Tue Jun 8, 2004

On a Wing and a Prayer

A couple of people have emailed me about this story. In 2001, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study in which a group of women who wanted to become pregnant by in vitro fertilization were prayed for, without their knowledge, by others. Astonishingly, the paper found that being prayed for doubled your chances of getting pregnant. We all know that praying for oneself can have positive medical consequences if it makes you happy, relaxed and gives you a positive outlook on life. But this paper got a lot of coverage at the time because, obviously, it went so far beyond this. The authors were Daniel Wirth, a lawyer and believer in the supernatural, Kwang Cha who directs a fertility clinic in L.A., and Rogerio Lobo, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Lobo is also on the board of the journal. This week, taking time off from his scholarly research, one of the authors pled guilty to federal charges of fraud.

Daniel P. Wirth … was accused of conspiring with another man to defraud several banks, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Adelphia Communications, a cable-television company. According to the charges, the two men bilked Adelphia of $2.1-million. They pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit mail fraud and bank fraud. Both men will face as much as five years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines when they are sentenced, in September. They have agreed to forfeit more than $1-million seized during an investigation of the case.

The fraud case isn’t about the paper. But what do Wirth’s co-authors think now? Well, in the best traditions of being the Senior Author, Lobo now denies all knowledge of the research:

Dr. Lobo’s secretary, Reba Nosoff, described Dr. Cha as a visiting professor and said he had completed the study without Dr. Lobo’s help … Dr. Cha, said Ms. Nosoff, “brought this study to Dr. Lobo to go over because he could hardly believe the results. Dr. Lobo said it’s a good study, and it is proper. So he put his stamp of approval on it, that’s all.” … [The DHHS’] research-protections office said in the letter that it would not take action against Columbia in part because Dr. Lobo “first learned of the study from Dr. Cha 6-12 months after the study was completed. Dr. Lobo primarily provided editorial review and assistance with publication.”

Ah, the old stamp of approval. I need to get one of those, to increase my publication count. Dr Cha was not available for comment. As Bellesiles had his Cramer and Lott his Lambert, these guys had Bruce Flamm, an OB/GYN who teaches at Irvine. He wrote letters to the journal, but didn’t get any satisfaction so he wrote an article for Skeptic Magazine instead. Apparently he and others had complained about the paper, which had a bizarre and indefensible research design on top of everything else. The Journal dropped the paper from its website after Flamm published his article and are claiming the “paper is being scrutinized, and there will be a statement that will appear in a forthcoming issue.” Meanwhile, both Cha and Lobo have managed to avoid getting quoted directly about their role. I pray that we’ll hear from them soon.