From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Miracle Detectives
03 Jan 2011. "The Miracle Detectives" was full of surprises. (In case you don't know, the show is on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which debuted Jan 1.) At least it was full of surprises for me as a skeptic of both miracles and Oprah. I might even go for a cheap laugh and say that it was a miracle the show wasn't pure mush. But let's cut the cheap shots and get to the point. TV miracles are really boring. Even though this show is about as fair as one can get in examining miraculous claims, it doesn't matter. It's just not that interesting to watch people talk about the healing power of dirt or discuss whether a flash of light on an opening door was caused by the sun or an angel. Worse. There is no way to make this kind of program more interesting, except maybe to spend a few extra bucks and shoot the program in HD. Even that, though, couldn't save this kind of show from being a terminal soporific.
The show is advertised on Oprah's website in typical media hyperbole:
Do miracles really exist? Or is there a logical explanation to the seemingly inexplicable? Two investigators; one a believer, the other a scientist will travel the globe to uncover answers to mysterious incidents that transcend logic in Miracle Detectives, a new one hour documentary series for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
Of course if the incidents really transcended logic, there wouldn't be any point to the program and there'd be nothing to talk about. Also, the two cases the detectives begin with are not "seemingly inexplicable." Both are obvious cases of wishful thinking. There's no reason to believe chemotherapy didn't send a young woman's cancer into remission, and there's no reason to believe that a flash of light seen in a monitor whose camera was aimed at a door was not caused by a natural source of light. The cases they examine are not intrinsically interesting or difficult. I have no idea why they chose them to start off the season.
The main surprise for me was that the skeptic was not a token brought in at the end to insult the believer who had been given ample opportunity to produce a slam-dunk case. Not only that, but the skeptic is a female and obviously a superior intellect to the believer. Indre Viskontas far outshines Randall Sullivan, a journalist who represents the believer in miracles. There is no attempt to make Sullivan pretend that he is an unbiased, objective researcher who is studying the evidence for and against a miraculous claim. He's shown as ready to believe from the get-go. You have to prove to him that the light on the door isn't an angel. You have to prove to him that the dirt at Chimayo doesn't have miraculous healing powers. Of course, it isn't possible to prove either of those things, so he's as smug at the end of the show as he is at the beginning.
The real star is Viskontas, an accomplished artist (opera and chamber music) with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. It doesn't really matter what she believes, whether she's a person of faith or not. She plays the role of the scientific investigator. She consults scientists as well as talks to a priest and a woman who thinks rubbing dirt from Chimayo on her knee cured her of Hodgkin's lymphoma (the chemotherapy wasn't given any credit by the woman or her mother). [Correction: I heard from Neesey Koppenhaver, the woman's mother, and she says: "The high-dose chemo, radiation, and stem cell transplant most definitely cured her cancer. What we believe is, since the bone (right tibia) that Desi rubbed the dirt on with her saliva showed up gone the following week, we felt that was a sign that everything was going to be ok. That's what I said on the episode." She indicated with her hand where she had rubbed the dirt and I thought the she was rubbing her knee. And I was left with the impression that the woman and her mother thought the dirt cured her. I guess I assumed by 'sign' she meant supernatural sign. I may be misinterpreting Koppenhaver's comments, but I think she and her daughter believe that one of the lesions was cured miraculously, but the others were cured by the medical treatments.]
On the other hand, Sullivan's only extra consult was with some wacky woman claiming to be a shaman and energy healer. He was quite moved by her dowsing rods. (I loved Sullivan's inane comment when a neuroscientist was explaining how a vague image with a rounded center and splashes at an upward angle from the center is often interpreted as an angel. The scientist used an artist's depiction of an angel to illustrate his point. "Yah," said Sullivan, "but the artist had to get his idea from somewhere." I suppose in Sullivan's neighborhood his comment would be considered relevant to the issue of pareidolia.)
Viskontas gathers the evidence, including some provided by Jim Underdown of CFI and IIG, and produces a logical report on the basis of the evidence. She doesn't deny that any miracles occurred, but she does argue that the evidence provided doesn't require any supernatural explanation. The dirt has calcium carbonate in it, so it might be useful for a belly ache, but it's unlikely to be able to cure cancer. (Chimayo has a room with hanging crutches, like Lourdes. And like Lourdes there are no hanging artificial limbs.) The chemo probably did the trick. The light on the door was probably caused by the setting sun. That it was caught on a hospital monitor about the same time that a young girl's artificial life support system was removed is probably just a coincidence. Of course, you can't prove that the light wasn't an apparition of an angel (or some other spirit), any more than you can prove that the woman's cancer wasn't cured by miraculous dirt. But such explanations aren't necessary to understand what probably happened in these two cases.
I don't think there is anything anyone could do to make these stories more compelling. They're just boring, except to the people involved and to people like Sullivan.
Anyway, this skeptic was surprised that Oprah didn't promote her belief in miracles and angels in the first episode of this program, that the skeptic is portrayed as the bright one, that the skeptic is a woman, and that as fair and as good as this production was, it can't succeed because of the nature of the beast. You can't prove a miracle occurred or didn't occur. Nothing you can put on television "transcends logic," except in the sense of being so stupid as to be incomprehensible how any human being could be entertained by it. You can attribute some "cures" to the placebo effect or to belief, as Viskontas does, but in the end it's just not that interesting to hear people talk about something that could be or might not be a miracle.
The comments have started to come in on Oprah's page for "The Miracle Detectives" and they're all raves so far. The only skeptical comments are from those skeptical of the skeptical scientist. All these true believers saw was confirmation of their belief in miracles or a chance to mention how they've experienced miracles, too. Maybe the editors at OWN are deleting any skeptical remarks.
“Our America With Lisa Ling“ on OWN will debut February 16 with a program on faith healing.
* AmeriCares *