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‘A major scandal in the history of science’

Professor Edzard Ernst investigates the evidence for positive health benefits from spiritual healing.

Spiritual healers believe that the ‘laying on of hands' generates positive health effects and that they are able to channel (cosmic or divine) ‘energy' into patients' bodies. Their aim is to enhance the body's own capacity to return to good health.

Some healers even claim to achieve very specific effects (i.e. cure a disease). Considering that ~14,000 healers are registered in the UK, it is relevant to test whether healing generates more good than harm.

Our first review found that the majority of clinical trials suggested positive results [1]. As more primary studies emerged, an update of this review seemed necessary. Three years later, the overall result had changed. Most studies now failed to show effects beyond placebo [2]. Since then, several further trials have found no effects of spiritual healing beyond a placebo response [3-6]. One of those studies even indicated that patients might be harmed [6].

Serious concerns have been raised about the validity of some of the early research on spiritual healing. One trial reporting positive effects in AIDS patients [7] has been criticised for selective reporting. When its primary analysis failed to generate positive findings, the impression of a positive results was created through ‘data dredging' [8].

More importantly perhaps, a series of about 20 studies by Daniel P Wirth is now suspected to be fraudulent. An ‘absence of adequate documentation that the healing studies took place as described' was noted by Wirth's former supervisor [9]. ‘Numerous unanswered questions regarding the actual nature of the listed co-authors' involvement in these studies' and ‘the possibility that these foundational studies are without scientific basis' also raised concern.

In 2004, Wirth pleaded guilty of mail and bank fraud [9]. Wirth's co-author, J.S. Horvath, was charged for practicing medicine without a licence and convicted of identity theft and other crimes [10]. Horvath's activities imply that at least some of these data of the studies were fabricated [10].

The results of a multicentre healing study, in which Wirth acted as second author, suggested that distant healing increases the success rate of fertility treatment [11]. This trial is now feared to be the product of scientific misconduct [12,13].

None of the journals which published Wirth's research has so far withdrawn the suspect articles, [14] and his papers continue to be cited as rigorous research demonstrating that the effects of spiritual healing amount to more than a placebo response. The affair has been called ‘a major scandal in the history of science' [15].

And what is the conclusion from all this? For me it is fairly obvious, but I let readers draw their own.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter.

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