On December 22nd, NBC Nightly News (United States) devoted two minutes thirty-five seconds (nine percent of its broadcast) to telling its human interest story headlined on its Web site as “Power of Prayer? 'Miracle' Priest Rises from Wheelchair and Walks.” A transcript of the segment titled “Does the Power of Prayer Have a Place in Medicine?” is available on a companion site for educating elementary and secondary school children.
Anchorman Brian Williams, shown onscreen with the words “Power of Prayer” (not followed by a question mark) as the backdrop, introduced the segment: “When you consider the news we’ve been covering and the time of the year, this segment couldn’t be more timely. It's about the growing medical evidence of the power of prayer to heal body and soul.”
I guess the producers of NBC Nightly News concluded that Christmas is a suitable time to offer the kind of miracle mongering frequently seen on “The Dr. Oz Show” and that Montel Williams used to offer on his show. When you don’t have a well-documented birth of a human from a virgin mother to present to viewers, you have to lower your standards for what you can offer miracle-seeking viewers.
- Four years ago, he broke his neck from a fall and bone chips sliced into his spinal cord. (We are not told what part of his spinal cord was injured.)
- He was paralyzed from his chest down.
- Doctors told him he would never walk again. “‘You should expect no voluntary movement,’” said Murray. “That's a quote. ‘No voluntary movement for the rest of your life.’”
- “But within a year and a half after he tripped on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, the priest was able to rise from his wheelchair and walk.”
McFadden didn’t discuss Murray’s injury in an epidemiological perspective in either her short video segment or her article written with Jake Whitman that accompanies the video online. I was available to help them, but they never called.
I would have told them that I doubt the accuracy of Father Murray’s description of the pessimistic prognosis he said he received from doctors. His recollection of what he was told could be faulty. Or maybe, like many people, he tells stories with embellishment. It’s plausible that he was told that he might not ever have voluntary movement, especially if he didn’t work on his rehabilitation. It’s plausible that doctors are surprised that he progressed to walking with assistive devices. Sometimes doctors are overly pessimistic in making prognoses. But I don’t see why doctors would have given him no hope at all for voluntary movement.
According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation:
Generally speaking, after the swelling of the spinal cord begins to go down, most people show some functional improvement after an injury. With many injuries, especially incomplete injuries (some motor or sensory function preserved below the lesion level), a person may recover function eighteen months or more after the injury. In some cases, people with [spinal cord injury] regain some function years after the injury.
McFadden tried to make it seem that Father Murray’s recovery has important implications for how medicine is practiced. She said:
His doctors may be stunned, but half of all Americans believe prayer can heal. So why is it almost nonexistent in the doctor’s office?
- Prayer isn’t almost nonexistent in the doctor’s office. People who pray don’t stop praying in doctors’ offices and they don’t need assistance from doctors to pray. People in doctors’ offices are often worried and worried people often pray when they’re worried. Some people who pray object to prohibition against public school personnel leading students in prayer, but that doesn’t stop students from praying in schools. I’m quite confident that many of my students at Cal State LA pray in my classrooms, especially on exam days. And some students pray more than they study for exams.
- While there are some doctors who pray with their patients during office visits, most doctors prefer spending time providing medical services rather than services that patients can perform for themselves and obtain in houses of worship.
- It should be reassuring that there are still doctors who practice medicine with a focus on what evidence suggests is in the best interest of patients rather than polling results regarding Americans’ beliefs. Viewers of The Dr. Oz Show may believe in the food fads he has promoted as miracles, but that is no reason for doctors to offer what Dr. Oz has [disingenuously] described as miracles.
- In 2009, the authors of an evidence-based review of the literature on “Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health” published in the Cochrane Library concluded:
These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.
Here’s how Dr. Koenig answered McFadden’s question along with commentary from McFadden:
Dr. Koenig: Doctors are still—still reluctant. They've been pretty much trained to keep these areas separate.
McFadden: Doctor Harold Koenig used to be one of them, but now he says after reviewing hundreds of studies he's changed his mind.
Dr. Koenig: The more religious, the greater the well-being.
McFadden: Koenig is now leading the charge from within the medical establishment to get doctors to recognize prayer's power; armed with research like his own at Duke that says those who pray daily are 40% less likely to have high blood pressure. Studies by others have claimed prayer can reduce depression and anxiety.
Koenig’s blood pressure study at Duke was carried out in 1998. In a 2003 review article about religiosity/spirituality and health published in the journal American Psychologist, authors from UCLA had this to say about the study:
The strength of this study is its population-based sampling and longitudinal design; the one caveat with respect to the reported findings is the large number of statistical tests that are reported (108 by our count) and the fact that the actual number of statistically significant findings is not much beyond what might be expected on the basis of a 5% Type I error rate. Thus although the data are intriguing and do point to a relationship between religious activity and lower blood pressure, they are less than compelling, and further testing of a small number of specific hypotheses is needed. [p. 56]
Yes, some research findings point to a role prayer can have in reducing anxiety and depression. When some people like to pray and it reassures them, they’re likely to feel less anxious and depressed. But that’s hardly an indication that prayer has a special power that doctors need to introduce to patients in their offices.
To fulfill the journalists obligation of balance, McFadden interviewed Richard Sloan, PhD, who is Nathaniel Wharton Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and author of Blind Faith.
Dr. Sloan disagreed with Dr. Koenig’s view that doctors should support the faith of their patients. “I don't think physicians should cross that line,” he said. “They should allow patients to practice religion as they see fit, but they shouldn't engage in religious practices with them.”
In answer to a question from McFadden, Dr. Sloan said:
Some people will report that they get better [with prayer], but you don't hear the stories about people who prayed to-- for healing and don't get better. You only hear the stories about those who do get better.
And Father Murray got the last word: “I'm certainly better off than most paraplegics.”
The story is supposed to have an uplifting ending with a happy Father Murray. But if you think carefully about it, you realize that an implication of the segment is that paraplegics and/or their loved ones aren’t praying as well or don’t have as much faith as Father Murray and/or his loved ones. It’s a shameful and actually disheartening message arising out of journalism focused more on pandering to its audience than providing it with information and insight.
One December 23rd, NBC Nightly News followed up its “‘Miracle’ Priest” story with a second “Power of Prayer” report focusing on “What Happens to Your Brain When You Prayer.” It turned out to be much better than its story built around Father Murray’s dubious miracle. I’ll discuss the second “Power of Prayer” report in my next article for SWIFT.