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SAN JOSE, Calif. - Skeptics have called it the ''Miracle Study" - findings by scientists that simple prayers could dramatically boost fertility in women.

Published in a respected medical journal by a Capitola, Calif., researcher, a department head at Columbia University and a Korean scientist also based at Columbia, it immediately attracted the attention of the news media, religious groups and couples desperately trying to conceive.

''Women who were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them,'' trumpeted The New York Times in 2001. Other media also picked up the story.

But now, three years after the study first suggested a higher power could influence pregnancy rates, critics are calling it all a sham, a black eye to the research community and proof that medical studies aren't always what they appear to be.

Sullied reputations: Many in the medical field are now saying the only miracle about the study is that it was published to begin with. They wonder if the research was ever conducted at all.

As the controversy rages, the researcher from Capitola is en route to a California prison camp on an unrelated fraud charge. The second scientist recently took his name off the study. The third quietly left Columbia. The government conducted its own investigation and determined the study violated federal research guidelines.

The authors have denied wrongdoing. No one has been able to replicate their results - but neither have they proved that the team invented data.

Still, the reputations of Columbia and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine have been sullied in a very public way. And more importantly, critics say the study has breached the public's faith in the scientific process.

The research involved people in the United States, Canada and Australia praying for Korean women struggling with infertility, without the women's knowledge. Those who did the praying did not know the women, but were given pictures of them.

The purported results were shocking. About half the women who were prayed for became pregnant, compared with just one-fourth of those who were not. Prayers had doubled the success rate of in vitro fertilization, something medicine had never achieved.

Shady characters: When Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California-Irvine College of Medicine, first read the September 2001 article, he said, ''I almost fell out of my chair. They were presenting something that was bizarre, absurd.''

Flamm went to work picking the research apart with a highlighter and fountain pen, and soon became one of the study's most vocal critics.

The true story about the study is known by only a few men - and they aren't talking.

Lead author Kwang Y. Cha quit Columbia University after the scandal broke and has refused to give any interviews since. Cha in November wrote a ''clarification'' for the journal in which the study first appeared. His letter denies any fraud, falsification of data or other wrongdoing.

Rogerio Lobo, who was then chairman of Columbia's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, has since stepped down from that position. He took his name off the study, telling federal investigators that he was not involved with it until more than six months after its completion. Lobo primarily provided ''editorial review and assistance with publication,'' federal investigators found.

The third man is Capitola researcher Daniel P. Wirth. Federal court papers say he is a Santa Clara University law school graduate who is also known as John Wayne Truelove, Rudy Wirth and Rudolph Wirth. He was sentenced in November to five years in prison for embezzling more than $2 million from communications giant Adelphia. Now he is en route to a federal prison camp in California where he will be known as inmate No. 99442-111.

Wirth was the person entrusted with setting up the study's prayer groups. No one knows whether he actually did, and Wirth did not respond to a request for an interview.

''There is no reason to think that Mr. Wirth would have been motivated not to organize prayer groups when such groups are his area of interest,'' Cha wrote in his letter to the journal.

But others aren't so sure.

Early doubts: When Wirth was studying for his master's degree in parapsychology at John F. Kennedy University in California, his professor Jerry Solfvin was so impressed with him that he asked him to join his research team. Wirth went on to publish several studies on ''complementary healing therapies,'' including therapeutic touch and untraditional prayer.

But Solfvin, now an adjunct associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, said he had his doubts about the truthfulness of some of Wirth's earliest research long before the ''Miracle Study'' was ever released.

''I'm right now publishing an article which sheds some doubt on the veracity of some of the data that he's published,'' Solfvin said, although he cannot say whether the ''Miracle Study'' was accurate.

The Adelphia conviction has only added to the controversy over whether the prayer data may have been fraudulent.

Every year, thousands of scientific experiments are carried out, many with little independent supervision.

Typically, scientists conduct their research, write their findings up and submit them to multiple medical journals in hopes one will publish them. Each journal has its own review system, sending submitted studies out to experts in the field who check for accuracy and statistical soundness. But those experts rarely try to replicate the results themselves before publication.

Some journals have higher standards than others, with prestigious publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association rejecting more than 90 percent of the studies sent their way.

And hundreds of studies annually that involve the use of experimental drugs and other medical devices get an extra level of scrutiny from the federal Food and Drug Administration, according to Joanne Rhoads, director of the agency's division of scientific investigations.

Sometimes, journals or government investigators fielding complaints find scientific misconduct. But occasionally mistakes are missed. Esteemed jour- nals such as the Lancet, Science and Nature have had to retract some articles in recent years.

Rhoads estimates that in about 1 or 2 percent of the studies her department reviews, problems are found, with errors ranging from violations over which patients should have participated in a clinical trial to simple statistical mistakes.

But, she cautioned, ''if there is really not good supervision . . . you can sometimes see bad things happen.''

Inconclusive findings: In his only public statement, Wirth told Science & Theology News this summer that just because other studies haven't backed up his findings, that doesn't mean prayer is powerless.

Given the nature of prayer, he said, ''I've come to the realization that we're not going to be able to show these effects all the time, and that's OK. That still can't negate the profound effect that love and compassion have in people's lives.''

So many questions remain about the research, its methodology and its authors that some experts said the study carries very little credence. Such uncertainty, experts say, is bad for the public and the scientific process.

''People desperately wanted this to be true,'' said Flamm. ''Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were?''