February 18, 2005

 

A Special Analysis

Table of Contents:

 

Folks, the page previously prepared for this week's slot has been pre-empted so that I can present my observations — and some of those from the public — concerning the February 10th, 2005, showing of the American Broadcasting Company's "Primetime Live" program. It dealt with a man called "John of God" who works out of Brazil. This was a major show that could have been a useful, productive, and informative program, but failed to reach that standard. Read on.

THE ABC-TV INFOMERCIAL FOR JOHN OF GOD

The show dealt with the Brazilian "healer" João Teixeira, known popularly in his country as João de Deus, which translates into English as, "John of God." He holds forth at the "Casa de Dom Inacio," a healing center in Abadiania, Brazil, a tiny town about 70 miles south-west of the capital, Brasilia. Desperately ill people from all over the world flock to this place seeking cures, and there is a group of thriving agencies organized to perpetuate the mythology surrounding the man, booking hotels, selling tours, trinkets, charms, and every sort of material that will satisfy these vulnerable people's need for healing. The tours run a couple thousand dollars, though the tour operators are coy about actually naming prices. Their instructions to would-be visitors who apply for visas, is to not mention that they're going to Brazil for this purpose, because the government does not encourage such trips. The hotel stays start at two weeks and can run longer.

What brings these victims in from far and wide? There are seven major points about the John of God "ministry" that grab public and media attention, stunts and other seeming anomalies that beg for answers:

  1. The forceps-in-the-nose trick.
  2. The random cutting of the flesh.
  3. The "scraping" of the eyeball.
  4. The absence of immediate pain as a result of #s 1, 2, & 3.
  5. The subsequent absence of infection.
  6. The "trances" John of God enters into to "contact spirits."
  7. The subsequent recoveries reported by patients.

We'll handle these items in turn. But first, let me outline for you what brought me before the ABC-TV cameras on January 25th, 2005. I was contacted in Florida by the office of the ABC-TV News producer, Chris Whipple, and asked to go to New York City to offer my opinions and observations on the subject that Primetime Live was preparing for broadcast. This is an important function of the JREF, so I gladly agreed to help.

ABC-TV News, it seemed, wanted a possibly skeptical point of view on these "miracles." I'd already seen — long ago — a videotape prepared and distributed by the organization in Brazil, a film that touted his performances. Little evidential information was in the video except that some of the common tricks and misleading claims made by the Casa de Dom Inacio organization were there to be clearly seen and revealed. ABC-TV also invited Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon with the Columbia University Department of Surgery in New York, to be interviewed with me by their on-camera host, John Quiñones.

I traveled to NYC, with my expenses — but no fee or other payment — covered by ABC-TV, and showed up at the recording studio. In the waiting area, I had the opportunity for a long conversation with Dr. Oz, and we came to general agreement on some major points — such as the matters of pain and infection, items 4 & 5, above — that were sure to come up in the videotaping. However, I also discovered during that conversation that Dr. Oz takes a rather fanciful view of the real world, in spite of his very down-to-earth profession. He supports, and has written extensively on, such "complementary therapies" as hypnosis, "therapeutic touch", guided imagery, reflexology, aromatherapy, prayer, yoga, and "energy medicine," and he encourages their use "in combination with the latest surgical techniques." Dr. Oz believes in using "alternative" techniques — which he refers to as "Global Medicine," — in an attempt to

unblock and balance the chakras (energy channels), thereby boosting the body's natural healing capacities.

His "complementary care" team at Columbia follows up with studies using "Kirlian photography". All these are totally quack notions, and I began to suspect why he had been chosen by ABC-TV News as a participant.

Quoting Dr. Oz:

Crawfish regrow their nerves, right? Maybe there are things that we could harvest in our psyche that allows us to do it as well.

True, Dr. Oz, but I suggest that the scientific approach is to establish that the phenomenon itself exists in humans before you offer theories on how it works. Otherwise, there would be researchers out there developing parallels and philosophies to account for the reality of The Tooth Fairy, for whom there is adequate anecdotal evidence of the same calibre as evidence for these spiritual regenerations of organs in human beings. Doctor, there were no healings found in Abadiania, only faintly hopeful indications. No robust evidence has ever been produced on this man John of God and his claims. You also told ABC-TV viewers that the "visible surgery"

....could be an old magician's trick, but it's a pretty powerful one from a physician's perspective.

Doctor, you learned about that trick from me during our pre-taping off-camera conversation; you were unaware of it before that time. But just what do you mean by "powerful"? Powerful enough to bring in the suckers to be "healed" by John of God?

Dr. Oz came up with this comment on the forceps-in-the-nose stunt, saying:

I'm wondering if touching the pituitary gland may influence all those chemicals that go between the body and brain.

Incredible. Dr. Oz is groping around to save this carny stunt and John of God by invoking such a remote, unlikely notion — that the forceps this charlatan pokes into the victim's nostril might touch the pituitary gland and thereby produce some actual effect. No, strike that. It's not "unlikely," it's impossible! Look at the diagram here. You'll see that the pituitary gland — marked by the X — is accesible through the nasal passage only after an instrument goes about 5.5 inches into the nostril (the forceps can only go in about four inches) and through two thick layers of skull bone! Again, Dr. Oz is postulating theories on a phenomenon that doesn't exist! There is zero evidence to show that John of God has ever accomplished anything but revulsion by sticking forceps up a victim's nose! Zero!

THE TAPING SESSION AT ABC-TV NEWS

The videotaping began. I sat before the ABC-TV cameras alongside Dr. Oz, prepared to enter into a dialogue with the doctor and respond to questions from John Quiñones. We recorded for about an hour, commenting on pertinent video material from Brazil that was shown to us on a studio monitor.

The result of this recording session, inserted into the broadcast on February 10th, 2005, in an extended one-hour edition of Primetime Live, was hardly what I'd expected. I was introduced as, "a debunker of the paranormal," with no other attribution. The opening phrase of the statement I made in my 19-second appearance wasn't even my own. The video recording was edited so that it appeared that these were my own spontaneous words:

There are no greater liars in the world than quacks — except for their patients.

Those were not my words. I clearly said, preceding that quotation, "To quote Ben Franklin...." but it appears that ABC-TV News chose to put those words in my mouth to demonstrate what a cantankerous old curmudgeon I am, that I simply chose to rail against John of God as a quack. This seemed to indicate that I had nothing to contribute to the program except to rudely label John of God, and to scoff at him without adding anything to the discussion, while not providing any expert information.

The rest of my statement was:

Remember, these people have gone there for this kind of bizarre treatment. If they have to admit, "No, I'm not helped by this, I was swindled," they have to say, "I was pretty damn stupid to go in there and think that sticking something up my nose was going to cure my back!"

WHY PATIENTS SUPPORT THE SCAM

I said that to illustrate the truth of Ben Franklin's observation that I'd just quoted, that those who unwisely fall for such scams are often the fiercest defenders of their initial decision to become involved, and they choose to endorse the swindle even after it's failed them, rationalizing and even hyperbolizing to bolster their conviction. They just can't believe and accept that they were so foolish — and remember, they're desperate and thus vulnerable, both aspects that brought them there in the first place.

I had plenty more to say on the subject, and I said it. ABC-TV News didn't want it, and they discarded it, though if they had used it, viewers would not only have been better-informed, but would have understood the true nature of the information they were being shown. Folks, I'm not new to television; I'm very much aware of the fact that most of an interview can fail to be included in the final edited product, but much of what I provided for ABC-TV to use was pertinent data for achieving clarity on a controversial and critically important subject — and it came from an expert. Dr. Oz, who knows nothing about possible trickery, appeared in six lengthy inserts, offering what were in my opinion, the appropriately woo-woo phrases that ABC-TV preferred on screen.

(In passing, I believe that I erred in that Franklin quotation. It really should have been: "There are no greater liars than quacks — except for their patients.")

Note, too, that the John of God organization has set up a situation in which they simply cannot fail; if recovery is not experienced by their victims, it's not a failure of the magical forces, but the fault of the patient. They state that sometimes a person comes to them for a healing "too late," so it doesn't happen. If a patient doesn't have "the right attitude," or doesn't "keep the faith," the healing will fail. If the rules aren't followed — as with John Quiñones, seen up ahead — no healing will occur. They say that one has to wait at least forty days to see any healing — well after the victim has left Brazil! — and sometimes up to two years have to pass before any effect will be seen. All this is a fail-safe scenario, one I've come upon many times in the faith-healing racket.

FORCEPS-UP-THE-NOSE

The dramatic forceps-up-the-nose stunt, I told the producer — and clearly stated to the camera during the videotaping session — is an old carny effect that my friend Todd Robbins tells me traces back to the jaduwallahs of India and was adopted from their repertoire by an American performer named Melvin Burkhardt, first being done on this continent in 1926. It's now known as the "Blockhead Trick," and is usually done with a heavy 4 1/2" (30d — thirty-penny) iron nail tapped up the nose and into the back of the throat, a clear, straight, path that seems improbable. It's performed today by easily more than 100 performers in carnivals and sideshows around the world, and John of God simply uses it to impress his victims, though he has a far easier time of it by using smooth nickel-plated (or stainless-steel) forceps. And what's on that swab held by the forceps? Just what is that "holy water" John of God uses? We don't know.

I obtained from Todd Robbins a videotape of him doing the trick, and I took it to the ABC-TV News producer in New York, who chose not to use it even though it was clearly the trick used by John of God. ABC-TV News decided not to inform their audience that this impressive "miracle," used at every opportunity by the quack for whom they were providing this infomercial, is only a common carnival stunt, nor did they make clear that it is very simply explained and not in any way supernatural!

On-camera host John Quiñones told the audience that he had an inflamed rotator-cuff problem in his right shoulder and had submitted to treatment by John of God as a test of his powers. He was told by the Casa de Dom Inacio handlers to submit to the "invisible surgery," which consisted of merely meditating for two days and following a set of simple instructions — no sex, no pork, no alcohol, and no pepper — and then waiting forty days to see the results. John reported no change in his condition at all, but excused that failure by revealing that he'd not followed the instructions! Why was it that this professional investigative reporter, actively at work on a major media shoot looking into the claims of this charlatan, chose not to follow the instructions he was given, thus providing a convenient excuse for the failure of the "magic"? And why, knowing that Quiñones had made his own test invalid by violating the rules, did the ABC-TV editors and producers still choose to include that event in the program?

There are two kinds of "operations" performed by John of God, "visible" and "invisible." The "visible" ones are the forceps-up-the-nose, the reckless random slashing of the flesh, and the maneuver of the knife-on-the-eyeball. The "invisible" ones consist of prayer, meditation, the reading of holy scriptures, and sitting with the eyes closed. Why was it that Quiñones was not "visibly" operated on? Could it be that the "healer" was smart enough not to give any actual physical distress to this representative of a powerful American media outlet that could give him — and did give him — priceless publicity and validation? Those peasants who opted to be probed and cut into, were dispensable; there are endless supplies of that fodder.

ANOTHER UNEXPECTED ASPECT OF THIS SORT OF PHENOMENON

I've performed the famous "psychic surgery" stunt many times, all over the world, notably on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson many years ago. It consists of the performer apparently reaching into the body of the person on the table, and extracting bloody lumps said to be tumors. That was clearly presented as a trick, and I explained on the Tonight Show that it was done by exactly the same means that the fakers in the Philippines are still using to cheat their victims. Imagine my surprise when Fred DeCordova, the Tonight Show producer, called to tell me that at the NBC-TV Los Angeles office alone, they'd received 102 phone calls following the broadcast, every one of them asking how to contact the Filipino "psychic surgeons"! The simple message hadn't gotten through, evidently.

Well, I believe that this ABC-TV program will — even more than my Tonight Show appearance might have — encourage the incautious public to book trips to Brazil to go under the butchery that John of God inflicts on his victims. The huge difference here is that while the Filipino "surgeons" seldom if ever actually break the skins of their customers, the Brazilian faker regularly does so, and that means not only financial loss, but very possibly loss of life, as well. Is ABC-TV willing to accept the grief and damage that those misinformed people will suffer?

THE EYEBALL SCRAPING

John of God will seat a subject for his "visible surgery" stunt and apparently scrape the eyeball of the patient with the edge of a knife. I believe that this is a variation of the usual trick — illustrated on page 177 of my book, "Flim-Flam!" — in which a knife-blade is inserted under the eyelid of a subject with little or no resulting discomfort. With the Brazilian faker, the "scraping" motion gives it a much more fearsome aspect, but for several good reasons I doubt that any contact takes place with the cornea.

The sclera — the white section of the eye — is relatively insensitive to touch. Try touching that area with a finger or any clean object, and you'll see this is true. The cornea, however, is very sensitive — among the most sensitive areas of the body. Incidentally, it's also the fastest-healing organ, which accords very well with Darwinian standards; being able to see is one of our very best sensory means of defense.

Most persons — and I'm one of them — have a difficult time watching the eye being touched. We tend to empathize with the situation, and I'm sure that some readers are at this moment involuntarily squinting in distaste as they read these words; we're that reactive to eyeball-touching. Few persons will resist looking away when John of God seems to scrape an eyeball, and I note that he's furtively watching the position of the camera as he performs this stunt, blocking the view with his body when a close-up is sought.

There's also the distinct possiblity here that John of God introduces a temporary local anaesthetic — benzocaine would work — onto the eye surface, which would allow contact with the cornea. We don't know, though we could have found out....

In any case, unless an anaesthetic has been introduced, it is impossible for this man to be touching the cornea of a human eye as he appears to do, without causing immediate involuntary flinching from the patient. The JREF will stake its million-dollar prize on that statement.

ADRENALINE RUSH AND PAIN

As described here elsewhere, an adrelaline rush is often experienced by people who are under unaccustomed stress or sudden shock. We're all familiar with accounts of soldiers in battle who are wounded in ways that would otherwise cause them great pain and bring an immediate reaction, but they remain unaware of the injury until the stressful conditions are relaxed. I've see this happen when people onstage in front of a faith-healer's audience manage to do things that would have otherwise brought great discomfort and pain. In the case of John of God's sudden incisions, and considering the relatively insensitive areas he chooses to make these cuts, along with the fact that the victims are told to keep their eyes closed, I'm not surprised at the fact that — so far as the Casa de Dom Inacio people will permit us to see! — the victims show little or no reaction to the cutting procedure. But remember that we are only allowed to see the incision, not the possible subsequent reaction after the cameras are taken away.

THE "TRANCE STATE" AND "SPIRITS"

Where was there any evidence at all given in the ABC-TV broadcast, that a "trance state" of any sort was present with John of God? The "healer" claims that he's "taken over" by spirits of long-dead medical doctors, and uses their skills to do his flummery. Host Quiñones expressed no doubts about this claim, which is so easily accepted and believed by many Brazilians because of their cultural traditions. No probing questions about it were asked, no proof was looked for. It was all allowed to slide by, and the woo-woo element was thus reinforced. This charlatan piously claims that when his body is taken over by any one of forty different deceased doctors and/or King Solomon (?), he becomes unaware of what he does or says — surely the handiest "out" that could be imagined. "Gee, folks, did I really do that?" And, when interviewer Quiñones bravely suggested that John might be getting rich at this practice, the ABC-TV cameras moved into an excruciating close-up of the beleaguered man with trembling lip and tear-filled eyes, asserting that he gave away all his money to the poor. I was no more impressed by this histrionic performance than I was when the actor went into a "holy trance" as part of his routine. As another reputable interviewer also working for ABC-TV might say, "Give me a break!"

THE ABSENCE OF INFECTION

During my on-camera discussion with Dr. Oz, I was challenged to explain why the "patients" of John of God who undergo actual invasion of their bodies, suffer no infection; this is another of the "miracles" advertised by the quack. I turned to Dr. Oz and asked him if I was correct in stating that not all breaking of the skin — incisions, scrapes, punctures — resulted in invasion and proliferation by bacteria or viruses, and that it should not be assumed that an unsterilized instrument always brought on infection. Dr. Oz agreed. That comment and discussion was not used by the editors, even though one of the most powerful arguments used to support the supernatural nature of the operations in Brazil, is this "non-septic" factor! But including this basic biological fact could have spoiled a perfectly good sensational story.

This isn't the first time — by far — that my expertise has been ignored in this regard. I recall that a team from a TV show interviewed me in Florida years ago for their planned coverage of the life of Nostradamus. I naïvely assumed that they actually wanted my opinions on the subject, based on my book, "The Mask of Nostradamus," and was then dismayed to find them slanting all the questions in such a way that the French seer would appear to be a genuine prophet; they had already written their bottom lines for the story, and I was the token skeptic thrown in for "balance." I so well avoided being trapped by their "do you still beat your wife" phrasings, that I showed up in the final product for less than thirty seconds, answering just two questions: when was Nostradamus born, and when did he die. Both spots featured an on-screen caption reading, "James Randi, author of The Mask of Nostradamus," thus showing that a critic had been duly included....

In the present case with ABC-TV, I was called in well after all the "research" and footage had been obtained — not in advance, when I could have told them what to watch for and what to keep track of. I was included in the program only as a high-profile representative of the skeptical community, and even then I was allowed only a token appearance because what I'd provided them with was not in tune with the song they were singing. That 19-second flash was their way of showing the audience that they had tried to present a contrary point of view, in accordance with the "balanced treatment" requirement which they should observe. I was interviewed and videotaped for over an hour, I contributed pertinent observations for the use of the ABC-TV producers and editors, and everything I told them was ignored because it did not suit the needs of the network; they wanted a "gee-whiz-we-just-don't-know-folks" show, and that's what they turned out and broadcast to their public on February 10th, 2005. And, ABC-TV News could have turned to Dr. Stephen Barrett, MD of Quackwatch, to Joe Nickell of CSICOP, or Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society — they're all easily available. They could have done a simple Internet search and come upon such items as www.ratbags.com/rsoles/comment/faithhealer.htm, to be alerted to the truth behind John of God, before they began their project. Yes, they did call upon me, but fumbled from then on.

I want ABC-TV to know that I'm more than "a debunker of the paranormal," which is how they introduced me, with no other attribution. While Dr. Mehmet Oz's "impeccable" credentials were clearly stated as he made his pronouncements — professor of surgery at Columbia, magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, possessing three medical patents and performing more than 400 cardiac operations a year — my qualifications were not even mentioned. To inform ABC, I'll tell them this:

I've lectured — by invitation — at major academic centers around the world; Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, UCLA, Caltech, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, MIT, are only a few. IBM, AAAS, APS, CERN, NSF, NSA, and Fermi Labs are some of the agencies who also invited me to speak for them. The PBS-NOVA program did a show on me and my work. In countries all over the world from Austria to China, I've contributed my expertise. I was made a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation for my exposés of "healers." I'm a founder of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and I've received medals and other honors from various academic groups. I was close friends with Sagan, Asimov, Feynman, Wilkins — the last two of whom are Nobel Laureates — and I've written nine books — published in twelve languages — about my research on the so-called paranormal. The JREF web site receives well over 100,000 page views a day, internationally.

I list these facts so that it's a little clearer who I am; I didn't just come onto the stage as "a debunker." I'm a recognized expert, respected and consulted daily on matters which occupy my full attention and labors. Those academic and scientific bodies didn't call me in because I'm just a retired magician; they recognized my credentials and respected them. I deserved that sort of respect and consideration from ABC-TV.

And incidentally, while it's obvious that Dr. Oz is a qualified cardiac surgeon, well-educated in his specialty, he has no expertise in methods of trickery and psychological manipulation. I do. Dr. Oz is an expert consultant on healings, true, but just where were the healings he was called in to comment on? The program "Who Is John of God?" didn't show us any!

Now, I'm aware that John Quiñones does his job at the direct instructions of his producer. He asks — or does not ask — questions that he's told to ask or not ask. He acts as a host, not as an authority on medical matters, or on how the real world works. I believe that he doesn't feel he has a responsibility to pass personal judgment on what he sees. He's not involved in the editing — censoring and/or enhancing — of the video material. His commentary is probably written for him to simply read to the camera. In other words, he is innocent of intentionally misinforming or misleading the audience. But is the audience aware of all this? Do they understand that he's not the one who omitted the evidence that would reveal John of God to be doing a carnival trick, for example? I think not.

I must add that I'm rather dismayed by John Quiñones' comments that are to be found at www.belief.net/story/116/story_11635_3.html, but those appear to be his honest conclusions; though I could argue with them, he arrived at them and I respect his right to express them straightforwardly.

AN APPEAL TO REASON AND COMMON SENSE

Just think about the whole picture here. In sending a film crew off to Brazil on this project, ABC-TV took no prior advice from expert investigators, but actually seriously considered that these claims were possibly viable:

1. The body of a man in Brazil is periodically "occupied" by "beings of light" — spirits of an assortment of dead doctors — including King Solomon — who provide him with their accumulated medical expertise.

2. This man can glance at a person and correctly diagnose their disease(s).

3. He can heal a breast tumor by sticking a surgical clamp up the patient's nose, and a nervous condition by passing a knife over the patient's eyeball.

4. He goes into trances and has no memory of what he does when he performs his stunts.

Where, in the wide assortment of fantastic possibilities that ABC-TV might accept as suitable subjects to present seriously to the American public, do we place Santa Claus and flying pigs? If they had a report that a fat man in a red suit was actually manufacturing toys at the North Pole, would they dispatch a video crew there to find out? No, I think not, because very little asking around with experts would doom that project, but they eagerly rode off pursuing the four ridiculous premises listed above! And I hasten to advise them, though they did not seek my advice, that pigs cannot fly. Because anything to do with woo-woo claims is popular, they covered this ridiculous John of God matter — though not in enough depth to cast any doubt on it, mind you — and they thereby pleased their sponsors and stockholders.

THE CIRCUS OF GOD

Here's my suggested line of approach for the subject that ABC-TV almost covered: when you discover that the healings you're looking for are not there, and all you have are anecdotal accounts supplied by the organization you're investigating, the proper conclusion is that the claims are spurious — that you've been lied to, as the public you serve has been lied to. Is that too radical an approach? I think not.

I am not saying that John of God should not have been investigated and used as a subject for the Primetime Live show, because this is a major matter of public curiosity — and it's news. This bizarre circus needs to be looked at and reduced to facts, with the fantasy aspects properly identified. What I am saying is that the project should have been done better so that lives might be saved and the public could be more properly informed. Now, I'm not a scientist; I'm a specialist. What I know about these matters is all available to ABC-TV from many different sources, and at first I was encouraged when they called me in as a consultant on this subject. Then it seems that they saw their story becoming an exposé rather than a glamorous endorsement of religious miracles, and they back-peddled fast.

I dare to say that if ABC-TV's John Stossel had been involved in the production of this program, the results would certainly have been far different. John would have researched the subject, might have called on me or another experienced observer for consultation in advance of the obtaining of the raw material, and would have used more reason and common sense.

It must be easier just not to care, but I can't manage that. I must care when I know that John of God will claim more victims, and that I couldn't stop it. Though I earnestly wish it could be different, based on what we know to be the hard facts, David Ames will not recover from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Lisa Melman will most probably die of breast cancer because she's decided to forego legitimate surgical help. Mathew Ireland's brain tumor will still be there and will probably kill him, too. But João Teixeira will continue to flourish and be worshiped as a god.

Folks, I was in Mexico City on the plaza outside the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe when a young peasant father crawled by me along the rough pavement with an obviously dead infant in his arms, swaddled in a tiny white serape. There were twin tracks of blood behind him from his bleeding knees. He was seeking a miracle. Through the adjacent barred window in the basilica I could hear the coin-sorting machines packaging the money that was pouring into the offering boxes inside. I turned away and wept.

In a St. Louis auditorium I stood in the lobby as paramedics treated a heavy elderly woman who lay in a fetal position on the carpet, white-faced and moaning in agony. Moments before she'd been seized in ecstasy in front of faith healer "Reverend" W. V. Grant, leaping up and down in an adrenalin rush that made her temporarily oblivious to the bone spurs on her arthritic spine that were cutting into her muscle tissues and bringing about internal bleeding. The attendants got her onto two stretchers and into an ambulance. I wept.

Outside an arena in Anaheim, California, my camera crew approached a tiny, thin, Asian boy with twisted legs on worn crutches to ask him if he'd been healed by Peter Popoff, the miracle-worker who he'd told us two hours earlier was "gonna ask Jesus to fix my legs." When he turned toward us, we saw his tear-streaked face and anguished eyes. The cameraman lowered his camera. "I can't do this," he said, and we both turned away and wept.

I've had my share of tears and sleepless nights, wondering what I might do to keep people from chasing this chimera. I had another chance in New York City on January 25th, 2005, and I tried.

I'd like to suggest to the government of Brazil that they shut down this charlatan and stop the victimizing of innocent-but-naïve people from all over the world. The international community can only look in astonishment upon any nation that allows such flummery in the 21st century. I'm well aware that Brazil is far from being the only country plagued by such a burden; here in the USA we have our Benny Hinn, W. V. Grant, Peter Popoff, and many others who perform the same fakery on our citizens. The U.K. is full of similar scams, and all over Europe we find the operators at work.

There. I've had my say on the matter. Now I'd like to share with you some comments offered by the public, some of those who saw the show and contacted me. These were selected for variety, though most had essentially the same comments to make. Not one of my correspondents disagreed with what you see above. I hope that readers will take a brief moment to tell ABC-TV News what they think of this travesty of journalism. That can be done by writing to support@abcnews.go.com or to abc.news.magazines@abc.com to reach Primetime Live directly.

THE PUBLIC CHIMES IN

"K.M." writes:

I was shocked at the criminal reporting on the show "John of God." Was it just an unpaid ad for the man and his greed? My heart just broke to see those people. They were being enabled to keep up their delusions that they might be healed. I almost cried at the poor girl from South Africa. I wondered why her friends did not get together and do an intervention to assure her that they would be there for her as she went through surgery and chemotherapy. The poor woman in the wheelchair. Why wasn't she spending her time with intense physical therapy? Why was she wasting her time and money in Brazil? Plus, the show was very unethical. They implied that she could NOT walk at all. My husband noted early in the program that we were told she had an "almost severed spine." We have a friend who fell off a ladder and has the same condition, or what sounded the same. My husband immediately said, "Well, she should be able to walk some." Indeed, our friend through very intense physical therapy has a shuffling walk that he does with the help of a very sophisticated "cane" that has a special 4-point tip. That's because he has severe trouble with balance. On the show I felt when she was walking it was presented as some sort of "miracle." Who was that doctor! I never want to see him for anything, I don't care how many degrees he has or from where!

I could go on and on. My husband just turned to me and said, "Now I really understand what Mr. Randi is doing." Those poor people. I imagine the planes to Brazil are going to be packed. I imagine this man is going to be thrilled he had such an easy time. The sad part is that in two weeks Peter Jennings is doing a show on UFOs!

What has happened to responsible reporting? I would think a network like ABC would try to protect the public, not harm them. How many people are giving up their chemotherapy or delaying it to go to Brazil first?

Thank you for being the only, very, very brief voice of reason on the show.

"T.C." of Florida wrote:

What a crock. The whole program was a waste of time. They only gave the one person on the show who provide some insight, namely you, a brief few sentences. Even so, they were the only enlightening statements made on the show. They should have had John Stossel present the program. He at least would have presented a properly equal amount of skepticism. I can't see that this man is any different than the psychic surgeons of the Philippines, and others of that ilk. One telling fact is the obvious financial gain of him and the town from selling videos, religious items, etc.

Then there was the shameless promo for an upcoming two-hour special about UFO's, with Peter Jennings. It didn't look promising. It is Network television, so I suppose I shouldn't have expected better. I hate to be cynical, but sometimes it's hard not to.

"R.D." wrote:

A Primetime farce.

Only for Randi would I race home after a lecture in Pompano Beach just to watch TV. I don't watch any TV shows or news programs ever, but, after receiving Linda's announcement last week about Randi's appearance I thought I might be wrong and was ready to begin watching some of it again. But, after that despicable scam ABC aired tonight I am going to find that bumper sticker I once saw on someone's car that says "Kill your Television!"

PS — I am going to email ABC's Primetime and let them have it. If they answer me I'll let you know.

"M.L." wrote:

You have my condolences on what time you wasted attempting to debunk John of God, on PrimeTime Live, tonight. I actually wasted an hour watching that episode, and I feel they did a very unprofessional job with the whole thing. Well, I was doing other things while the show was on, so I wasn't even paying a lot of attention to it. But, even I saw some of the blatantly obvious cracks in this guy's case:

Treating a woman with breast cancer by sticking forceps up her nose, then treating someone with chronic pain by probing something her into her breast. Shouldn't that have been the other way around?

For 40 days his patients can't drink alcohol, eat pork, have sex, etc. Which makes it convenient to dismiss the failures: They didn't follow the rules.

One doctor tried to offer credibility to the powers by claiming John's nose probe activated the pituitary gland. Well, if doing something as simple as that could really heal so many different kinds of afflictions, wouldn't we see a lot of real doctors doing that?

I'm also pretty sure some of those surgeries could be explained away as simple conjuring tricks, anyway. I wonder why the patients had to keep their eyes closed...

I fear they may also have "accidentally" made you look bad, as well: The only quote of yours they used was where you are calling the patients liars. While that is most likely true, I don't think that sound bite, in such isolation, scored any points for you.

It seems like it should be so easy to take this guy down, and yet the show did nothing but bolster claims of possible miracles. Perhaps JREF ought to start producing its own primetime network television show, to get the harsh truth out better. Penn & Teller on Showtime is great, but just doesn't seem to be enough.

"S.H." wrote:

First, I want to say that I had a fantastic time at TAM3. I will certainly be returning in the future. My wife and I are both finishing our Ph.D.s in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and we were very pleased to see so many educators in the audience in Las Vegas. As we are hopeful to become academics ourselves, we hope to provide our students with a firm belief in rational thinking and problem solving skills. So thanks to you and to the many speakers who put on a great show!

My real reason for writing was to express my disappointment in the ABC special on John of God. I must admit I watched it with the expectation of seeing you debunk this lunatic. However, almost no criticism was offered. I have the feeling that there was much more of your commentary that was edited out. I am sure they did not interview you with only one question to ask. Instead, Dr. Mehmet Oz was featured as the token guy with whom no one could possibly disagree because of his impeccable credentials. He left me with the notion that, even though believing in the healing power of John of God defies all rational belief, some miracle has helped the poor, suffering people featured in the special. But I can only see this as prolonging the suffering and false hope of people that desperately need real medical treatment. I also felt that the show might encourage others to travel to South America to see this charlatan.

I was particularly disturbed by the woman with breast cancer who refused surgery and instead chose "natural" remedies and holistic medicine. I cannot say how desperate I might be if I were terminally ill, but I would like to think I would put my money on real science.

Mr. Randi, you can be assured that my very next e-mail will be to ABC expressing my disgust with this program.

P.S. In two weeks we can watch Peter Jennings glorify UFOs on this very same program. Yippee.

"G.J.D.A." from Hawaii writes:

I've just finished watching tonight's Primetime Live (ABC) story about a man in Abadiania, Brazil who calls himself "John of God" who claims that he is able to channel some 30+ dead doctors and other notables (one of them being KING SOLOMON!) and through this, he is able to heal the lame, cure the sick, and rejuvenate sight in the blind. Watching the program made me think right away of the JREF, so what a delight it was to me to see Mr. James Randi's take on the subject — although, as expected, his comments were a mere 4-5 seconds long!

The rest of the program basically made this "healer" look legitimate, although they also tried to make it look like they were actually doing some "real" investigative reporting by having reporter John Quiñones go in for a "check-up" on his shoulder (Ha!).

Where was the REAL investigation? Why didn't they do any tests on the discarded swabs João shoved up these people's noses? Why didn't they test the "holy water" he dipped these swabs in for any anesthetic or some hallucinatory drug? Why didn't they interview the local female attorney any further who claimed she was threatened by João's people, or investigate the woman some claimed João molested? I'm no investigative reporter in the longest stretches of the imagination, yet I can come up with better questions to ask than the ones that were. I'm really surprised that a seasoned reporter such as Quiñones didn't jump on such issues.

Well, perhaps I'm really NOT surprised...

Over the years, I grown to expect this sort of pandering towards the charlatan from the likes of these "news programs", which has made me lose total faith in their integrity. A while back, "Dateline" did a story on "Ghost Hunters", and in two weeks, Primetime Live returns with a story on UFOs!!

Foolishly, I'll probably watch this UFO program in hopes that they will surely offer both sides to the story equally, so that people can truly judge the information efficiently. Alas, I know that I am in store for another mere 4-5 seconds from the likes of Randi, Phil Klass, or Michael Shermer (if that at all!), while people like Stanton Friedman, Linda Howe, and Bud Hopkins will have full reign of the program (or so I'm predicting — care to make a bet, Sylvia?)

There has to be more to investigative reporting than "who can get the better ratings." If that's not the case, then these programs are no better than the "tabloid journalism" they claim to be so high above.

Why do I bother?

The James Randi Educational Foundation RULES!

"J.J." writes, succinctly:

What a total, absolute crock, referring either to the guy, or to the bias in the journalism.

I'm not speechless, but I haven't anything printable to say about the presentation.

"S.D." of West Virginia writes:

I happened to catch ABC Primetime Live's hardhitting hour long piece on "John of God" last evening. I almost missed the "equal time" clip from you as I sneezed whilst it flashed on the screen.

In any event, I was fascinated by one particularly striking aspect of JOG's "examinations." It seems that the spirit doctor entities that possess JOG during these episodes frequently compel JOG's hand to fondle the breasts of all of his female "patients" apparently to both diagnose and treat ailments as diverse as back pain and asthma. Is this an ancient technique about which I have hitherto remained appallingly ignorant?

Just curious.

"K.C." writes:

IS "JOHN OF GOD" A HEALER OR A CHARLATAN? IS ABC NEWS NUTS?

In an hour-long report last night, Primetime Live co-anchor John Quiñones traveled to a remote area of Brazil to find out if "John of God" is really a miracle healer as his followers claim. Wake up ABC! It's the 21st Century. In a position to help millions of viewers understand that they live in a rational universe, ABC has chosen instead to tell them that their sad superstitions are open to scientific questions. To give the program credibility they turned to "one of the world's most respected surgeons, Dr. Mehmet Oz." Oz is no doubt a fine surgeon, but he has "touch therapists" in his operating room helping patients "connect to the healing energy everywhere." When ABC dumped Michael Guillen as science editor, www.aps.org/WN/WN02/wn122702.cfm it seemed like a good sign. But it looks like they still don't get it.

Another "K.C." writes:

I was appalled at how little air time you were given during the Primetime telecast on Thursday. I really don't know why they bothered to show your clip at all. I've noticed when I've seen you on other shows that they usually use a clip that makes you come off as curmudgeonly. Sort of like, "that ol' James Randi is always grouchy and unwilling to consider the 'spiritual' at all. He'll pooh-pooh anything!"

I watched the whole program and was quite surprised when they introduced your clip toward the end of the show. My first thought was, "why wasn't Mr. Randi given equal time with the other supposed specialists?" After I saw the clip, I thought, "Oh...that's why."

I found the program very upsetting. I was horrified at the idea of him sticking the clamps up those people's noses. Yaaawg! I suffer from a very debilitating inflammatory disease that is auto immune, and I felt understanding for those people who were desperate (and I don't use the word "desperate" lightly) for some help. I have horrible pain as a result of my illness and the medication that I take (steroids, for the last 10 years) has been almost as bad as the illness itself. I have to take strong pain medication nightly to be able to manage. At my worst moments, I've thought desperate thoughts and wondered if there was anything that I hadn't considered. I felt sorry for those poor desperate people being swindled in such a way. It truly made me weep.

I have to say, too that my 25-year battle with my illness has left me with very little faith in the legitimate medical community, either. Most doctors are pill pushers who will rarely admit that they don't have the expertise to help you as you waste valuable time and money fighting for your right to have logical answers that make some sort of sense. My illness is rare, and there are a surprising number of doctors that know little or nothing about it. I can truly understand people who want an easy fix. What I wouldn't give for a day without pain or to be able to lose the 100 pounds that my years on steroids have caused me to gain. I stick it out with legitimate medicine in hopes that new procedures or medicines will be discovered soon, and for the occasional doctor that cares and tries his damndest to help me.

I did not believe that "John of God" is really a healer. I didn't believe his twollop about being "unconscious" during his "surgeries." You know one thing that I noticed that no one else seemed to? He touched the breasts of two of the test subjects while they were standing up there to have their "surgeries." I also wondered if he really stuck those clamps up the women's noses, or if they were collapsible.

I wasn't the least bit impressed with Primetime. I noticed that next week the show is going to be about UFO's. I guess that says it all right there. Hopefully they'll pick up John of God and Sylvia and John Edward and James Van Phony. While they are at it, they should beam up the folks at Primetime, too. They are just as guilty of perpetuating the fraud as those that they are covering. I now put them in the same category as Larry King. Anything for ratings. It sickens me to think of all of those desperate people that will put common sense aside and waste valuable time and money to go to Brazil to see John of God.

Thanks for listening to my ranting. Keep up the good fight.

"R.H." in Windom, Kansas, wrote:

I watched the ABC-TV "Primetime Live" show and didn't know if I should laugh or cry! I did have one very simple question after watching the show. If this so-called healer truly did have the power to heal people, why does he have to wear glasses? Did he not ever hear the old saying: "Physician, heal thyself"?

People never learn. Because there's a sucker born every minute. Its all about taking their $$$!

"J.M." wrote to ABC-TV News:

I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn't. The "John of God" story was one of the worst pieces of reporting I have ever seen. Despite the fact that not one single person was cured of anything, the show basically says there's a "mystery" here, powers that cannot be explained. Not ONE PERSON CURED. Were you paying attention? I was waiting and waiting for the voice of reason to blow through the bullshit, but all we got was 8 seconds of James Randi. And to make things worse, there was the ad in the middle for the upcoming UFO "news" report, with Mr. Jennings himself! Dan Rather WILL look like Walter Cronkite after all this.

You should be embarrassed.

"D.R.G." of Burbank, California, wrote:

A little about me: I consider myself open-minded yet critical. I'm also a fan of the JREF and a journalist of some twenty years. In response to your eight-second appearance on ABC's "Primetime Live" — not a good day for my profession.

"Primetime Live" calls itself a "News Magazine." Yes, I used the word "News." I watched the recent program outlining "John of God" as I'm sure did many of your readers. And I, like many of them, I waited an entire hour, thinking that at some point, what we refer to in the business as "the other side" had to be presented. Just one hardball question... just one critical point of view. I'm talking about "Journalism 101." I was more than disappointed... I was embarrassed.

I entered journalism for one simple reason... a belief that seeking the truth and keeping a free society informed of that truth is one damned noble way to make a living. Even if I occasionally disagree with one or two of your views, sir, I believe from reading your commentaries, that we share that basic belief. By not presenting this ancient scam with even a remote amount of critical questioning, journalism did more than just drop the ball... we became part of the problem.

The fact that some "Primetime Live" viewers will undoubtedly decide against seeking professional medical help for serious ailments due to the slanted way in which this program was presented is more than just bad journalism... it's scary. We're talking about ABC News... not the supermarket tabloids. Viewers have a right to expect more from an entity that calls itself a "major Network."

I believe sir, that in our own ways, we are both trying to fight the good fight. Even though it's not an easy battle, I will simply say, take heart... you are not alone.

"A.H." of Guthrie, Oklahoma, wrote:

I was really excited about the prospect of seeing you expose another faith healer on national television Thursday night. By the time the show was over, I was cussing at the TV. John Quiñones and Primetime Live did a very shoddy job with this story. John of God is obviously a scam artist, and Mr. Quiñones didn't take his job as a journalist seriously enough to show John's fakery to his viewers. I waited through the entire show for the point where you would come on the scene and explain all of John of God's tricks, and was cheated with a few measly seconds (which were the most truthful few seconds of the entire show). People, like the actress with breast cancer, are dying because of this kind of quackery, and all Primetime gave us was a warm and fuzzy story about believing in the power of the unknown. Well, I appreciate the effort you put into the story, with the trip to New York and the two days of interviews, even if I didn't get to see it. I'll email Prime Time Live and tell them the same.

"C.E." wrote:

First of all I would like to thank you for all the work you do in this area. It serves the community well to have a focal point for skepticism and to keep the healthy seeds of doubt alive. Although I am a skeptic by nature, I have never been very active on the front, so to speak. I just never have seen the point to actively go out and "ruin other people's fun." Charlatans and scammers have always angered me, but I have thus far kept my opinions to friends and such. Recently, however, this has changed.

What is troubling me now is that I have friends that are becoming very interested and even swallowing this "John of God" person. One of my friends has been seeing him for a year. She is deaf and has been told by this "man" that he will heal her. She is spending money and time going to Brazil, when her plans were to go to school to become a psychologist. Her life, indeed, has been hard but it saddens me immensely that this con-man is fleecing her by exploiting her fragile psyche.

Thus, my anger and sense of justice is boiling. At par with the ultimate failing of a human being, I never knew the importance of the cause until it hits home. And the plot thickens. My friend became interested in John of God through another deaf woman here in Michigan, but this woman, Barbara Brodsky, is a cult leader in her own right. She claims to channel an entity know in these parts as "Aaron." What's worse is that this woman is the spiritual leader for another of my friends. Ergo, yet another of my friends is enraptured with this Brazilian Balderdash.

I write you to ask for any bit of guidance you would offer. How do I deal with this, I want to become better prepared to answer the silly, and destructive, claims of these people. I profess my skepticism and have answers, but it often degrades into "agree to disagree." The fact that I see lives being manipulated and ruined by confused, insane, or unethical people is becoming quite aggravating.

Do you have any resources that would be of help? Any catalogs of tricks and such. I tell them these are magic tricks but I don't know how to do them or how they work so it becomes my "uninformed opinion" against theirs.

When discussing my friend in Brazil I become very emotional and my hands are shaking so please excuse any typos and such. I figured you would be the best person to ask in this situation.

Thank you for your time and patience.

AND FROM THE ABC-TV NEWS SITE

These few excerpts from ABC Primetime's own message board, which was jammed with really angry messages from viewers, will speak for themselves....

Feb. 7 — posted three days before the show was aired...

I do know that at least one nonbeliever, James Randi, has been interviewed for the program (most of the material shot doesn't make it into the show). If history is a reliable yardstick, the show will be divided along lines (actual airtime) of approximately 80 to 90% believers, and a token 10 to 20% skeptics. People would rather watch [viewership equals money for ABC] something promoting miracles than something informing them that there are no miracles, at least not this one.) James Randi has performed "psychic surgery" many times as public demonstrations (including on the Johnny Carson show) and has also performed the "under the eyelid knife scraping" of the eyeball which John of God performs, or used to. Randi's profession is stage illusionist, aka "magician." I'm afraid that the only person on network television who could do an honest investigative journalistic in-depth examination would be John Stossel, and I don't believe he is in any way connected with this piece on Primetime Live. I hope I'm wrong and the time is divided up 50-50, but the only thing that would matter would be a scientific investigation of the claims, not just anecdotal reports, even those of physicians, which the preview shows implying that John's treatments are efficacious, based apparently on anecdote.

From an actual victim:

My sisters and father went in Oct. 2001 and had an awful experience. My sister almost died from being cut by this man. She got a blood infection that almost cost her her life. Stay away. Remember, both God and Satan are powerful but God is good! This man is making a fortune from what he is doing...by the way, my sister wasn't ill she only took my father and she didn't volunteer for this surgery!... Don't go, and if you still go, don't let yourself get "physical surgery" and make sure you don't have your credit card. In addition, my sister doesn't understand how she spent $2,000 on jewelry in one of John of God's jewelry shops and she doesn't ever buy jewelry or wear it. It appears certain people are told of this jewel mine....

From an MD:

I am a medical doctor and found the show very interesting, but cannot believe the man can heal. The people who have some sort of improvement have benefited psychologically and that is a good thing. We know that strong belief by the patient and powerful suggestion by the doctor, healer, or spiritual practitioner can produce the placebo effect where between 30% to 50% of people will feel better or possibly develop a cure. I have seen it in my own medical practice. Any good physician knows that the power of suggestion, by someone the patient trusts and has faith in, can produce powerful effects.

However I worry very much about people like the woman who has breast cancer, since she is turning down conventional therapy that has a very high cure rate for her cancer and yet will most likely die if she continues to have only faith in this man. The forceps in the nose "surgery" is a variation of the old carnival "blockhead illusion" (I am also an amateur magician). A performer puts a nail in his nose and then pounds it in. The way it is done is by pushing the nail or forceps, in this case into the opening into the maxillary sinus. This is not difficult to do with a little practice but it looks impossible. John's other "surgery" is making a small superficial cut in the persons skin this is all for show. There is no logic whatsoever to it. I hope that a follow-up show is done to see what ultimately happens to the man with the brain tumor, woman with breast cancer, and woman with the spinal cord injury. I hope I am wrong and they are all cured. However if they are not, ABC would be doing a service to prevent others from spending their money on false hopes. Those that are "cured" most likely have illnesses that are minor or that have very strong psychological overlay, like the woman with allergies and chronic fatigue.

From a wise viewer:

....I don't know if I would call it completely one-sided but I did feel that the show went to some effort to present John of God in the best possible light. Look at the case where [John Quiñones] went for the treatment himself for a minor problem. Afterwards, he said he experienced no improvement, but "to be fair" he hadn't followed the instructions he was given. Well then, if he wasn't going to hold up his end of the deal, what was the point of that exercise? No information was gained. Now if his problem gets better, the faith healer can claim success. If it doesn't, then it's the patient's fault. There's a chance that what they are dealing with is a con man, so why should they be fair with him? Did they go to investigate him, or to play games?

This is one of the problems with anecdotal evidence. It's not that patients lie about their success rate, but that they can not always be counted on to objectively evaluate the outcome. And it is difficult if not impossible to verify their stories. If someone goes to a faith healer and says they feel better afterward, you can't always tell whether it is just the psychological lift from the experience (not a bad thing in itself), or whether the problem spontaneously healed, or if they actually were cured by the faith healer."

An angry viewer:

What a shame that the great ABC News presented such a one-sided story. Primetime Live used to pride itself on exposing cheats and frauds. If you used the same zeal investigating this charlatan that you do for refrigerator repairmen and supermarket meat, you could have done the public a great service.

From a "streetwise" viewer:

Yeah. I know it's a long trip from Columbus Circle on the F train, but maybe ABC News should investigate Coney Island. The Carnies are performing the same "miracles" there every day.

This has been the longest SWIFT entry, ever, because I felt that this was a very important event in the JREF history. We needed to explain the appearance I made on this program, and why it was confined to just 19 seconds. Thank you for your patience in bearing with me this far. Next week, we'll return to business-as-usual....


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