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If Looks Could Kill and Words Could Heal

A Skeptic's Notebook

Robert Baker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.3, September 1994

Reading Larry Dossey’s fascinating recent book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (Harper, 1993) brings to mind an interesting story about an event in Minnesota a little over a hundred years ago. In downtown St. Paul in January 1877, the Minnesota state legislature convened to hear a report from a state entomologist. His report was terrifying. Although grasshopper and locust invasions had occurred across the state in 1873, 1874, and 1875, they were not significant. In the fall of 1876, however, tests revealed that grasshopper eggs were found over the entire southern and western portions of Minnesota-an area covering 50,000 of the state’s 80,000 square miles. Neither the legislators nor the state’s best scientific minds knew what to do. To understand the size of the problem one has to realize that each female grasshopper plants about 20 egg pods in the newly plowed fields in the autumn. Each egg pod usually contains approximately 150 baby hoppers. Twenty times 150 multiplied by millions amounts to literally trillions of plant-eating insects which would soon consume every crop in the state. Everyone in the nation was concerned because this was where much of the nation’s grain was produced. As grain goes, so goes the economy. If a warm spring developed, all the eggs would hatchand disaster would be guaranteed. Sadly enough, as the month of March turned into April the weather became mild and warm.

Alarmed by the impending disaster, most of the farmers asked the governor to proclaim a Day of Prayer and to ask God to intervene and save their fields from the plague. Governor John Pillsbury agreed and set aside Thursday, April 26, as a statewide day of fasting and prayer. Many less religious citizens denounced the governor’s actions and proclaimed that it was a discredit to the intelligence of the people of Minnesota. In fact, a group called “The Liberal League” went so far as to publicly denounce the governor’s action as nonsense with these words: “We hold that this belief in the power of prayer is palpably untrue, its influence pernicious and in this day a marked discredit to the intelligence of Minnesotans. From the beginning down to this day, outside of so-called Sacred History, there is not one well-authenticated instance of such prayer having been answered-not one.”

Priests and clerics, however, were not dissuaded and held masses and prayer vigils to appeal for heavenly assistance. Not only did the entire nation watch these events, but newspapers across the country sent reporters to cover the story. Other states also pitched in and prayed like mad in sympathy with Minnesota’s plight. Prayer Day, April 26, turned out to be warm and sunny over most of Minnesota and predictions were that the same sort of weather would prevail on April 27.

As midnight approached, however, the sky clouded over and a cold rain began to fall over most of the state. Then the wind shifted from the south to the north and the cold rain turned to heavy snow. Throughout the day the snowstorm raged, alternating between rain and snow and a heavy sleet. The ice storm continued through most of the following day, April 28, as well. Surveying the outcome of the storm, the state’s grain farmers discovered that the vast majority of grasshoppers had been frozen and destroyed just as they were hatching. Even the few eggs that did hatch gave forth hoppers who immediately flew away. No eggs were deposited in Minnesota that summer, and the year’s grain harvest turned out to be the most bountiful in the state’s history. Entomologists were astounded. Some Minnesotans were so grateful they built a church to honor the event and in gratitude for God’s answer to their prayers.

While Dossey might be inclined to attribute this miracle to the wondrous power of prayer, most meteorologists are much less certain. Minnesotan springs are notoriously unpredictable and, like the rest of the nation, April is a particularly treacherous month for growing things. One has also to keep in mind that the number of people praying (versus the number of people who were not praying or maintained a neutral stance) were definitely in the minority. We must also consider the literally millions of times that similar sorts of prayers were sent up to the Heavenly Father and were either rejected or ignored. For example, there’s the fact that a considerably large number of people prayed for weeks last year that the Mississippi Valley would not flood and that the heavy rains would stop. Their prayers were clearly never answered.

Dossey’s book is, nevertheless, very entertaining and is filled with delightful anecdotes and some wonderful sound bites, such as this quote from Susan Ertz: "Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” Most of the time Dossey stays on terra firma but in Chapter 7, titled “Time-Displaced Prayer: When Prayers Are Answered Before They're Made,” he walks over a cliff and tries vainly to make us believe that we “may be mentally able to shape our medical past in order to bring about health not illness now in the present and in the future” (p. 122). William G. Braud of the Mind Science Foundation of San Antonio, Texas, believes we can reach back into the past and shape subatomic processes in the past in order to influence our health now. Can prayers be answered before they're made? Dossey says, “Yes. Why not?” (p.127).

For a book whose stated purpose is to convince the reader that prayer can heal, Dossey amasses a tremendous amount of negative evidence. In Chapter 11, devoted to reviewing the research on prayer and healing, Dossey notes that prayers for kings and clergy never proved to be effective, nor did Sir Francis Galton’s experiments pan out. Dossey also cites Sheldrake’s observation that in spite of millions of Indian parents’ prayers for sons rather than daughters, the sex ratio remains fairly even. As for nearly all of the laboratory studies, Dossey admits that most are either poorly done or logically flawed. Studies like those of Randolph Byrd and his coronary-care- unit patients are filled with holes, and whenever skeptical scientists try to replicate such work they are never able to obtain positive effects. Only true believers in the effect of prayer are so lucky. “Mind shoves the data around,” Dossey says.

Dossey, however, is honest enough to present a list of nonsupernatural reasons for the positive effects of prayer. To wit: (1) Many spiritual practices demand certain austerities that are healthful, e.g., diet, no alcohol, hygienic practices, et al.; (2) social support is gained from the belief and its attendent rites; (3) the psychodynamics of the rites and beliefs can also promote health, in that prayer can release emotions and affect the immune and cardiovascular systems and reduce anxiety; (4) the psychodynamics of faith are indistinguishable from placebo effects; (5) the healer’s presence fosters a sense of belonging and social support; (6) being the object of prayer or the laying on of hands stimulates the endocrine and/or the immune system; and (7) the physical preparations for healing, e.g., meditation, feasts, diets, and abstentions-all may promote “healing.”

Despite some very impressive tables in Dossey’s Appendix #1, one can’t help but note that out of 131 laboratory experiments on prayer effects, only 56 obtained statistically significant results at a probability level of .05 or better, and only 21 at the .01 level. However, when we consider the quality and credibility of these studies we find that 10 of these are unpublished doctoral dissertations, 2 are unpublished master’s theses, and all the rest were published in parapsychological journals. One can only hazard a guess as to the strength of the “file drawer” effect-that is, filing away all the negative outcomes-in all such investigatory efforts.

In the last analysis, however, when they're in a really tight spot-when people are between a boulder and an I-Beam-most individuals tend to go along with Pascal’s rationalization for believing in God: If God exists and you don’t believe, you lose; If God exists and you do believe, you win. Ergo: you'd best go along with prayer and belief since its your only chance to win. The most peculiar thing about Healing Words, however, is that Dossey can’t seem to make up his mind about whether Pascal is right. We'd all be better served-Dossey, his patients, his readers, and the general public-if Dossey would take his head out of the clouds, plant his feet on the ground, and stop talking nonsense. Everyone knows that evil looks won’t kill you. We also know that sticks and stones will break your bones and a doctor’s words alone-no matter how kind or gentle-will never heal you.

Robert Baker

Robert A. Baker is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Kentucky, Lexington.