Federal Government Wastes $666,000 To Study the Effectiveness of Praying Away AIDS January 7, 2012

Federal Government Wastes $666,000 To Study the Effectiveness of Praying Away AIDS

Last month, the Chicago Tribune released a review of the National Institute of Health’s allocation of research funds. The results are equally infuriating and disheartening. Among other dubious, implausible propositions, NIH funded research of whether distant prayer can remedy the symptoms of AIDS. I’m sure I don’t need to tell my more astute readers what the result of that study was.

Not gonna help. (Image via shutterstock)

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the small branch of NIH responsible for this atrocious waste of money, was created by an amendment pushed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The Tribune reports that in advocating for the department, the Senator related a tragic personal story, for which I would extend my sincere sympathies:

In a 1998 speech, Harkin described watching acupuncture and acupressure ease the pain and violent hiccups of a brother dying of thyroid cancer.

Just like any other bereaved person, Senator Harkin deserves our sympathy and empathy. That does not, however, justify the program. He explains his advocacy:

“These are things I have seen with my own eyes,” said Harkin, who also lost three other siblings to cancer. “When I see things like this I ask, ‘Why? Why aren’t these things being researched?'”

Why, Senator? Because we only have so many resources to devote to medical research. Those resources should be allocated to plausible, evidence-based theories about the world we live in.

This sort of allocation is unconscionable in a world where there are so many good, skeptical scientists who go without funding. The Tribune points out that acupuncture, like so many other alternative remedies, purports to manipulate unseen, untestable forces.

This should make funding its research absolutely repugnant to any decent skeptic, or any person with a sense of appropriate allocation of public funds. Even worse, instead of abandoning research of treatments that perform no better than placebos, the NCCAM is “throwing good money after bad” by continuing to research them.

Legally speaking, the program is probably (and unfortunately) constitutional. As mentioned before, in order for a governmental action to be unconstitutional, it must fail one of the three prongs of the Lemon test.

Here, NCCAM’s purpose is arguably secular: The government wants healthy citizens. (At least that’s what they’d say.) Sounds pretty good.

NCCAM could be argued to be promoting religion with it’s study of prayer’s effectiveness on AIDS patients, but not necessarily. After all, they’re just studying it. Totally different.

The third prong, excessive entanglement, has usually related to whether the government is giving funding to a religious organization. That’s not the case here.

Note that no one has sued over this, and I’m not sure who would have standing to do so. That’s because taxpayers generally cannot assert that their rights are violated by this kind of broad allocation of funding.

That’s not to say we have to be happy about it. What research would you have funded with NCCAM’s $128 million annual budget?

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  • I’m a constituent of Senator Harkin as well as a scientist. Harkin is well known for his support of medical research, and I have personally worked on several projects that have been funded due to his strong support (all good ‘ol traditional medicine).

    I’d just like to point out that we won’t know anything for sure about complementary medicine if we don’t study it. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a skeptical approach to say ‘I think this is bunk, so let’s not even bother studying it’. Since so many people believe this stuff is true, better to say ‘let’s do the study and find out’.

  • mcfa

    I wouldn’t use $128 million for research – I would use it to fund a PSA about sharing the road with bicycles or funding Planned Parenthood or invest in our railroads/PSA about smaller living. 

    If it had to be for research – research about how to overcome indoctrination and effectively counteract the brainwashing and dismissal of evidence in fundamentalist religions.  Or if medically related – creating a system to improve preventative care rather than new tests/pills.

  • Dave Wildermuth, MLIS

    Thanks for the article; I’m a big fan of your writing and of Hemant’s website.  However, I have to take you to task for one of the things you’ve said in your piece.
    I agree with you completely on the issue of prayer being ineffective in treating disease.  However, you’re wrong to lump it in with acupuncture and acupressure.  I looked up both in the Natural Standard academic database, which contains peer-reviewed, evidence-based systematic reviews of medical research studies.  Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in the treatment of osteoarthritis, chronic pain and post-operative pain; acupressure is effective in the treatment of nausea.  
    So while you’re absolutely right to call out the government for squandering money on studying prayer, there has been a good deal of research that supports acupuncture and acupressure.  I would respectfully ask that you think twice before painting all of those things with the same brushstroke.  

  • Tom

    I came here to say the exact same thing. You’re advocating the outright dismissal of that which you disagree with.

    I don’t want anyone to assume that I imagine prayer to have any real effect, but in rightly denying the “power of prayer” you’re saying that anything that we can’t currently measure doesn’t exist. Looking back through the history and growth of science, it’s pretty clear that what you’re suggesting isn’t the case. In fact, many times it was the exact opposite line of reasoning that led to discoveries which were later proved correct.

    And at the end of the day we’re sitting an another (albeit expensive) weapon in our arsenal when dealing with the credulous and religious who claim that prayer is a valid method of problem solving.

  • I think someone should do the studies, but at some point the government needs to make a decision about what it itself should be willing to spend money on, and if wasteful spending is an issue I think they should probably not fund studies like this where the science is pretty much settled. let someone else continue the research.

  • Anonymous

    Well, there is alternative medicine and then there is outright quackery. I have nothing against studies for massages (they did that and unsurprisingly it helps) or even acupuncture. The latter, if only because it’s rather popular, so it bears checking out of it actually works.

    But then there are studies into prayer, healing energy, homeopathy or coffee enemas. That’s just ridiculous

  • It’s poetic justice that they wasted 666K, though 🙂

  • This has already been tested before: http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-03-31/news/17288045_1_prayers-praying-american-heart-journal
    And here is a cochrane summary on acupuncture:
    When people take offense with alternative/complementary medicine it is typically with the unproven claims the practitioners make or the fact that they are dangerous when not used with traditional medicine.

  • LAE

    MCFA, I agree that we should be working to improve preventive care, but I think it is just as important, if not more important, to develop new tests for the detection of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and infectious diseases, etc. The sooner you catch cancer, the better the chances are that you can save the patient, and new tests and the development of better detection methods are incredibly important. It is also necessary to continue research in the discovery of new compounds that can be used to treat cancer, kill bacteria and viruses, and help the healing process in general. As we learn more about the causes of disease, we can more closely focus our attacks on certain cell signaling pathways or specific species of bacteria, thus preventing the toxic effects of more general-acting drugs (i.e., one day, we may be able to to completely wipe out the nausea and sickness associated with chemotherapy). Also, bacteria and viruses are constantly evolving drug resistance, so we should ALWAYS be on the search for new antibacterial and anti-viral drugs. 

  • mcfa

    I guess I should have stated my position better: I’m not against developing new tests, but against the culture of medical over-testing in general.  In effect, I was suggesting using the funds to form a more patient centered, preventative approach to medicine rather than an expensive, defensive, money oriented one. 

  • TheAnalogKid

    What kind of prayer? Christian? Muslim? Jewish? Hindu? 

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s unfair to lump acupuncture and acupressure along with prayer. In the first case, you are actually, physically changing the body. In the latter case, you are asking for divine intervention. These two things are not the same.

    Now, what I’ve read about acupuncture is that studies carried out on the subject failed to find consistent good results as compared to the placebo. If that is the case, and it’s been studied enough to be rejected as valid medicine (I don’t know, and I’m not about to go through dozens of papers to find out) then so be it. But I would hotly dispute the notion that this was not worth finding out.

    The Tim Minchin (probably borrowed) line: “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.” is great but it is only justified in a world where so-called alternative medicine is put to the test and either found wanting or incorporated into conventional medicine.

    Now, deciding where to allocate research funds is an insanely difficult proposition, in no small part because you usually have a giant heap of worthwhile subjects for a limited amount of money. Obviously the prayer study was insane, but a quick look at the center’s website reveals that they are doing research that doesn’t look that bad and is often being published in mainstream journals. I am certainly open to the argument that this money would be better spent elsewhere, or that the project approval process is broken, but I don’t think you can discard the existence of this center out of hand, despite it’s cringe-inducing name.

    Oh and if anyone can actually provide the source for the $666,000 number for the funding of this study, as well as the study itself, I’d be very appreciative. The original story provides no sources, the studies I have found are from several years ago and cannot have cost that amount of money (or shouldn’t have) and 666,000 seems like an…..odd number, for a prayer study.

  • Anonymous


    I’m pretty sure that Carrie was making an accurate comparison.

    There hasn’t been any conclusive evidence beyond what can be ascribed to the placebo effect.  I should think 2000 plus years should have been enough to demonstrate this:)

  • Anonymous

    I think studies involving hypnosis might be useful.  Also, I’m interested in the mechanism of placebos– and why some work better than others: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfRVCaA5o18

    But to me– wasting money on prayer research is akin to testing to see if there is any effect to “wishing on stars”. 

  • Anonymous

    As a side note, my completely secular physician told me that acupuncture can actually work (not for woo reasons, though). I also have a friend who used acupuncture to relieve pain in his wrists from playing the piano too vigorously. Neither of these people subscribe to woo explanations.

  • Dave Wildermuth, MLIS

    Sunburned, Wikipedia is not a reliable source, since it can be edited by anyone.  Natural Standard is an academic database full of studies conducted by experts.  Which one would you cite if you were writing a paper?  

    Sorry to have to call you out on this, but it’s very important that the atheist community use reliable, authoritative sources when making our case in arguments and discussions.  Citing Wikipedia negatively impacts our credibility.  Let the Believers cite the unreliable sources; we have to be better than that.

  • Michael Appleman

    That article seems pretty well cited. I don’t think you can dismiss something just because it is from wikipedia.

  • For Brad, Tom, and others who appeal for open-mindedness toward research into complimentary or alternative treatments, that is in general principle a good idea.

    HOWEVER, once one of these treatments has been shown through adequate study to be ineffective, it is ridiculous and irresponsible to keep on funding more studies. Move on! Further study of a thoroughly debunked treatment is not about a genuine investigation, but is about trying to promote its legitimacy by associating it with scientific research. “Ooh, they’re still studying it, so there must be something to it!”

    As noted and cited by other commenters here, the efficacy of remote prayer on recovery from all sorts of diseases has been, if you excuse the deliberately ironic expression, done to death. The jury is not still out. They came back a long time ago, rendered their verdict as “completely useless,” and they all went home.

    I looked in my lunchbox to see if there was a sandwich inside. Nope. I looked again. Nope. Seventeen experiments with the lunchbox later, having tried all sorts of approaches excluding putting a sandwich inside first, still no sandwich materialized. Should I spend my money looking a few more times, or go buy some bread, some turkey, some mayonnaise, etc. and make myself a fricking sandwich?

    It will be interesting when some fundamentalist who is fond of dismissing science in general and of ridiculing funding for research that might seem frivolous hears about this particular dead-end research project by the NCCAM. Probably he’ll have no comment, and pretend he didn’t hear about it.

    Senator Harkin, your grief is understandable and I empathize. AND, $666,000 would have been much better spent on research into your brother’s specific thyroid cancer, or into the genetic predisposition for cancer that you probably share with your four deceased siblings.  I wish you well.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Carrie: What research would you have funded with NCCAM’s $128 million annual budget?

    Brad: Since so many people believe this stuff is true, better to say ‘let’s do the study and find out’.</I.

    Which gets to what I want: studies that don't end with "more study is needed.” The whole point is scientific tests of potential medical treatments should be to find out which ones work and which ones don’t. NCCAM has done precious little of that over its history. They funded a few studies which repeatedly showed that echinacea is entirely ineffective, and such like, but mostly it has become a steady source of income for purveyors of “alternative” methods without ever actually advancing our state of knowledge.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    The sad thing about this is that the money is pretty much completely wasted. Even though it had no effect, believers will still say that it does. It’s a complete waste.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    An excellent source of information on “alternative” medicine is Respectful Insolence, run by Orac over st Scienceblogs.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Studies on the healing benefit of intercessory prayer fall into three categories:

    1) Studies which are too small to be significant, regardless of their outcome.

    2) Studies which are large enough and well-designed enough to consider, and which report negative results. The Mayo Clinc study and the Duke University study are examples.

    3) Studies which are known to be fraudulent. The Columbia prayer study and one run by Elisabeth Targ are examples.

  • oambitiousone

    Just read an article today in the New Yorker about the placebo effect (Dec 12, ’11). Unfortunately for the scientifc-minded, it works. The conundrum is: can we advocate something that works even though there’s no tangible “thing” that’s working (other than someone’s belief)? Is it ethical to prey on people’s gullibility even if it’s for their own good?

  • oambitiousone

    Stem-cell research.

  • Dave Wildermuth, MLIS

    Then follow the citations to the original sources of that information.  Evaluate the quality of those and cite them.  Wikipedia is a starting point for research, not an end when it comes to research.

  • Rich Wilson
  • Deven Kale

    The main concern in that case is whether or not what I’ll call the “placebo treatment” is possibly harmful in itself. Take acupuncture for instance, there are plenty of cases where acupuncture has injured or killed a person. If you have an abnormally thin chest wall and the acupuncturist accidentally goes too deep, then there is the risk of puncturing a lung, which has happened. Chiropractic has caused numerous strokes, even with supposedly good practitioners. Poor chiropractors have been known to be too aggressive and break a persons neck.

    While I personally don’t know of any examples of acupressure having any serious side effects such as those above, I have a lot of trouble believing that people won’t be aware of it’s connection to acupuncture. Even without explicitly endorsing acupuncture, people are going to assume that acupressure is connected to the same unfounded principles. That could make them all the more likely to try acupuncture themselves. I know there’s a lot of ifs in there, but it’s hard to deny the thought process is plausible.

    As for whether or not acupuncture actually works, maybe there is something to sticking needles in a person skin and wiggling them around a bit, I’ll concede that as a possibility. That still proves nothing of meridians, or how meridians work. I still have to see that before I’ll truly believe that acupuncture/pressure is a viable option for any treatment of anything. Especially since I have no idea what the training standards of acupuncturists are.

  • You can if you don’t want to consider other evidence.

  • Andrew Marsden

    Praying costs nothing, how did they waste 666k on it?!

    Also what was this senators response to the findings?

  • TheBlackCat

    That would be great if we had unlimited time, unlimited money, unlimited manpower, and people aren’t dieing.  Unfortunately none of those are the case.  We have precious little resources to allocate, so why are we throwing more money at treatments that have been shown over and over again to be no more effective than placebo when we have treatments that known to be effective (such as antibiotics) but are starved for money?

  • TheBlackCat

    Total starwman.  No one is saying that they shouldn’t be studied.  What we are saying is that they have been studied, found to be ineffective, and therefore we should not continue to study them over and over again.  A few dozen studies is enough, lets move on and give the money to something that hasn’t be thoroughly debunked.

  • TheBlackCat

    “I think it’s unfair to lump acupuncture and acupressure along with
    prayer. In the first case, you are actually, physically changing the
    body. In the latter case, you are asking for divine intervention. These
    two things are not the same.”

    Acupuncture and acupressure posit the existence of “meridians”, undetectable channels of some sort of physics-defying “energy” that controls every aspect of our body.  Further, they posit that all diseases are actually caused by disruptions in these energies.  Further, they posit that sticking needles or putting pressure in these channels can cause the energies to change.  Further, they posit that these changes will fix the problems with the channels.

    First, not a single step in this chain of logic has one shred of evidence to support it.

    Second, “invisible, undetectable channels of spirit energy in the body” is not that far off in my opinion from “invisible, undetectable spirit man in the sky”.

    So I think the comparison is correct.  Both depend on the intervention of some sort of supernatural power for which there is no evidence that it exists and that defies everything we know about the universe.

  • TheBlackCat

    The other concern is that it can lead people to forgo other, effective treatments, especially since many proponents of alternative medicine actively try to convince their patients that modern, science-based medicine is not only wrong but extremely (and some claim intentionally) harmful.

  • I don’t like that $666,000 number. It seems manufactured to keep “Good Christians” questioning medical studies. If this study proved acupuncture cured every disease in the world, the ultra religious fundis would still say it was the devils work and proceed to start a media campaign to have the use of acupuncture banned.

  • Anonymous

    Of course the explanations for the effects of accupuncture are total woo bullshit, but that doesn’t mean the treatments themselves are bullshit.

    For thousands of years tribes have prepared “magic” remedies and employed religious wootastic explanations like “This flower has an affinity with the spirits of the air which go into your core chakra and purifies it”. This was utter horseshit, but in many cases the herbal remedy was actually doing some good, due to some reliable chemical composition or another. Just because you feel comfortable rejecting the explanation for the effect does not mean that you automatically reject the notion that a positive effect (with a biological explanation) can be taking place and can be optimized to be more efficient.

    That’s not to say that accupuncture is effective, neccesarily. What little I’ve read makes it seem, at the very least, controversial. It could well be that it has been tested enough and shown to be ineffective in such a way that further studying is a waste of funds. However, the fact that the proposed mechanism of action was laughable nonesense does not render it invalid. This is different from prayer, that is entirely based on the woo, without any actual physical phenomenon to study in the first place.

  • Dave Wildermuth, MLIS

    To those of you (TheBlackCat) who keep insisting that acupuncture and acupressure are no more effective than placebos, you are not correct.  A significant number of studies have shown those things to be effective treatments of certain conditions.  Again, I think it’s important that we look to the experts on things like this and not just claim our own opinions as fact; it damages our credibility as a community.
    How many of you have studies on this subject published in peer-reviewed scientific journals?  None?  Well, the people who DO have found that acupuncture and acupressure are more effective than placebo in treating nausea, chronic pain and osteoarthritis.  

    To deny these things is to cling to your own belief in spite of the evidence; that’s the definition of “faith,” and I thought we were above that.

  • Anonymous

    There’s an even bigger problem here than just this silly study, and it’s one that effects nearly all CAM research (and a lot of health psych research, too). These studies aren’t theory-based, and don’t even seem to be trying to contribute to or form the basis for a theory.

    The most helpful applied research has a basis in established scientific knowledge. This is because it helps to refine existing theory while it tests the specific effects of the intervention at hand. When research is designed this way, even an ineffective intervention can provide valuable data and contribute to the greater good (future medical advance), because it is part of a rich body of knowledge.

    What happens when we scientifically test CAM treatments based on magical belief systems and ancient traditions? 

    1)  If the intervention appears to work, we’re stuck with the difficult problem of figuring out why, and wondering what other aspects of a person’s well-being might be affected long-term. The “theory” it arose from relies on magical, undetectable energy fields or angels or some shit, so that’s no help. And, since we never substantiated any scientific basis for the treatment, we’re at a loss as to how to improve it, or even how to increase the rigor with which we study it. 

    2) If the intervention does not appear to work, well, too bad. There are already well-established practitioners who will claim that their personal observations and those of their clients are better than science, so nyah. Or they tell you that your technique was bad or some such. Science as a whole isn’t really helped in a significant way by findings that say, “hey, that thing we had no reason to think would work? Well, it didn’t work!” and the quacks don’t even lose clients. Skeptics just get to feel smug, believers get to think we’re smug assholes, and nothing changes.

    NCCAM is mostly a waste of money, and it’s upsetting that so much money goes into all this witch-doctoring nonsense when we could be using it to address real, serious problems in healthcare and health science, like the age-old problems of translation and distribution.

  • Nude0007

    While I tend to agree that technically the money was wasted, I think the negativity to this is way too strong.  As people who demand evidence for things, we should be very grateful that now we have conclusive scientific evidence that prayer is useless!  This is good and profound!  Now courtrooms do not have to rely on hearsay or opinion to verify that praying for a sick child will not heal and is criminal.  Now any humanist/atheist/whatever can point to this study as proof that prayer is ineffectual.  This is a GOOD thing.

  • Anonymous

    Not so. This study has failed to provide evidence that distant prayer is effective against AIDS symptoms. That’s it.

    And anyway, isn’t AIDS a gay disease? This is probably attributable to God’s holy vengeance.

    It wouldn’t take a fundamentalist 10 seconds to brush this study off completely.

  • Rich Wilson

    How many of you have studies on this subject published in peer-reviewed scientific journals?

    That’s patronizing shit.  We’re capable of reading studies and summaries of studies.  If we’re not, then what’ the point of publishing anything other than the result?  Hey, we found acupuncture words.  End of story.  Don’t worry yourself about it, you’re not an expert.

  • Rich Wilson

    So give us a paper.  I’d like to see how the handled placebo.

    But even more interestingly, the pretend acupuncture group, where they just bunged needles in any old place with a bit of ceremony, did just as well as the people having proper, posh, theatrical, genuine acupuncture.


  • Dave Wildermuth, MLIS

    Yes, Rich, it was intended to be patronizing.  Are you one of the people saying Wikipedia is a better source that an academic database?  Are you saying your opinion on the matter is more valid than those of experts?  No?  Then the comment wasn’t directed at you.

  • Dave Wildermuth, MLIS

    Since this exchange is getting testy, I’ll bow out at this point.  My whole point in bringing these things up is that we, the atheist community, have to be better consumers of information than believers.  We have to go with reliable, authoritative sources to back ourselves up.  If we don’t, we look foolish.  Holding up our own opinions as fact, with no support, lowers us to their level; we might as well be citing the Bible.

  • What do you mean, “Unfortunately for the scientifc-minded, it works”?  We know this because of science.

  • We have done the studies. Over $1,000,000,000 went into studying complementary/alternative medicine in the US alone. Not a single CAM methodology proved to actually work.

  • “You’re advocating the outright dismissal of that which you disagree with.”

    No, we’re advocating the outright dismissal of things which have been studied for decades and turned up nothing more than negative or placebo results.

  • ara

    but, relatedly, studying the placebo effect is an incredibly worthy goal.  Determining how to increase the rate of placebo effect, or even beginning to understand why it’s present in some cases and not in others, would be incredibly helpful to modern medicine.

    Many prayer studies aren’t actually involved in studying the effect of prayer itself, but are more about whether or not believing that you’re being prayed for is a reliable way to induce the placebo effect.

  • The “problem” here is that it legitimizes prayer for those who don’t believe it’s just the placebo effect taking place, when there are other “less harmful” ways of accomplishing the placebo effect.
    Why support a practice that makes people believe in faith healing and other such practices, instead of getting proper medical treatment?

  • Mairianna

    Maybe that’s why the study failed- the money came from SATAN!

  • Liz Heywood

    Maybe they called Christian Science practitioners. They charge…

  • Anonymous

    “Which one would you cite if you were writing a paper?”

    It’s a good thing I’m not writing a paper. I’m just pointing out that there doesn’t appear to be any validity to acupuncture as a serious mode of treatment. It’s easier to dismiss the argument based on source than say perhaps content?

  • Bruce Strickland

    Someone wants to pay me, I’ll pray.  Reasonable rates, cash only.

  • Faith. Without it, it does not matter if apes are men pray. All religions are not equal so the entire approach to studying prayer was bogus from the beginning. Prayer works and that is a fact. However, as long as we group all faiths together as one truth and disregard the Word of God (see Holy Bible), man will continue to be a fool!

  • Deven Kale

    Then see if you can convince a researcher to only use members of your religion to conduct a prayer study. In other words, if you really think that a study was done improperly, then find a way to disprove it. The best way to disprove a study is to do it yourself and see if you get the same results, or do a similar study with better methodologies.

    If you’re not qualified to do a study such as this yourself, then find someone who is and ask them if they’d be willing to do it for you. If there’s a University near you, try starting there and asking around in the sociology department. Even if they’re unwilling to do your study themselves, they may be able to direct you to someone who might be.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s the problem: This group investigates things like this ALL THE TIME, and their investigations have become increasingly insane as the years go by and the same results keep arising again and again. To date, this company has been funded to research the effects of inhaling lemon zest, coffee enemas, coffee grounds injected directly into the intestines, acupuncture, massages, and psychic powers. How many of these were truly worth over a hundred thousand dollars? All you have to do to make this complete bullshit is answer one difficult question:

    “Can I think of something better I could do with a hundred thousand dollars?”

    The investigation into the healing power of psychic auras cost us $104,000 alone. I’m not a doctor, but I can think of a better use for $104,000 than coffee enemas.

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