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.

 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.)

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.)

  • 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

    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”.

  • 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.)

  • 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.

  • Nathaniel

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

    http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

    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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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.  

  • 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.

  • Nathaniel

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?”

  • Hawker40

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

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • Joshua Bowers

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

  • 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…

  • 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://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”)

  • 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.


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