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Paranormal Research Author Pleads Guilty to Fraud

Bruce L. Flamm, M.D.

On October 2, 2001 the New York Times reported that researchers at prestigious Columbia University in New York found that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them [1]. The study's results were absolutely miraculous. In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is the most advanced form of infertility treatment currently available and represents the last hope for women with severe infertility. Therefore, any technique that could increase the efficacy of IVF by even a few percent would be a medical breakthrough. Yet the Columbia University study claimed to have demonstrated, in a carefully designed randomized controlled trial, that distant prayer by anonymous groups had doubled the success rate. Days later an article published in newspapers around the nation stated that Rogerio Lobo, chairman of Columbia's obstetrics and gynecology department and the study's lead author, told Reuters Health that, "Essentially, there was a doubling of the pregnancy rate in the group that was prayed for." ABC News medical editor and Good Morning America commentator Dr. Timothy Johnson reported that, "A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results; but many physicians remain skeptical."

The following facts related to the Columbia University prayer study confirm that those physicians who doubted the study's astounding results had extremely good reasons to be skeptical. It will be interesting to see if ABC's Dr. Johnson, a medical doctor who also serves as an evangelical minister at the fundamentalist Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Massachusetts, will report or ignore the following shocking information.

The study's three authors were Kwang Cha, Rogerio Lobo, and Daniel Wirth. Dr. Cha, has left Columbia University and refuses to return phone calls or letters about the report. Dr. Rogerio Lobo, identified by the New York Times and ABC News as the report's lead author, now claims to have not been involved with the study until after its completion and to have provided only, "editorial assistance". Dr. Lobo also refuses to return phone calls or letters about the study. If the report's lead author did not conduct the international prayer study, who did?

The remaining author is a mysterious individual known as Daniel Wirth. Mr. Wirth has no medical degree but does have a long history of publishing studies claiming to support the existence of paranormal phenomena. Many of these studies originated from an entity called, "Healing Sciences Research International," an organization that he supposedly headed. This entity's only known address was apparently a Post Office Box in Orinda California. Wirth holds an MS degree is in the dubious field of "parapsychology" and also has a law degree.

In October 2002, Wirth and his former research associate Joseph Horvath (also known as Joseph Hessler) were indicted by a federal grand jury. Both men were charged with bilking the troubled cable television provider Adelphia Communications Corporation out of $2.1 million by infiltrating the company and having it pay Wirth for unauthorized consulting work. Police investigators discovered that Wirth is also known as John Wayne Truelove. FBI investigators revealed that Wirth first used the name of Truelove, a New York child who died at age 5 in 1959, to obtain a passport in the mid-1980's. In the current case, Wirth and Horvath were charged with 13 counts of mail fraud, 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money, 1 count of making false statements on loan applications and five other counts of fraud [2]. The federal grand jury concluded that their relationship extended back more than 20 years and involved more than $3.4 million in income and property obtained by using the names of children who died more than 40 years ago.

Curiously, at the time of the indictment, Horvath was already in jail charged with arson for burning down his Pennsylvania house to collect insurance money. The FBI investigation revealed that Horvath had previously gone to prison after being convicted in a 1990 embezzlement and false identity case in California. The investigation also revealed that he had once been arrested for posing as a doctor in California. It appears that the "doctor" who performed biopsies on human research subjects in Wirth's paranormal healing studies may have actually been Mr. Horvath impersonating a doctor. Horvath co-authored another of Wirth's bizarre studies in which salamander limbs were amputated and found to grow back more quickly when "healers" waived their hands over the wounds.

Both Wirth and Horvath initially pleaded innocent to the felony charges. However, in May 2004, just as the criminal trial of the United States v. Wirth & Horvath was scheduled about to begin, both men pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to commit mail fraud and bank fraud [4]. They are scheduled for sentencing in September.

To sum up: One author of the Columbia University prayer study has left the University and refuses to comment; another now claims to have not actually participated in the study and also refuses to comment; and another is headed to federal prison for fraud. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this entire sordid saga can be summed up in one question: How did a bizarre study claiming supernatural results end up in a peer-reviewed medical journal' We may never know because the editors of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine also refuse to answer calls or respond to letters about this study. Worse yet, the entire study remains accessible through their Web site, and the public has been given no reason to doubt its validity. It must be emphasized that, in the entire history of modern science, no claim of any type of supernatural phenomena has ever been replicated under controlled conditions. You might think that medical journal editors would be keenly aware of this fact and therefore be highly skeptical of supernatural claims. In any case, the damage has been done. The fact that a "miracle cure" study was deemed suitable for publication in a scientific journal automatically gave credibility and resulted in widespread media coverage.

In reality, the Columbia University prayer study was based on a bewildering study design and included many sources of error. I have already summarized the study's potential flaws in a critique in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine [3]. But worse than flaws, in light of all of the shocking information presented above, it's possible that the Columbia prayer study may never have been conducted at all. It remains to be seen whether the news media will find this situation as newsworthy as the original report on prayer and IVC.

References

  1. Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lopo RA. Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Journal of Reproductive Medicine 46:781-787, 2001
  2. Fourth superseding indictment. U.S.A. v. John Doe (FBI No. 034055NA9) and Joseph Wirth. U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Filed Feb 12, 2004.
  3. Flamm B. Faith healing by prayer: Review of Cha, KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA, Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization—embryo transfer? Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 6(1):47-51), 2001.
  4. Plea agreement. U.S.A v Daniel Wirth. U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Case No. 4:CR-02-0256, May 17, 2004.

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Dr. Flamm is an obstetrician/gynecologist with Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, Riverside, California and Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of California, Irvine.

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This article was posted om June 1, 2004.