John of God – brought to you by Oprah

John of God

John of God

OK, let me start off by saying that I think Oprah does a lot of good in the world. She gets millions of people to aspire to make the most of their lives by following their passions.

But Oprah and I don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to spiritualism and the like. She promotes magical, spiritual thinking on her show. I tend to lean more toward natural explanations. Like this one… PEOPLE CAN DELUDE THEMSELVES! Here’s a great example.

Her show on Wed Nov 17 was all about “John of God”, a farmer in Brazil who’s got a reputation for healing people. Sit down… you won’t believe this story.

This John-of-God guy sticks forceps deep into people’s noses, and pulls them out all bloody. Apparently, this heals all sorts of ailments. What other services does he offer?

  • He cuts into people’s skin (with a scalpel) without any anesthesia, and performs surgery.
  • He “scrapes” people’s eyeballs with a scalpel.
  • He has a crowd of people sit in a room while he walks around and performs “invisible surgery” on them.

And people flock to him by the thousands. Could he really be doing that much good?

I watched the episode of Oprah thinking, “Crap, they must have some serious evidence in their favour.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Forceps up the nose
The forceps-in-the-nose thing looks unbelievable, but it’s actually an old sideshow trick that’s been around for decades. What I think is disturbing is that John winds the forceps around and around, probably boring slightly into the tissue at the back of the nasal cavity, just to draw some blood and make the whole event seem more dramatic. Do any of these patients victims get sinus infections after that?

Nasal Cavity (sagittal view)

Nasal Cavity

Cutting someone’s skin without them protesting
OK, that’s quite unusual, but not necessarily a miracle. After all, the feeling of pain is an active process that your nervous system engages in to motivate you to avoid further injury. There is no reason in principle that pain cannot be overridden by other mental processes. In fact, we fully expect that pain will take a back seat if we’re in mortal danger (from an attacker, for example). To me, it’s not surprising that someone who spent a few grand to visit John of God would be the able to ignore the pain. But the short-circuiting of pain DOES pose an interesting research question… in psychology (not theology). And no one in Oprah’s show asked what he was operating for. My guess… drama.

Scraping eyeballs
According to James Randi, this is another old trick. John might not even be touching the eyeball, but just making it LOOK like he is. It’s similar to fistfights in cheesy movies; when viewed from face-on, a punch across the chin looks legit. When seen from the side… not so much.

For the first half of the show, I kept wondering what evidence they would present. One of Oprah’s staff members told a story about how she felt better about her dad’s death. Well, good for her, but that doesn’t sound like a miracle to me. Then they brought out a psychiatrist who visited John-of-God’s clinic. He claims to have been a skeptic, but not all self-proclaimed skeptics are rational, critical thinkers. This Dr. expressed interest in finding out more about the cutting without anesthesia, and rightly so. But he also told an anecdote that he found profound. He had a mysterious cut on his chest during his visit. That seems to have been enough evidence for him. I kept expecting to hear some outcome statistics, or follow-up pathology reports, but he had none of that. All he had was his own emotions. He “turned his whole world on its head” in order to explain that cut. That’s a lot of magical explaining for one bug bite, or rogue staple, or damaged car-door, … or … or … (not to mention foul-play).

Oprah also interviewed a women on her show that received the nose therapy to treat her breast cancer. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and she’s now stage 4.

Everyone made a point of saying that John of God doesn’t charge for his services. So why would anyone go to all this trouble and ask nothing in return?

Money, I expect.

Apparently, he prescribes herbs to every one of the thousands of patients he sees. And, OH, they just happen to sell that kind of herb. By one estimate, that brings in a healthy $400,000 per year. But they also sell other things. For example, you can buy a DVD on his web page. And everyone has to wear white; luckily there is a place to buy white clothes nearby.

My explanation: it’s easy to convince someone who wants to believe. Throw in a bit of drama, and some meditation, and voila! People are healed… of something. The poor stage-4 woman that Oprah interviewed seems convinced that her healing turns out not to be physical (like making the cancer go away), but spiritual (helping her to accept it).

To his credit, John of God clearly states that his patients should continue with the conventional medical treatment prescribed by their doctors. And I’d suggest a course of antibiotics to fend off a nasty sinus infection.

One Response to “John of God – brought to you by Oprah”

  1. ben says:

    This American Life has an awesome episode where a guy goes to see this guy with his new-age spirit-channeling mother. His story has showed up before, and it is fascinating to hear how coming into first hand contact with this kind of farcical healing has challenged his own beliefs and strained his relationship with his mom. It is a very candid, intimate, and well-produced first hand account of what goes on there and the kind of people who go.


  • Jeff Orchard

    Jeff Orchard is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has degrees in mathematical nerdism from Waterloo and UBC, and got his PhD in computing science from Simon Fraser University in 2003. Jeff is 99% atheist, 1% agnostic, and is passionate about teaching critical thinking. One of his research goals is to understand how the brain works (and then use that knowledge to take over the world). He has published academic papers in image processing, and is also an evolution buff.