This Dutch Professor of Medicine Lost His Job For Saying He Witnessed a Divine Miracle. Should He Have?

I was talking about science and religion with a Dutch friend yesterday when he casually referred to the Van Schayk affair and asked me what I thought of it. My mind drew a blank, so he filled me in. It’s a bizarre and fascinating story that I thought I’d share.

In March of this year, a Dutchman named Onno van Schayk, a professor of medicine and the head of the CAPHRI School for Public Health in Maastricht, the Netherlands, caused a bit of an uproar when he gave an interview to an evangelical TV station. He mentioned his Christian beliefs a few times, and then segued into this remarkable statement:

“There have been moments that I’ve seen God’s work directly, up close. It involved a person whose leg was too short, who was being prayed for. And I saw that leg grow. …

I concede we have to be careful with that, and that the [stories] in the Bible — they should be tested, examined. We shouldn’t just assume things. We have to apply, very carefully, almost a scientific principle — establish that it’s incontrovertible. And in this case, it was indeed incontrovertible. You could see from looking at the X-rays that [bone] growth had indisputably occurred, something for which there was no normal explanation.”

In subsequent days and weeks, journalists and medical practitioners asked Van Schayk for details. Considering how unusual the event he’d witnessed was, it should have been seared into his brain. But the professor could recall very little that was useful in verifying the claim. It happened 25 years ago, he said. He could not produce medical notes, charts, or the name of the person whose leg was allegedly lengthened through prayer. Most crucially, the X-rays Van Schayk spoke of — which, to a believer, should have been priceless evidence as well as sweet vindication — were nowhere to be found.

Before the dust settled, Van Schayk decided to resign from his job at CAPHRI, saying he didn’t want to draw undue heat and attention to the school. That may be true, or it could be that he was forced out by his colleagues.

Either way, his exit from the job was probably for the best. I find it peculiar that someone in his position believes in miracles, but no more than I’d find it peculiar if he smoked a pack a day in his spare time. Such idiosyncrasies, though barely compatible with the ethos of a medical professional, shouldn’t be grounds for dismissal.

However, Van Schayk didn’t just say he believes in God and miracles in general. On TV, and in his capacity as the dean of an academically respected public-health school, he claimed to have witnessed a very specific miracle by the Lord; and he vouched for the medical evidence supporting that claim. That’s okay, but then he’d better be prepared to produce the goods.

If he can’t even begin to prove that the entire episode wasn’t a figment of his imagination, his credibility as a man of science plummets, and we can be forgiven for suspecting that there’s little that separates Van Schayk from the suggestible simpletons in this video:

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***UPDATE*** I seem to have confused some people with that headline. Van Schayk officially wasn’t pinkslipped; he was either asked to resign, or resigned of his own volition. I tried to capture the ambiguity by saying in the headline that he “lost his job” in the scandal, but since that phrase is so close in meaning to “he got fired,” I left readers guessing about the circumstances of his departure. My apologies if anyone felt misled.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • starskeptic

    Most misleading title for a post – ever.

    • KMR

      Yep. He didn’t lose his job, he quit. And he probably quit because of pressure to produce evidence for his spectacular claim. Anyway I don’t know if he should have been fired but I think it’s probably best he quit. Don’t say outlandish things and then not be able to back it up especially if you claim to respect the scientific process and have a career based on that.

      • beep3rocks

        I don’t know. I know quite a few people who work in Universities and institutions like that manage to find ways to put pressure on faculty and staff to resign. You’d be surprised how little it takes to make your work life a living hell in a place like that. Stay skeptical!

        • KMR

          Oh I’m sure that’s what happened! I’m sorry if it came across that I was thinking he quit with almost no “encouragement”. But technically he wasn’t fired and if he hadn’t bowed under pressure I don’t know if they would have fired him. I also don’t know if I think they should have. The article doesn’t give us enough information IMO for me to feel comfortable making that claim. I do, however, feel comfortable saying that it’s best he quit and I don’t feel particularly uncomfortable with the thought of him being pressured to do so.

          • beep3rocks

            Oh yeah, in that case I totally agree.

          • Terry Firma

            I could have done better with that headline. See the update at the end of the post.

          • Latraviata

            The institute sent him away. The Dutch press and his Dutch medical cohort ridiculed him and had a good laugh. There was just very little attention payed to this case. In general, nobody, except for a handful strict believers, takes this idiot seriously.

    • Terry Firma

      You must not get around the Internet much.

      • starskeptic

        You must not get out of the house much.

    • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

      Ever!

      • starskeptic

        You’re absolutely right – no one should do sarcasm half-assed.

        • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

          I suffer from everitis.

          • starskeptic

            Few things worse than an inflamed ever.

    • ¬_¬

      Overstatement of the day.

      • starskeptic

        Grasp on obvious…firm and holding…

  • Brian Westley

    Here’s more on leg-lengthing fraud:

    http://heathen-hub.com/blog.php?b=605

  • Ajean

    He didn’t lose his job for claiming to witness a miracle. He lost his job for being a liar.

  • GubbaBumpkin
  • Paul (not the apostle)

    Its fine to make outlandish claims if making outlandish claims is your job. But then you would be a faith healer and you would be richly rewarded. However If your job is a scientist making outlandish claims with no evidence can get you in trouble.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    He’s either a fraud or he’s insane. He isn’t competent to be teaching medicine.

  • Brodestar

    With him being a respectable man of science being in the position that he was in brought with it a certain level of competency. Not being able to substantiate his claim or even be able to remember the full details of the event had only one outcome which was what happened. For him to make such a claim without evidence and stay in his position was unacceptable for the school. I am in total agreement with the decision and it should serve as a reminder to others that while your free to believe whatever you want unprovable claims could have a very negative outcome.

  • Francisco J. Moreno

    One should never be fired for his beliefs if those don’t have a proven negative impact on his work. He explained why he was a Christian, but didn’t expect anyone to believe the story he was telling. That’s what I think. But anyway, I was unable to understand a word of the interview (it’s in dutch), so my opinion is still half-baked.

    • Intelligent Donkey

      So, if I honestly believe that dark-skinned people are inferior to white-skinned people …

      • Francisco J. Moreno

        … you’re a racist, not a bad scientist. You’re a bad scientist if you think that belief is a scientific truth.

        • Michael

          Or if you let your belief lead you into making a false statement to the scientific community. As in this article.

          • Francisco J. Moreno

            Officialy. I can say I believe in (gemotherapy, collective unconsciousness, homeophaty, UFOs, pick your choice), and that I have had experiences that made me think that way, but as long as I recognize I dont have any proofs and that it’s not an official, scientific claim I would publish in a paper, there’s no conflict with the job that should get me fired (or bullied to quit). In this case it was public on a TV show and affected the institutions credibility, so he had it coming… but for slightly different reasons than just believing something without proof.

  • Sven2547

    Ah yes, of course it was decades ago and apparently completely undocumented. Scientific method? What’s that?

  • Intelligent Donkey
  • averydashwood

    You should check out the tidal wave of bullshit promoted by the Academic Health Center of the University of Minnesota through its Center for Spirituality and Healing. http://www.csh.umn.edu/free-online-learning-modules/index.htm This isn’t just a doctor who thought he saw something decades ago; it’s an institutional endorsement of every kind of pseudoscience you can think of presented to the very people who will be the doctors and nurses of the next generation.

    • Amor DeCosmos

      A university that teaches REIKI? Doesn’t that just devalue the worth of everyone’s degree from the UofM?

    • RBH

      Jesus Christ. My Minnesota Ph.D. (1972) just got devalued.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I think somebody was pulling his leg. Bada boom! Tshhh.
    Without evidence, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Brrratta bang!
    Sorry, but believing the leg got longer is a stretch. Bada-bump!
    He wanted to run with it, but with one leg shorter he just went in circles. Bam zing!
    His claims are… wait for it… lame. BOOM thud.
    I’m here all week. Try the leg of Lamb.

    • Taneli Huuskonen

      I’m leaning toward the idea he was just posturing.

      • sane37

        I’d agree but there’s no pun in that.

        • Terry Firma

          There is, and you missed it!

    • guest

      He’s waiting for the other shoe to drop?

    • Itarion

      He ran the good race, but ended up a foot short.

  • paulalovescats

    I went to 2 different leg-lengthening churches for a few years when I was a teenager. I saw several instances of this with my own eyes. However, god couldn’t see fit to heal my sister’s leukemia. So I guess god is so busy with the little, piddly things that he can’t handle what would really be spectacular. Although…if she had gone into remission (I don’t think that was possible with this type), they would have said goddidit.

  • smrnda

    Doctors are required to give accurate information about health, wellness and healing. If we can’t trust doctors to do that, then we can’t trust them to do their jobs.

    The doctor made some claim about miraculous healing that could not be substantiated. If a doctor claimed that ‘numerous cases’ of cancer had been cured by ‘magic crystals’ and then was unable to produce evidence, they’re being a quack and not a proper doctor. Substitute ‘prayer’ for magic crystals and ‘leg growing’ for ‘curing cancer’ and you’ve got this case here.

  • Terry Firma

    I wonder why faith healers always lengthen the short leg instead of shortening the long leg. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procrustes

    Also, with their amazing powers, why don’t they promise to lengthen guys’ penises? There’s gotta be a fortune in that.

  • The Vicar

    Oh, I don’t know. People assume doctors are “men of science”, but by and large really they aren’t. Non-research doctors play the same role to biology as auto mechanics play to materials science — which is why the medical profession is rife with mediocre practitioners. We like to assume that doctors are highly intelligent and keep up with the latest research, but a surprisingly large percentage of them got through medical school based on rote memorization and absorb new “research” only from advertising material sent by pharmaceutical companies.

    Of course, this guy is in a more responsible position than just being “a doctor”, which does make a difference.

    • 3lemenope

      When I’m irritated with a doctor, I call ‘em “biological engineers”. When I’m really irritated, I call ‘em “meat suit tune-up specialists”.

      Then again, what is a rocket scientist but a failed fireworks technician?
      —————–

      That being said, medicine at our current level of understanding of the human body probably should include some stuff that can’t be pinned down by causative mechanism. There’s little-to-nothing wrong with taking advantage of an effect that is not fully understood (like, say, the placebo) since medicine is first about producing good outcomes and only (distantly) second about understanding and etiology.

  • onamission5

    I witnessed one of these leg lengthening thingamabobbers many years ago. I was 8 years old at the time and even I could tell that the boy– a couple years younger than myself– still limped after the adults declared him healed. Watching him try to reconcile his fictional healing with his own self-knowledge was the worst part of all. The confusion and betrayal on his face. The way he tried to smile like yay I am all better now when no, he wasn’t, and he knew it. The way the adults made him perform for them, “do a jump!” “run over there!” “run back!” then patted themselves on the backs for a faith healing job well done. He was able to run and jump before, and not any better or worse after, but that he could do these things was somehow proof of his god given healing.
    Grrr.

  • cryofly

    Some have called me extreme, but I firmly believe that religion is a mental disorder. It does lead to problems such as what Dr. van Schayk is exhibiting, but …. most people afflicted with this problem just exhibit behavior such as begging for help from or thanking non-existing entities…

  • guesta

    Derren Brown showed how the leg lengthening trick is done in his show called ‘faith healing’. You subtley loosen the shoe on one leg so that from a certain angle it looks longer, then you move the other shoe so that it looks like both legs are the same length again.

    Memory can play tricks on you. Perhaps the Dutch professor wasn’t lying, his mind just invented the x-rays to strengthed the memory. Or else he was shown false ones, a long time ago.
    A shame he quit his job instead of saying he’d been mistaken or lied to.

  • cary_w

    So, according to this guy, God is a real ass-hole. Right? Out of all the sick, suffering, and dying people that are praying for help and being prayed for, the one He chooses to help is the guy who has one leg slightly longer than the other. A condition that’s not life threatening and can be essentially fixed with a pair of custom shoes. Why anyone thinks a God like that deserves praise is beyond me.

  • feekoningin

    I think people could accept him being Christian. The problem is claiming a firsthand experience with a miracle for which one would think there was proof. The Netherlands is a modern nation with good bookkeeping practices, so if there were anything like this that were true, the evidence would still exist. Besides, there would have been news stories about it 25 years ago.

  • Mick

    Just another egotist trying to gain fame by pretending to be right up there alongside God when decisions are being made. Actually, if he’s like most Christians, he’s not even pretending; he’s utterly convinced that he really is God’s right hand man.

  • bickle2

    No theist belongs in such a position. They belong in a mental institution, so of course he should be fired

  • The Starship Maxima

    Well, I’m sure he’s not the first person who’s stated something with the conviction of Job, and then come up short on details. But let’s examine this.
    If the guy had simply said, “One time I shorter leg spontaneously grew to match the other,” and made NO mention of God, there might’ve been questions, but would there have been scrutiny? To the point of losing, allegedly, his job?
    If he tried to cite evolutionary theories for the sudden growth, rather than citing God, would his lack of notes from the incident indicate incompetence still?
    But bigger question than all of this. If besides his, by all appearances, baselss claim of divine intervention was a blip on an otherwise unblemished career of science and teaching, then, should he have lost his job?

  • http://www.pepijnvanerp.nl/ Pepijn van Erp

    Van Schayck didn’t lose his job, he only stepped down as director of CAPHRI. His actual job was never in question as far as I know. He’s a professor at Maastricht University, CAPHRI is a research institute of that university and the directorship was only one of the functions he had. He was recently appointed scientific director of another institute: http://www.caphri.nl/en/nieuwsberichten/onno-van-schayck-new-scientific-director-of-the-netherlands-school-of-primary-care-research-care.aspx

    And finally it’s good to mention that he is an epidemiologist, not a medical doctor, so it’s unlikely he had the knowledge to judge x-ray pictures (if there were any at all).


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