A Test of Faith

A controversial San Francisco study is spending taxpayers' money to see if Christian clergy, Indian medicine men, and Tibetan lamas can heal patients with AIDS and brain tumors

"It's worse now because before, it [the research] was run by quacks, charlatans, and liars. But you can't use those words anymore."


Dr. Sampson lives with his wife and two dogs on a quiet street in Los Altos Hills, just minutes from the Stanford University campus, where he used to be a professor of clinical medicine.

Nowadays, at age 71, Sampson is retired, and he putters around his house in college sweat shirts and khaki pants, though he still travels to Stanford to teach a class called "Alternative Medicine: A Scientific Perspective" every other year. In his spare time, he also runs a medical journal called The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicineout of his home, a project he finances on his own because it doesn't make any money.

Indeed, Sampson is one of the most vocal critics of all things alternative medicine, which he sees as an affront to legitimate science. He believes there is no need for research on alternative medicine, since quality research has already been conducted proving that these remedies don't work or are neutral. He says the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is a "national disgrace" and should be abolished. The center is run by "believers," he says, who give money to "ideologues" to conduct biased experiments.

Sampson has even stronger feelings about the research of distant healing, which in his mind wrongfully blurs religious belief and medicine. Distant healing is a subject that inspires Sampson to passionate diatribes.

"Can prayer and distant healing be researched?" Sampson says one sparkling winter day, using his living room couch as a pulpit. "The answer is yes. But the question is: Should it be?"

As Sampson warms to his subject, his glasses, which he broke a few days ago, continually slip askew on his nose. "Most people involved with alternative medicine are ideologues," he continues. "They're committed to ideology, which is not the case with good scientists. You have to be honest with how you set up the experiment and control for all the variables. It's easy with chemistry and physics -- when there's not religion or ideology [involved]. When there's no belief riding on it.

"Medicine and science, in the last 500 years, has tried to eliminate concepts of the spiritual, of religion and belief, which offer nothing toward the advancement of science," he says. "There's no disgrace in not including the spiritual in medicine. Why can't people look elsewhere for their spiritual needs? You can go to church on Sunday or to the hospital chaplain.

"What they're [Targ and colleagues] studying is impossible," he says. "It's not likely to be true. If they were thinking logically, they wouldn't bother doing the research. But that doesn't hold them back because they have convinced one another, and now they've convinced Congress and a lot of people in the press, that these things are true."

It is on this question of likelihood that Targ's critics are most vocal. "In this world, there is this business called "plausibility,'" Sampson says. "If it is highly unlikely to be true or violates scientific principles, then it's implausible. The general feeling is that you don't go researching something that's implausible, because what's the basis for it? This is the kind of thing that happens with pseudoscientists."

More moderate critics agree that distant healing lacks scientific grounding. "We would have to revise the way we think about the physical world and universe because they're [Targ et al.] proposing something that cannot be understood by the science of today," says Dr. Richard Sloan of Columbia University. "You could point out that that's how scientific revolutions take place, and that's true, but is this the stuff of scientific revolutions? And it seems to me that it's not."

For distant healing to work, there would have to be some form of "nonlocal" communication, which is a theory not currently accepted by the mainstream scientific community. Indeed, modern science would have to rethink its understanding of space and matter to accommodate distant healing.

"It's not based on any scientific model, therefore any results that come from it are suspicious because they don't make sense in terms of the gradual accumulation of science," says Dr. Koenig of Duke University, who has co-written an article for Sampson's medical journal. "No matter how well you do the study, even if you do a good study, like Targ tends to do, the scientific community will tend to doubt the study no matter what you do."

But unlike Sampson, few critics will say outright that a particular field should not be studied.

"I think it's worth investigating because sometimes investigation of far-fetched ideas does produce important results and new knowledge," says Koenig. "However, at some point, I think we will have studied this phenomenon enough and it will be a waste of tax dollars to continue to pursue it. I don't think that we are at that point yet, but if a couple of large, well-done future studies show no results, then it may be time to put this baby to bed."

Dr. Edward Halperin of Duke University says that though he is skeptical of distant healing research, he also believes in academic freedom. "As a department chair, I have strong feelings about academic freedom," Halperin says. "But as an academic, that doesn't prevent me from criticizing the research. And to say that you can wave your hands over people and cure them with force fields -- well, it cannot be measured and they do not exist. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't worry about people's spiritual needs -- that's all good medicine -- but you shouldn't leave your scientific brain at the door."

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