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Request for Errors in The Science of Good and Evil

The Science of Good and Evil - book cover.

My publisher, Henry Holt/Times Books, is preparing the paperback edition of my book, The Science of Good and Evil, and has requested that I send them any changes for errors that might have been found since the first edition hardback was published last September. (That first edition hardback will not be printed any longer, so if you want a copy we have a few cases left and it can be ordered at Skeptic reader Chuck Lemme from Tucson, Arizona, for example, found a small error in my description of Matt Ridley as a geneticist (he is primarily a science writer, although a brilliant one in describing genetics!), and a larger critique of my analogy on page 136 of atoms and people and causality, noting that there is no analogous force in human action to the Brownian motion of atoms. There are surely more errors than these, so if you would be so kind as for forward to me at [email protected] any additional suggested changes (that do not require rewriting entire chapters!), I would be eternally grateful (or a least grateful for a long time). —Michael Shermer

Faux Prayer Study Scandal Turns Even Weirder

It does not seem possible that the prayer study scandal that has been breaking the past several weeks could get any weirder, but according to an AP wire story released last night, the accomplice of the study’s author Daniel Wirth, Joseph Horvath, either killed himself or was killed in his prison cell (Wirth is under house arrest where he dons an electronic ankle bracelet). The AP wire story gives the details. We follow this with an excellent story in Time magazine by Leon Jaroff, the long-time resident skeptic on the magazine’s staff. See also the excellent summary by Kimberly Roots in the latest issue of Science and Theology News (July/August 2004, that just came out this week. Of course, it can and will be argued by prayer-and-healing proponents that one flawed or fraudulent study does not a pseudoscience make, however it does not bode well when such studies cannot be replicated, and contain other numerous and deep flaws. I shall be writing about this more general topic in my Scientific American column, so more on this topic later. In the meantime, weird things just got weirder…

Ex-Adelphia Manager Found Dead in Prison

The Associated Press, July 13th, 2004, 6:14 PM EDT

Allentown, Pa. — A man who pleaded guilty to using phony names to get jobs, obtain bank loans and defraud a cable company was found dead in his prison cell Tuesday, authorities said.

Joseph Steven Horvath, known as John Wayne Truelove to his neighbors and co-workers at Adelphia Communications, was found around 2:45 a.m. with a piece of cloth around his neck and tied to the upper bunk in his cell, Lehigh County officials said. Attempts to revive him failed and he was officially pronounced dead about 45 minutes later, The Morning Call of Allentown reported on its Web site.

In May, Horvath, then 41, and an accomplice, Daniel Wirth, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and bank fraud. Both agreed to forfeit more than $1 million garnered through computer service contracts arranged between them when Horvath was an information technology manager for Adelphia; the company was based in Coudersport at the time, but has since moved to Colorado.

Authorities had struggled to learn Horvath’s identity because he had used so many aliases.

Using the name Joseph Hessler, Horvath once went to prison for lying when he claimed he had been robbed of a $30,000 night deposit. He used the name John Truelove when he worked for Adelphia’s office in Buffalo, N.Y. He once posed as a California doctor and last year burned down his $226,000 bungalow in Upper Saucon, near Allentown, for the insurance money, authorities said.

It was Wirth who first used the name of Truelove, a New York child who died at age 5 in 1959, to obtain a passport in the mid-1980s.

According to a federal indictment, Wirth and Horvath met while pursuing master’s degrees in parapsychology at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, Calif., in the late 1980s.

Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press.

Questioning Healing Prayer:
A reevaluation of a study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two prestigious institutions

by Leon Jaroff
Time, Thursday, July 1st, 2004

An apparently fraudulent study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two respected institutions: New York’s Columbia University and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM). The study, conducted by a trio of Columbia researchers and published in 2001 in the supposedly peer-reviewed JRM, purportedly demonstrated that prayer could help infertile women to conceive.

In their report, the Columbia researchers claimed that women who received in-vitro fertilization at a South Korean hospital were twice a likely as others to conceive if, unknown to them, prayers were uttered in their behalf. And these were no ordinary prayers. They were made by strangers, Christians thousands of miles away in the U.S., Australia and Canada who were shown only unidentified photographs of the Korean women in question. This so-called intercessory prayer supposedly resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50% for those who received it, compared with only 26% for those who did not.

With its validity attested to by the imprimaturs of Columbia and the JRM, the study was heralded in the press, printed in the New York Times, featured on ABCs Good Morning America and widely syndicated.

But some eyebrows were raised, especially those of Dr. Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the University of California. Reviewing the protocol of the study, he found it bewildering, relying on different groups of prayers addressing their attention to different groups of Korean women, and some actually assigned to pray for some of their fellow prayers.

And, though the Columbia report stated that “we set out with the expectation that we would show no benefit of IP (intercessory prayer),” Flamm discovered that one of the Columbia researchers probably believed otherwise. He was Daniel Wirth, who had previously published many research articles claiming miraculous, supernatural healing. Furthermore, Wirth was not a medical doctor—he has a law degree and a masters degree in, of all things, parapsychology.

Dr. Flamm immediately began dispatching e-mails and critical letters to Dr. George Wied, the editor of the JRM, tried repeatedly to reach him by phone, and now, nearly three years later, has still not received a response. When I contacted the the Journal, I was told that the only comment the JRM would make would be in the text of a “forthcoming” issue. The Journal also ignored my e-mail request to identify the peer reviewers of the study. Turning to Columbia, Flamm found that another author of the report, Dr. Kwang Cha, had left the university, and would not respond to inquiries about the study. The third author, Dr. Rogerio Lobo, until recently chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia, originally identified by the university as the teams leader, also refused calls for comment.

But Dr. Flamm has been unrelenting. Since 2001, he has published critiques of the study in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and in the current issue of Skeptic magazine [see below*], blew the lid off the scandal. He reported that in the years following publication of the prayer study, Wirth and an accomplice had been indicted on felony charges, including 13 counts of mail fraud and 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money. The two men have since pled guilty, and face fines and prison terms; Wirth is refusing to talk to the press.

Embarrassed, both Columbia and the JRM are fending off phone calls by the press and beating a hasty retreat. The university now says that Dr. Lobo had only provided “editorial review and assistance” with publication of the study, and it has removed from its Website the press release announcing the study. The JRM, at long last, has announced that it is investigating the matter, and just removed the discredited study from its site.

Still, questions arise. How could Dr. Lobo, a respected scientist, have permitted the release of a flawed study co-authored by a medically-illiterate con man like Wirth? And why did the JRMs peer-review system fail, before publication, to detect the inconsistencies and unsound methodology in the in-vitro study? Who were the peers who vetted it? And why did both Dr. Lobo and Dr. George Wied consistently stonewall for nearly three years when challenged about the study?

Copyright © 2004, Time Inc. All rights reserved.

*Skeptic magazine Editor’s comment:

In the third to last paragraph above, Time magazine is slightly mistaken. While we have mentioned Dr. Flamm’s important work in our eSkeptic newsletter, the full article by Dr. Flamm is to be found in an upcoming issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

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