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.

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