In December 1993 I received a telephone call from Liz Fischer, a producer with NBC-TV's weekly news-magazine "Now," who was working on a story about Dr. Larry Dossey and his new book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. Dossey had begun his research after hearing of a study claiming that cardiac care unit patients who are prayed for do better than others. In his book, Dossey cites a Spring 1990 FREE INQUIRY article in which I critiqued the CCU study and found it wanting. That's precisely why "Now" wanted me.
In contrast to its sister newsmagazine, "Dateline NBC," best known for having phonied a fiery truck crash last year to punch up a story, "Now" is fronted by the network's top news anchors: Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric. So when Fischer asked if I would do an interview for broadcast, I humbly suggested that she first contact the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and FREE INQUIRY to see if they might be able to provide instead a nationally recognized authority. Fischer called back to tell me that she had been put in touch with CSICOP Fellow Dr. Wallace Sampson, who told her about a Dr. Posner in Florida who had written a terrific article for FREE INQUIRY. I agreed to do the show.
Fischer rushed me a copy of the embarrassingly naive Healing Words, which I spent the weekend (in)digesting. As she wanted to know what sorts of comments I would feel comfortable making on camera, I faxed her my suggested sound bites:
* I was surprised to see how critical Dossey himself was of the CCU study. In fact, he found several shortcomings that even I hadn't appreciated.
* Curiously, in spite of his own skepticism of the study's results, Dossey writes: "If the technique being studied had been a new drug or a surgical procedure instead of prayer, it would almost certainly have been heralded as some sort of 'breakthrough.'" Perhaps so if the claim had been something fairly mundane. But when a researcher claims to have proven something supernatural, that's another story. Remember the media hype over "cold fusion" a few years ago? The scientific community quite properly maintained an extremely skeptical attitude. And, of course, that supernatural claim seems to have turned out to be imaginary.
* Dossey also says: "Even some hard-boiled skeptics agreed [at the time] on the significance of the study's findings." But that just goes to show that even "skeptics" are sometimes not skeptical enough. There's a generally accepted principle in science that the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the proof required to support it. And not only is that degree of proof lacking in this study, it seems lacking in every human study of prayer to date.
* Dossey builds his case largely upon anecdotes and the work of parapsychologists, and appears to accept their supernatural claims at face value. This is very dangerous. Almost invariably, when "hard-nosed skeptics," as Dossey calls us, dissect parapsychology studies, or when the parapsychologists call in skeptics to oversee their experimental procedures to make absolutely certain that no cheating can occur, …