Intended for healthcare professionals

History And Mystery

Retroactive prayer: a preposterous hypothesis?

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 18 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1465

A Scientist's Perspective

I am not baffled by some of the responses to the Dossey and Olshansky
paper on “retroactive prayer: a preposterous hypothesis.” While other
responders raise valid statistical questions or question the comparison to
the esoterica of modern physics, these betray their deep distrust of the
only real principles of science: the unswerving commitment to facts; only
facts. Larry Dossey’s credentials in careful research and writing are
impeccable. When a responder has to drag in the word “Holocaust” to
buttress his case one knows he is short of arguments. Likewise “the
Force.” One is reminded of the emotionalism of all fundamentalists.

These puerile reactions confirm the view of Alfred North Whitehead,
great mathematician and philosopher, who fifty years ago wrote: “Skeptics
and believers are all alike. At this moment scientists and skeptics are
the leading dogmatists. Advance in detail is admitted: fundamental
novelty is barred.”

As a materials scientist with one thousand papers, I have learned in
fifty years at the bench that genuine innovation comes from the ability to
be open to the extrema among observations. Whitehead’s “fundamental
novelties.” (vide supra)

In five years now of in depth contact with the literature and
personal contact with the world’s leaders, it appears to me that the
entire field of “whole person healing”—including prayer—and its time-
tested empirical data base over millennia, provides the science community
with both irrefutable scientific evidence, and the best opening to utterly
new science. Compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars of public
money for “GUT and superstrings” which has returned a mathematical zero in
benefits to the supporters (tax payers), prayer and intuition (and many
other practices) are infinitely more cost effective and credible to
working scientists (as distinct from dogmatic fundamentalist adherents of
some lesser god of a theory).

I do not necessarily support more publicly supported research on
prayer. Conversely, I believe public support of “research” on
hypothetical births of the Universe, parallel Universes, strings, or
whatever, which cannot be tested experimentally, and which can have no
possible impact on society, should be phased out, as is the public support
of (other) religions.

The increase of all health giving practices, exercise, learning to
enjoy eating modestly, small group connections, meditation, prayer (for
those who choose it) should be a much higher priority for private
philanthropy. If some form of “worship” of parallel Universes and GUT can
be shown to have health effects, I would support those also, in proportion
to the amount of data provided, and number of worshippers.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

19 January 2004
Rustum Roy
Evan Pugh Professor of the Solid State Emeritus
Penn State University, University Park, PA 16802