While I’m on the subject of skepticism, James Randi has posted an infuriating article about ABC’s recent Primetime Live program Is ‘John of God’ a Healer or a Charlatan? Searching for Hope and Health in a Remote Brazilian Village. João Teixeira, AKA John of God, is a very successful faith-healer — successful in the sense that he makes lots of money and fame by performing standard carney tricks to con desperately ill patients with nothing to lose, not in the sense that he actually heals anybody. As you might guess from the subtitle, ABC’s spin is along the lines of “Wow, this is really amazing stuff, and while we can’t know for sure we’ll bend over backwards to make you believe it’s all true.”
I’m usually mildly pissed off by junk like this from the press, but something about Randi’s commentary really boils my blood this time. Maybe it’s the fact that ABC so clearly wanted to interview Randi not to give their audience real insight, not even to provide balance (as if it was appropriate for a so-called “investigative report” to give equal weight between a con artist’s lie and facts). They clearly wanted Randi just to provide cover, so they could tell their story and yet still claim to have interviewed a token skeptic (you’ll note that Randi doesn’t even appear in the print version of the story I link to above.)
Then again, maybe it’s Randi’s brief description of the personal tragedy con men like this cause that brought it all home:
It must be easier just not to care, but I can’t manage that. I must care when I know that John of God will claim more victims, and that I couldn’t stop it. Though I earnestly wish it could be different, based on what we know to be the hard facts, David Ames will not recover from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Lisa Melman will most probably die of breast cancer because she’s decided to forego legitimate surgical help. Mathew Ireland’s brain tumor will still be there and will probably kill him, too. But Jo?o Teixeira will continue to flourish and be worshiped as a god.
Folks, I was in Mexico City on the plaza outside the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe when a young peasant father crawled by me along the rough pavement with an obviously dead infant in his arms, swaddled in a tiny white serape. There were twin tracks of blood behind him from his bleeding knees. He was seeking a miracle. Through the adjacent barred window in the basilica I could hear the coin-sorting machines packaging the money that was pouring into the offering boxes inside. I turned away and wept.
In a St. Louis auditorium I stood in the lobby as paramedics treated a heavy elderly woman who lay in a fetal position on the carpet, white-faced and moaning in agony. Moments before she’d been seized in ecstasy in front of faith healer “Reverend” W. V. Grant, leaping up and down in an adrenaline rush that made her temporarily oblivious to the bone spurs on her arthritic spine that were cutting into her muscle tissues and bringing about internal bleeding. The attendants got her onto two stretchers and into an ambulance. I wept.
Outside an arena in Anaheim, California, my camera crew approached a tiny, thin, Asian boy with twisted legs on worn crutches to ask him if he’d been healed by Peter Popoff, the miracle-worker who he’d told us two hours earlier was “gonna ask Jesus to fix my legs.” When he turned toward us, we saw his tear-streaked face and anguished eyes. The cameraman lowered his camera. “I can’t do this,” he said, and we both turned away and wept.
I’ve had my share of tears and sleepless nights, wondering what I might do to keep people from chasing this chimera. I had another chance in New York City on January 25th, 2005, and I tried.
Rather than expose a fraud, ABC wanted to share his limelight. How many more poor, desperate people will go to Brazil because a “reputable news organization” made it sound like a good idea? How many more head of cattle will João Teixeira be able to buy from what he fleeces off the world’s most unfortunate? How many more rating points will ABC gain from their complicity in his con game?
ABC has blood on its hands — if they were a responsible news organization they would try to undo the damage they’ve done.