Downtown
Hardly a Prayer on ABC's 20/20 Downtown

by Gary P. Posner, M.D.

Downtown
 

On May 31, 2000, I was flown to New York by Caron Shapiro, a producer for ABC-TV's 20/20,  who was preparing a report about medical studies that support the healing power of distant prayer -- even with patients unaware that they were being prayed for. Dr. Michael Guillen, the network's science editor (and a 1997 James Randi Educational Foundation "Pigasus Award" recipient for his "indiscriminate promotion of pseudoscience and quackery"), would be the correspondent, and was interviewing some of the participants himself. But Shapiro wanted to personally interview me. And when we were done more than an hour later, before she treated me to dinner she told me that my open-minded-yet-skeptical comments would serve as a "focal point" (or words to that effect) tying the elements of the piece together. When I asked how she could be so certain that I wouldn't be chopped down to about 30 seconds, as is typically the case with skeptics on such programs, she told me that she was also the story's editor, and that Guillen would essentially be following her script.

Well, would you believe 20  seconds (plus 25 seconds of Guillen attempting to summarize my views)? I could hardly -- when the story finally aired this past August 13 [2001] on the 20/20  stepchild called Downtown  -- but in hindsight the clues had been there. Shapiro's report had been sitting for a year, first tentatively scheduled for last fall on the more prestigious 20/20  with Barbara Walters. When I last inquired of Shapiro on May 23 of this year, she reassured me that her work product was not being reedited and sensationalized. From her e-mail: "Relax, it's [still] mine." But within two weeks she would be leaving ABC (I suspect she was one of the many producers let go this spring as a cost-cutting measure).

More foreshadowing: The Good Morning America  promos on air date were unsettlingly uncritical. As the story began that night, someone other than Shapiro was credited as "Editor." Guillen immediately referred to the prayer-advocating researchers as "skeptical scientists." And, as the program progressed, if anyone was serving as a "focal point," it was paranormalist author Dr. Deepak Chopra, who even conducted a "stare experiment" with Guillen, demonstrating how Chopra's concentrated bursts of silent prayer, from a distant room, had a calming effect on Guillen's nervous system.

More than eight minutes into the 10-minute transcendental lovefest, enter the lone assassin. They didn't use special effects to perch me on a grassy knoll, but they did use the least  open-minded sound bite that Shapiro had evoked from me (about "junk science"), followed several seconds later by my comment on "chance alone." And how persuasive was my glorious appearance? Immediately thereafter, Chopra did acknowledge, "At the moment I would agree that some of these studies are tentative [and] that we should be a little cautious in the way we interpret the results . . . " But at the show's conclusion, a viewer poll was running 9 to 1 in favor of the healing power of distant prayer.


This commentary appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2001 Skeptical Inquirer.


Read Michael Guillen's response to the above (and Posner's reply to him)

Read about Guillen's role in the Raelians-cloning media fiasco here and here.

Read about Deepak Chopra in The Skeptic's Dictionary

 
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