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Like Intellectual Toxic Waste, Religion Seeps Into Medicine
No place is free of irrational thought-pushing. Richard P. Sloan, director of the behavioral medical program at Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance Of Religion And Medicine, writes in the LA Times that an effort is now afoot to make religion part of the practice of medicine:

Of course, religion is not utterly irrelevant to patients. If it were, hospitals would not have chaplains and chapels. But before organized medicine decides that religion has any value in physical healing, several things ought to be considered. First, the scientific evidence supposedly linking religious practices with better health is shockingly weak — so bad, in fact, that if we were discussing drugs, the Food and Drug Administration would have to find them unsafe and ineffective. Most research studies that claim to show how religious involvement is associated with better health fail to rule out other factors that might account for the relationship.

We all agree, for instance, that there is a real connection between lung cancer and carrying a cigarette lighter in your pocket, but no one thinks that the lighter causes cancer. The lighter is a marker of another factor — smoking — that has been scientifically proved to cause the cancer.

In precisely the same way, religious practices are likely to be markers of some other factor — for example, social support from family, friends or the community or, perhaps, the absence of behavioral risk factors — that may lower the risk of disease.

Studies that show, for example, the health benefits of attending worship services or reading the Bible often make this mistake. A study of residents of Washington County, Md. — the largest study ever to demonstrate that church attendance was associated with reduced mortality — made precisely this error; it failed to recognize that attendance itself was a marker for good health.

i.e., do people not drink and smoke because they're religious, or are people who don't drink and smoke more likely to be religious?

Sloan continues:

The effort to link health and religion has other problems as well. For one thing, doctors already have so little time in their interactions with patients that they routinely fail to follow established guidelines for preventive care and for treatment of chronic disease. If, in the future, physicians spend their limited time with patients engaging in spiritual inquiries, they will have even less time to address depression, smoking cessation, weight control or diabetes self-care — factors that are demonstrably related to disease and an increased risk of mortality.

Personally, I'd like my medical care to be rooted only in science. The more irrationality that seeps in on the part of the doctor, the more nervous I am about the ability of that doctor to think rationally. And I'm already afraid enough already -- and I think more people should be -- that many doctors haven't read a study or journal article since they got out of med school.

Oh yeah, and about that famous Columbia University study about women who supposedly did better in in vitro fertilization through the power of prayer? A fraud. Lila Guterman writes for The Chronicle Of Higher Education that Bruce L. Flamm, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California at Irvine, said the paper had "'bewildering' methodological flaws":

Instead of merely having a group of people pray for the women attempting to get pregnant, the study had one group doing that, a second group praying to help the first group, and a third group praying that "God's will or desire be fulfilled for the prayer participants" in the first two groups.

"I couldn't believe it had been accepted [for publication] based on that fact alone," said Dr. Flamm.

He said he had written several letters to the editor of the journal detailing his views but received no response. The paper retained its published status until Dr. Flamm wrote an article, which appeared in Skeptic magazine late last month (Amy corrects: quite some time ago), that revealed the paper's connection to the fraud case.

Here's more on the story from The Observer, in a piece by Paul Harris:

The research listed three authors of the study: Daniel Wirth and two Columbia fertility specialists, Dr Kwang Cha and Dr Rogerio Lobo. Kwang Cha has since left Columbia and now helps to run fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Korea. Lobo is still at Columbia. Neither returned phone calls and emails requesting an interview. Wirth's lawyer, William Arbuckle, also failed to return The Observer's calls.

On 18 May, Wirth pleaded guilty to multi-million-dollar fraud charges against US cable telecommunications company Adelphia Communications. While working for Adelphia, Horvath had steered $2.1 million of contracts to Wirth. The pair now face up to five years in jail and up to $250,000 in fines.

FBI papers filed during the case also show that Wirth has used a series of false identities over the years. In the mid-1980s, Wirth used the name of John Wayne Truelove to obtain a passport and rent apartments in California. The real Truelove was a New York child who had died as an infant in 1959.

He also used the name of Rudy Wirth, who died in 1998, to establish an address in New York and claim social security benefits. It is not clear whether Wirth and Rudy Wirth were related.

It has emerged that Wirth has no medical qualifications. He graduated with a law degree and then took a master's in parapsychology at John F. Kennedy University in California, where he met Horvath.

Wirth and Horvath have co-authored numerous pieces of research claiming to prove paranormal activities. Many of them are linked to a body called Healing Sciences Research International, which Wirth heads. However, the institute appears to be only a mail box with no telephone number.

Horvath also has a long criminal history and has used many fake identities, including Joseph Hessler, a child who died in Connecticut in 1957. It was as Hessler that he was jailed for fraud in 1990. But it was as John Truelove - using the same false identity as Wirth - that he was arrested in 2002 for burning down his own bungalow in order to claim the insurance. Horvath has also pleaded guilty to practising medicine without a licence after posing as a doctor in California.

Sceptical scientists liken the two to a pair of conmen, similar to the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can. 'They seemed to think they were cleverer than everyone else. It was maybe the love of the game that spurred them on,' said Professor Dale Beyerstein of the University of British Columbia, who has been investigating the pair's research for several years.

Of course, religion itself is based mainly on fraudulent thinking -- the notion, based in zero evidence, that there is a god, and that god handed down the often contradictory document called The Bible (or The Koran, The New Testament, etc.)

If, as Daniel Dennett suggests, religion were viewed as irreverently and unsentimentally as, say, animal husbandry (as it should be), people would have to admit it's based on a fraud. Only because science is held to an actual standard of proof was fraud eventually discovered in the praying-for-babies case.

Posted by aalkon at December 3, 2006 11:37 AM

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Now that you are in Paris you may have heard about the latest infrigement of religion in scientific and medical issues : every year in December we have this big public and media event called Telethon where people are encouraged to give money for medical research, mostly aimed at genetic diseases like myopathy. Usually several hundred millions of euros are raised in a couple of days.

This year, the catholic church advocates a boycott of the Telethon on the basis that some of this money goes to research programs using unclaimed embryos which would go down the drain anyway.

Posted by: Alain Q. at December 3, 2006 7:09 AM

Hadn't heard of it (and thanks for popping by). Really disgusting, and especially considering nobody's doing anything with the embryos anyway.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 3, 2006 8:49 AM

Embryos make an excellent pate. All you need is a good Cuisinart.

Posted by: Lena at December 3, 2006 9:05 AM

Gregg had wild boar paté for lunch today, but I believe it was fully grown when they killed it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 3, 2006 4:39 PM

Has Mark had any deep-fried bull's testicles lately?

PS: Go Bruins!
http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-uscucla3dec03,0,7150274.story?track=tottext

Posted by: Lena at December 3, 2006 5:54 PM

Actually, he had civet (Bambi) yesterday.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 3, 2006 10:58 PM

> people would have to admit
> it's based on a fraud

Fraud? It has nothing to teach us about personal or social aspiration, or imagination, or logic, or loneliness, or harsh life on a cold planet, but just the will to cheat?

This is starting to seem like a personal thing.

Posted by: Crid at December 4, 2006 3:28 PM

If you're looking for something to teach you about logic, Crid, I'd pass on the religious tracts and go straight for something by Frege or Quine or Moore or whomever. "The Uses of Argument" by Stephen Toulmin. 4 stars.

As for imagination, well, I'll concede that some parts of the New Testament make for very lovely poetry, especially that part of the 21st psalm where the lord maketh me lie down in green pastures.

Posted by: Lena at December 4, 2006 7:46 PM

Some of the smartest people who ever lived, towering giants of the rational, have been believers. Mahony's had a bad week, but I'd put him up against any number of boardroom tyrants in a fistfight.

Look, a lot of people turn to religion because they got nowhere else to go. And the church has been there for them and their great-great-great-grandparents in good times and bad. A huge part of the human experience has happened in religion, even for non-believers... As Robert Hughes once put it, if only to give them something to non-believe (paraphrase). To sum it up as "fraud' is silly.

Posted by: Crid at December 4, 2006 8:53 PM

'To sum it up as "fraud' is silly.'

Most of us have nothing against people who pray. I've been know to do it myself. However, this accusation of fraud was leveled in the context of a criticism of prescribing prayer for medical conditions. Because prayer-as-medicine for serious diseases such as cancer could lead to unnecessary suffering and reduced survival, I think the label "immoral" is actually more accurate than "fraud." And of course, it's not just prayer that's the problem. There are plenty of people out there, such as Louise "You Can Heal Your Life" Hay, who've probabably escorted many seriously ill people to unnecessarily early deaths with her ridiculous new age books and pricey seminars.

People are free to make bad choices and die for them. I'm just not comfortable with the profit-making that often goes on around it. Crazy world, ain't it?

Posted by: Lena at December 5, 2006 11:43 AM

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