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5/25/2004                                                                                       View Comments

Prayer Study Flawed and Fraud

Columbia University prayer study author pleads guilty to felony charges

This important report from Skeptic Bruce L. Flamm, MD, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of California, Irvine, Bruceflamm at aol.com. Article reprinted here with permission of Skeptic.Com


In the horrible days following the destruction of the World Trade Center by Islamic zealots many Americans prayed for a miracle or a sign from God. Such a miracle apparently occurred and was widely documented in newspaper and magazine articles. On October 2, 2001 the New York Times reported that researchers at prestigious Columbia University in New York found that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them. The study's results were absolutely miraculous. In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is the most advanced form of infertility treatment currently available and represents the last hope for women with severe infertility. Therefore, any technique that could increase the efficacy of IVF by even a few percent would be a medical breakthrough. Yet the Columbia University study claimed to have demonstrated, in a carefully designed randomized controlled trial, that distant prayer by anonymous prayer groups increased the success rate of IVF by an astounding 100%. Days later an article published in newspapers around the nation stated that Rogerio Lobo, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia and the study's lead author, told Reuters Health that, "Essentially, there was a doubling of the pregnancy rate in the group that was prayed for." ABC News medical editor and Good Morning America commentator Dr. Timothy Johnson reported that, "A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results; but many physicians remain skeptical."

The following facts related to the Columbia University prayer study confirm that those physicians who doubted the study's astounding results had extremely good reasons to be skeptical. It will be interesting to see if ABC's Dr. Johnson, a medical doctor who also serves as an evangelical minister at the fundamentalist Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Massachusetts, will report or ignore the following shocking information.

The study's three authors were Kwang Cha, Rogerio Lobo, and Daniel Wirth. Dr. Cha, has left Columbia University and refuses to return phone calls or letters about the report. Dr. Rogerio Lobo, identified by the New York Times and ABC News as the report's lead author, now claims to have not been involved with the study until after its completion and to have provided only, "editorial assistance". Dr. Lobo also refuses to return phone calls or letters about the study. If the report's lead author did not conduct the international prayer study, who did'

The remaining author is a mysterious individual known as Daniel Wirth. Mr. Wirth has no medical degree but does have a long history of publishing studies on mysterious supernatural or paranormal phenomena. Many of these studies originated from an entity called, "Healing Sciences Research International" an organization that Mr. Wirth supposedly headed. This entity's only known address was apparently a Post Office Box in Orinda California. Wirth holds an MS degree is in the dubious field of "parapsychology" and also has a law degree.

In October 2002, Mr. Wirth, along with his former research associate Joseph Horvath also known as Joseph Hessler, was indicted by a federal grand jury. Both men were charged with bilking the troubled cable television provider Adelphia Communications Corporation out of $2.1 million by infiltrating the company, then having it pay for unauthorized consulting work. Police investigators discovered that Wirth is also known as John Wayne Truelove. FBI investigators revealed that Wirth first used the name of Truelove, a New York child who died at age 5 in 1959, to obtain a passport in the mid-1980's. Wirth and his accomplice were charged with 13 counts of mail fraud, 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money, making false statements on loan applications and five other counts of fraud. The federal grand jury concluded that the relationship between Wirth and Horvath extended back more than 20 years and involved more than $3.4 million in income and property obtained by using the names of children who died more than 40 years ago.

Incredibly, at the time of the indictment, Horvath was already in jail charged with arson for burning down his Pennsylvania house to collect insurance money. The FBI investigation revealed that Horvath had previously gone to prison after being convicted in a 1990 embezzlement and false identity case in California. Interestingly, the investigation also revealed that he had also once been arrested for posing as a doctor in California. It appears that the "doctor" who performed biopsies on human research subjects in Wirth's paranormal healing studies may have actually been Mr. Horvath impersonating a doctor. Horvath was a co-author on another of Wirth's bizarre studies in which salamander limbs were amputated and found to grow back more quickly when "healers" waived their hands over the wounds.

Both Wirth and Horvath initially plead innocent to the felony charges and over the next 18 months their trial was delayed six times. However, on May 18, 2004, just as the criminal trial of the United States v. Wirth & Horvath was finally about to begin, both men pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. Apparently a plea bargain had been made and many of the charges had been dropped. Wirth and Horvath will be sentenced in September and they each face a maximum of five years in federal prison.

In summary, one of the authors of the Columbia University prayer study has left the University and refuses to comment, another now claims to have not actually participated in the study and also refuses to comment, and another is on his way to federal prison for fraud. Fraud is the operative word here. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this entire sordid saga can be summed up in one question: How did a bizarre study claiming supernatural results end up in a peer-reviewed medical journal' We may never know because the editors of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine also refuse to answer calls or respond to letters about this study. Worse yet, the entire study remains posted on their internet site and the public has been given no reason to doubt its validity. It must be emphasized that, in the entire history of modern science, no claim of any type of supernatural phenomena has ever been replicated under controlled conditions. The importance of this fact can not be over emphasized. One would think that medical journal editors would be keenly aware of this fact and therefore be highly skeptical of supernatural claims. In any case, the damage has been done. The fact that a "miracle cure" study was deemed to be suitable for publication in a scientific journal automatically enhanced the study's credibility. Not surprisingly, the news media quickly disseminated the miraculous results.

In reality, the Columbia University prayer study was based on a bewildering study design and included many sources of error. I have already summarized many of the study's potential flaws in two critiques published in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. But worse than flaws, in light of all of the shocking information presented above, one must consider the sad possibility that the Columbia prayer study may never have been conducted at all. It remains to be seen if the news media will find the above information to be newsworthy.

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