An NBC-TV newsmagazine's cynically skewed reporting on the "power of prayer"

by Gary P. Posner, M.D.


Last December (1993) I received a telephone call from Liz Fischer, a producer with NBC-TV's weekly newsmagazine "Now" [which has since been absorbed by "Dateline NBC"], 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 who are not. In his book, Dossey cites a Spring 1990 "Free Inquiry" magazine 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 NBC's top news personalities: 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 days later to tell me that she had been put in touch with CSICOP Fellow Dr. Wallace Sampson, who told her about a doctor 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 been 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-boiled 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, their findings evaporate.

Dossey says: "We do not know  how spiritual healing works. . . . Many skeptics argue that this is sufficient reason for tossing it out the window." Science hasn't tossed prayer "out the window." But those who wish for science to embrace the miraculous power of prayer as a scientifically proven fact must provide experimental evidence so convincing that even the "hard-boiled skeptics" can't poke holes in it. We can't bend the rules and make it easy. And when that day finally comes, if it ever does, that's  the day that our science books should be updated to include chapters on the miraculous power of prayer.

I would have been more than happy to have had the opportunity to say those words and nothing more. But several days later Fischer called back to inform me that, although she was very sorry, NBC didn't want to pay to fly a crew to Florida to interview me. She did, however, express general agreement with my comments, and noted that her own staff had already recognized the significance of Dossey's reliance upon parapsychology. And in our previous conversation, she had told me how much the segment's correspondent, Dennis Murphy, had liked my Free Inquiry article. Maybe they would interview Dr. Sampson, she said, when they soon returned to California on other business.

The segment, one of three during the hour-long program, aired on March 30. It showed a leukemia patient who had beaten overwhelming odds: "Look at me. I'm living proof of what prayer can do." Correspondent Murphy referred to Dossey's discovery of "130 laboratory studies, more than half of which, [Dossey] says, prove prayer works." Unmentioned was that his sources were primarily parapsychology journals. Faith-healers were endorsed. And so on . . .

Dr. Sampson had indeed been interviewed, but only, it turns out, for use as a prop to be dispatched with as one might swat away a gnat. Having spent an hour before the camera, only 3 1/2 sentences (and not  his ace material) survived editing. Introducing him as chairman of the National Council Against Health Fraud, Murphy may have created the false impression that Sampson equates prayer with "fraud." Murphy then tells the pre-Easter-week audience, "And guess what. Like many doctors, he doesn't buy the prayer study in the cardiac ward," which was referred to as "the most staggering of all" (unlike most, this study was from a medical journal). But neither Murphy nor Dossey even hinted that within his own book  Dossey acknowledges that the study had actually "missed the mark. . . . [S]tatistically significant life-or-death effects . . . simply did not occur."

Immediately after the show aired, I faxed a note to Fischer which read in part:

"Now" I understand why my input was not desired. You squandered a prime opportunity to teach the nation a sorely needed lesson in critical thinking.

Shame on them.


[Note: A version of this article appears in the Summer 1994 Free Inquiry. ]


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