PSI Studies and Prayer Studies: Déjà vu All Over Again?
Dossey weighs in on the Stenger-Weaver debate
By Larry Dossey
In their recent debates in Research News on the connections between spirituality and health (December 2001 and February 2002), about the only thing Victor J. Stenger and Andrew J. Weaver have in common is their middle initial.
Stenger's objections remind me of Yogi Berra’s famous remark, "It was déjà vu all over again." Many of Stenger’s complaints are virtually identical to the well-worn criticisms he and other skeptics have leveled for years against research in the field of parapsychology (psi).
Religion-and-health researchers would benefit by informing themselves about past psi skirmishes to understand why skeptics are going out of their way to criticize their field. They might also realize that skeptics are unlikely to respond to the evidence in the religion-and-health field no matter how compelling it proves to be.
This might help religion-and-health researchers avoid energy-draining debates that show little promise of resolution, such as the Stenger-Weaver exchange.
Stenger’s complaints extend beyond the religion-and-health field to involve studies in intercessory prayer. I suspect Stenger is agitated by studies in intercessory prayer for the same reason he is vexed by psi. Both intercessory prayer and psi suggest that consciousness may manifest nonlocally, remotely and in ways that are currently unclear. To Stenger, therefore, complaints against psi apply equally to intercessory prayer.
In both psi and prayer research criticism, a common tactic is to single out a particular study, denounce it and generalize to condemn the entire field. Stenger quotes with approval a paper by Richard P. Sloan and colleagues and their "comprehensive" review, in which the only prayer study they dealt with (lending new meaning to the term "comprehensive") was the well-known but imperfect study of intercessory prayer by cardiologist Randolph Byrd. Like Sloan et al., Stenger singled out Byrd for special criticism and summarily dismissed the entire prayer-and-healing field.
Skeptics say that as psi studies become more precise, the phenomena under investigation will disappear. However, analyses suggest that the best studies in parapsychology often produce the strongest results. Skeptics claim that the results of psi experiments are too variable to be believable. In fact, the effect sizes in some fields of psi have remained essentially constant over decades, opposite the claims of skeptics.
In his criticisms of religion-and-health research, Stenger relies on the fall-back position of many arch-skeptics — the idea that, as he says, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." And they do; few religion, prayer or psi researchers would object to this view. But as the history of parapsychology shows, no matter how strong the evidence becomes, die-hard skeptics simply raise the bar a little higher. This is why it is fruitless for Weaver to keep hammering away at Stenger about the approximately 1,200 studies in the religion-and-health field. If Stenger is unpersuaded by this body of evidence, it is unlikely that he will be persuaded by thousands more studies.
Evidence, even if extraordinary, will never be extraordinary enough to anyone who is inclined in advance to dismiss a particular field as inherently off-base. This is obvious in parapsychology.
Readers of Research News who are unaware of the strength of the data of parapsychology may consider some of my above comments exaggerated. They may be unpersuaded that there are relevant parallels between the complaints of skeptics toward psi, prayer and the religion-and-health field. However, considerable scholarship has been dedicated toward evaluating the field of parapsychology, with positive findings.
For example, the U.S. Congress asked Jessica Utts, an internationally recognized mathematician and statistician, to assess government-funded research in parapsychology. Utts first published her findings in Statistical Science in 1991.
Among her conclusions: "Many anomalous phenomena, such as the possible effect of prayer on healing, are amenable to rigorous study. Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud."
Religion, spirituality and prayer are not psi. They are common, however, in being controversial, bridging disciplines and drawing fire from individuals who believe they are a threat to "normal" science. As a common strategy, researchers in these disciplines might consider the recommendations of the late psi researcher Charles Honorton: "I believe the concept of the paranormal is an anachronism and should be abandoned. I believe in science, and I am confident that a science that can contemplate the origin of the universe, the nature of physical reality 10^-33  seconds after the big bang, anthropic principles, quantum nonlocality and parallel universes, can come to terms with the implications of parapsychological findings. There is no danger for science in honestly confronting these issues; it can only be enriched by doing so. But there is a danger for science in encouraging self-appointed protectors who engage in polemical campaigns that distort and misrepresent serious research efforts. Such campaigns are not only counterproductive, they threaten to corrupt the spirit and function of science and raise doubts about its credibility. True skepticism involves the suspension of belief, not disbelief."
Perhaps even Stenger can reassess his complaints about research linking religion, spirituality, prayer and health. If he does change his mind, it will not be debates, but data, that prompts him to do so. Therefore, religion-and-health researchers may find value in the strategy elected by many psi researchers-- avoiding endless debates, focusing on doing good work and blessing those who differ.

Larry Dossey, M.D., is executive editor of the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. He is the author of nine books on the role of consciousness and spirituality in medicine, most recently Healing Beyond the Body.