Skepticism and Dubious Medical Procedures

In #religion

In my discussion with Jonathan McLatchie on the Still Unbelievable podcast, I said that there hasn’t been a verified miracle claim even since Hume’s essay on miracles. Jonathan then told me two:

And when I looked at this, I kept finding those two and a third,

  • “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique”, Candy Gunther Brown, Stephen C Mory, Rebecca Williams, Michael J McClymond. South Med J. 2010 Sep;103(9):864-9 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20686441/

These three kept popping up again and again. The journals have dubious standards, and the authors work for the same institution (https://www.globalmri.org/about). On their website there is the following request: “We’re always looking for new testimonies. Do you have a testimony that is medically verified?”. Could you imagine a similar claim written about, say, a homeopathic remedy for cancer? If you took our remedy, and improved, we want to hear from you. Otherwise, not. Regardless of the contents of the specific studies, this sort of fishing for positive results is thoroughly unscientific and casts significant doubt on any results from this institution.

My suspicions were confirmed going to http://sciencebasedmedicine.org (a great resource) where they have an article about the 3rd study in the list above: https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/proximal-intercessory-prayer/ Bottom line, this study has numerous, basic scientific problems with it and the results cannot be trusted.

I find that argument that a deity is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for absurd, lame, and convenient. It is a nice excuse to unblind the protocol, and nothing else – a way of generating false-positive results.

So the process for collecting subjects used by these authors and supported by their institution, in addition to their experimental design, is constructed with the sole purpose of bypassing the methods of science. I was particularly surprised when I dug into the first study, went into their supplemental information, and saw a nice timeline of events (emphasis mine):

  • […]
  • June 14 1960 Complete Neurological Examination Completely normal except for macular degeneration “cause undetermined”
  • 1971 Examination confirms “ legal blindness” Recording of Visual Acuities - are consistent with legal blindness. No glasses recommended. Degeneration and scaring (sic) of macula in both eyes
  • 1971-1974 Record of a series of Visual Acuities Visual Acuities consistent with legal blindness until record of 1974
  • 1/29/71 Visual Acuity Right Eye- Finger Count Left Eye - Hand motion- All without glasses
  • 1-18-72 Right Eye - Hand Motion, Left Eye - Hand Motion
  • 6-14-74 Right Eye - 20/100-1 Left Eye - 20/100-2 All (above) without glasses
  • 1972 Learned to use a cane and read braille. Blind Services: orientation and mobility skills and braille reading
  • 02/18/1972-05/18/1972: Patient reports going through a Training Center to learn to walk with a cane and read braille.
  • 1972 August Vision restored through PIP
  • October 4, 2001 Complete Eye Examination VA 20/40 OD, 20/40-2 OS Corrected VA 20/40 OU None recorded Visual Acuity 20/40, 20/40-2. Glasses -0.25 OD, -0.50 OS Normal eye exam except for evidence of dry eye early cataract changes. Optic nerves and maculae recorded as normal but also states + RPE dropout in macula OU.
  • October 16, 2001 Return Visit. Treatment for Dry Eyes Provided
  • October 3, 2012. Cataract surgery of right eye
  • Etc…

So, the time between the prayer and the eye exam is…29 years! This is “instantaneous resolution”? Essentially, we’re taking this patient's word that their eyesight improved after prayer, but the authors (or anyone else) didn’t bother to test it for nearly 30 years. This level of incompetence, poor design, and digging for positive results is staggering. This is not the way one confirms medical claims.

The second study seems at least a bit better, but with no controls, and knowing that the authors have a history of ludicrously bad design leaves me unconvinced.

What I have tried to convey here is the process for investigating claims. You look at the originals, you examine methods and possible ways the authors could have (deliberately or not) biased the results. This is why we have blinding processes for medical experiments, and controls. Otherwise you can always fall victim to false positives and rare one-off events. We know that medical conditions can mysteriously improve (biology is complex and not entirely understood), so if you want to show your method of treatment actually works you do need to follow reasonable, skeptical procedures established by science. It's certainly hard to do this, takes more time and work, but there is good reason why we trust science. The lazy procedures of these authors -- including a self-proclaimed fishing for positive results -- is at best a cop-out and at worst a dishonest attempt to peddle bogus treatments.