In terms of promoting woo and quackery, there is one person who stands head and shoulders above all the rest. True, she doesn’t just promote woo and quackery, but she does have a long list of dubious achievements in that realm, including but not limited to unleashing Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccine crusade plus Suzanne Somers and her “bioidentical hormone” and cancer quackeries on an unsuspecting American public. She’s also subjected us to both Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz to the point of actually launching them on their own shows, promoting the mystcial mumbo-jumbo wish fulfillment that is The Secret, and basically providing the most influential daytime TV platform for all manner of pseudoscience on a regular basis. Indeed, she’s been running a veritable war on medical science. There’s no New Age woo too woo-ey or quackery too quacky for Oprah.
Actually, I didn’t used to think that that was the case. I thought that Oprah probably had limits, that there were some forms of woo that even Oprah wouldn’t promoter. True, after she started promoting The Secret, I was probably deluding myself to think that, but I nonetheless did. On Wednesday of this week, I learned that I was totally wrong in thinking this. Oprah has no shame, as I discovered when she did a show featuring faith healer John of God, entitling it Do You Believe in Miracles?
The stupid, it burns so bad.
I didn’t actually watch the entire show when it aired, but I found clips from the show on the Oprah website, along with a long writeup describing the show. Let’s put it this way. If the rest of the show was anything like what’s on the website (and there’s no reason to believe it is not), Oprah has once again pulled a classic bit of promoting nothing but the rankest quackery. Her feature appears to be a completely credulous treatment of faith healing, complete with the obligatory “skeptic” who sees what the miracle worker can do and becomes a convert. Before I get into this more, take a look at this nauseating video, which shows segments from the show. The first segment is an interview between Oprah and Susan Casey, editor-in-chief of O Magazine, the latter of whom traveled to Brazil to bask in the presence of the alleged “holy man.” The segment took the form of the classic “spiritual journey narrative.” To whit:
While at the Casa, Susan was also searching for her own healing. After her father suddenly passed away two years ago, Susan experienced a “tsunami of grief” that she says she couldn’t escape from. She wondered if John of God could help heal her grief.
When she first met with John of God, she says all he did was look her in the eyes. “I thought, ‘That was it?’ I was expecting a lightening bolt, where there’s a big flash of insight. And they just said, ‘Come back later.’ It’s basically, ‘Take a blessing and come back.’”
Susan met with him a second time, and again, he didn’t spend any time with her. What he did do was look at a picture of Susan and her father. He then told Susan to sit in the “healing room,” a room in the Casa reserved for meditation and prayer, for three hours. Susan says she was surrounded by hundreds of people in the healing room, all of whom were praying and meditating with their eyes closed.
“Three hours went by like 20 minutes,” Susan says, “and it was blissful–it was like I was floating.”
In her own state of meditation, Susan says she was able to speak with her father. “It was very real,” she says. “More of a vision than I had ever had before. … I got this feeling like I shouldn’t be sad, that everything was okay.”
While Susan acknowledges that the whole experience sounds skeptical, she says she’s “not a woo-woo person,” and that the Casa helped her find healing.
They all say they aren’t “woo-woo” people, don’t they? In fact, if you hear someone on a show about a faith healer say they’re a skeptic or “not a woo-woo person” you can be pretty sure that she either has just said or is about to say something that proves she is a woo-woo person. In the video, Casey goes on and on about how after meeting John she felt as though a “cloud had lifted” and how she felt “lighter.” She describes sitting in the “healing room,” where she was floating and talking to her dead father. She then describes a scene in which she and other supplicants are sitting and praying, not allowed to cross their legs (which apparently for some reason would ruin he “energy” being channeled) and how she feld during that. it is also in this segment that I saw perhaps the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen on Oprah’s show. Oprah looks at her editor and, in all seriousness, says, “You know this sounds very woo-woo to me.”
Oh, Oprah, you skeptic you!
More hilarious is the answer. Casey says that she can’t be woo-woo because she spends her time around people with surfers who surf 100 foot waves, and they’re “very linear” and “focused” in their thinking. Uh, Casey. Have you ever noticed that a lot of surfers are into a lot of woo? At the very least they’re at least as prone to woo as anyone else. This isn’t as though Casey was hanging out with Randi, fer cryin’ out loud! In any case, it would be churlish of me not to be happy that Casey seems to have found a way to overcome her grief at the loss of her father, but medicine and science this is not. It is, contrary to Casey’s claim otherwise woo-woo, and Casey is anything but a skeptic. In fact, she appears to have been in such a state of mourning that she may have even been in a state of clinical depression at the time. Indeed, she describes having the feeling that she would “never feel joy again.” She had such an emotional need for something to shake her out of that state that she latched onto John of God. Whatever happened, it’s quite obvious that Casey is was not neutral and, unlike a real skeptic, turned off her critical thinking faculties (if they were ever on in the first place) when she traveled to Brazil.
Next up we have a “skeptic.” His name is Dr. Jeff Rediger, and he is presented thusly:
Dr. Jeff Rediger is a psychiatrist who traveled to the Casa seven years ago as a skeptic. His goal was to collect lab reports, radiological exams and photos of people who reported that they were physically healed by John of God and to see if the healings could be documented.
Like Susan, he witnessed several physical surgeries while he was there–an experience he says changed the way he thought about the world.
“Some people who I spoke with were able to remember the events going around them completely, and some people seem to enter a sort of altered state during these surgeries,” he says. “When I was assisting in one of the surgeries, [John of God] cut this woman’s cornea. She didn’t flinch. She didn’t try to pull away from him. I can’t explain that. I heard some people use the term ‘spiritual anesthesia.’ I have no way to understand that.”
Well, science and skepticism would be a good start. Unfortunately, in the video I don’t see a whole lot of that coming from Dr. Rediger. One thing that irritated the hell out of me about this segment was how the producers blurred the blood when John was doing his “psychic surgery.” It made it impossible for me to make any judgment regarding whether there was any fakery involved. Looking at the blood and bits of tissue, I wasn’t convinced that this really was human tissue. In any case, everything in the video was a rehash of the sorts of nonsense that John of God has been doing for over a decade. Indeed, several years ago, ABC did a special on John of God with a similar lack of skepticism; the only difference between Oprah’s puff piece and the earlier special was that the earlier special was a whole hour and didn’t feature Oprah as the host and didn’t bother to interview someone like James Randi, who would have informed the producers that everything John of God did was nothing more than hoary old carny tricks, in particular the old “forceps up the nose” and “cornea scraping” tricks.
The latter trick apparently fooled Dr. Rediger completely, as he breathlessly describes a woman whose cornea Rediger said that John of God cut. Unfortunately, the camera angles used made it impossible for me to judge of John was doing what he claimed. In the only close-up, it was clear that the knife never touched the eye, and when John actually appeared to be doing something, the camera never actually focused on the woman’s eye. It was almost as though the Oprah producers were complicit in the fakery, because they seemed almost to be making a conscious effort not to show a camera angle that would allow viewers to judged whether the procedure actually being done was what John of God claimed. Personally, I’d have loved to see an ophthalmologist allowed to have a close-up view of John’s activities. Never trust a psychiatrist to do a surgeon’s job or judge “surgery.” This strikes me as particularly true when Rediger is shown in a video clip apparently bleeding from the chest, apparently after having viewed John do his cornea scraping bit. He expresses fear and is concerned that the bleeding doesn’t stop as soon as he thinks it should, pointing out that he doesn’t have a bleeding disorder.
Let’s just put it this way. I don’t think Dr. Rediger is much of a skeptic. Just Google his name, for instance, and you’ll quickly find his website. Here are some choice quotes:
- “We live in a culture that has advanced enough that we can send the person with a medical problem to the medical doctor; a person with an emotional problem to the psychologist, and a person with a spiritual problem to the priest, minister or rabbi. Yet The Initiative for Psychological and Spiritual Development is founded upon the belief that, beneath and behind all the masks and appearances that we present to the world, there is something more, and that whatever healing potential exists comes from this place.”
- “Many of us benefit every day from the advances made in medicine and biological psychiatry. But these disciplines as they are currently conceived are only part of the story. They are rooted in an overly materialist understanding of the body and the brain. We will be limited in our capacity to help people until we can enlarge our vision and understanding of the true nature and needs of the human person.”
- “The next evolutionary step for both medicine and psychiatry is to explore and point the way towards what it will take to develop a rich, vital life of courage, faith and love. This means that we need to allow the capacities of mind and heart to stand on their own terms, and not be reduced solely to the language of biology and physics. And then seek to understand these hidden capacities, and how to cultivate them.”
It sounds to me that not only is Dr. Rediger not a skeptic, but rather he is a believer in mind-body dualism and “spirituality,” so much so that he heads something called the Initiative for Psychological and Spiritual Development.
Yet another segment describes a breast cancer testimonial for a woman named Lisa, who was apparently diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37, her mother having died of the disease. Before I go on, I suggest that you take a look at another woman with breast cancer who appeared on Oprah’s show a couple of years ago after having chosen the New Age idiocy known as The Secret to treat what she described as “stage III breast cancer.” The woman’s name was Kim Tinkham, and she chose a regimen that involved acid-base quackery and The Secret. Two years later, she popped up on YouTube in an interview, where it turns out that she almost certainly didn’t have stage III breast cancer but rather grade III ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is noninvasive and doesn’t always progress to fully invasive cancer. Read the testimonial of Hollie Quinn. Read one of my oldest posts, which was about how breast cancer testimonials can easily deceive because of most people’s lack of knowledge about breast cancer. It’s nearly six years old and still as relevant today as it is was then. Lisa underwent the “forceps up the nose” operation by John of God. Her testimonial is described in this video and this segment on the Oprah website:
Doctors recommended a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, but Lisa refused. Desperate to find an alternative treatment, she traveled from her home in South Africa to Abadiania to see John of God. While at the Casa, Lisa volunteered for a visible surgery–a nasal probe.
“My heart was beating very fast [during the surgery]. And then I sort of felt him turning this instrument, and I remember a crunching sound and thinking ‘How far can this thing go back?’ because it felt really far,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it was painful. It was more like shock.”
When she left Brazil, Lisa says she followed the guidelines she had received from John of God, such as abstaining from sex and alcohol for 40 days. She later had a biopsy and, unfortunately, her tumor was still malignant.
“It’s never gone away, meaning I’ve never been out of the cancer realm,” Lisa says. “I was told I was at a fourth-stage diagnosis.”
Even though Lisa did not experience a physical healing at the Casa, she says she has no regrets.
So basically Lisa decided to forgo effective therapy and travel to see a faith healer, who did her no good. Now she has a stage IV diagnosis. Indeed, I wonder if she has large cervical nodes on her left side. Her neck looked very odd during this interview, as though it’s assymetrical with a bulge on the left side. Lisa is the true price of quackery like that of John of God. Quacks and faith healers hold out the hope of cure without that nasty surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Believe me, I understand why patients might want to avoid surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, but they are all we currently have that actually works against breast cancer. Magical thinking leads to outcomes like that of Lisa.
Perhaps the most disgusting segment of all is this one, which introduces John of God. In it, Oprah’s voiceover describes John as “persecuted,” “misunderstood,” and “working tirelessly,” after having exulted about how “millions upon millions” of people have traveled to Brazil to visit him. The images are even more disturbing. John of God seems to have a proclivity for women’s breasts. In one scene, his is shown apparently making an incision on a woman’s breast, her nipple chastely blurred out, and squeezing something out of the breast, which the woman described as “something black coming out of my heart.” More important is this key statement: “He urges those who come to see him to continue all treatments prescribed by their own medical doctors.” Assuming that most of these people actually do that, it looks to me as though John of God is the classic case of a quack faith healer doing nothing and then taking credit for what science-based medicine can do. As Robert Caroll, Joe Nickell, and James Randi have documented, it’s pure quackery. As for all the testimonials, it’s almost always true that they consist of people who either (1) never really had the disease in the first place; (2) still have the disease, as Lisa does; or (3) can’t be tracked down and may well be dead.
As Oprah’s show winds down toward its end in May, I can only say: It’s not a moment too soon. Her reign of woo needs to come to an end. From just one show, Oprah has probably spurred thousands more people to trek down to Brazil to seek out John of God and potentially be harmed. Unfortunately, as Oprah ends her show, she’s starting up her very own cable channel, from which she can promote this sort of “spirituality” 24/7. I don’t know which is worse.
ADDENDUM: There are some defenders of John of God infesting the comments who are going nuts because I didn’t actually sit down and watch the entire episode of The Oprah Show entitled Do You Believe in Miracles? However, I did examine everything on Oprah Winfrey’s website on John of God (a.k.a. João Teixeira de Faria), which includes:
- Do You Believe in Miracles? (A long writeup of the show)
- Who is John of God? (video)
- Face-to-Face with John of God (video)
- Science and Miracles (video)
- Lisa’s Search for a Cure (video)
- A Leap of Faith: Meet John of God by Susan Casey (the long article featured in O Magazine)
If this is not representative of what Oprah Winfrey is promoting about John of God, please demonstrate why it is not. Also, please explain why Oprah’s website links to these credulous paeons to John of God:
- John of God: The Brazilian Healer Who’s Touched the Lives of Millions
- Healing: Miracles, Mysteries, and John of God
- And ad for one of John of God’s appearances
Seriously. These are the other sources Oprah recommends for additional reading on John of God.