Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond

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A misleading article on faith healing

In an article entitled “Are miracles happening on the streets of Coleraine“, Finola Meredith wrote a largely uncritical piece about Mark Marx, a self-described street healer who claims he can channel the spirit of God to heal people of various different ailments. Particularly worryingly, claims were made that his ministry helped rid a woman of paralysis and helped to eliminate a young man’s cancer. Both claims went unchallenged.

Marx cited a “leg lengthening” technique that has long been debunked by professional magicians. Using this technique, so-called healers use sleight-of-hand to convince the unwary that a miracle has been performed, when all that’s usually required is a simple repositioning of the shoes being worn by the subject. In this case, we do not know the effect that chemotherapy had on the young man’s recovery. It appears that Ms Meredith did not seek corroboration for the claims made.

In cases of cancer, because treatment regimes are often difficult and outcomes uncertain, people can come to a conclusion that there are easier solutions out there. Combined with unscrupulous people who claim they can cure without evidence, it is a breeding ground for false hope and avoidable suffering. The utmost scepticism must be applied. Irrespective of whether sceptics have “never encountered the reality of knowing God”, any claim to cure cancer must stand on its own merits. Anecdotes are insufficient as they are often self-serving, selective and fail to account for the many biases we are all subject to.

Evangelical faith healing has a long pedigree of making extravagant claims despite any clinical evidence. The area is fraught with examples of brazen charlatanry and most worryingly, there have been plenty of cases of serious harm caused to people who have abandoned medical treatment in favour of faith based treatments. We need to be extremely wary of the claims of faith healers, even when the healers themselves seem sincere in their beliefs.



An Open Letter to Cork City Hall

To the Corporate Affairs team in Cork City Council:

I refer to the Mind, Body and Spirit exhibition that goes ahead twice a year in Cork City Hall.

Based on our visit to the show last March, a number of people purporting to be psychics and fortune tellers had stalls at the exhibition. The costs on display were significant, on the order of 40 to 50 euro a session.

As you are opening Cork City Hall to psychics on a regular basis, it is only fair to point out that many of these people may not be providing the services they purport to offer. Many psychics use a practice known as “cold reading”: a psychological technique where information is gleaned from the customer, and replayed back in a way that seems to indicate that the psychic has special powers. This technique simply exploits our normal human inability to absorb and recognise disconfirming information. Many magicians and mentalists use the same techniques, but they never claim psychic abilities. Not one psychic has ever been able to demonstrate their powers in a properly controlled trial, strongly indicating that these claimed abilities do not exist.

By opening the City Hall to psychics, please remember that you are exposing people, sometimes at a difficult time in their lives, to individuals who claim access to special wisdom. It is extremely unlikely that this special wisdom actually exists.  In any case, the benefits are doubtful and the disadvantages may, in some cases, be serious. There are instances of customers listening to the advice of psychics instead of seeking proper medical or psychological treatment. Even looked at benignly, it may be an unwanted interference in the grieving process, offering people false hope when they are trying to come to terms with a loss. If even one “psychic” at the show is knowingly using trickery to exploit their customers, surely this is an issue of concern?

Other displays of highly dubious benefit were represented in the show in March, such as crystal healing, angel healers, and an organisation purporting to be a Human Rights organisation, when it is simply a front for the Church of Scientology.

As Cork City Hall is a public forum, we would have thought that you have a duty to hold exhibitions that provide useful services to the public and which do not prey on human vulnerability or gullibility. Is there a quality control process in place, in terms of who is allowed to exhibit, and what is permitted to be exhibited? If a group or organisation is advocating therapies or services that conflict with the best available evidence, is this of concern to you? If large sums of money are changing hands where the promised benefits are either totally unproven or proven not to work, is this something that you might wish to explore further?

People, of course, have a right to spend their money as they see fit. Our query is whether a public forum, such as the City Hall, is an appropriate venue for services that have highly dubious social value.

Best regards,

Colm Ryan
Cork Skeptics

Magician Paul Zenon describes how psychics perform their stage acts:

Magician James Randi spectacularly debunks faith healer Peter Popoff’s alleged powers.

What’s the Harm in believing in Psychics?