Friday, February 29, 2008

Imagine no religion

Imagine yourself being attended to in the ER: your blood pressure has dropped to a dangerously low level, your white blood cell count has shot through the roof, you want to say something but you're too weak to even move your lips. You slip in and out of consciousness, though at one point you distinctly hear wailing around you (sounds like your wife or daughter) and you're able to make out what looks a priest at the foot of your bed. That last bit makes your heart race, if only your body had enough strength to make it race in the first place. You would've heard the EEG go monotone but you'd already blacked out a full minute before they started CPR ... to no avail.

A week after the funeral your family finally receives the autopsy report. You succumbed to a most virulent form of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). How did you get the superbug? Well, speculation among the hospital staff has it that you probably got infected when you had your coronary bypass surgery a few weeks ago. You see ever since they started accepting female Muslims the number of surgery-related infections such as MRSA has gone up by over 400%. Does that mean these females are carriers of MRSA? Well, not exactly. The fact of the matter is that these Muslim women vehemently oppose the standard hygienic practice of scrubbing their hands and arms before entering the operating room and handling patients. Specifically, these women did not wash and scrub their forearms to rid themselves of various pathogens nor did they follow the standard practice of having bare forearms when performing and assisting in surgery. It's quite possible that one of those women had inadvertently infected you.

Now merely a psyche--a soul--being ferried by Charon across the River Styx you see your family filing a malpractice suit against the hospital. But you nearly dash across the water when you hear the judge dismiss the suit on grounds that the Muslim women were merely exercising their religious rights. The fact that it was against their religion to expose their forearms during the scrub and in the surgical theater is more than enough reason to exonerate these women and the hospital. In this age of political correctness and appeasement, religious sensibilities trumps science, rationality and patient welfare. If medical practices and procedures conflict with religion then we must respect the latter and cross our fingers the pathogens respect and spare the lives of the patients. Could you have avoided the fatal infection had you insisted on a surgical team sans Muslim women? Certainly not, for that would've definitely been construed as religious intolerance and prejudice, an offense which could very well have landed you in court!

The above is fictional, but look at how we may be inching toward such a scenario:

Medics in hospitals in at least three major English cities have refused to follow the regulations aimed at helping tackle superbugs because of their faith, it has been revealed. Women medical students at Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool objected to rolling up their sleeves when washing their hands and removing arm coverings in theatre, claiming it is regarded as immodest. Similar concerns were raised at Leicester University -and Sheffield University reported a case of a Muslim medic refusing to "scrub" because it left her forearms exposed.... [T]he Islamic Medical Association insisted that covering all the body in public, except the face and hands, was a basic tenet of Islam. It said: "No practising Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow." The new Department of Health guidance was introduced this month in a bid to restrict the spread of potentially fatal infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficle. [link]

If religionists could have it their way, Jehovah's Witnesses would ban all blood transfusions and organ transplants, Muslims would forbid all women from exposing, scrubbing, and disinfecting their forearms, and Christian Scientists (who believe that only prayer can cure) would shut the pharmaceutical industry down, close down all medical schools, and force all doctors to switch careers.

We must not bow down to religion. Irrational beliefs, beliefs that have no foundation in reality do not deserve respect. They deserve unceasing criticism and derision.

Appeasement of Muslims, immigrant or otherwise, is not the way to go. People, whatever their creed may be, must submit to the will of secularism. No ifs, no buts. No special privileges, no special treatment.


Note: The various symptoms and other circumstances that accompany MRSA infection are just made up. The symptoms and course of the disease may not be so.

Monday, February 25, 2008

4ever trying to rip us off

"4G Antioxidants" is one of the latest food supplements to hit the market. The 4Gs refer to substances contained in each capsule of the product: gingko biloba, grape seed, ginseng, and garlic.

To promote their product there's a health show on radio (more of an infomercial really) that's sponsored by 4G. The hosts of the show, unsurprisingly, constantly plug 4G and recommend it to their audience. The format and objectives of the show are not unlike those of a weekly program on the same radio station where the doctor who co-hosts incessantly, indefatigably, unrestrainedly, unscrupulously tells his listeners and callers week after week to take the products imported by HNC, namely, Liveraide, Fitrum, and My Marvel Taheebo Tea. Now tell me this doctor is not on HNC's payroll.

There's also a 4G tv ad you can vew online. In it you see and hear a young and popular airhead, I mean, actress bubblingly endorsing the product (in other words, reading the script and singing praises in return for an irresistibly handsome wad of lucre). The whole ad is little more than marketing drivel. It claims that 4G "helps protect our bodies from the harmful effects of oxidation and free radicals" thereby preventing disease, strengthening our body, and making us "4ever looking young and 4ever feeling healthy." In other words, we're being sold snake oil. I probably wouldn't have written this entry if not for one claim therein that I simply cannot let pass without unbridled censure.

According to the makers of 4G its product is "all natural so it's proven safe and effective." In that case, since hemlock, ricin, botulin, E. coli, guano, tapeworms, death cap mushroom, among others, are all natural, by 4G's logic they must be safe and effective. To prove this I'd like the board of directors of 4G to take the above, singly or as a cocktail, and show the world once and for all how natural = safe + effective.

I don't know whether to cry or blow my top (perhaps both). How can the mere fact that something is "all natural" lead anyone to conclude it being safe and effective? This is flagrant bad logic. This is flat-out falsehood. It's flim flam. It's a con job! The statement exists simply because the makers/sellers of 4G want to bamboozle the public into believing that their product is "proven safe and effective," giving the silliest of reasons simply to make a sentence.

I see a potential legal case to be made here too. Does the Bureau of Food and Drugs allow ads to claim their product "proven safe and effective" without robust scientific evidence? I should hope not. But then again I am hardly delusional about the ethical integrity of any government agency.

As for the whole antioxidants brouhaha, Dr. Steven Novella has just recently written a piece that addresses the issue of just what the current state of scientific evidence is on this matter. Hop on over to the highly recommended Science-Based Medicine blog and read his Antioxidant Hype and Reality. In one sentence: The jury is still out; there is still much research, studying and testing to be done. Novella's advice: "When it comes to the marketing hype for antioxidant products I can make a clear recommendation--healthy skepticism." I think we can extend that recommendation to all "food supplements" including vitamins. As the late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan might have said, when it comes to medical hype make sure your baloney detector is switched on and kept on.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Don't toss your brain out

About a week ago, in the comment section of one of my blog entries, a woman shared her story:
My husband, a patient with kidney disease, has recently attended Father Suarez's healing mass. I am a skeptic myself, but if he is healed, I will happily throw clear thinking out the window.

As I implied in my curt, if not seemingly cryptic, reply to her, the logic is fallacious. Her implied reasoning as to why she would throw out skepticism and critical thinking is as follows.

Her husband H attended event E
Some unspecified time later H's renal disease is cured
Therefore E was the cause of H's healing.

Unfortunately, she has failed to take into account the other events her husband had gone through besides Suarez's healing mass. Was he taking medication? Was he on a certain special diet? What other treatments was he undergoing? We're also not told whether the particular renal disorder is such that no natural/spontaneous remission is possible or has ever been documented.

Presupposing that H's kidneys do become disease-free, which of the various events in H's life actually caused it? Without investigation we won't know. And even with investigation we might not know with certitude.

Non causa pro causa. This is the false cause fallacy--an error in causal reasoning. In particular, the woman above commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Just because two events are temporally proximal to one another does not warrant the conclusion that one caused the other. For any particular X there are many events that are temporally proximal to it. We can't just pick and choose which one is the cause.

It's quite revealing when she said that she would "happily throw clear thinking out the window." That she would toss her brain out only indicates that she wasn't thinking clearly in the first place. While I commend her for being skeptical, she has quite some studying to do in the area of causal reasoning.

On the other hand, she seems to be implying that if her husband doesn't get well, she'll remain a skeptic or won't believe in the powers of Suarez. Well, good for her, because indeed the lack of cure would mean that none of the events in H's life--including attendance of the Suarez healing mass--led to healing. If the claim of the proponents of a certain treatment X is that X leads to cure, and if X fails to lead to a cure, then such lack of cure falsifies the claim. Thus, the continued presence of renal disease falsifies the claim of miracle healing powers.

In practice of course there are various reasons--licit or illicit--that can be churned out to explain why X failed. Perhaps for X to be efficacious we need twice the dosage we had given our subjects, or perhaps it is efficacious only for those whose disease has not progressed beyond a certain point, etc.

However, in the case of miracles, it boggles the mind how there can exist any constraint that can hamper a supposedly omnipotent and omnibenevolent being from supernaturally curing its own creation. In fact an all-powerful being could most easily restore lost limbs, split conjoined twins, make normal those born with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. If one is all-powerful and all-loving and dispenses miracles, how can it be that the majority suffer from disease and so many die from horrible diseases? Yet the fact is clear. Lourdes has a dismal record of miracles and Suarez isn't some medical Midas who cures everyone he touches (the number of testimonials is less than the number of those who've attended the healing services). Furthermore, in the case of Suarez, there has yet to be a single officially declared miracle1, 2. Moderator of the Companions of the Cross Fr. Scott McCaig admits that. “[God] doesn’t heal everybody and I don’t understand why necessarily.” Martin Rovers, professor of human sciences at Saint Paul University in Canada, offers an explanation:
[Miraculous healing is] a gift and it happens at a time that we’ll never know. It happens to the saint and to the sinner and it happens to the strong and the lowly. The word that people use for that – that’s just mystery.”

Unfortunately, thinking up a reason doesn't mean that the offered explanation is true. And Rovers' explanation is hardly satisfactory--the implicit premise therein that a deity exists and the Christian one at that is not even known to be true (McCaig makes this unwarranted assumption as well). That it involves positing an entity not yet known to be true/real means it's not a parsimonious explanation. And that it assumes miracles to be true makes it doubly unparsimonious (as we have seen it is fallacious to jump to the conclusion that a miracle has taken place on the basis of inexplicability). More importantly, however, Rovers' hypothesis is an illicit ad hoc explanation. It is untestable and unfalsifiable; it can never be known to be true or false. In short it will forever remain in the realm of pure speculation. And that is why it can be relied upon as a psychological crutch by believers. Its nonfalsifiability perpetuates the delusion that miraculous healing is factual.

Finally, calling something mystery or Mystery does nothing to add to our understanding. "Mystery" merely is a stand-in and placeholder for "we don't know." It would be more to the point and in fact more intellectually and epistemologically honest if Suarez, McCaig, Rovers, et al. came out and said, "We don't know whether the supernatural exists. We don't know whether deities exist. We don't know whether the particular god we believe in exists. We don't know whether there in fact are miracles. And so the biggest mystery is whether any of our beliefs has any basis in reality, whether any of the things we believe in are true."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The emperor really has no clothes

Last week I sent the same email to all three addresses provided in the Suarez healing ministry contact page. I wrote:
The website of Fr. Fernando Suarez ( has a number of articles purporting miraculous healings. The same website has also published quite a number of testimonials claiming the same.

Given all the anecdotal material, I would just like to inquire whether there have been investigations of the claims of miraculous healings by Suarez. If so, may I please have the names of the medical experts involved, their contact information, and what their findings have been thus far. Any other pertinent information as to evidence for miracles would be appreciated.

Thank you.

Thus far, I've received replies from the ministry's U.S. and Canadian offices. US contact person Manny Abalos told me he knows of no investigation. On the other hand, Mary Sheridan of Canada, Suarez's secretary, didn't answer my question directly but instead quoted a couple of parts of the Statement of Clarification the Companions of the Cross issued last February 6, the relevant one being the part about how only the bishop and medical experts can determine whether a miracle has occurred. She also bounced back what I had already said in my email--that testimonials were being published in their website.

From these responses, it appears Suarez and Companions of the Cross don't really have anything except lurid claims. Sure, they've got reams of testimonials and anecdotes, and unwavering belief, but they don't even have a single medical investigation which they confess is essential.

To believe wholeheartedly without evidence is to be deluded. I'll bet not a few in this healing mania are irredeemably so, beginning with that strutting naked emperor Fernando Suarez.

In many pre-scientific societies shamans play the role of doctor. Among other things they are said to harness or channel spirits and supernatural forces to cure the sick among their tribe. Suarez is a modern-day, city-dwelling shaman. The trouble is shamanic bunkum imported into the 21st century, into the cities, and into the Internet is still shamanic nonsense. While we can't fault Stone Age shamans and their tribe for not knowing any better, given their circumstances Suarez and his cohorts can only be seen, if not judged, as freaking imbeciles.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why reported miracle healings should be taken not with a grain but with a sack of salt

To those who believe in the powers of Fr. Fernando Suarez and cannot imagine how the healings can be anything other than genuine, and to those who think that witnessing a healing firsthand is sufficient evidence, the following account will hopefully bring some needed illumination. It is from a 50-year old woman who had stomach cancer that had metastasized (spread) to her liver and spine.
At the service, as soon as she [the faith healer] said, "Someone with cancer is being cured," I knew she meant me. I could just feel this burning sensation all over my body and I was convinced the Holy Spirit was at work. I went right up on the stage and when she asked me about the brace [to support her spine] I just took it right off, though I hadn't had it off for over four months, I had so much back pain. I was sure I was cured. That night I said a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord and [the faith healer] and went to bed, happier than I'd been in a long time. At four o'clock the next morning I woke up with a horrible pain in my back. It was so bad I broke out in a cold sweat. I didn't dare move. [Hines, p.332]

What did the doctors find? X-rays revealed that one of the bones of her back had collapsed--because she had removed her brace and ran across the stage as directed by the faith healer. Was this woman really healed of her cancer? Two months after the "miracle" she died from the very thing she was supposed to have been miraculously cured of [Hines, p.332].

This case is an exemplar and affords a number of lessons.

1. Faith healing as with other types of quackery cannot be claimed to be harmless. This woman broke her back believing she was already healed. Some people stop taking their medications believing they've received a miracle cure. People have died because they resorted to faith healing instead of evidence-based medicine [Randi, p.293-296]

2. Testimonials are not evidence; they're just claims. This terminally-ill woman believed she was cured of her cancer. People in the audience believed she had been cured. She wasn't. She died.

3. Belief in the treatment--whether faith healing, one's preferred snake oil, psychic surgery, herbs from the 10th mountain of the Himalayas, or whatnot--creates the setting for perceived cure. Notice how the woman above felt a "burning sensation" all over her. Her excitement over believing she'd been singled out for a miracle cure had probably triggered the release of endorphins. Endorphins can mask pain. [Hines, p.333]

4. Many take reports of miracles at face value. There is no effort to look beyond tabloid reporting. People rarely, if ever, ask "What have I not been told?" "What was the diagnosis before the miracle and after the miracle?" "How is the person doing 1 week, 1 month, 1 year after the miracle?" People focus on the fleeting spectacle and fail to look at the whole picture.

5. Some people even arrogantly believe they have the knowhow and expertise to rule out trickery and any and all natural explanations/causes: "But I saw the miracle with my own eyes!" Well, imagine you had been one of the thousands in the audience and witnessed this woman take off her braces and run across the stage. Would you have concluded that a miracle had taken place because you had seen it with your own eyes? Even if you're an oncologist, how could you possibly know that the cancer was gone without doing sonograms, MRIs, blood exams, or whatever diagnostic tests are required and without doing follow ups over a period of time?

Now read the following. It's a supposed healing by Suarez circa 2006.
An usher brings Suarez to the front pew to see a dark-haired woman in a wheelchair. Suarez prays with the woman, who’s in her 40s. He helps her stand up and the woman falls limp. Two men help lay the woman on the floor. After a few minutes, the woman gets up and makes her way to the pulpit. “I have for years had pain in my legs, cancer has torn them apart,” the woman tells the crowd. “Now I don’t feel pain right now, so I praise the Lord.”

The pain was gone--at that moment. We are given a snapshot. What we don't have is the movie providing us a detailed intro to her condition and a time-lapse account by which we can follow her condition through to the present. I cannot but wonder if and when the pain returned and how she faced and resolved the cognitive dissonance--the belief that she'd been healed and the fact that the pain had returned and things were as they had been before the miracle.

In the 70s Dr. William A. Nolen followed up a number of cases of claimed miracle healings by faith healers. He found no evidence for them [Hines, p.333]. In the late 80s James Randi investigated various faith healers including Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Ernest Angley, W.V. Grant, Peter Popoff, and Fr. Ralph DeOrio. While he was able to uncover the tricks and deceptions of faith healing, he found no evidence whatsoever of miracle healings.
This book is an account of my earnest efforts to discover one example of faith-healing that can stand examination. I have found none [Randi, p.268].

I have tried to obtain from all possible sources direct, examinable evidence that faith-healing occurs. My standards are simple. I need a case that involves a living person, healed of an otherwise non-self-terminating disease who recovered from that disease as a result of a faith healer's actions and can produce before-and-after evidence to establish that fact. I have failed in any and all cases I have investigated to obtain a response that satisfies these simple requirements [Randi, p. 287-288].

The healing claims of Benny Hinn have been investigated. They too have been shown to hold no water.

Suarez is just one of the latest in a long list of people who've claimed to possess (or to channel) supernatural powers of healing. There is yet to be solid evidence for this. Given the paltry track record of his predecessors, given that anecdotes and testimonials are hardly good evidence, and given the fact that it is fallacious to equate inexplicable with miraculous, to believe in Suarez is to surrender to a delusion. Instead, we ought to confront the claims with utmost skepticism.



Terence Hines. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2nd ed. Prometheus Books. 2003.
James Randi. The Faith Healers. Prometheus Books. 1987.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Suarez marketing machinery

Healing priest Fr. Fernando Suarez belongs to the community of priests known as Companions of the Cross. On February 6, 2008, prompted by "questions and concerns," it issued a "Statement of Clarification Regarding the Healing Ministry of Fr. Fernando Suarez." Among other things, we find the following very interesting caveat.
We delight that the Lord continues to bring consolation to the sick and suffering through prayers for healing. However, we leave it entirely to the competent authorities to confirm or deny claims of miraculous healing. It is the local Bishop, in consultation with medical experts, who makes such a determination.[emphases added]
The Companions of the Cross are now neither confirming nor denying that there have been miraculous healings, notwithstanding its unabashed publication of testimonials (that webpage even has a form allowing people to conveniently send in their stories), and notwithstanding its promotion of Suarez as a healer (in that page Fr. Shannon even avers, "I can personally attest to the authenticity of the many healings which have taken place through Fr. Fernando's ministry"). In its Statement of Clarification Suarez's group is admitting that, in reality, they don't know if any of the healing claims have substance. They don't know whether miracles have in fact taken place (it stands to reason that if one or more miracles have in fact been officially certified by the Church the website would be advertizing it/them like crazy, given how they currently have no qualms in posting all the testimonials and anecdotal material).

The question is, Are they making this most important fact clear to the public or not? I don't think so. On the contrary. Judging from the contents of the Suarez healing ministry site (apart from the Clarification) they've been making it appear that he does have powers of healing and that there have been miracle healings.

It is a general principle that if the only evidence for any touted cure (be that Chinese herbs, triceratops horns, beetle juice, psychic surgery, ... or faith healing) are anecdotes and testimonials, then there is simply no good reason to believe that it works. Only scientific and medical studies can determine the efficacy of a substance or treatment. The Companions of the Cross know this. They say so in their Clarification. And yet they continue to promote Suarez as having healing powers.

Caveat emptor.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The incredible dearth of miracle healings

The shrine at Lourdes, France is perhaps the most famous site the Catholic Church has officially recognized as having had miraculous healings. Since 1860 a total of around 200 million have visited.

There are three interesting facts about Lourdes (or any other miracle healing phenomenon for that matter) which taken together make claims of miracles unreliable and, as we shall we see, ultimately illogical and untenable.

1. The number of sick people who've gone to Lourdes is much larger than the number who claim to have been healed. Since 1858 an estimated 2 million have made the pilgrimage. The number of claimed miracles on the other hand hovers at around 6,000 [Hines, p.348]. The ratio of claimed healings to the number of sick is therefore 6,000 / 2,000,000 = 0.003 or a third of a percent. This translates to 3 positive testimonials for every 1,000. This is a very small number. Assuming for a moment that those who claim to have been healed were in fact cured, the rate of failure of Lourdes is a staggering 99.7%. As a way of assimilating this, ask yourself if you would enthusiastically spend some USD3,000.00 (an off-the-top-of-my-head estimate of the cost of a Lourdes pilgrimage) to undergo a medical treatment that advertised a success rate of 0.3%.

2. If a third of percent doesn't dissuade you, the truth is the figure is much worse. You see, testimonials are not accepted at face value by the Church, for very good reasons. All claims are first scrutinized and investigated by the Lourdes Medical Bureau "to rule out trickery, acting, illusion, a possible hysterical or delirious pathology." When a claim passes the preliminary screening the case is handed over to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (CMIL) which is composed of Catholic doctors from various European countries. It is CMIL that determines whether a case of healing is in fact medically inexplicable. However, the final say as to whether the said case is a miracle or not rests upon the Church. [Hines, p.348] So how many claims has the Church certified as miracles? A mere 67. Thus, out of the 6,000 claims only 67 have been able to pass through the eye of the needle. If we now take this as the definitive number of miracles, the success rate of Lourdes is in fact 67 / 2,000,000 = 0.00335%. In other words Lourdes has a failure rate of 99.996665%. (I didn't even dare round it off to 2 decimal places!)

Imagine the following: 30,000 people with a certain disease have been invited to try a drug. You are one of them. You're told that only one of the 30,000 will benefit from the drug, and that to become part of the program you need to pay a fee of USD3,000.00. And no, you don't get a refund if you're amongst the 29,999 who go home still sick. Those are the odds at Lourdes: 1 in 30,000.

3. If you think it can't get any worse than that, you better pop an antacid. Among those who've been miraculously healed in Lourdes is a young woman who had Budd-Chiari syndrome, a condition wherein the veins of the liver become blocked. In 1963 she was certified as having had a miraculous healing. There's a slight problem though. She eventually died of Budd-Chiari seven years later. What happened to the miracle? CMIL admitted that "when they reached their decision [that the woman had had a miracle cure] they were insufficiently aware of the natural history of Budd-Chiari syndrome and the possibility of natural remission." [Hines, p. 349-350] Bottom line: the determination of miracles is hardly foolproof and error-free.

CMIL is quite cognizant of the fact that medical and scientific knowledge advances such that what is currently inexplicable may not be so in the future, as implied in their of use of qualifiers/caveats as "in the present state of scientific knowledge." Rev. Peter Gumpel is "an official at the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, which investigates reports of miracles by candidates for sainthood." He echoes the CMIL's understanding of the cumulative and progressive nature of scientific understanding, admitting that,
What seems like a miracle now may not be one in a hundred years. Such are the advances of science. Declarations of miracles are not infallible teachings.
We simply don't know all there is to know about the human body and disease, even as we have made great strides.

The mere fact that we currently don't understand X or cannot explain X does not at all imply that it's a miracle. It would be fallacious to say it is.
We can't explain X.
We conclude that X is supernatural.
But this implies that we know what X is.
The contradiction is easy to see if we make explicit the fact that we don't yet know and understand everything about the natural world.
We are not omniscient.
We cannot explain X
Therefore, X is supernatural.
This implies that we have ruled out all natural explanations.
But this means we are omniscient.
Since the premise that we are not omniscient is evidently true then it must be that our inference "X is supernatural" is unwarranted. Just to further show why it is unwarranted: Given an X which eludes explanation, rather than pointing to the supernatural we can just as well say that X is extraterrestrial in nature, that an advanced and very benevolent civilization has caused the cure. The supernatural is just one hypothesis among hypotheses. Our inability to explain something is not evidence for our favored hypothesis. Rather, our inability to explain merely expresses our ignorance of the explanation.

So why does the Church make the unwarranted conclusion? Why does the Church not stop at what is indubitably and medically accepted as true--that X is currently inexplicable, that given our present understanding the healing cannot yet be explained? Whatever its reason, and given CMIL's lucidity on the matter and Gumpel's admission, the certification and declaration of any unexplained cure or remission as miraculous--i.e., that it is supernatural in nature--is an act of hubris.

In conclusion, even with 67 certified miracles, these are not known to be in fact miracles, but rather simply declared as such. The Church arrives at its conclusion via a version of an argumentum ad ignorantiam whereby they take the current lack of natural explanations as license to call the event supernatural. This as we have seen is overtly fallacious. If, as Gumpel rightly says, a hundred years from now medical science is able to explain any or all of these 67 cases then they will lose their "miracleness," which is just saying that they were not miracles in the first place.



Terence Hines. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2nd ed. Prometheus Books. 2003.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Clear thinking: the contagious powers of Suarez

Montemaria, Batangas is the site where Fr. Fernando Suarez is planning to build a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Poor. Among the more impressive structures in the planned 5-hectare shrine will be a statue of Our Lady as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

Fr. Nap Baltazar is one of the true believer in the powers of Suarez. During his first ever visit to to Montemaria, and among other things he did there, Baltazar gathered a few stones from the area and gave one to each of the four who accompanied him on the trip. The very next day he received a call from one of them. The "frantic, weeping parishioner" told Baltazar that "he [had] rubbed the stone on his shoulders, which he had not been able to move for years. And now, he said, he could move his shoulders and even lift his arm."

Clearly, this man believed the Montemaria stone had some healing powers else he wouldn't have rubbed it on the affected shoulder. Can the stone really have magical powers? Not impossible but it is highly improbable (give me evidence of stones that have been scientifically shown to have such therapeutic powers). Instead of pebbles with some yet to be explained healing properties, there are simpler candidate explanations for the "healing." What did this man do with the stone? Along with some oil or lubricant I presume, he massaged his shoulders. It is more probable that the massage and not the Montemaria stone per se that loosened up his shoulders enough to give him (temporary) mobility of his arm. Furthermore, this man had a prior (strong?) belief in the supernatural curative powers of the stone. This psychological inclination of his could have pushed his threshold of pain a few notches up, thus enabling him to lift his arm. But whether the effect has been permanent or not we are not told. Whether his ailment is merely psychosomatic to begin with or is caused by some degenerative disease (such as arthritis), whether he could not in fact move his shoulders and lift his arm before the massage, we don't know.

After news of the above event spread, "more reports of healing flooded the parish—cancer cells disappearing, pain vanishing instantly, chemotherapy schedules cancelled, dead kidneys revived." Cancer cells vanishing? Dead kidneys revived? These are very incredible claims, although, for starters, what a "dead kidney" is exactly isn't clear. But more importantly, what we have here are mere hearsay. We don't know if the claims are true, or how much they've been blown out of proportion, whether or not doctors and lab tests were involved in reaching the diagnoses.

What is very misleading in the article is that it implies the stones were the cause of these various remissions and cures. But what is the probability that the patients were not receiving some form of medical treatment before they tried the stones and during the period they were using them? Whatever medication they were taking and treatment they had undergone or were undergoing need to be taken into account. This is more or less obvious since medicines and medical treatments are known to lead to what we colloquially describe as healing. Thus, it stands to reason that one would and should put more confidence in treatments by the MDs as being the cause of relief and healing, rather than on a piece of nondescript stone that the patient had rubbed on his/her body.

If we've been on medication for three months and we rub Himalayan sand all over ourselves because we've heard through the grapevine that it's effective, and if on the fourth month our doctor gives us a clean bill of health, was it the sand that licked our condition? Post hoc ergo propter hoc. We can't just willy nilly assign causation to what we want to believe is the cause.

What piques my interest is that after this one person had come to believe the stone has healing powers and had reported a healing of sorts, others clambered on board the bandwagon and began submitting their own testimonials. The psychology is fascinating.

Now, I'd like to turn to what would be a most revealing experiment. I really wish there are medical researchers, scientists, skeptics who would test these stones. How would we go about it? [1] First we'll have to procure a batch of genuine Montemaria stones, preferably either from Baltazar or from the exact site(s) where he obtained his. Then we would gather a bunch of similarly looking and sized stones from some place not at all related in any way to Suarez. Let's say we import a box of pebbles from Mongolia. Without informing any of the participants that there are non-Montemaria stones in our cache, we would then randomly assign all these stones to about a hundred or more subjects, say, the parishioners of Baltazar (people who believe in the healing powers of the Montemaria stones and who are suffering from some ailment). We'd then sit back and wait for a certain time period to elapse. At the end of the period if we find that the percentages of those who report healing are around the same for both groups (those provided with Montemaria stones vs those with Mongolian stones), we conclude that the Montemaria stones have no special powers and that it was the placebo effect and other factors that gave rise to the claimed healings. The healing powers attributed to the stones, and for that matter to Suarez, are quite testable. And they should be tested, unless the faithful are averse to disillusionment and would rather remain ignorant of the truth.

So now it's not only Fr. Suarez who possesses the miracle healing touch, even stones from a place where the planned shrine will be built have caught it. But hold on. It not just stones, for in lieu of them, mere stampitas will do:
[A] doctor who was healed of cancer had stampitas of St. Francis of Assisi printed and distributed to parishioners. An ailing woman eventually reported that because the healing stones were hard to come by, she put a stampita on her belly and found that her pains had disappeared by the next morning.
And now even electronic media have been imbued with the same magical healing powers.
Lolit Esguerra writes: “I prayed with Father Suarez his Youtube healing prayer and the pain in my shoulders, which no medicine could remove, disappeared.” The Lord’s healing is becoming global through the Internet. He heals by touch, by cellular phone, or by land line. Too old to go to church, 87-year-old Rosella Purugganan said all her pains vanished after she heard Suarez’s healing Mass on television.
Since computers, television, telephones, cell phones send data via electricity, microwave, and light, it must be that the "healing code" or software if you will gets encoded in the analog and digital electrical signals and thereafter gets transmitted electromagnetically via copper cables, fiber optics, antennas, satellites, cell sites, .... Fascinating, don't you think?

Is it far-fetched then to say that in time there will be those who will claim that photos of Suarez, pictures of the shrine, water, leaves and bark from around Montemaria, and practically anything that has some connection with Suarez have exhibited healing properties? Can we dub this as "potency by mere association"?

There are many questions that need to be asked and there are various candidate naturalistic explanations for the claimed events and healings. Ignoring these leads to very muddled thinking as is in the case of those who've hastily concluded that they've actually been healed, and by magical means. I am so pained that such a profusion of delusions has been engendered by a single man.



1. There are of course other experiments that can be designed/performed and variations of the one I suggest to determine whether the Montemaria stones are unique or not in eliciting (claims of) healings and how they compare to other objects in eliciting the same.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Clear thinking: Suarez and the signs

Reading the following news article brought to mind pre-scientific animistic tribes. It reports a collection of supposed signs and omens that followers have seen in connection with Fr. Fernando Suarez's activities. Signs and omens? The anachronism was jarring at first but ultimately comical.

So what are the said signs that accompanied Suarez's plans and activities? The article begins with the following:
Last Christmas eve, the security guard at Montemaria in Batangas saw from afar a bright glow on the makeshift altar-stage. He thought the electricity had been installed. But then, he thought, why now in the middle of the night, on the eve of Christmas? When he went out to check, the light was gone. The guard sent a text message reporting the incident to Paz Monteclaro of the Mary Mother of the Poor Foundation (MMPF), which supports Fr. Fernando Suarez, the now famous healer of the blind, deaf, mute and lame. Both Suarez and the MMPF wondered: Was this mysterious light, which came at the time of the birth of Jesus, perhaps n omen of His coming to this remote hillside?
If in the middle of the night if I see a light where there's supposed to be none my first reaction would be fear. Why? Because among the members of Homo sapiens are those commonly referred to as thieves. Paranormal concerns are way way down my list of possibilities. Now if I had been the security guard I would've reported what I'd seen before checking out the premises, since presumably I'd been hired to protect property from being stolen/vandalized/trespassed upon by someone.

So consider the following possible explanations:

* Thieves had been on the prowl for possible valuables such as chalices.
* The guard had experienced a hallucination
* The guard had glasses on and had seen on the lens a reflection of a light source behind him
* Someone had lit a candle within the vicinity of the said altar
* Mischievous teens illuminated the altar, perhaps with a flashlight.
* He had mistaken a firefly much closer for a light in the altar located much further away.
* The guard had had a couple of shots or was drowsy from being lulled by the crickets and saw a light but in a different area altogether.
* Sparklers or a type of fireworks had been used in the area (there are those in the Philippines who celebrate Christmas by setting off fireworks and firecrackers)
* There had been a ball lightning lasting several seconds in the vicinity of the altar.
* Orbiting high above the Earth, a cloaked flying saucer had directed a high-powered laser beam (operating in the visible spectrum) at the altar.
* Loki, the trickster god, had zapped the guard's optic nerves and made him see a light (when none in fact existed)

There are a number of mundane explanations (each of which can potentially be ruled out given more details about the event). There are also less parsimonious and less probable explanations such as ball lightning. And then there are any number of wacky (though strictly speaking not impossible or falsifiable) explanations as the last two above illustrate.

As for the light being a sign from Yahweh or Christ, it sits right next to the Loki hypothesis.

We are told then told of the other signs.
During the groundbreaking and blessing of the altar-stage in January 2007, just as Suarez was beginning his homily, the calm was broken by a violent wind. When others, including a bishop, spoke, everything became calm once more.... Just as Suarez began sprinkling holy water on the altar-stage, an eerie drizzle of fine raindrops descended on the 500-odd people attending the ceremony. It was as if the heavens were joining him in blessing the place.
I don't know how the weather is over in Montemaria, Batangas, but where I am--some hundred or so kilometers from Batangas--some types of rain are preceded by high winds.

We need to ask: During the week/month when the fine drizzle was said to have occurred, had there also been other instances when such fine drizzle did occur, regardless of whether there was a mass or prayer service? Is this meteorological event unique? Has it never occurred at all in this area? Given that it's already happened twice (the second in October 2007 during a Mass celebrated by a different priest), it's a good bet drizzling of the type reported is normal for the area. Similar questions can be asked of the so-called violent gust of wind. Perhaps local weatherpersons and records can shed light on this.

To add to the list of portents from the heavens, even clouds apparently were communicating something:
Some of those present reported an odd, circular cloud hovering above them.... Suarez himself said he saw a cloud in the form of a hand.
Looking for faces in the clouds would normally be just an entertaining past time activity. But throw in a religious setting and it becomes quasi-divination, akin to reading tea leaves and animal entrails. So when one fluff of water vapor turns out to resemble a human hand (even if only for a few seconds/minutes before shapeshifting into something else) it is enlisted as yet another sign. I am actually surprised why they didn't continue to look for more shapes to add to their collection of omens since it is rather easy to do.

My own omen from heaven: On a bright sunny day several years ago while waiting for the light to turn green I gazed up and watched the white cumulus clouds as they slowly crossed the sky. One caught my eye and upon closer inspection it turned out to be in the shape of a robed and hooded woman. Ah! the Virgin Mary I chuckled to myself. If only I had a camera. But even before the traffic light changed color she had gradually changed and shape shifted into Dick Tracy, who not long thereafter transformed into something my unenviable faculties of imagination and creativity could no longer apprehend and interpret.

While Suarez may not have come across the term pareidolia, I hope he doesn't tell us he's not heard of the childhood game of looking for shapes in the clouds. Gazing upwards, perceiving a simulacrum in the clouds, and then interpreting it as a sign from heaven is, frankly, plain superstition.

Finally, in the collection of signs, there are the stones from Montemaria collected by Fr. Nap Baltazar which purportedly have healing powers and have cured those with diabetes and cancer. (I'll have more to say about these healing pebbles in a later post.)

The problem with Suarez and his band of believers is that they so dearly want to believe that all this supernatural healing stuff is real, that he/they have somehow been been blessed or even specially chosen by their deity, and that Montemaria is the place that's been prophesied to be the next miracle healing shrine of the world, so much so that they're highlighting trivial phenomena and making a big fuss out of them. I suspect this is a simple case of selective attention and confirmation bias of sorts. It's an overzealous attentiveness to or even search for eerie, synchronistic events and coincidences to bolster the significance of Montemaria and Suarez's supposed superpowers (perhaps not unlike the frantic search for miracles when Catholics embark on a quest to have some beloved and popular individual of theirs canonized).

Clear thinking: Suarez and the dead

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. After this, therefore because of this. I've dealt with this fallacy several times before but it's such a common pitfall in causal reasoning that even priests--supposedly trained in philosophy--fall into the trap.

If I click my heels three times and it starts raining, did my Dorothy act magically cause the floodgates of heaven to burst open? If my alarm clock rings and the sun rises did my clock cause the sunrise? (Interestingly, there was a tribe that believed that if it didn't perform its pre-dawn ritual the sun would fail to rise and mankind would be doomed.) What if I pop a tablet of paracetamol (acetaminophen) and my headache disappears minutes later? Did the pill cause my headache to up and go?

Patently, heel-clicking and alarm clocks don't cause rain and sunrises. But even in the pill example, it would be fallacious to claim with absolute certitude that the drug licked the headache. At best--given that we know from clinical trials that paracetamol is efficacious--we can say that it probably did. Why the lack of surety? Because for all we know the headache was on its way out even before the pill started having any effect. Depending on their etiology, some headaches are self-limiting and transitory (and need not be medicated).

I hinted above that supposedly well-educated people such as Catholic priests are hardly very smart people. Well, given that they really honestly believe that invisible and undetectable superheroes and supervillains exist in some realm outside the universe and that pieces of bread they chant over magically turn into the dermal and muscle tissue of a 2,000-year old Middle Eastern male, I think we have enough evidence to say they're not very smart at all.

Now there's this bloke by the name of Fr. Fernando Suarez who claims to have, unwittingly, raised someone from the dead [1].

The Canadian woman was declared dead by doctors at the Ottawa Civic Hospital some eight hours before Father Fernando Suarez arrived. With doctors present and ready to harvest her organs, the Filipino-Canadian priest who was then a seminarian, prayed over her. She opened her eyes and lived. Suarez was stunned. “Let me out of here,” was all he could say. The woman is now well, Suarez says, and has resumed her normal life.

Are you convinced that Suarez and his prayers caused the "resurrection"? If so then the following is yet another option for bringing your loved ones back if and when medical science fails.

Years ago one of the local dailies reported that a woman who'd already been sent to the morgue came back from the dead. While her supposedly lifeless body was being prepared, a mortician or some other person took the opportunity to sate his carnal cravings. But much to his consternation the deceased suddenly had life breathed back into her. The report says the family of the "resurrected" filed no criminal charges since this necrophiliac of sorts had somehow been responsible for bringing their loved one back to life.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because event A preceded event B, does not imply that A caused B.

Can we outright dismiss Suarez and necrocoitus as causing resuscitation of cadavers? No. Can we test whether they are causative? Yes!

Going back to our rain example, what if I go to different parts of the world and whenever I click my heels it begins pouring within a couple of seconds? What if this happens even in deserts during seasons when no rain is expected? Well, then there would be some reason to suspect a casual link. I say some reason to suspect because we'd still need to perform formal experiments to rule out chance and various other confounding factors.

Now apply that to Fr. Suarez and his Lazarus act. And for that matter to necrocoitus. If Suarez in fact possesses powers to bring the dead back to life then all we have to do is to have Suarez pray over several dozen or hundred corpses (properly scrutinized and diagnosed as really lifeless) and start counting how many of them come back to life. Likewise with intercourse with cadavers, if anyone cares to do that test.

It is quite conspicuous that Suarez has not reported any other such miracle. Are we to assume this is the first and only corpse he's prayed over? One single episode is not enough to establish a causal link. You would need to be able to replicate the results many times to attain some confidence. Suarez has jumped the gun and already reached a conclusion.

I wonder if Suarez has ever considered coincidence as an explanation. If not then he shouldn't consider it either vis-a-vis necrocoitus. Perhaps he should include that in his act (as added insurance).

So how did these two dead people come back to life? That would be a most intriguing question, if we actually were certain that the two women were in fact dead to begin with. But the most parsimonious explanation is that they weren't; that their status had been misdiagnosed. They had been pronounced and presumed dead when in fact they weren't. We'd first have to rule this mundane hypothesis before even entertaining fanciful notions of resurrections (or for that matter, aliens out in space zapping the dead with their Miracle Life Ray).

And this is a rule of thumb that's not at all ingrained in the religious or believers in the paranormal: Occam's Razor. Entities should not be multiplied without necessity. In short, keep things simple. And simple here means don't assume or include new phenomena in your explanation/hypothesis, phenomena that are not known to be true/real, phenomena that have not been tested/confirmed to be so. Thus, supernatural and paranormal explanations and those that involve extraterrestrials are not parsimonious because they assume the existence of entities which are known to be true. The misdiagnosis explanation, on the other hand, is simpler than these. We know that misdiagnosis happens all the time. And misdiagnosis of death is something that has occurred in the past. Quite common before our lifetime, it still is with us even in this age of hi tech medical instruments and equipment (just a couple of examples: woman wrongly diagnosed as dead, misdiagnosis of death shocks rural town). There is even what is known as "return of spontaneous circulation" (ROSC) or the Lazarus phenomenon whereby blood circulation of a presumably dead patient spontaneously returns even after resuscitation efforts have ceased. While currently lacking a scientific explanation, we know that this phenomenon exists.

It is rather unfortunate that Suarez ostensibly lacks skepticism and the critical thinking skills necessary to put the various events in his life in perspective. Simple tests would be enough to falsify the belief that he has supernatural powers. But as in the case of faith healer Benny Hinn, despite an investigation that has already falsified his claims of being able to heal, he still continues to delude (and dupe) the multitudes who come to his services, and likewise the diseased, disabled, and desperate still flock to him like innocent little children mesmerized by the Pied Piper's performance. I'm afraid the same will be true of Suarez. The quick, the easy, the free, and the magical are far more enticing than the tested and the true. When it comes to winning the hearts of people, science must hand the game over to quackery. It is only when objective results become the criterion does science win hands down. The bottom line is what really works, not what we believe or want to believe works.



1. I have doubts about Suarez's mental condition (something I hope to expound on in case I am goaded enough to pursue further critiques). I certainly don't put too much stock on anecdotes by him about himself including this one. I don't know if he's subject to delusions of grandeur, I don't know how much he's into self-aggrandizement, I don't know which parts of his stories are true/false, I don't know if there are confabulations, I don't know how much of it is hyperbole.