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Journal Is Silent in Study Dispute

A Riverside doctor is among those questioning a 'Power of Prayer' project.

August 17, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The medical study had profound implications, apparently offering scientific proof of the power of prayer, even the existence of God.

The article, with two Columbia University physicians listed as authors, said that women undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments in South Korea were twice as likely to conceive when strangers prayed for them. Making the findings even more spectacular was that the women didn't even know they were being prayed for.

The doctor identified as the lead researcher told the New York Times that he and his colleagues found the results so improbable that they debated whether to publish them.

But questions about the study began soon after its publication in the September 2001 issue of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. Several researchers, led by Dr. Bruce Flamm, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Kaiser Permanente in Riverside and a clinical professor at UC Irvine Medical School, questioned the study's methodology.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Prayer research -- In some editions of Tuesday's California section, an article about a controversy over a medical journal's article on the efficacy of prayer omitted the first name and profession of Dale Beyerstein, a psychology professor at Langara College in British Columbia, Canada.

"A high school student could probably set up a study on whether prayer is efficacious or not," Flamm said. "This was not it."

He found the study's methodology so complicated as to be almost unexplainable. And the authors said several times that the women didn't know they were in an experiment, considered a serious ethical breach.

Flamm wrote critical letters and e-mails to the journal's editors and the scientists. He called. He left messages. And for nearly three years he has been ignored.

Then something happened that attracted attention to the study once more. The third researcher on the prayer study, Daniel Wirth, pleaded guilty in Pennsylvania to federal charges of embezzling $2 million from Adelphia Communications by submitting fictitious invoices for consulting services. Indicted on charges that included using false identifies for decades, Wirth pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.

Even though the journal identified Wirth as a lawyer, critics knew him for his articles on psychic healing in less scholarly journals, including a study claiming prayer had helped salamanders regenerate limbs.

Wirth, who is listed on the study as "Dr. Wirth" -- apparently in reference to his juris doctor degree -- also has a master's degree in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda in the Bay Area.

Flamm's concerns about the prayer study's credibility, detailed in an article he wrote that will be published this week in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, started to gain recognition with the spreading news of the indictment. "I had no idea this guy was going to do me the favor of getting arrested ," Flamm said.

Questions remain.

Why have the journal and the authors ignored Flamm's questions, especially since scientific journals typically provide a forum for debate by printing critical letters along with the authors' responses? How did two professors from Columbia University Medical Center get mixed up with Wirth? How did such a seemingly questionable study pass the peer review process at the Journal.

The journal recently took the prayer study off its website -- not as a retraction, but because the publication was receiving so much "traffic" over the article that its small staff couldn't keep up, said Dr. Lawrence Devoe, the journal's current editor.

Devoe said he was going through mail generated by the prayer study and would send it to the authors for their response. "It will take some time," he said.

Flamm said it sounded like another stalling tactic, considering that he sent an e-mail to Devoe a year ago that explained his criticisms and pointed out Wirth's arrest. Besides, he said, even a layperson could figure out the controversy.

Marilyn Castaldi, a spokeswoman for Columbia's medical center, said a six-member faculty committee began an inquiry last month.

Columbia already has acknowledged to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that federal guidelines were violated because the subjects did not know they were part of the study.

Dr. Rogerio Lobo, one of the study's authors and then chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia's College of Physicians & Surgeons, said the authors stood by the study.

"Oh, my God," said Lobo, who promoted the story in the national media. "Why won't this stuff just go away?"

The other author, Dr. Kwang Y. Cha, a professor in South Korea who was working with Lobo during a yearlong sabbatical, did not return calls seeking comment. He is medical director of the Cha Fertility Clinic in Los Angeles.

Wirth's attorney said he had advised his client not to comment.

The study said that women undergoing in vitro fertilization, where the egg is fertilized outside the body and implanted in the womb, had a 50% pregnancy rate when people were praying for them, compared with a 26% pregnancy rate for women who had no one praying for them.

The women underwent the procedure in a Seoul hospital.

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