Faith Healers - Praying or Preying?

It was probably too much to hope for. Yesterday The Press posted an article titled "Faith healers attack cancer with prayer". Thanks to @lucilu for the pointer.

I was hoping that this would have slipped under the radar as I'm from Christchurch and I have to say, this is just embarrassing. Which radar? That of the esteemed PZ Myers. We're a small country wanting to make a decent contribution where we can. We have our share of rational thinking people, but this article isn't how I'd want people to think of my home town. Thanks to the New Zealand Healing Rooms for that mud on our collective faces.

I read the article with trepidation and couldn't believe what they were reporting.

A Christian faith-healing clinic has opened in Christchurch offering to cure cancer, broken bones and mental illness through prayer.

A little digging turned up http://www.healingrooms.co.nz/. While the branch in the article isn't listed on their locations page the name and content of the site leads me to believe that this is the business they are part of.

This is just scary. The testimonials in the article are credulous; one report of dyslexia being cured in a single 20 minute session, another of someone suffering from stroke paralysis recovering after 16 days in hospital. Finally they also report "very high results" in the treatment of cancer.

I'd love to see the studies that back up these claims because to date the literature shows no positive or negative impact on the healing process through prayer. The bulk of the articles I could find in a quick search on the topic were mostly from biased (religious) sources and even those reported that there was no measurable evidence.

I was pleased to see that the article wasn't entirely one sided. GP and former New Zealand Medical Council chairwoman Pippa MacKay and Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences Associate Professor Dee Mangin got a few words in on the side of rationality. MacKay said the claims about curing cancer were "mischievous" but I'd personally think they should be illegal. At least until the studies show otherwise.

In my opinion until the anecdotes encourage some form of study to be set up and that study proves under reasonable experimental conditions that there is actually a statistically significant effect then there is no real basis for the claims these people are making.

They are dangerous and preying on those that have lost hope or are just to gullible or ignorant to know any better.

For the record I don't consider "gullible" or "ignorant" to be a bad thing when describing a person. Both are easily cured with education.

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This is just a scam, and they

This is just a scam, and they are purveying false hope. There is nothing worse you could do to a sick person than lie to them, tell them you are helping them when you are really doing nothing of the sort.

"In my opinion until the anecdotes encourage some form of study to be set up and that study proves under reasonable experimental conditions that there is actually a statistically significant effect then there is no real basis for the claims these people are making."

Great article, but there are a couple of issues here that I hope you don't mind me addressing - one being plausibility (would waving hands and beseeching Gods do any more than engender a bit of the old placebo effect in a true believer?) which means that it's rather unlikely from the outset that what they are doing could have any possible effect in which case we don't really need research to tell us it's not likely to help although it does help confirm this for sure. The other one is this has been studied despite it's implausibility and nah, prayer, Reiki ('energy medicine') and all the other forms of faith healing about don't do squat. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567 for one example "CONCLUSIONS: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications." You don't have to research every claim made, a few reasonable quality studies on the same thing will answer the question with a good degree of certainty without having to revisit the question every time claims are made of miracle cures via prayer.

This has a huge risk of causing harm if people use this instead of effective medicine. Even worse if they do this for their children, I've personally seen a child with type 1 diabetes die in an ICU after her parents stopped her insulin after a faith healing session and if you read the news cases of children dying because of this type of thing happens regularly here and overseas. Caleb Tribble is just one on the list that many people should still remember. http://whatstheharm.net/ is an excellent source of news reports of harm from just this kind of thing and is a useful resource for those who might say that very thing. Snake Oil Science - The truth about complementary and alternative medicine by R. Barker Bausell is also a useful source of information on this type of topic, I'm almost all the way through and it's an excellent primer on why we get those sorts of testimonials about bogus treatments and why they are worthless for determining anything.

I have no problem with anyone

I have no problem with anyone discussing this and welcome it.

While my line above about forming the studies sounds like I'm giving them a little lee-way I was aware of the study at your first link (but couldn't find the reference (thanks for that too)) and that they can't even get past the first condition in the statement.

I was also wondering if anyone would get the tip'o'th'hat to Tim Minchin. ;)

This was also my first "real" article on this sort of topic. I'm still trying to work out how much contempt I should allow to leak out into the actual post. I'm guessing that you would vote for no-holds barred?

I'd go for the no holds

I'd go for the no holds approach myself, if it's nonsense then call it that :)

Agreed. I'm all for

Agreed.

I'm all for encouraging them to at least try and prove it. Even if we manage to educate just one person it'd be worth it.

Not entirely sure about

Not entirely sure about asking for proof, having argued against the medi-scams for many years now I'm a bit wary of giving them that credibility and legitimacy by suggesting there is something solid there to test when there clearly isn't much of anything to go on. Testing in this case may well not be allowed on ethical grounds in any case, as it would involve denying someone proven treatment to test what effect the prayer may have. I think it far better to get your opinion out, as you have on this site and illustrating their idiocy.

In further depressing news, we've hit another low with a mention of NZ and it's low vaccination rates on Respectful Insolence - http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/08/still_more_evidence_that_infec... Even worse, if you go the video clip the majority of comments are pro-disease mongers dribbling on about how vaccines never helped anyone and they are boosting their childrens immune systems 'naturally'. *Pounds head on desk* I've commented but as usual anyone with a brain is outnumbered.

Having just listened to the

Having just listened to the latest Skeptoid podcast that covers exactly this point and what you cover above I think I have to agree.

One of the things that always gets to me when reading comments on articles on the topic of Woowoo is the constant back and forward of "show us the evidence". While we're all confident about our facts the requests for references more often than not goes unfulfilled and forgotten as the comments pile up. What we need is an easily searchable/filterable database of links to make it easy to locate and answer these demands for evidence.

...which I think I may start on now.

No holds barred

I'm all for no holds barred. What is the point in having a blog if you're not going to use it to vent your frustration and 'gasp' anger at idiocy and charlatans.

Let them reply with evidence if they think we are wrong to criticise them.

People in Pain are easily conned

Here in Auckland I frequently see signs on the side of the road advertising "Faith Healing" meetings. I just assumed these were basically like the tent shows from Tom Sawyer where some Southern Missionary slaps people on the head and shouts "Praiiise the Laaawwd"!!

I never expected them to claim a cure for cancer!

The people who run these 'clinics' should be locked up, preying (not praying) on the weak and desperate is just sick and wrong.