Peer-review systems at both institutions have completely failed. As we enter the fourth year of this saga it is becoming apparent that some individuals will never admit their mistakes. In any case, the former Cha/Wirth/Lobo miracle study is now the Cha/Wirth miracle study. Dr. Cha will not answer questions about the scandal and Mr. Wirth has just been sentenced to five years in federal prison. Their ludicrous “study” will remain in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine, will remain indexed in Pubmed-MEDLINE, and will continue to be cited as valid scientific evidence for the power of supernatural faith healing. This is a scientific atrocity.

Bruce Flamm

Bruce L. Flamm is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Flamm is the author of several medical books, book chapters, and research articles. In addition to his work in the medical field he is an expert in the history of calculating devices and has co-authored a book on the subject.