It should have ended three years ago. Without all the letters and phone calls. Without the international e-mails and stacks of paper thicker than five New York phone books. The self-correcting nature of...
SANTA ANA, Calif. It should have ended three years ago. Without all the letters and phone calls. Without the international e-mails and stacks of paper thicker than five New York phone books.
The self-correcting nature of science should have run its course, and Bruce Flamm should have been able to drop this whole thing almost as soon as it started in 2001.
Flamm, after all, was just looking for a simple answer:
Why did a peer-reviewed scientific journal publish a study that defied all known laws of science?
But that turned out to be just the first question. When it was not answered, others started to mount. That is when Flamm went from curious to incensed. That is when a question turned into an obsession.
Prayer and pregnancy
In 2001, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study that suggested that women undergoing in vitro fertilization in Korea who were prayed for by Christians in the United States, Canada and Australia were twice as likely to become pregnant as those who were not.
It was either a bombshell or one of the biggest scams Flamm, a Riverside, Calif., obstetrician-gynecologist had ever seen in a scientific journal.
The authors seemed like a well-pedigreed crew: Korean fertility specialist Kwang Yul Cha once directed the CC Infertility Center at Columbia University, and Rogerio Lobo was at the time the university’s ob-gyn department chairman.
Lobo, who also sits on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, took the lead-author role, appearing on “Good Morning America” and discussing the findings with The New York Times.
Flamm was incredulous. He set about to do what scientists do when they think research is flawed: He wrote the journal, questioning the study’s design, its intent, its outcomes.
How can the researchers be sure the Christian groups were the only ones praying for the women? How do you monitor the transmission of prayer to make sure it reached its intended target? If independent statisticians were used to calculate the data, as the study says, why does the research not name them? Where is the proof of their work? If this is a scientific study, where is the science?
Most pointedly, Flamm proposed that the study might be a lie: “Occam’s razor [the principle that the simplest explanation is usually correct] demands that this possibility not be ignored.”
Flamm, a clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine, has published several studies and says when other researchers have questions or challenges, he always responds. That is how research works.
But the journal never acknowledged his letter. His calls were not returned. He was equally unsuccessful reaching the study authors directly.
Scientific vs. spiritual
Flamm, 53, was reared in Chicago by a father who believed in science and a grandmother who placed her faith in ancient mysticism. He saw his father use logic to solve problems while his grandmother burned colored candles and threw salt over her shoulder for the same ends. His father’s world made more sense to him. He says he does not begrudge anyone his or her religious beliefs. He has read the Bible and other books to better understand religion and religiosity.
He has mulled over Pascal’s wager, the theory that since you cannot know whether God exists, you should hedge your bets and worship.
But, to Flamm, there is nothing as pure as science. No scientific conclusion can be considered correct until other scientists duplicate it. And if a conclusion is wrong, it will be proved wrong. In this world. Right away. No salt. No colored candles. No guessing.
He kept hammering at the journal throughout 2002. He wrote a three-part review of the study in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. Other researchers started writing Flamm, sharing their years-long probes into the questionable work of one of the prayer study’s authors, California attorney Daniel Wirth.
But by late 2002, the boost he felt from other skeptics faded. The journal still would not respond. The study not only remained on the JRM Web site, it now was cited in other studies as fact. Flamm was giving up on the notion that much would change.
Throughout his pursuit, the doctor maintained a respect for faith but a fealty to science. Still, Occam’s razor and Pascal’s wager were not enough to win this battle. It took a wholly different theorem to change the course of his pursuit the so-called “network news rule”: If it bleeds, it leads.
Vindication sort of
In May 2004, Wirth and an associate, Joseph Steven Horvath, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and theft. They had used the names of dead children to obtain bank loans, jobs and passports. The FBI charged them with bilking $2 million from Adelphia Communications. Horvath hanged himself in his Pennsylvania prison cell two months later. On Monday, Wirth was sentenced to 60 months in prison.
Suddenly, Flamm’s questions found an audience. The previously accepted study was dissected, discredited and ridiculed in everything from Time magazine to the Australian Doctor’s Magazine. Flamm’s queries were quoted in publications around the world. Columbia University launched an internal investigation, which it dropped after Lobo removed his name from the study.
After three years of silence, Flamm even received his first correspondence from the journal’s editor in chief, Lawrence Devoe, who said JRM would publish an editorial statement about the controversial study.
But the journal’s statement, published this month, was written as a defense of the study by author Cha. And no one connected to the study or to the journal has come out to say it was false or compromised.
So, although his quest seems to be over, Flamm’s elegant, reasonable science ultimately proved as subject to whim as his grandmother’s superstitions.
“The sad part is, if none of this had happened, the study would still be uncontested,” Flamm said. “Maybe that’s the lesson. It took one of the authors’ being arrested to bring to light what should have been brought to light a long time ago.”