Miracles, Faith Healing and the Placebo Effect
Today marks an important day for Canadian Catholics, a s the Vatican is making the first home-grown Canadian into a saint. Alfred Bessette, known to the faithful as Brother André, lived out his humble life in Montréal during the second half of the last century, where he developed a remarkable reputation for ‘miraculous’ healing. Though he denied any such powers, attributing the supposed healing to St Joseph, pilgrims soon flocked to Montréal to seek him out. The chapel he built on mount royal (now the sight of the humble St Joseph Basilica) soon became the home of thousands of canes and crutches, left by the devoted after they were apparantly cured.
The church takes the claims of miracles quite seriously; the foundation of their doctrine rests on miraculous events. They even have a special commission set up during the canonization process designed to assess the validity of miracles. Larry Moran over at Sandwalk has done a superb job detailing the supposed miracles of Brother André, so I shall not bother with the take down here. The ‘infalliable’ church claims that there is a rigorous process to determine exactly when the laws of nature have been violated. Even more spectacularly, they also claim to be able to differentiate when said miracle is only the result of prayer to the deceased person in question, which is a prerequisite for inclusion in the holy club.
Why the catholic church considers itself the supreme authority on science given their demonstrably abysmal track record (Galileo anyone?) is beyond the subject of the post, what is intriguing is the reason so many of the faithful felt they were cured by the ‘miracle man’. These miracles closely resemble the altar call healing that America’s evangelist movement is (in)famous for, where the infirmed are magically cured through the power of the holy spirit. Compellingly, these desperate cases rise from their wheelchairs, praising god and making a very convincing show for the faithful present. The problem? Many of the ‘healed’ still require their wheelchairs and canes after the adrenaline of the altar call has faded. In an investigation into the faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman, most of the miracles disappeared after the fact. All of those who claimed that Kuhlman cured their cancer continued to have the disease, and in at least two cases, the cured actually died shortly after visiting the healer. Faith healing has similarly abysmal records in healing amputees, who are beyond god’s apparent omnipotence and benevolence.
The Amaz!ng Randi, a legendary skeptic and ‘debunker’ who took down the healer Peter Popoff, suspects that faith healing has more to do with (unintentional) self deception and ignorance about how the body works, otherwise known as the placebo effect. The power of the mind in alleviating pain and suffering is well documented, but the placebo effect is most strongly observed when the patient has strong expectations and conditioning. For the evangelical faith healers of the world, they prime their targets with bright lights, dramatic dialogue and authoritative assertions about the power of prayer, then tell them they are cured in front of thousands of people. The adrenaline rush one would naturally get from this situation could easily be mistaken for a cure under the spotlights, but there is no miracle in neurochemicals.
For our miracle man in Montréal, the faithful are primed first with a gruelling 200+ step climb on their knees. I’ve simply walked those steps a number of times, and I can assure you, the exhaustion and relief you get upon reaching the top is anything but divine. Breathing heavily and lightheaded from the climb, the faithful then descend into a dark room of thousands of canes and crutches, surrounded by candles and incense, and are told that they are in the presence of a miraculous healing power. With adrenaline still coursing through their veins and no other explanation, especially with the expectation that the will be cured, the placebo effect takes over, and they feel they are cured. At no point in this situation has anything other than the mundane occurred, and I strongly suspect that these pilgrims will soon be feeling sore and in need of more crutches in the near future.
As for Catholic claims of miraculous recovery from cancer and comas, the strange world of statistics combined with modern medicine is ignored. My dad worked in the terminal cancer ward of a hospital for 20 years, and sometimes even the most malignant tumors would disappear. However, in the vast majority of cases though, the patients would eventually die as a result of their diseases. The fact is, some people will naturally recover from these severe situations purely as a result of chance. These occurrence can be mapped out in the standard normal distribution anyone who has ever taken a course in statistics will be familiar with. Michael Shermer writing for Scientific American, explains that many of these ‘miracles’ must occur simply because of the law of large numbers. It’s rather intuitive, really. Any event that is one-in-a-million will happen to at least 34 unique Canadians, but this reality is not, nor has it ever been a miracle. Those 34 Canadians may attribute their result to talking in their heads to the deceased Alfred Bessette, a dead two thousand year old carpenter, or (to quote Dawkins) the great JuJu under the sea, but the statistical outcome would be the same in any case. With enough people, some very improbable things must happen, but this does not make these things miracles.
Of course, the church has a vested interest in ignoring statistics and science; just today thousands of devoted Catholics were in St Joe’s to celebrate the canonization, with millions more flocking to Rome for the ceremony. Did Brother André, or any of the other 10,000 saints perform miracles? No, but the idea that they did is really sexy to the billions of faithful who, despite statistical reality to the contrary, believe that miracles could happen to them, too.