Miracles and X-Files: Tim Stafford and Dana Scully

This month, the Patheos Book Club is looking at Tim Stafford’s Miracles.

I might have better been able to enjoy this book if it hadn’t come with a misleading subtitle that created a set of false expectations.

That subtitle is “A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power,” but that has very little to do with this book. Stafford is, in fact, an accomplished journalist, but this book is not an act of journalism. Miracles is a personal testimony, it is an often thoughtful meditation on faith and the nature of God, and it is a winsome, if not ultimately persuasive, argument for belief in miracles. But it’s not journalism.

Stafford isn’t writing here as a journalist, but as an advocate for a belief. He often makes a strong case for that belief, but that is always what he is about in this book — making a case. He’s set aside the role of the journalist to take on the role of a defense attorney. In that role he calls on eyewitnesses and presents their testimony as evidence. Stafford assures us, repeatedly, that they are credible, but that is not how credibility accrues. Witness testimony is made credible by withstanding cross-examination, but these witnesses are never cross-examined. Miracles lacks a prosecuting attorney to test — and to demonstrate — the strength of Stafford’s case for the defense.

For me that had the effect of generating more skepticism than I might have otherwise had in evaluating the stories Stafford relates. Reading this book I found myself sliding into the vacant role of the prosecutor, partly just out of a sense of forensic fairness.

The story at the heart of this book involves a healing. Jeff was in a wheelchair, unable to walk due to unbearable pain in his feet. A series of doctors were unable to determine the cause of this pain, or to provide any remedy. Then one day Jeff was taken to a healing service in a Pentecostal church. They prayed over Jeff and, just at that moment, the pain was gone. For good, it seems. Jeff couldn’t walk. Now he can. That happened.

Something extraordinary occurred. But what, exactly? Stafford says it was a miracle of healing by the triune Christian God. I’m prepared to agree. I’m even inclined to agree. But a host of questions remain not only unanswered, but unacknowledged.

For a sense of the problem here, let me cite one of the 20 “affirmations” from Stafford’s penultimate chapter:

Miracles happen. Reliable people testify to miracles. As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.

But we can’t say both that something is miraculous and that it can be regarded just like “all historical events.” As Stafford says in his eighth affirmation: “Miracles are rare.” And they are wondrous — to be wondered at.

Miracles, in other words, are extraordinary. The claim that a miracle has occurred is an extraordinary claim, and such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The “trustworthy witness” of a few people (setting aside the question of how to establish “trustworthiness”) may be a sufficient test for an ordinary historical event, but we’re going to need more than that to confirm an extraordinary event.

That’s what’s frustrating about the subtitle’s broken promise of a journalist’s perspective. Jeff’s story is news, but no editor would agree to run such a story unless it was confirmed by several other sources beyond Jeff and his family. Jeff’s mom tells Stafford that before his healing, the family had sought “a consultation with a famous doctor at Stanford.” Stafford quotes her account of that consultation:

“‘You need to stop,’ he told us. ‘No more surgeries. You have to get used to it. Jeff is going to be in a wheelchair. It’s possible the pain will go away by itself, but we don’t know what causes it, and we can’t predict what will help it.'”

A journalist’s editor would have demanded the name of that doctor, and that his account of that consultation also be included in the story. The lack of any comment from that doctor after Jeff’s healing also raises flags.

Reading Miracles, I kept feeling like AD Walter Skinner on The X-Files, listening to another astonishing report from Agent Fox Mulder. I kept wanting to ask the question Skinner always asked, “What does Agent Scully think about this?”

That X-Files analogy also highlights another underlying problem with Miracles. If you’re not familiar with Chris Carter’s wonderful 1990s TV show, it follows the adventures of two FBI agents who are tasked with investigating unexplained phenomena. Agent Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, is the one who believes in UFOs.

Many people get that backwards. Since Scully is the skeptical scientist and Mulder the idealistic true believer, they mistakenly think Mulder believes in UFOs. He doesn’t. Mulder can’t abide allowing flying objects to remain unidentified. He doesn’t believe in UFOs, he believes in alien spacecraft.

This is true of most of the alleged experts on UFOs or on the “mysteries of the unexplained.” You’ll find many such experts in supermarket tabloids or on the wide array of tabloid TV shows now boosting the ratings and destroying the credibility of purportedly educational cable channels. The experts are brought on to discuss some “unexplained phenomena” and within seconds they explain it. Eyewitnesses attest to strange lights in the sky and the alleged “ufologist” quickly declares, with utmost confidence, that these flying objects can be identified. He proceeds to identify them with great precision, expressing certainty as to what they are, what they mean, and even the planet of origin of their supposed pilots.

Like these “experts,” Agent Mulder allows no room for the possibility of unidentified flying objects or for unexplained phenomena. His partner, Scully, might often be at a loss for an explanation, but Mulder never is.

Mulder is a crusader. He is, like Tim Stafford, an advocate for a particular point of view. Mulder isn’t a journalist or a scientist disinterestedly collecting data and following wherever it leads. He is, instead, a theorist seeking data that might prove his theory.

Now, both the fictional Mulder and the real-world Stafford seem to appreciate one danger of this approach. They both seem to recognize — and to guard against — the temptation to cherry-pick favorable data, sifting the evidence to select only that which supports their view.

But neither of them is able to escape the way their approach inevitably shapes one’s perception of the world. It condenses a universe of possibilities into a binary, yes-or-no question, precluding any consideration of other possibilities. That’s why Mulder needs Scully — to remind him of those other possibilities, including the indispensable category of “We do not know and we cannot say.”

Mulder needs Scully — and Tim Stafford needs Scully — to remind him that his theory isn’t the only possibility. Something extraordinary occurred. Jeff could not walk. Now Jeff can walk. Stafford’s theory-bound approach is only able to consider this through the binary framework of asking “Is this a miracle or not?” And for Stafford that word “miracle” refers to a very specific sort of divine intervention by a very specific deity.

But if “trustworthy witness is the only real test” for verifying miraculous acts, then we’re going to be stuck accepting the validity of many miracles that have little to do with the particular form of religion that Stafford and I subscribe to. Stafford writes:

Miracles have happened in front of all kinds of people who have testified to them and in some cases have tested them. A thousand witnesses will tell you that they have seen a miracle with their own eyes.

That’s true. But not all of those thousand witnesses are Christians and not all of those miracles are Christian miracles. It’s hard to know from this book what Stafford would make of the multitude of miracle stories from Islam, Hinduism, Vodou and various Pagan traditions. Would he accept the trustworthy witness of the Latter-day Saints in 1848 Utah who testify to the “miracle of the gulls“?

Or consider the dissonant note in his chapter on “Global Pentecostalism.” He profiles a group of Pentecostal missionaries in rural Mozambique. “Don’t go back to the witch doctor,” one missionary cautions a local woman.

This same missionary, Stafford tells us, conducts regular healing services and the missionaries’ church is overflowing with tales of miraculous healing. “It’s hard to remain skeptical when you hear so many such testimonies,” Stafford writes.

Yet just as many testimonies from just as many earnest people could be collected to attest to the miraculous works of “the witch doctor.” If such testimonies are sufficient evidence for the Christian miracles, why are they insufficient for the miracles of the shaman?

I don’t think Stafford dismisses the miracles of the witch doctors just because they’re the product of a rival religion. I think he’s simply unable to consider them because they lie outside the binary framework of his theory. They don’t fit into, or speak to, the sectarian Christian vs. rational atheist either/or that shapes the book’s discussion.

And but so, what do I think happened to Jeff?

To Stafford’s credit, it is impossible to engage this book without engaging that question. Something happened — something unusual and extraordinary and wonderful. If it had not happened, Stafford would not have written this book. But because it did happen, he had to write this book.

And for all the blindspots and shortcomings I’ve complained about above, that makes this book compelling. Here is a man, Tim Stafford, who has witnessed something that doesn’t fit — something that knocked him back on his heels and sent him on a fitful search for answers to account for it.

Some of Stafford’s most insightful writing in Miracles anticipates my own reaction to this story of Jeff’s healing. He notes that such stories never seem quite as compelling when heard second-hand. And he guesses — correctly — that many of us will not be as awestruck as he was witnessing the healing of his friend up close.

Jeff couldn’t walk before and now he can. That happened. I don’t share Stafford’s confidence that we can know how or why it happened, or what, precisely, it means. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and, in the absence of that, I would classify this story as a UFO, as an unexplained phenomenon.

I suppose that response will disappoint Stafford or cause him to classify me among the “semi-believing doubters.” But I would remind him of a phrase he uses dozens of times throughout Miracles — “signs and wonders.” That last word — wonder — can convey both awe and curiosity. Where Stafford leans more toward the former, I’m inclined more toward the latter. If this story of healing has not left me in a state of wonder, it does have me wondering.


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  • http://fiadhiglas.wordpress.com/ Laiima

    I love your analysis of Scully and Mulder. Before reading it, I probably would’ve said I identified more with Mulder, but now I see that I don’t. I have lots of curiosity about the world, but I don’t think everything can be known, and if it could, I’d be disappointed. I like uncertainty, ambiguity, and not-knowing.

    I see no reason why ‘miracles’ couldn’t happen for people who don’t have any religious beliefs. I wonder what Tim Stafford would think about that?

  • Gotchaye

    I strongly dislike this sort of book.  It really is about this conspicuous absence of a prosecutor; at the very least an author should acknowledge promising criticisms.  If I spot an obvious, unacknowledged criticism, I start wondering what else the author is hiding from me – what good criticisms are there whose absence I didn’t notice?

    And yet these are the books that seem to always get recommended.

    Even without “a journalist” in the subtitle, there’s something dishonest about this sort of project.  Either the person writing the book isn’t being fair to those who disagree, or the author is pretending to be an authority (perhaps intentionally, perhaps negligently).  A book is not a blog post; a book with a thesis purports to be authoritative, and it’s morally wrong to write one negligently or unfairly.

  • Hexep

    The X-Files is so much more profound than anyone gives it credit for.  I think your analysis cuts to the quick.  I may have some of my customary nay-saying to do later, but for the time being, I think you’ve crafted a well-balanced, concise, and extremely proficient work of prose here.

  • arcseconds

    I never liked the X-files much.  i thought it made its mark by a series of cheap tricks.  Smoothly and stylishly executed cheap tricks, but cheap tricks nonetheless.

    So I didn’t watch much of it.  So the following is probably stated from a position of ignorance.

    But it always annoyed me that Scully was thought to be the rational, scientific one.

    This seemed to me to be a rehearsal of the refrain that being a scientist means you dogmatically adhere to a framework just as strongly as any orthodoxly religious person.  Of course, there are quite a lot of people like that, but it’s not what’s interesting about science. 

    I know that there was a tendency for the creepy phenomenon to evaporate by the time Scully was on the scene (another thing that annoyed me – this is stuff from kids books.  parents never see the fairies/aliens/snuffaluffagus because they conveniently vacate), but she sees more than enough for a good scientist to decide that there’s more in heaven and earth than hitherto known by your philosophy, Horatio.

    I always thought it was Mulder who more embodied a scientist.  Maybe he’s a bit fond of his theories, but that’s not uncommon with scientists just coming to grips with new terrain.  At least he’s trying to make sense of it, rather than sticking his head in the sand.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    It depended somewhat on the writer and the season, but often Scully wasn’t a skeptic in the sense that, say, Dan Dennett is a skeptic… she tended to believe in the possibility of phenomena she’d previously seen evidence of, while still being skeptical about all other crackpot theories, and about the likelihood that their current case involved nonstandard phenomena. Which, to my mind, is an entirely justified position for a scientist: “when you see hooves, think horses, not zebras.” Not because zebras don’t exist, but because they’re less likely, all things being equal.

  • arcseconds

     Did any episodes actually involve standard phenomena?

    That was another thing that annoyed me about it.  In a world very much like ours except with hidden weirdness in  it, you’d still expect misidentified ordinary phenomena and hoaxes to crop up.   I thought that would be a much more interesting show, if it was half scooby-doo, half the Twilight Zone, and you never knew what you were going to get episode to episode.

    Anyway, unless there was a mythbusting side to X-files which no-one ever talked about and I never saw, Scully was exposed to weirdness every week for several weeks.   At what stage do you decide that the likelihood of the current case involving non-standard phenomena is not all that high?

  • heckblazer

    They did have episodes where what the hey was really going on was  inconclusive, like “War of the Coprophages” , “X-Cops”(the X-Files/Cops cross-over presumably broadcast in-universe) and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”.  The last is notable for both being hilarious and using multiple unreliable narrators describing the same event.

    Oh yeah, and there was “Home”, where in the end it turned out the mysterious disappearances around a small town was caused by a perfectly normal and ordinary cannibal cult.

  • Azraelmacool

    Oh my god, I watched the X-Files when I was young, so I don’t really remember a lot of it, but there was one episode that was always really distinct in my mind, but I could never figure out which one. It was Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. Thank you very muchly.

    Also, what about that one with the 2 dudes that can see the future, one a serial killer and one the dad off Everybody Loves Raymond? I don’t remember it actually being conclusive about if they actually could or not. I remember the killer said he didn’t want to do it, but kept seeing visions of himself doing the things, so he was going along with it, and he asked the other guy why he was doing it, and the other one said something like, “because you’re crazy”. Er, sorry if the pronouns got confusing there. But I really only remember bits and pieces. I need to Netflix this some time.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

     Also, what about that one with the 2 dudes that can see the future, one a
    serial killer and one the dad off Everybody Loves Raymond

    Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – from Season 3

    (Yes, I have seen every episode at least 3 times. Yes, even Season 9)

    Oh yeah, and there was “Home”, where in the end it turned out the
    mysterious disappearances around a small town was caused by a perfectly
    normal and ordinary cannibal cult.

    That episode was “Our Town”. “Home” was the one with the really creepy inbred family that Fox only aired once. There is also “Irresistible”, about a non-supernatural serial killer. So that’s at least three about regular phenomena (four if you count the wacky-but-not-alien genetic science in “Jump The Shark”)

  • Freak

    Wasn’t there one about “Champ”, which Mulder & Scully concluded was a crocodile?  (Though the ending did suggest Champ was real.)

  • Mau de Katt


    … where in the end it turned out the
    mysterious disappearances around a small town was caused by a perfectly
    normal and ordinary cannibal cult.

    That episode was “Our Town”. “Home” was the one with the really creepy inbred family that Fox only aired once.

    Was the “cannibal cult” episode the one where Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has infected people at the local chicken processing plant where all the cult members work?  (“Chaco’s Chicken!”?)  I couldn’t eat chicken for a long time after that episode….

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Yeah, that’s the one. I believe that’s the episode which got the Season 2 boxset an 18 rating in the UK…

  • Bianca Leichnitz

    The episode you’re referring to is Clyde Bruckman’s Finale Repose. I’m working my way through the X-files a the moment, so it’s all very fresh in my mind. What a fantastic episode, definitely one of my favorites so far.

  • LMM22

    I thought that would be a much more interesting show, if it was half scooby-doo, half the Twilight Zone, and you never knew what you were going to get episode to episode.

    In retrospect, that’s really what they should have done. (Among other things, like ending the series several seasons before they did.)

  • Lori


    Among other things, like ending the series several seasons before they did.  

    So much word. So much.

  • ako

     I thought that would be a much more interesting show, if it was half
    scooby-doo, half the Twilight Zone, and you never knew what you were
    going to get episode to episode.

    I really enjoyed the X-Files, but that would have been so much more interesting.  They did a few episodes where the explanation turned out to be (strange but) entirely natural and scientifically explicable, but if it had been anywhere close to half-and-half, it would have been much more interesting.  (And there would have been more room for Mulder to learn from Scully about the actual uses and benefits of skepticism, and why it’s a good idea to look at scientific explanations first.)

  • JonathanPelikan

    I like that idea, as well; it immediately made me think of how, in Law and Order, sometimes the bad guys get off at the end. That’s it. The evidence isn’t good enough, or the police mess something up, or a piece of evidence is thrown out, or the defense is just too good, or the jury gets deadlocked, or the jury just decides the other way. And that’s it. Episode end. Sorry, guys. Free society. Sometimes people who the police want to get aren’t got.

    I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen too often but it lent so much more credibility and suspense to the ‘waiting for the verdict’ moment of an episode when there was a real threat that the bad guy would win.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave


    At what stage do you decide that the likelihood of the current case involving non-standard phenomena is not all that high? 

    (nods) Excellent point.

    Similarly, at some point, she should seriously consider the possibility that she and Mulder are causing these weird phenomena, or that the cause is following them around somehow, because the frequency with which they encounter “unusual” phenomena can’t be typical.

    Also, nobody should ever be in the same room with Jessica Fletcher… that woman is dangerous!

    Of course, it’s possible to suspend one’s disbelief about this sort of thing, but people’s willingness and ability to do that differs.

    I’m reminded of a D&D campaign I was in as a kid, where I played a Sherlock-Holmes type who observed that whenever our powerful party traveled outdoors we were inevitably randomly attacked by monsters that could trivially wipe out any normal trading caravan. Since trade demonstrably happened between towns, clearly these attacks were not random… there was some kind of conspiracy afoot!

  • Dan Audy

    That makes me think of the time I nearly derailed a D&D campaign because my wizard refused to earthquake a Goblin warren because there were children and non-combatants in there.  The rest of the group just stared at me like I had grown a third head by bringing up issues of collateral damage, innateness of evil (something I’ve always loathed about D&D), and morality of terror tactics.  After that I learned just to pretend these weren’t things that I found interesting or compelling while playing D&D and just play it as violence is a reasonable solution to any and every problem.  Luckily, I’ve found story games like Sorcerer and Trollbabe which explicitly embrace these sorts of issues and tons of others that are good for exploring emotional and complex issues to satisfy those needs.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Third edition D&D, at least, has more of a “plurality of this race tend to be this alignment” thing. I know plenty of D&D players ignore that, because they’re attached to the idea of innately evil races whom a player can slaughter for XP and loot, but I also know plenty of players who don’t do that. I don’t think it’s a problem innate to D&D.

  • Samantha C

    hehe, if it makes you feel better, my Pathfinder group mildly irritated our DM (and one of the players for that matter) by failing to realize that slavery and indentured servitude were a perfectly normal and respectable part of our setting and we kept spending time decrying how awful it was. Not to the point of derailing the adventure, but to the point of wasting a lot of time we could have spent on the adventure.

    Of course, that player was having his own flashbacks to a LARP which specifically took place in a feudalistic setting, with Kings and Dukes and Monarchy and no historical precedent for democracy, so people can focus on the classic plots and such please. And the astronomic number of players who decided their characters hated the idea of monarchy and had each individually come up with the idea of representative government.

    So in any game and setting, groups latching onto different ethical issues is tried-and-true ;) 

  • AndrewSshi

    I think that the problem was your DM and other players.  In my All Time Favorite Game, the characters had to deal with very real issues about civilian casualties, international law, people who weren’t necessarily evil but still impeding good, conflicts between two well-meaning sides of a religious schism, etc.  The game was a bazillion times better than any D&D game I’d played in before or since because it wasn’t just “I kill it and take its treasure.”  You can make D&D be a story dealing with complex ethical issues, but it takes a DM and players that are both mature and reasonably intelligent.

  • Dan Audy

    Absolutely, you can make D&D (or any game really) more complex and deal with interesting issues even if the mechanics or core engagement of the system and setting don’t push towards that.  That being said, I consider it a problem primarily on my part to not recognize that this particular game, with this particular group was not an appropriate situation to raise those issues because it was violating that game’s social contract.  That particular game was primarily a tactical combat and kill things and take its treasure midweek get together and hang out with friends game.  I later played and GMed other games (Mage and 7th Sea mostly) with the same group on the weekends when we had longer time frames and more energy which delved into more complex territory. In those games raising that sort of issue was not just ok but encouraged because that was the engagement we were all seeking to get out of it.

    It is important to understand the reason one is playing a game and avoid ruining it by introducing disruptive elements.  Playing monopoly isn’t an appropriate time to start a discussion about the ethics of deliberately driving up prices on necessary commodities that threaten to put people into bankruptcy nor is a Soccer match the place to talk about how ‘othering’ different teams dehumanizes them and perpetuates racism because it is based on jersey colour.  It is about choosing the right place and right time so that everyone can enjoy doing so.

  • Mau de Katt

     Holee cow, if my DM had decided our characters were playing against alignment, especially the Lawful Good ones, he would’ve had “disastrous deity-caused consequences” befall them….

  • Ross Thompson


    Holee cow, if my DM had decided our characters were playing against
    alignment, especially the Lawful Good ones, he would’ve had “disastrous
    deity-caused consequences” befall them….

    Wow, that’s about the worst way to use alignments. Not that I’ve found a good way yet, but there are several that are less bad.

    The last panel here is about the best explanation of what D&D alignments mean (or should mean): http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0282.html

  • arcseconds

    I’m reminded of a D&D campaign I was in as a kid, where I played a
    Sherlock-Holmes type who observed that whenever our powerful party
    traveled outdoors we were inevitably randomly attacked by monsters that
    could trivially wipe out any normal trading caravan. Since trade
    demonstrably happened between towns, clearly these attacks were not random… there was some kind of conspiracy afoot!

    Or else you’re a bunch of noobs, and the caravans are protected by people far more mighty than you — that would even fit canonically in D&D.

    That was my tongue-in-cheek explanation as to how trade and other civilian activities work in Star Trek, because there’s a huge incidence of giant swirly things in space, godlike beings and strange spacecraft with unusual capabilities.   The best captains in the Federation aren’t Picard and co; they’re the freighter captains who have to deal with all that without the resources of a Galaxy class starship (maybe Picard is even practising so he too can captain a freighter).

    (It’s not quite so much of a problem with Classic Trek, because it seems Kirk’s mission takes place quite a bit in the ‘Here Be Dragons’ region of the map, where you might expect things to get a bit hairy at times)

  • Ursula L

    Did any episodes actually involve standard phenomena? 

    It depends on what you understand as “standard.”  

    There were many episodes that featured supernatural activity.

    There were also the stories in the Conspiracy arc.  Mulder interpreted these events not as supernatural, but as natural and involving humans conspiring with extraterrestrial intelligent beings.  

    Scully interpreted the Conspiracy as being a military/medical conspiracy that involved people being kidnapped and experimented on without their consent.  That is how she understood and remembered her own abduction experiences, with humans definitely involved in taking her, and in at least some of what was done to her.  And that is a very, very real thing.  

    Consider the Tuskegee experiments.  And other experiments conducted in prisons and hospitals, either without the consent of patients or with the coerced “consent” that comes from being imprisoned, and being told that participating in the experiment will count as “community service” and points towards parole, but not being informed about what was going to be done to them, or any potential risks. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2011/02/medical-slideshow-code.html

    Or the true story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which involved not only the primary focus of the book being how Henrietta had non-medically necessary biopsies taken without her knowledge or consent, and the cells cultured for years after her death without her family’s knowledge, and to their great stress and confusion when they finally heard incomplete accounts of what happened. (Mother is alive, and in a laboratory somewhere?)  There is also a section on one of Henrietta’s daughters, who was deaf and had a seizure disorder, and was institutionalized as “mentally retarded.”  The conditions where she was kept were horrible, and there are records of her being involved, as a minor child, in several medical experiments, without the knowledge or consent of her parents.  

    I can see the need for something like the X-Files.  A place where, when something strange or horrible happens, you can go, and explain what happened, and be believed, and have your situation investigated.  Maybe there is a completely normal and innocent explanation, but you just have an incomplete or unusual perspective on what happens, so it looks odd to you.

    But there are enough true situations where the truth is horrible, so that when a victim complains, they aren’t believed, because it just seems to strange or awful to be real.  Conditions in mental hospitals.  Unethical medical experiments.  Corporations dumping toxic waste unsafely, and hiding it for decades as the public suffers.  Concentration camps.  Pedophile priests. And who knows what else, which hasn’t been fully exposed yet.  


    In my head-cannon, the X-Files cases we saw were the really interesting and strange ones.  But there are lots of other cases, off-screen, where Mulder and Scully investigated, and found very real and harmful human activity, and passed the information on both to appropriate authorities and to ordinary people who were affected, and owed compensation, assistance and recognition.  

    Seeing these public but off-screen results is what leads people to trust Mulder, contacting him about the more unusual things we see on-screen.  

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    I thought that would be a much more interesting show, if it was half scooby-doo, half the Twilight Zone, and you never knew what you were going to get episode to episode.

    This. Maybe not 50/50 – this is the team you call in when the rational explanations aren’t working, after all – but I watched the first season waiting for Scully to get to be right just once and gave up on it when that didn’t happen.

  • AnonymousSam

    I remember there being a couple of these. There was one episode involving a cult of vampires — who turned out to be people wearing fake vampire teeth — who turned out to be real vampires.

  • arcseconds

    I remember there being a couple of these. There was one episode
    involving a cult of vampires — who turned out to be people wearing fake
    vampire teeth — who turned out to be real vampires.

    I’m a bit nonplussed that you think that vampire cults being unmasked as ordinary people dressed up, and then being further unmasked as actual vampires is an example of a standard explanation.

    Does this sort of thing happen a lot where you live?

  • AnonymousSam

    Yes, but only when the gothic lolita girls are in town.

    No, I just mean that at least at first it seemed to have a perfectly rational explanation (just a couple of lunatics who think they’re vampires). The fact that they really were vampires, well…

    Thinking back, I recall the idea was that the ones who were “revealed” to be normal people pretending to be vampires were the ones doing stereotypical vampire things — compulsions to count grains of rice, unable to cross running water, shying away from crosses…

    Meanwhile, the actual vampires couldn’t care less about any of those. “That’s fairy tale make-believe. Real vampires don’t have any of that insane hocus-pocus.” So kind of a double-subversion?

  • Mau de Katt

    That one (the vampire cult) was hilarious, too.  It didn’t have the “multiple unreliable witnesses” technique of “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” but it did tell the same story from both Mulder’s and Scully’s viewpoints (which, of course, exaggerated both their own good qualities and the other’s bad qualities).  Those two episodes were The X-Files poking fun at itself.

    And I’ve never been able to look at an RV park, or a delivery pizza, the same way again….

  • fraser

     I remember there was an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian where the evil wizard of the week turns out to be using a mix of advanced technology and stage magic. I loved the idea.
    In DC Comics, the supernatural works, but ghostbreaker Dr. Thirteen has also exposed multiple phonies.

  • Rozencrantz Parker

    This kind of wonderment is what has been driving me through the last several years. I read all these stories and I think, you know the odds of it being exactly what the author says it is are very slim, but the odds that it’s always just a hoax are also pretty poor. There’s something going on, and I want to know what, but I’m not going to take any pre-packaged answers.

  • http://skepticmystic.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I can’t speak for Stafford but when I was a pentecostal we certainly did believe that the local sangoma’s (along with satanists, hindu firewalkers, psychics and the like) really could perform miracles.  Except they could do it because of demons.  So really any testimony of a witch doctor doing something supernatural could be believed because the devil was real, just like God was real.

  • http://skepticmystic.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    The first rule of Pentecostal club is, all testimonies are always true no matter how absurd they may sound

  • arcseconds

    It might be tempting to shrug one’s shoulders and say “probably psychosomatic”.

    While I think that explanation probably has some merit (shamanistic practices are, I’m given to understand, fairly efficacious when dealing with what we’d call mental illnesses), it is of course the same mistake that Stafford makes: shoving the phenomenon into a box we have to hand so we don’t need to be challenged by it any further.

    The truth is, we don’t know what goes on in these rare cases of obscure conditions evaporating.

    Aristotle thinks we can have no science of monsters, and he’s correct.  If we only very occasionally meet things that don’t fit into our current explanatory frameworks (handwaving guesses don’t count), then we’ve little to no chance to investigate them, meaning they remain unexplained mysteries.

    The credulous side of our society likes to complain about the fact that the scientific wing just ignores things that don’t fit into the contemporary frameworks.   I think there is some degree of truth to that accusation, but I’m not sure that they’d be happy if the scientific establishment did suddenly take an interest in, say, faith healing.    Suddenly there’d be people with long strings of letters after their name handing out forms hither and yon, taking up the front row in every faith healing gathering, taking notes, doing follow-up studies, producing regression graphs, showing who does the best faith-healing for what kinds of ailments.   Ethics boards wouldn’t allow it, but you can even envisage ‘evidence based’ faith healing where they work out exactly what has to go on in a service to get the best outcomes.   Before long faith-healing would require a graduate degree from a big name university.

    Most everyone loves a good mystery, but scientists like them so they can solve them, destroying the initial sense of wonder.  I know that people like Dawkins argue that you can still have a sense of wonder, and I accept that, but I don’t think it’s the same thing as the pre-scientific sense of awe and bafflement.

    anyway, I read James McGrath’s review, and I thought this was interesting:

    Stafford takes completely seriously the possibility of psychosomatic
    healing. Indeed, he works hard at breaking down the distinction between
    natural events in which healing occurs by ordinary processes, and more
    startling ones in which a divine intervention is then posited. Stafford
    argues that God is present in all healing, and considers that even if
    one were to be able to record an astounding miracle and see in detail
    what is taking place, one would still see natural processes at work.

  • Tonio

    That’s exactly my point. Stafford isn’t stating that he believes that his god is present in all healing. He’s trying to make a case for why we should accept this as accurate, even though the idea of a supernatural cause behind the natural is unverifiable by default. What about the possibility that his god is another natural process?

  • arcseconds

    That’s exactly my point. Stafford isn’t stating that he believes that
    his god is present in all healing. He’s trying to make a case for why we
    should accept this as accurate, even though the idea of a supernatural
    cause behind the natural is unverifiable by default. What about the
    possibility that his god is another natural process?

    I’m not sure I follow.   According to McGrath, Stafford does state that he believes God is present in all healing.  

    And apparently he thinks that even in a miraculous case, if you look at it closely enough, you’ll only see natural processes at work.

    Implicit in this is that God’s actions aren’t distinct from natural processes.   One might go further and say that maybe God isn’t distinct from natural processes, which is what McGrath does —  he immediately follows the passage I quoted  with a suggestion that this leads to pantheism or panentheism.

  • Theo

    This post reminded my of the interesting discussion in Bart Ehrmann’s Jesus, interrupted (pp. 171-179) about why historians by definition can’t show that miracles happened. Not because it’s impossible, but because historians “work with all kinds of evidence to show what probably happened in the past”; they can’t experiment empirically like natural scientist but have to establish levels of probability. And miracles, again by definition, are extremely improbable – “virtually impossible” – events. Otherwise they wouldn’t be miracles.  “Historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, but miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanation for what happened. This is true whether you are a believer or not.  … then, more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever probably happened.”

  • Ross Thompson

    why historians by definition can’t show that miracles happened.

    It seems to me that it would be relatively easy to show that a miracle happened, but not be able to speculate on its causes.
    For example, if there were thousands of accounts from all around the world that two thousand years ago the stars had spontaneously arranged themselves into an arrow that remained pointing at the Middle East regardless of the earth’s rotation, then historians would most likely call that a “miracle”.
    If there is strong evidence that something “extremely improbable” happened, then it would be unscientific to dismiss it just because it would be a “miracle”.

  • flat

    Well Fred posted someting interesting, I think that miracles happen when we don’t expect a miracle to happen.
    It is foolish to wait directly for signs and miracles but you can still hope for them to happen.

    But when they do happen it is usually not how you expected them to happen, but it is about the fact that they happened anyway.

  • Karl

    I don’t know why we’re playing along with this. A man develops mysterious, disabling pain that medical doctors can’t explain. Why isn’t *that* a miracle? The fact that it went away on it’s own is perfectly ordinary compared to that. If Jeff had started smoking after his ailment, should we attribute his healing to cigarettes?

  • Rupaul

    @Karl, that struck me, too. The doctor said it might go away, and it did. That’s a miracle?

  • hidden_urchin

    As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.

    Well, that’s all it takes for me to determine the author has little credibility and a complete misunderstanding of what history is.*

    Historians use multiple sources of evidence to determine the most probable event.  They do not say “eh, this was a trustworthy guy.  We’ll take his word for it.”  Hell, the whole field of historiography is devoted to looking at how we interpret historical data and arrive at conclusions.** 

    *Also, I’ve encountered this argument by apologists before.  Seriously.  I think there’s  a book they’re all reading.

    **Of course, not many people ever learn this because the majority of history education is memorization of names, dates, and events as dictated From On High by the All-Knowing History Gods.  Students are not taught to ask “how do we know this” and “what biases are creeping in to our interpretations?”  That won’t happen, though, because the student might start thinking critically about other things too.  Also, it’s hard to put critical thinking on a multiple choice test.

  • Tonio

    I was told once that the standard for evaluating the accuracy of “miracle” accounts in scriptures should be that for any other historical account. I strongly disagree because that takes for granted that such events have an unprovable explanation.

    Eerie that Fred’s questions are almost the same as mine. He rejects the idea that a Christian explanation for the purported miracle is the only alternative to an atheist one, and he wants to see more journalistic and scientific rigor for the claim of a miracle. 

    Stafford ignores the possibility that the miracle has some explanation that doesn’t presume a natural/supernatural divide or a physical/metaphysical one. We may simply lack the necessary knowledge about the workings of the universe. I dislike the term “magical thinking” as it’s used by many anti-theists as a club to beat believers, but considering Stafford’s lapse in journalistic standards, it seems appropriate here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/swbaxter13 Scott Baxter

    I don’t really understand why religious folks are so eager to claim miracles as the work of God (or whoever). Taken at face value, that means there are supernatural beings and/or forces out there that could heal everyone, but they don’t. That leads immediately to the question of why they don’t, and it’s real hard to get “because God loves you very much” out of that. 

    It also seems to me that the book should have ended at the doctor’s account. Pain without an easily discernible cause that goes away eventually when your body works things out is not exactly a rare occurrence. At that point there’s no need for any miraculous interpretation, at least not in the religious sense. It may still be a miracle in the sense of “this is a very rare event,” of course.

  • Mrs Grimble

     Here’s another one who would have liked to hear from the doctor – I suspect he said a great deal more than just “We can’t do anything more for you and the pain may or may not go away.”  (There’s also the possibility that Jeff’s latest medical treatment did actually start kicking in at about the time of his healing.)
    Perception of pain does rely quite a lot on psychological attitude – witness the many accounts of soldiers heroically fighting on or rescuing comrades when they’ve  been shot full of bullets or shrapnel.  Pentecostal-type healing sessions rely on whipping up peoples’ emotions. And the phony psychic healers always have their greatest successes with painful conditions such as arthritis. 
    Then of course, in many cases of healing, there’s what I call the ‘wanting to please’ factor – the patient doesn’t want to let down these nice, caring people who are doing so much for him by telling them that their healing hasn’t really worked.

    Has any follow-up been done with Jeff?

  • Ross Thompson


    Here’s another one who would have liked to hear from the doctor – I
    suspect he said a great deal more than just “We can’t do anything more
    for you and the pain may or may not go away.”

    This is something the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe has covered a time or two. People re-write their memories of what their doctor said to better fit the narrative that they want to tell. “Maybe it’ll get better on its own” often becomes “You’ll never walk again” after a “miraculous” cure.

  • Mrs Grimble

     That’s very true.  I once read a column by an ex-nurse who said that patients very often heard only what they wanted to hear; she cited the case of a young woman who had had her ovaries removed because she kept getting tumours that were stimulated by oestrogen.  Afterwards she tried to sue her doctors because they refused to give her HRT, having evidently not listened to the several explanations she would have been given as to why she couldn’t have artifical hormones

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    many accounts of soldiers heroically fighting on or rescuing comrades when they’ve  been shot full of bullets or shrapnel.

    A very mundane version of this is that I have been, on a few occasions, completely unaware that I cut myself until I actually looked in the mirror (so, when shaving) or at the body part in question (for example, I accidentally nicked my finger and did not even notice until ~5 minutes later).

    It’s amazing what we don’t notice that should be feeling like it hurts, sometimes.

  • Caravelle

    Yeah. Once I hurt my leg at the beach, and didn’t notice until I felt the blood running down my leg in the car.
    Pain is incredibly situational though. Not just in the extent to which you actually feel it, but in how tolerable it is when you do.

  • ako

    This is a very good piece of writing.

    I think sometimes, things happen where there isn’t enough evidence to explain what’s going on. A potion of these events are not going to be explained by current science. I think that stuff that isn’t explained by current science has a scientific explanation we don’t know yet, but that’s an opinion based on how I see the world, not objectively verifiable.

    I think that often, there are events that could be explained by current science if enough evidence was gathered at the time when they happened, but since that wasn’t the case, we can’t have absolute proof of a non-miraculous scientific cause. (Quite often, these events have a number of possible scientific explanations, but it’s not possible to do the tests necessary to come to a definite conclusion.)

    I also think the whole trustworthiness thing can be really misleading. For one thing, it’s a fundamentally subjective judgement, where two people can easily come to different conclusions about the trustworthiness of one particular source based on the same information. For another, it artificially rules out possibilities in a way that isn’t always obvious. People report inaccurate information for a number of reasons: deliberate lying and mental illness, obviously, but also being fooled by a skilled charlitan, unusual neurological or perceptual phenomenon, interpretive bias, or even simply not being totally effective as a detached observer. There are plenty of people who show no indications of delusion or dishonesty who are trustworthy in the sense that I’d happily trust them with the keys to my house or care of a small child who wouldn’t necessarily have totally accurate report when confronted with unexplained phenomena. (I know that I’m not totally objective when I observe things.)

  • Tonio

    I think that stuff that isn’t explained by current science has a scientific explanation we don’t know yet, but that’s an opinion based on how I see the world, not objectively verifiable.

    My position is similar but distinct – it’s likely that such explanations exist but I refuse to assume that they do, and the real problematic assumption that people like Stafford advocate is that the explanation is outside science. 

  • Nathaniel

     If these people had real abilities, they would be in hospitals, not in tents.

  • Tonio

    Huh? Is Stafford claiming to be a healer?

  • Nathaniel

     No, the people whose “miracles” he’s puffing.

  • Nathaniel

    Whenever people talk about faith healing, I refer them to this site:


    Never gotten a good answer. 

  • Joshua Bowers

    I have not read this book, so speculation of the events it describes are performed completely from the vantage point of extreme ignorance.

    That said, is Jeff ever identified beyond the moniker of “Jeff?” Are any of the alleged eye-witnesses fully identified? Can I look these people up in the phone book, go talk with them myself? Just as likely an explanation for the event that forms the basis of this book is that it is a fabrication; that the individuals involved were created out of whole-cloth by the author to push his agenda.

  • John Small Berries

    Looking at the book preview on Amazon, he’s identified as “Jeff Moore”. But Googling for information about Jeff Moore turns up nothing about a faith healing from foot pain that doesn’t directly involve Stafford’s book.

    This lends itself to the conclusion that “Jeff Moore” is either a pseudonym (which makes his story just as difficult to fact-check as the anonymous doctor’s), or (as you say) wholly fabricated.

    The preview doesn’t contain any footnotes explicitly stating that “Jeff Moore” is a pseudonym (though there is a Notes section which isn’t included in the preview). We’re told that “Jeff Moore” attends Stafford’s church, but he doesn’t identify it in the portion that’s available to us. I thought perhaps Stafford might identify it on his blog, and that Googling for faith healings involving that church might turn up some data, but alas, he refers to it only as “my church”.

    Moore’s mother is identified as “Sheri Moore”; although a Google search does turn up two people of those names living in the same town (though with different phone numbers), they live in Ohio – not in Santa Rosa, California, where Stafford lives – so it’s unlikely these are the people who go to his church.

    At any rate, there is not a shred of evidence I can find which corroborates the claim that the particular Jeff Moore who is the subject of the book even exists, let alone was afflicted with foot pain so overwhelming that he was often confined to a wheelchair, and was miraculously healed.

    Fred asserts, “Jeff couldn’t walk before and now he can. That happened.” I’d like to play Scully and ask, “How do you know that it happened?”

  • Joshua Bowers

    Thanks for going through the detective work, there, John. Most appreciated.

  • CarolineDye MemorialChapel

    I have absolutely nothing to add to your post, but it’s a pleasure to meet another Buckaroo Banzai fan.

  • AndrewSshi

    As someone who on most days believes in the supernatural elements of the Christian faith,  I’m always rather skeptical of the fact that most miracles tend to happen in complex imperfectly-understood systems, things like human bodies and the weather.  They rarely happen at a level where you can account for everything: if the God who spoke the whole universe into existence is at work, when I see a miracle, I expect that it should be more than, “I had an ache in my hip and now it aches less,” or, “I prayed, and my missing fountain pen turned up behind the couch cushions.”  I’d be much more inclined to believe a miracle that, as others on this thread have noted, involved something like a regenerated eye or limb, or an actual transmutation of something from one element to another.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    But there are enough true situations where the truth is horrible, so
    that when a victim complains, they aren’t believed, because it just
    seems to strange or awful to be real.  Conditions in mental hospitals.
     Unethical medical experiments.  Corporations dumping toxic waste
    unsafely, and hiding it for decades as the public suffers.
     Concentration camps.  Pedophile priests. And who knows what else, which
    hasn’t been fully exposed yet. 

    You know, it’s interesting that real-life evidence of deep-seated and well-known conspiracies to hide truth from people is all around us, yet when it comes to people like 9/11 truthers or Birthers, the put-down against them is often “Lolololol no conspiracy could ever be so thoroughly worked without it leaking somehow”

    That’s a double standard.

    If RL conspiracies can and have been successfully obscured for years in some cases, then the litmus test of the validity of accusations of conspiracy should not be an outright contradiction of well-established reality.

    The litmus test should instead be based on other things, such as how possible such a conspiracy could be. Are the actors all close to one another either emotionally or physically? Do they have a chance to meet and control events on a regular basis?

    Or are they widely disparate? Unable to effectively coordinate such a coverup?

    This is why “birther” and “9/11 truther” arguments lack validity – they require a conspiracy of so many disparate actors that it lacks feasibility that they c0uld all be working in concert to achieve a single objective while disguising that objective from the world at large.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    You know, it’s interesting that real-life evidence of deep-seated and well-known conspiracies to hide truth from people is all around us, yet when it comes to people like 9/11 truthers or Birthers, the put-down against them is often “Lolololol No conspiracy could ever be so thoroughly worked without it leaking somehow”

    Fixed that for you.

    (It can be hard to see the logical argument when there’s a big fog of contempt and presumption of bad motives obscuring it.)

    Also, most times I hear arguments against birther or 9/11 conspiracies, it’s actually the argument you tear this one down to make: “No conspiracy that required such an extensive team of disparate people working together for so long could stay sufficiently organized and keep from leaking.”

    So I think you’re working on a bit of a straw-man too, as well as casting your opposition in an unearned bad light.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Fair point. However, in my recollection I often see people sliding past with the unstated assumption that they’re already discussing disparate groups who can’t coordinate their stories to the lockstep degree demanded by an effective conspiracy, and so what comes out is just “No conspiracy could EVER work like that!”

  • Ursula L

    This is why “birther” and “9/11 truther” arguments lack validity – they require a conspiracy of so many disparate actors that it lacks feasibility that they c0uld all be working in concert to achieve a single objective while disguising that objective from the world at large. 

    Another thing about real conspiracies?  The big ones that get covered up and the victims called liars or mad, not things like criminal conspiracies to things like robbery?

    There is often a significant power imbalance, that both allows the conspirators power over and control over the victims, and which makes society at large less likely to believe the victims when/if they discover what is happening and complain.

    Doctors running this or that study, at this or that hospital.  Bureaucrats who assign grants for medical research, who interact with the doctors but have no contact with the study participants.  Prison officials and officers.  And the scale is generally small –  a bureaucrat who doesn’t think to review the policies for notifying and getting consent of study participants, a handful of researchers, who have worked together for years and are sure they know what they’re doing and it is for the best.  A corporation just abandoning and ignoring waste, not even noticing that they’re poisoning people or caring.

    And the victims? The ill.  Minorities.  Prisoners.  People who are already disenfranchised and disbelieved. 

    And the conspiracy “lasts” for years not because of years of ongoing activity, but because the study is finished, and the results are published, and the victims wind up forgotten, and often not even knowing what happened to them. 

  • JonathanPelikan

    Whenever conspiracies come up, my first thought 

    (aside from ‘oh, I wonder what the real reason most of the Birthers are questioning Obama’s right to be an American for? Can’t possibly figure that one out. It’s like attempting to figure out the Tea Party’s stand on Brown People.’) 

    is something along the lines of ‘well, all the examples cited to disprove the assertion that ‘such a thing couldn’t be hidden forever’… well, if we -know- about it… doesn’t every confirmed example of a real conspiracy throughout history support the idea that, you know, it’ll come out in the end, more than likely?” Just one of those passing thoughts I have that gave me a chuckle, and yeah, it wouldn’t disprove the idea of such a conspiracy ‘-existing in the first place-, but eh.

  • Hawker40

    May I recommend “The Faith Healers” by James Randi?

  • AnonymousSam

    Even assuming that Jeff Moore is real and the account given about his mysterious disability and equally mysterious healing is real, it still makes perfect rational sense in the context of psychosomatic symptoms. Psychosomatic doesn’t mean fake, it means that the symptoms are caused by the brain’s assumptions, misinterpretations and responses to stimuli.

    I’m 100% willing to believe a person’s brain could trick their body into being unable to walk and suffering debilitating pain. I’ve seen stranger! A case study I learned about featured a man who had lost his left hand, but swore he could still feel it clenching so tightly that his “nails” were digging into his “palm,” causing him pain. His brain was tricked into relaxing its perception of this phantom grip by having the man insert his remaining hand into a mirrored box, which created the illusion of a left hand. Simply by opening his hand then, the pain ceased.

    If we look at this with the assumption that Moore’s healing really was a miracle, then I’m afraid I have to cast a pall on the whole issue by pointing out, “If God healed this man’s legs, then who is responsible for his legs not working?” After all, the cause of his debilitating condition was just as mysterious as its sudden disappearance…

  • ako

     Psychosomatic doesn’t mean fake, it means that the symptoms are caused by the brain’s assumptions, misinterpretations and responses to stimuli.

    This.  A big part of the problem with stuff like this is that people tend to interpret non-miraculous explanations in the most insulting way possible.   Raise the possibility that it might be psychosomatic, and many people will jump straight to “You think I’m a liar?” or “You think I’m crazy?” (often for the most stereotypical and offensive interpretation of “crazy”).   Many people don’t get how an intelligent, generally-rational person can have unusual psychological or neurological problems that cause them real pain, so it’s hard to talk reasonably about those possibilities.

    (Now obviously, I think one can go too far the other way and just go “Psychosomatic” at anything medically unexplained without investigating properly, and create a whole lot of problems that way, such as when asthma was considered purely psychological.   But that’s different from acknowledging the possibility of psychosomatic illness.)

  • AnonymousSam

    Recent readings had me delving into World War I’s history and the psychological and social ramifications of a new form of war, so this piqued relevant to me. Shell shock victims were frequently accused of malingering in order to get out of the war. Veterans and public alike tended not to understand the ramifications of the vastly different style of warfare they were going through, consequentially the average death toll per day was around 10,000. The fact that cities were emptying out of all males but the very young and the very old apparently didn’t have any logical significance to these people…

  • PJ Evans

     And there were situations like the regiment my grandfather was in, which trained for trench warfare and was sent instead to the Ardennes. (And the other thing was that they called up a lot of National Guard units, like his, and replaced their familiar officers with Regular Army officers, who looked down on the Guard. I’m surprised how many of the soldiers came home alive.)

  • Mau de Katt


    Shell shock victims were frequently accused of malingering in order to get out of the war.

    Not only that, but in the British armies at least, they were also frequently executed for cowardice.

  • Lori

    We still have a long way to go on treatment of and attitudes toward PTSD, but having personally known a couple people who suffered with it I am endlessly thankful for how far we’ve come.

  • Lori


    Psychosomatic doesn’t mean fake, it means that the symptoms are caused by the brain’s assumptions, misinterpretations and responses to stimuli.  

    This. I think a lot of people don’t really get this. The fact that “it’s all in your head” doesn’t mean that you’re faking or consciously willing it to happen or that you can simply make it stop. The brain and its “wiring” to the body are very complex and a lot can go very wonky in ways that are painful and traumatic for the sufferer. Some of those things will sort themselves out without requiring anything like what Stafford would call a miracle. I see no reason to assume that Jeff’s condition wasn’t of that sort.

  • thatotherjean

    What Tim Stafford and his book seem to be missing (from Fred’s analysis, since I haven’t read the book) is the work of the Devil’s Advocate–a cannon lawyer whose job it was to argue against the reality of the miracles that used  to be required to recognize someone as a saint in the Roman Catholic church. Formally known as the Promoter of the Faith, it was his job to find evidence that the “miracles” attributed to the candidate were the result of natural phenomena, fraud, illusion, outright lying, or some other cause that could be explained without resulting to Divine intervention.  If his case was more persuasive that that of the Promoter of the Cause, who gave all the evidence in favor of  actual miracles, the candidate was not recognized as a saint.  John Paul II abolished the office.  

     Mr. Stafford’s book seems to be  in favor of  miracles,   while it ignores the other possible explanations.  There are testimonies, but not useful evidence–names, dates, places, and records that would make it possible for a skeptic to investigate the conclusions.  A journalist should have known better.

  • Lori


    John Paul II abolished the office.   

    That certainly seems to be working out well of him. I strongly suspect that a responsible Devil’s Advocate would have slowed JP II’s road to sainthood quite a bit.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave


    That certainly seems to be working out well for him.

    …to the extent that being posthumously sanctified does him any good.

  • Mau de Katt


    That certainly seems to be working out well for [John Paul I].

    …to the extent that being posthumously sanctified does him any good

    Well, some people are inordinately concerned about their ongoing reputations, even after they die….  After all, people pray to saints.  And maybe he thought he’d get a better place in Heaven if he was eventually canonized himself?  What’s better than a Pope but a sainted Pope?

  • thatotherjean

     John Paul II would have lots of company as a Pope who is also a saint:  there are dozens of them.

  • arcseconds

    …to the extent that being posthumously sanctified does him any good.

    Well, you know it was considered a conundrum in ancient Greece as to whether you could call a man happy or not before they were dead.   IIRC, there was even some concern that after someone’s death was still premature, as their children still have an opportunity to turn out to be feckless bums or otherwise persons of low character. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     FWIW, I’m perfectly OK with someone having a conception of happiness such that their happiness depends on the eventual resolution of events that won’t resolve until after their death.

    That said, it”s radically different from my conception of happiness, and I will have a very hard time talking about “happiness” with them until we’ve worked out the differences between our conceptions, and we might do better just not to use the word at all in such a conversation.

    There’s glory for you.

  • Trixie_Belden

    If his case was more persuasive that that of the Promoter of the Cause, who gave all the evidence in favor of actual miracles, the candidate was not recognized as a saint. John Paul II abolished the office.

    Huh!  He did did he?  I didn’t know that.  As a skeptic, I think the process doesn’t have much credibility anyway, but having an office like Promoter of the Faith made it at least appear like they were trying to establish the truth.  I swear, that man seems to have been a big heap o’ nasty hiding behind an avuncular smile. 

  • fraser

     I read a book on Lourdes some years back that stated the Catholic church set out to vet every healing credited to the shrine. It found two (in the opinion of the analysts) that couldn’t have an alternative natural explanation.

  • thatotherjean

     I think two verified miracles used to be the minimum standard for declaring a person a saint;  not so much any more.  The Church may have stopped looking after they got the requisite two.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    From an interview with Stafford: He was playing wheelchair basketball in another town, and when they were done, one of his teammates suggested they go to a nearby church.  There was an invitation for healing prayer after the service, and since his friend (who was paralyzed) wanted to go forward, Jeff went too. Without any expectations, Jeff received prayer and was completely, instantly, healed.

    That’s gotta be bittersweet for Jeff’s friend, no? Taking your pal to the hot new club and getting stopped by the bouncer as your friend goes right on in without you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-David-Ridgway/713710227 Andrew David Ridgway

    “As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.”

    Ignoring, for the moment, how we determine which witnesses are ‘trustworthy’, this is is so wrong that I simply can’ find the words.

    We have artifacts.  Buildings.  Burial grounds.  Coins, artwork, roads, government documents, tools, fire-pits, fortifications, the evidences of deforestation and changes in animal population, tool marks on animal bones, monuments, fossilized footprints, campsites, aqueducts, battlegrounds, and so many more evidences of historical events. 

    We also have the ability to corroborate and cross-check testimonies, but he apparently hasn’t even done that.  We know that Alexander conquered the ancient world because of multiple corroborating testimonies–not only of Alexander’s conquest, but also of the subsequent history that could not have played out otherwise–in addition to the sudden spread of Greek culture and artifacts across the Hellenic world.   To call the testimony of a single ‘trustworthy’ witness the ‘only real test’ for historical events is criminally absurd.

  • TheDarkArtist

    If the story is true, then two things stand out to me. One: people who aren’t already inclined to believe in Christianity aren’t really likely to believe that some “healing” service or revival is going to help them. And two: if someone is suffering a psychosomatic illness and is also inclined to believe in miracles, then going to such a healing service seems likely to work it’s psychological magic on them.

    Pain, unexplained by physiological causes? Sounds psychosomatic. Turning to a wacky kind of cure like a healing revival? Sounds like someone already had it in their mind that such a thing actually works. It’s not hard to do the math and figure out what happened.

    Plus, the whole thing has a very chain-email-ish sound to it. A “famous doctor” at “Stanford” told him no more surgeries. Why not report who this “famous doctor” is? There’s nothing illegal about disclosing a diagnosis given to you by a physician.

    Seems to me that this is just a load of hot crap slapped to the presses to make people feel better about their illogical and impossible beliefs. It probably contains some shred of truth, but obscured by a shroud of inaccuracy and bad faith.

    If anyone ever wondered why people’s faith in religion is becoming weaker over time, silly fairy-tales like this are ample evidence. I might have found this story convincing when I was 12, but at 29, I know better.

    [edit] Just to be clear, I’m not saying it’s silly or illogical to believe in God. But it is sill and illogical to believe that getting slapped in the face by some wingnut will heal an illness.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I wish we could scientifically test faith healings, Wiccan-style spells and energy workings, and the like. We’d end up developing new weapons against disease, new tools for helping people live fuller, richer lives. If we could figure out how to use prayer-like actions to heal everyone who suffered from debilitating pain and currently incurable illness, that would be awesome.

    (At least until some jerks figured out how to monopolize it and monetize it a la current U.S. health insurance companies. Probably whoever discovered the fool-proof technique would patent it, and that would keep it a money-making secret for at least the lifetime of the patent. And then the lawsuits over reverse-engineering…)

    But I don’t know how we could. I mean, I believe in this stuff, but I think it’s impossible to structure rigorous testing for it. Prayer and faith and metaphysical workings largely go on in one’s head. How do you ensure that everyone praying in the laboratory tests was praying the same way with the same piousness or sincerity? How do you ensure some participant doesn’t take against the patient for any reason and thus deliberately not pray or visualize as they should? How do you eliminate “Patient didn’t believe” or “Participant didn’t concentrate hard enough” as convenient excuses for test scenarios that did not give the desired results?

    And then on top of that, you have the “God’s will be done” standpoint — with some notable exceptions, most praying theists (at least of the big mainstream monotheisms; I don’t presume to speak for all theists here) do not see prayer as a way of compelling a Deity to act. You couldn’t ever set up repeatable laboratory tests; you could only, at best — if you somehow made it possible to observe and catalog exactly how prayer is prayed, and of course if you accepted or proved the existence of God — set up a sort of Behavioral Science of God series of observations, which would probably end up yielding the sort of conclusion Christians already know: “God does what God wants to do.”

    Like I said, I believe in mysterious healings, but my personal theory is that it’s yet another ability (albeit one that we don’t really understand) that some people have more of a facility for than others. So I’m not struggling with “why does God heal some but not others,” although sometimes I wonder “why can’t we all just be good at everything?” To which I’m sure some would reply, “It wouldn’t be an accomplishment if it was easy” to which I’d say, “Save that crap for stuff like musical ability and artistic potential. Somethings not being universally easy kill people.

    Yeah, I’m not too fond of the whole “If there were no evil we wouldn’t appreciate goodness!” thing either.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    There have been good-quality double-blind studies of the medical effects of praying for sick people – it turns out not to work at all. Funny, that.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I thought it had some effect if the recipient knew about it and thought it would help?

    …yes, placebo, I know.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    Actually in one study the group that knew they were being prayed for did worse – but not by very much (iirc it was only barely significant). Placebo effect probably didn’t apply there because the prayer was being done remotely, so to speak.

    Things like prayer conducted in-person, healing services, etc., all fall under the heading of “ritual placebos” (acupuncture and reiki and so on are also in this category) – these are generally more effective than placebo drugs. The study of placebo effects is fascinating and leads to all sorts of ethical conundrums – for example a more expensive placebo is more effective than a less expensive one.

  • fraser

    And some studies on both sides that have too many gaps to make any claims. For example having people pray for Patient X but not Patient Y doesn’t eliminate the possibility that other people are praying for them outside the study.

  • Mrsgrimble

     That’s *always* the problem with these prayer studies.  There’s simply no way you can make sure  that nobody in the ‘no prayers’ control group is being prayed for. How would anybody know, for instance, that a hospital worker isn’t praying for the patients on her round, or that a patient’s relative hasn’t organised a prayer request chain?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave


    How would anybody know, for instance, that a hospital worker isn’t
    praying for the patients on her round, or that a patient’s relative
    hasn’t organised a prayer request chain?

    Or, for that matter, that there isn’t a group of nuns somewhere fervently praying for the health of everyone who doesn’t currently have anyone praying for them?

    After all, if I’m going to take seriously the efficacy of intercessory prayer at all, there’s no reason I can see that I should disregard the potential efficacy of intercessory prayer for an unspecified (and unknown) target.

  • Caravelle

    The thing is, all of your problem are similar with “just physical” medical issues. How do we know somebody doesn’t have a particular physiology ? Or another condition that affects the treatment in an unpredictable way ?
    The answer, aside from controlling for everything you can, is numbers. If the drug given to a hundred people gets them better on average than a placebo then the drug probably does have an effect, even if individual responses vary. And if prayer has an effect, then even though one person’s psychology or relationship with God or whatever might mess things up, you’d expect there to be an average effect showing up when you look at a hundred people. If there isn’t that itself is interesting because it suggests that the effects of prayer are either so small or so rare that they can’t be captured in a study of that size… and that itself is a statement about the power of prayer.

    As for compelling God to act, praying for something to happen requires that prayer to affect God’s actions somehow – maybe you’re not compelling God to act, you’re just drawing their attention to this issue and hoping they help, or something else. Whatever the mechanism, if prayer affects outcomes in any way then a large-enough statistical study can show that. And if you’re not praying to affect outcomes in any way then you’re not doing the kind of prayer we’re talking about.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Before I threw my back out, I thought I understood that mind and body are connected. When you’re stressed you’re more likely to get sick. Happiness is protective of health. Etc.

    I hadn’t really understood it down to my bones the way I do now. When I’m stressed, my back hurts more. The more stress, the more hurt. It’s a direct one-to-one correlation, and it kind of freaks me out. There are other things that make my back hurt more that I don’t understand; sometimes I wake up and it’s worse or better. However, since I’ve settled to a more-or-less consistent level of pain, the only thing that hurts as much as stress is tripping over something, and that pain usually does not last as long as stress pain. 

  • Caravelle

    Excellent post, I really appreciate everything you say in it.
    I just want to highlight this quote :

    Miracles happen. Reliable people testify to miracles. As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.

    I don’t know about Stafford but I have noticed in Creationists (an example of a group with terrible epistemology if there ever was one) a tendency to put a LOT of stock in eyewitness testimony. They often justify the Bible’s historical veracity using that argument, and they make analogies to courtroom cases that completely ignore how unreliable we know eyewitness testimony to be in that context.
    And it is also very relevant to history, where IANAH but I’m pretty sure the “real test” is a combination of textual sources (i.e. witnesses), physical plausibility, archeological evidence and corroboration from several independent sources. Nor is there a binary property of things historians think are true and things they think they aren’t; there is a range of how likely they think it is that various historical events happened. Which depends on how strong the aforementioned evidence is.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.


    This is what we get for not valuing history. ARGH.

  • Caravelle

    Also, this is the kind of post that makes me wonder when the f*ck Tim Minchin will put “Thank You God” on Youtube already. (shhhhh, don’t tell anyone but the audio is on Youtube right now; it’s 10mn of which the first 4:35mn is the intro, and among other things it comprehensively lists the alternate possibilities for Jeff’s recovery)

  • Lunch Meat

    I watched the first few episodes of X-Files on Netflix, expecting to enjoy it, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief quite enough. There were too many instances of:

    Mulder: Aliens!
    Scully: There has to be another explanation!
    Mulder: What other explanation could there possibly be?
    Scully: I don’t know, but there has to be one!
    Me: I can think of four, right off the top of my head.

    Scully didn’t seem like a good skeptic. She seemed like someone who wanted to be a skeptic but didn’t understand the critical thinking part of it.

  • AnonymousSam

    Scully couldn’t believe in aliens, psychic powers or the paranormal, despite having directly witnessed all of them many many many many many times, but she believed in Christianity.

    I know the writers thought they were being clever with that, but I call shenanigans. Either she’s a StrawVulcan or not.

  • Mau de Katt

     Not only that, but it was Scully who believed in the Christian-oriented  miracles, and Mulder who was skeptical of them.

  • Ursula L

     Not only that, but it was Scully who believed in the Christian-oriented miracles, and Mulder who was skeptical of them. 

    Scully believed in Christian, particularly Catholic, miracles.  

    But she was also aware of when she was shifting from scientific thinking to an understanding based on the faith she was raised with, which includes not only her personal religious faith, but also things like whether or not you trust your parents and others who raised you to have taught you the truth.  

    It’s the difference between “I believe” and “I know.”  

    Mulder didn’t really distinguish between “believe” and “know.”  

    Mostly we see the show from Scully’s POV, and her frustration with Mulder not distinguishing between “I believe,” “I know” and “This person whom I’ve chosen to trust believes, and therefore I believe, and therefore I say ‘I know.'”

    But, when Scully’s faith is examined, we see it from Mulder’s POV.  Scully distinguishes, for herself, between “I believe” and “I know.”  But Mulder, who does not make that distinction, doesn’t see how Scully treats these things as different, and so he, and the show, treats her as a bit of a hypocrite, because she says “I believe” while objecting to Mulder’s lack of distinction between “I believe” and “I know” in his own interpretation of cases.  


    Saying “I believe” involves a leap of faith.  Faith being the evidence of things not seen, and belief being an acceptance the evidence of things not seen.  

    Is that an appropriate and correct leap to make?  Does making that leap make you a better or worse person? 

    Everyone makes that leap, and frequently.  There simply isn’t enough time in the day to have every decision and choice you make be based on an absolutely completely informed set of data and perfect logical and moral reasoning.  


    Consider a person, begging on the street.

    Is this person genuinely needy, or doing fine but looking for easy money?  You can ask them, but since they have free will and might lie, you can’t know.  You can only choose to believe them or not believe them. And that decision will be based on a lot of things that have nothing to do with the truth of their need.  

    Such as whether they are a good liar.  Or whether they’ve been raised to be ashamed of being genuinely in desperate need, and so doubt their own starvation, and that doubt shows and makes them look a liar when they’re actually in genuinely desperate circumstances.  

    If they are genuinely needy, starving, what do you do?

    Do you take them to the nearest place to obtain food, even if it is a five-star restaurant with prices where a basic lunch costs more than you make in day, and tell them to choose whatever best meets their need?  

    Do you take them to the nearest hospital emergency room, for treatment for severe malnutrition and starvation, and sign your name to pay for the treatment to save this human life?  Because, with genuine starvation, a person doesn’t merely need food, they need intense medical treatment, to gradually re-introduce their body to food, without causing severe complications that can come from a starving person over-eating when they can finally get food.  

    Do you offer them any food you are carrying (say, your packed lunch) knowing that it might be quite inappropriate for their well-being, or even dangerous, such as if you packed a peanut-butter sandwich and the person you’re giving it to might have a severe allergy to peanuts so that just unwrapping the sandwich might kill them?  

    Do you give them one of several grocery-store gift-cards that you carry for this purpose, with the possibility that even though it is for a “local” store or chain, if they’re poor enough to beg, they may well be too poor to get to the nearest location of that chain, because it is too far to walk when you’re starving, and they have no money for the bus?

    Or do you give them some money, to use to meet their needs as they understand their needs?  Knowing that their understanding of their needs and how those needs are best met may be quite different from what you think their needs are and how you think those needs should be met?  Such as knowing that drug use is a common thing among the desperately needy, because while it doesn’t work as a substitute for good nutrition and safe and comfortable living conditions, a dose of a powerful drug may be more effective for temporary comfort than the amount of high-quality nutritious food they might buy for the same money.  


    This sort of decision is a matter of faith, for everyone.

    I see someone begging.  I am not in a position where I could ever fully understand their need and how best to help them.  I can never, objectively, say “I know” about the full nature of their need.  

    Do I believe that the apparent need that I see is real?

    Do I believe that I should meet the short term need in the way that most quickly provides relief, such as the nearest source of ready-to-eat food, even if it is a three-star place where lunch for one is in the triple-digits in US dollars?

    Do I believe that I should choose a form of relief that I approve of, such as nutritious food?  And then choose a course such as buying a large bunch of bananas, every day, and offering some to each beggar I see?  Not knowing if they like bananas, or if it is the best form of help for their need.  Or even if they might be deadly allergic so that a banana might kill them, but that they’re starving enough to eat any food they can reach, anyway?  

    Do I believe that their information about their needs is more complete than my information about their needs, and give them help of the most fungible sort, money?  Even if they might use it in a way that I don’t care for, or even something illegal such as a powerful drug that can completely alleviate their pain, at least for a while?  


    The key, I think, is not to insist on knowing rather than believing.  Nor is it to treat believing as the same thing as knowing.

    Rather, it is knowing what you do and don’t know.

    And knowing what you do and don’t consider important.

    And knowing what principles you consider important when deciding on how to act when you don’t know all the appropriate information to reach the point of “I know” but when you do know that some action would likely be a good thing in the world.  

    Then, when those things come together, you say “I believe.”  

    And you consider the certainty of that belief.

    And you think about possible consequences.  

    And after thinking, you act on your decision, based on knowing, on believing, and on thinking about the combination of knowing and believing that you have, to do what you think is right. 


    I know I’m at a bus stop in the middle of a Buffalo blizzard, and this person is begging.  I know that the clothes I see them wearing are rags, inadequate to a Buffalo blizzard.  I know that the Buffalo economy has been rough for quite a while, so that many people are genuinely struggling with a wide variety of needs.

    I choose to believe that it is unlikely that anyone who isn’t genuinely in need will choose to be outdoors in a blizzard in order con people waiting for public transportation out of a few cents spare change.

    So I believe this person is genuinely needy.  With significant but not absolutely conclusive evidence.  

    I know my bus will arrive in five minutes.  I know I don’t know enough about this person to be able to make any sort of reliable decision about what they need, based on whatever information I can convince them to share in those five minutes I’ll be waiting.

    I know that I have $10 in my wallet, plus a transit day-pass that will get me home, and enough money in the bank and as cash at home to make it through to my next paycheck even if I give away that $10.  

    I choose to believe that this person will know their needs better than I can know their needs from five minutes acquaintance.  

    I choose to believe that, even if they don’t spend that $10 in the way that I imagine I’d spend $10 if I had their problems, that they will be better off if I share that $10 with them, rather than holding it back.  for myself.  

    I choose to believe that, even if it is, by my standards, abused, the freedom and autonomy that comes from having a little bit of cash is important for every human being.  


    And I know that in real life, I don’t have the time or mental capacity to give every choice I make that level of analysis.  I’d spend eternity thinking through imagined potential consequences, and never actually do any good.  

  • Gotchaye

    Perhaps I’m just being too much like Mulder, but I’m still not sure what “believe” means to you after that.  I’m going to say what I’m getting from that; please correct where I get you wrong, if you wouldn’t mind.

    In most places in your example, ignoring “I choose…” language, you seem to me to have used it in the typical sense of “think X is true”, as in “So I believe this person is genuinely needy.  With significant but not absolutely conclusive evidence.”  Just the dictionary sense of “believe” that has nothing to do with faith, and which in non-weird cases would count as knowledge if correct.

    But then there’s this “I choose to believe” language and this:

    And knowing what principles you consider important when deciding on how to act when you don’t know all the appropriate information to reach the point of “I know” but when you do know that some action would likely be a good thing in the world. 

    This is doing two things, it seems to me.  First, it’s offering the option of using “believe” to signal uncertainty.  Maybe you think of yourself as knowing something if you’re 99% sure, but you use “believe” when you’re only, say, 60% sure in order to communicate that uncertainty.  This is also pretty standard usage where I’m from, signaled by the seemingly superfluous use of “I believe”, as in: “I believe the tickets cost $10”  That means that I think it’s pretty likely that the tickets cost $10, but it wouldn’t shock me to be wrong, and you shouldn’t get very mad at me if you find out they actually cost more.  Likewise “I know” is often used for emphasis, to assert even more confidence than a plain “the tickets cost $10” would, even though anyone who hears me say simply that “the tickets cost $10” would have no problem saying that I both “believe” and “know” that the tickets cost $10 (provided they actually do), and in many situations someone who hears me say “I believe the tickets cost $10” wouldn’t later say that I believed the tickets were $10.

    But you also say that the consequences of what we might do on the basis of some belief ought to matter in determining whether we “choose to believe”.   So considering that, I want to say that “choose to believe” means “choose to act as if I think possibility X is instantiated in situation Y, even though there’s a fair to good chance it isn’t”, perhaps because it’s more important to act correctly when X than it is to do something different when ~X.  But all of your examples seem to me to be pretty likely to be true, so I’m not sure that you intended that reading.  Can you “choose to believe” something while also thinking that it is probably false (or at least that it does not reach whatever threshold is required to reasonably think that something is true)?  If so, I’m having a hard time seeing how you’re talking about epistemology at all; belief reduces to behavior, and “choosing to believe” X coexists with not believing X, for the usual sense of “believe”.  If not, then I’m not clear on how this turns out differently than the very first definition I mentioned, and I don’t see what work the consequences are doing.

  • LoneWolf343

     I would counter that with “If Jesus, Than Aliens.”

  • Mary Kaye

    It’s tricky with roleplaying.  For a lot of people there are parts of their moral code that their PCs can defy and the game will still be fun–perhaps even more fun–and other parts that they just can’t.

    I’m playing a Machiavellian politician in _Council of Thieves_ and I struggle with slavery.  As far as I can tell, Lily thinks slavery is a bit counter-productive because you don’t get the degree of loyalty from slaves that you do from carefully manipulated subordinates.  And she thinks that killing slaves is wasteful.  But that’s it–there’s no moral compunction.  This is perfectly natural for an aristocrat from her setting, but I find it offputting.  She just discovered that she could really use another imp, and that the least expensive way to get one  involves human sacrifice.  And her reaction was, “So that the more squeamish in my inner council won’t be bothered by it, I’ll wait till we have prisoners of war rather than buying slaves directly, and then I’ll quietly have the prisoners disappeared and no one will need to fuss over it.”

    Sometimes I do not like Lily very much.  But culturally speaking it would make no sense for her to be squeamish about this.  Heck, *personally* speaking it would make no sense.  In her effect on her city she is, in fact, a good guy–that’s how she’s gained her power, by doing things the masses like.  Personally?  Not so much.  She has been very successful lately in pacifying the city’s monsters and underworld, so successful that she is seriously considering importing some new ones, because she needs a steady supply of targets in order to keep the populace on her side.

    I can be totally gleeful about most of Lily’s manipulations, but if she really does go out and round up some ghouls in order to keep the populace riled up, and the ghouls go ahead and do what ghouls do….I as a player won’t enjoy it much.  She’s about as evil a person as I’m personally going to enjoy depicting, and even then, there are some bad moments. Each player will draw that line in their own place, and often in pretty strange places–myself, I’m surprised by “I’m not bothered by torture and murder, but *poison* is too evil.”  But wherever you personally draw it, it’s hard to go far over it without losing enthusiasm for the game.

    Of course, conversely, for a lot of players staying in character is critically important to enjoying the game too–it is for me–and then you have dilemmas.  I can’t do too much of telling Lily “Ugh, don’t do that” before I lose my grasp on her.  The best solution I have at the moment, given that I chose to play a Machiavellian politician in the first place, is to say “Um, can we keep this scene offstage please?” and indulge in exactly the same denialism or deliberate blindness as Lily’s “nicer” compatriots.

    (Lily was the one who taught me, incidentally, that the first stirrings of relative goodness in a pretty evil heart can take the form of “I don’t want to offend my nicer compatriots” *as an excuse* for not doing something that is beginning to bother her own conscience.  I hadn’t known that.  It was cool.)

  • MaryKaye

    It’s very hard to study the success rate of conspiracies, because a successful conspiracy is unlikely to be in your sample!

    This is a pretty common problem.  I am fascinated by cases in which book authors post reviews of their own work under false identities.  Every time I have seen this happen, the person has been  incredibly bad at it, and quickly discovered.  In fact I’m perpetually amazed *how* bad people are at faking praise of their own work.  But…if it were done really well, would we ever find out?  Only by accident, probably–tracing the history of the posting back to the author for some reason.

    Similarly, we are all familiar with bad sockpuppets, but how common are good sockpuppets?  I have no idea.  I’ve only seen one, and that one was revealed because the underlying person had a change of heart about what he was doing, not because anyone guessed.

    That said, there are a fair number of conspiracies that accomplished their goals for quite a while.  My husband notes a case in which FBI crime labs had been falsifying lab results to increase their conviction rate.  Recently there have been accusations that drug companies are publishing faked papers in the scientific literature.  Tobacco companies were successful in downplaying the dangers of tobacco for a longish time.  And there have been several cases of bank conspiracies which were pretty big and long-lived.  One could make a stab at a study from cases like these:  how many people can a conspiracy involve?  How do they have to be connected?

    In looking up facts for this post I re-encounted Piltdown Man, a story I’d read when I was quite young.  I don’t think it’s a conspiracy as Dawson may have acted alone (if it was Dawson, and I think it was, who falsified the fossil) but it took on the trappings of one as other scientists were pulled in on Dawson’s side, either out of nationalism, because the fossil fit their theories, or just because they initially endorsed it and didn’t want to be seen to have been wrong.  Maybe you can make a conspiracy work with a tiny core of people who really know, and a much larger fringe of those who have some kind of vested interest but don’t know the full truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=592003242 Jerome Herr

    Why doesn’t your god heal amputees?

  • Mrsgrimble

     “Why doesn’t your god heal amputees?”
    Well, for a start, He’s not MY God.

    Jerome, I’m guessing you’re a newbie to this community and unaware of the diversity of beliefs (and non-belief)  amongst the commenters here.  So I won’t rip you a new one.
    But in future, read all the comments first – the ‘amputees’ bit has already been aired.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30319652 Tim Lehnerer

    I wrote notes towards a D&D 3rd edition campaign that never happened, but one of the big story arcs was going to involve Duke Alverac, a royal appointee who was overseeing a county and doing pretty much whatever he wanted with it. I was going to have the PCs be the Magnificent Seven (“Alverac” is an anagram of “Calvera”, the villain from that movie) and make the paladins and knights choose their masters. Are you Lawful (helping Alverac oppress the peasants, because he’s the overseer of that territory) or are you Good (committing treason to help the helpless)?

    Nothing ever came of it, unfortunately. But I was looking forward to that one.

  • Isabel C.

    I would absolutely play that, and it would be awesome. 

    Although I can see PCs going in several ways there: outright fighting against Alverac, trying to gather proof of what he’s doing and take it to the king, helping get peasants to safety elsewhere, etc.  Seems like fun!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30319652 Tim Lehnerer

    I wanted it to be more open and “sandbox” than just doing another damned dungeon crawl. If they committed treason I planned to do an end-of-arc story where they got captured and put on trial, and the king secretly attending in disguise to see why they rebelled. They would have received a royal pardon for serving good rather than the law, and part of the party’s reward was going to be getting the baron’s old position–whoever the party paladin or knight was would be the new Shire Reeve of the region.

  • http://dumas1.livejournal.com/ Winter

     If there was room for a courtier-type character in the party, I’d be taking a very hard look at the Duke’s commission from the king and the laws of the kingdom, as well as the duties and privileges of knights and paladins. In particular, I’d see if any of what he does happens to interfere with royal prerogatives since that’d be the easiest to draw official action. Of course, a great deal of how that approach works out depends on the character of the king.

    It may look less heroic, but a Lawful Good lawyer can be a great asset in the right setting. From what I’ve heard, the Legend of the Five Rings setting is a good one to try it, but I mostly know it from the card game several years ago.

  • Dan Audy

    Legend of the Five Rings is a great setting for good vs lawful issues and exploring what ‘honour’ means to different people.  The unfortunate side is that it does so through orientalism (or cultural appropriation depending on your preferred verbiage).

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Also, all the folks who talk up the “pray for health” thing never seem to stop and ask, “what if someone who hates the patient is praying for them to get sicker?”

    I mean, it’d be an asshole thing to do, but if it’s never been done ever in the history of the human race, I’d be very surprised.

    If one wants to presuppose the existence of a Being or Deity or Force that responds to prayer, maybe the reason they’re so maddeningly impossible to reliably convince to intervene is precisely because they’re already very aware of the dangers of validating the human desire to inflict harm, instead of good – so best not to respond at all than respond in one form and not in another.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    “what if someone who hates the patient is praying for them to get sicker?”

    I mean, it’d be an asshole thing to do, but if it’s never been done
    ever in the history of the human race, I’d be very surprised.

    It’s called “Imprecatory Prayer”, and it’s still practiced.  A while back, a Rev. Wiley Drake got called out by Our Host for it.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Well, there is a line in the Bible about not cursing others, no?