Sunday, December 19, 2010

Today's Show: Deconstructing a Miracle

Since we're only on for an hour now, I'm not sure how much time we'll have for a topic, but if we have time, I would like to address the following miracle claim I was confronted with in a recent dialog:

Out of curiosity though, I ask how you can scientifically prove how this happened:

A young girl, between the ages of 3 & 4 drowns and dies. A man who has failed every CPR test in his life, brings her back to life. Later on, she tells her mother that she has a little sister named Emily. Emily does not exist. The little girl says she does. When asked who told her this, she said a lady in white did in a white room. Keep in mind the hospital had no white rooms where she was at and the nurses were not wearing white. Later on the mother is pregnant, the little girl says this is not Emily. It is not. It is a boy. Later on the mother is pregnant again, same thing happens, another boy. The family decides they are not going to have anymore children, but then the mother gets pregnant one more time. The little girl says this is Emily. A girl is born.

For the record, this is a true story, with many witnesses. How is it that this little girl saw this lady in white in a white room while she was dead and then predicted the birth of her sister?

This is why I am not atheist because I believe something or someone does exist and there is some kind of place after death besides six feet under or ashes.

Not to give too much away, but to skip to the end of the discussion, after making a few requests for clarification from the claimant, this miracle is exactly as impressive as saying "Yesterday I flipped a coin, and before it landed, a little child shouted 'tails!'—and it did land on tails. How do you explain this?!"

Hope you'll be there for the live feed!


  1. Oh my...this stuff convinces people? Confirmation bias all the way.

  2. Self-fulfilling prophesy. While I enjoy the theatre of imagination, in my mind I can't allow the fun of mental diversion to creep into my reality.

  3. Actually, it is even less impressive - the coin landed on tails on the third try.

  4. It's a real story alright... as real as the one about the hook-handed murderer?

  5. Even if that is completely true, I demand to know why the girl was not immediately burned at the stake: predicting the future is clearly Witchcraft. As Exodus says, thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live. Seriously, she is essentially talking to 'spirits' if this can be taken to be 100% true. (Assuming Christianity)
    Besides, how does she/he pick a religion from one 'afterlife' experience?

    Loads of holes even if this is true.

  6. Where did this event occur?

  7. It is trivial to "scientifically prove how this happened"

    That. Only that. Nothing else.


    1) Documentation of the little girl 'dying'. Hospitals keep impeccable medical
    records, and, at least here in Canada, are required to keep records, for children,
    up to seven years after they pass the age of majority.

    2) Failure records. If a man has failed "every CPR test in his life", which
    insinuates he's taken more than one, someone will be able to provide such

    3) I'd like to hear the mother tell me her daughter told her this. I'd like to
    hear the mother directly. If this happened long enough ago that the mother
    is dead, sorry. You can stop right now

    4) Hospital with no white rooms? PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN.

    5) Hospital where there is not one nurse who wore white? PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN

    6) "With many witnesses". Ok. Name one. Full name. Give me contact details,
    so I can get this story from his/her own mouth.

    Of course, this is completely disregarding the fact that it is trivial to predict that
    one child in three will be a female.

  8. Apologies for craptastic formatting above. I assumed the comments were like reddit, where I need to hit enter twice before I get a line break when it's published

  9. Everyone should be aware there will be no phones again today. The hardware is fried and the studio is having to send everything out of state to be repaired. Mega-suckage.

  10. Will anybody be monitoring the ustream again this week?

  11. Warning - Long Rant

    Obviously one mildly weird event like this isn't good evidence (not least because: what religion predicts that stuff like this would happen?).

    But some things that make me want to call bullshit:

    1) Saying "For the record, this is a true story, with many witnesses." and not immediately providing a link or citation. This sentence actually makes the story less likely, because a) "[this happened] with many witnesses" is a more detailed claim than the original claim, b) you wouldn't have to baldly assert that you had evidence if you actually just showed the evidence, and c) this sentence is in every urban legend, chain letter, and fireside horror story, but you never find it connected to reliable claims. Without access to some original source, you can't tell if the story is mostly true, mostly exaggerated hearsay, or completely invented.

    2) If a man repeatedly fails CPR tests, that means he's taken a lot of CPR classes. How often does someone take a ton of CPR classes, never ever get better, keep taking them, and then happen to be in an emergency where they are the only person who can attempt CPR? (And honestly, is it really that hard? CPR isn't rocket surgery.)

    3) This isn't so much a reason why this story didn't happen, as an outright deception regarding what supposedly happened. "A young girl, between the ages of 3 & 4 drowns and dies." Recovered with CPR? No, she didn't. You aren't dead until you're brain dead, you aren't dead until you're warm and dead, and you aren't dead until you've been dead for some time. Recovery from "clinical death" happens all the time now, because we now recognize that, even though it used to be a fatal condition, it doesn't have to be with appropriate medical treatment. It's a misnomer to call this "death" in the colloquial sense if the person recovers minutes later; it's not any more of a "death" than a concussion would be.

    If the little girl had been buried a few days like in the legend of Jesus, we might have more to talk about.

    4) "When asked who told her this" Either this is totally made up or we are missing almost all of the dialogue here. If your little girl recovers from a near-drowning and starts insisting that she has a little sister (with a specific name!), your first thought is not to ask "Oh, who told you that?" Your first thought is that she has had a traumatic experience, one which possibly had the potential to cause brain damage or PTSD, and maybe your kid needs to go see a psychiatrist.

  12. 5) "she said a lady in white did in a white room." Is there any major religion that says that when little girls die, they go to a white room where white-clad women teach them about unborn family members? The story has a certain feel-good "Touched by an Angel" vibe, but it isn't evidence for any religion whatsoever, because no religion predicts that this would happen. Charitably one might consider this evidence for an afterlife, except that, as described in this story, the little girl never actually died.

    6) "Later on the mother is pregnant, the little girl says this is not Emily. It is not[...] The little girl says this is Emily. A girl is born." So this thing happens when the girl is 3 or 4, and then for years and years they keep talking about it. By that point what the girl remembers is almost certainly a false memory, as is, for all we know, the entire family's recollection of events. That's what happens when something notable happens to you, and you tell the story over and over repeating how miraculous and amazing it is. You convince yourself the story really is that amazing. This is one reason why eyewitness testimony is not always reliable, especially when the witness is emotionally invested in the events, especially well after the events happened, and especially when the witness has told the story dozens of times. By the end of the story, if they don't have records, the whole family may be remembering predictions as postdictions (e.g. the girl didn't actually predict the sex of a boy but just took note of it afterwards). They may recall a nervous and uncertain guy as a guy who "failed all his CPR tests". If they didn't write down what happened right then at the time, who knows?

    7) Besides all this, predicting the sex of three children is a 1/8 chance, which is not that low (in fact, incredibly high compared to my prior probability for God). But they'd probably still be telling this story if they'd had any female children at all, so it's really more like a 7/8 chance (the only way someone wouldn't have spun a story like this, is if every later child was male, and not named Emily).

    For me to believe in God, I'd have to have evidence to overcome everything that I know that says that the God hypothesis doesn't fit our world, and it would have to be evidence that I know had virtually no chance of happening if there was no God, and that would be vastly more likely if there was a God (this is a primitive Bayesian calculation). Otherwise we're looking at a case of "Oh, I think the probability of God existing is 10^-100" vs. "Oh, I think the probability of God existing is 1.000000000001 times 10^-100."

  13. 8) Backtracking for a second: "Out of curiosity though, I ask how you can scientifically prove how this happened" Burden of proof problem here. If I want to stay a naturalist after reading this story, all I have to do is state that it is possible that this story came into existence without God being involved (not that it happened; I need proof that it happened first). I can be perfectly comfortable saying "I don't know enough to say what this story means, so it has no impact on what I think." Until I have a method of obtaining more knowledge, I actually don't have any other intellectually honest options. I have to say "I can speculate, but I can't draw any conclusions from that."

    If someone else wants to claim that this is evidence for some specific conclusion (God exists), they are the ones who have to prove that God did it. And by prove, I mean provide rigorous evidence that shows how God is the most compelling, straightforward, probable, and complete explanation (obviously this is not a mathematical derivation). This is the problem with Intelligent Design; it's not enough to say "Look, stuff that happened and it was God." It has to be "Look, we can show precisely how this could have come directly from a particular kind of God, and how Intelligent Design actually predicts a ton of known features of living organisms, comparable to the millions of features predicted and explained by evolution, and using a similar or smaller number of starting assumptions."

    9) "I believe something or someone does exist and there is some kind of place after death" Again, ignoring the fact that the little girl never died, what does this have to do with God? Plenty of religions have spirits and afterlives without gods. In fact, I personally don't believe in an afterlife, but I find it far more plausible than the "perfect God" most monotheists believe in (maybe the afterlife is just getting unplugged from The Matrix, I dunno).

    Rant Off

  14. Sean makes many (many, many) good points.

    I wonder though, if we were to accept this (for the sake of argument), wouldn't it require that the future is pre-ordained, and free-will is therefore an illusion? Would this theist be willing to sacrifice free-will for prophesy?

  15. This was the first time I as able to watch the show on my computer with the live stream! It worked wonderfully well.

  16. I find it aggravating that the number of people who claim to have experiences with aliens, chupacabra, bigfoot, and ghosts are just as frequent as people who claim miracles and angels, and the news stations still give consideration to the ”angel” stories, as if they are valid. It seems most of the miracle stories covered by the media are always associated with a young child. When I was around the age of six, I woke up on Christmas Eve night, and I swore I heard reindeer on the roof, and I ran and woke my parents up because I was positive Santa was on the roof about to deliver presents. My imagination convinced myself that I heard deer on the roof, and I don’t mean a few noises, I thought I heard stomping and rumbling (very loud and vivid sounds). If I lived the rest of my life believing that Santa was real, I would be under the impression that I did indeed hear him on the roof. This is why most child experiences can be dismissed. I obviously didn’t really hear flying deer on my roof, but I believed I did for a few years after that. I don’t remember, but I imagine I probably went to my 1st grade class and told all the other kids about my experience, and I would guess that the kids believed my story. I was sincere with my claims, but I was wrong. The child brain is great at morphing fantasy into reality.

  17. I agree with a points others have pointed out. I sort of agreed with Sean's point #3 that it was inaccurate to say she died. My reasoning is a little different though.

    My understanding is that medical professionals can pronounce a patient dead after clinical death. I dont think its necessary to prove biological death before we can correctly say that the girl was dead and I would accept this as being a technically correct label.

    However, the flaw I see regarding her "death" is that she couldn't have been pronounced dead by a qualified professional.

    It doesn't give a lot of specifics, but one possibility is that she received medical care by a medical professional, which had no effect and was then pronounced dead. The CPR failure then figures he could practice his technique for his next big test and has nothing to lose since she's dead anyway and revives her. IF that's what was meant, then I'm surprised that was left out of the story: Trained medical professional fails to revive girl, guy who failed CPR test multiple times suceeds! (I bet the newspaper article would start "He couldn't pass a CPR course test to save his life, but he passed the test that saved hers...")

    The other posibility is that someone who didnt know anything about the difference between unconscious and dead (Maybe CPR guy even) gave their non-expert opinion that since she wasn't awake and responding, she must have been dead.

  18. Well the story could be worse, it could have lead to this wildly accepted myth from 18 century

  19. Kait82;

    Of course, the guy who determined she was dead was the guy who failed CPR several times! Not a reliable authority methinks. Perhaps she was just sleeping.....

  20. There is this belief that siblings can tell the sex of a baby before it's born. I'm not that mad on it, but I do know that my kids didn't do a bad job of predicting their successors.

    Personally I think a 50/50 guess combined with a confirmation bias is most likely here, but if it were actually true though, it is possible that there are indicators that could reasonably explain it. Maybe a certain pheromone or the way the baby responds to physical stimulus.

    You still don't need supernatural explanations - unless you desperately want them.

  21. "Would this theist be willing to sacrifice free-will for prophesy?"

    It sounds like they've already taken steps in that direction: "The family decides they are not going to have anymore children, but then the mother gets pregnant one more time."

  22. @ Sean
    Thanks for mentioning the 1 in 8 thing. I was thinking it myself, but then I realized that, had one of the previous two siblings been a girl, it should have made just as much sense to say "she isn't Emily".

    After all, why is it ok to accept that Emily had two younger brothers who were destined to come before her, but no younger sisters? So the probability should still be 1 in 2.

    Then there is the question of whether the girl was consistent in her pronouncements. Apparently with each child, the subject "Is this Emily" would come up. Did it come up exactly once per child? If it came up more than once, then did this girl give the same answer each time?

    This all sounds apocryphal, and considering kait82's observation that there were no medical professionals to pronounce her dead, other than CPR guy, then I would doubt any of this ever happened.


    That is brilliant. I wish I had caught that.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. i wonder what all your thoughts are on post-death experiences (that is, clinically pronounced dead, and the brain is likewise very much dead) that are well-documented globally.
    Here's a fairly balanced article.

    tracieh seems to imply that 50% is not an impressive odd. i wonder if 90% would suffice. or 95%? 100%? Who defines these probabilities to be accurate standards of truth verification?

  25. @Sungyak:

    Right, 50/50 odds are not impressive. And no probability would be impressive, since "improbable" will never = impossible. However, odds that anyone can demonstrate they can quite naturally _easily_ achieve are even more ridiculous to assert as amazing or requiring supernatural intervention. If you watched the feed, then you know I achieved a run of 3 in the first test. That is, I asked a person to guess "heads or tails"--and they guessed correctly the first three tries. Would you suggest I witnessed something miraculous or supernatural?

    To say that a single instance is a miracle would be to assert I witnessed three separate miraculous events during my coin toss experiment. And according to this then, anyone can demonstrate miraculous results--all they need is a coin. Guess long enough, and you'll see a miracle. I guarantee it.

    Meanwhile, where is the evidence of supernature in NDE? Articles are nice, but peer reviewed articles, appearing in respected scientific journals, demonstrating supernature (with support--rather than mass criticism from the peers following the publishing) would be better.

    The fact is, even if we had 10,000 people per day confirmed brain dead who were springing back to life telling tall tales, until we can _demonstrate_ a cause, we have to say it's an event we haven't yet explained. But the more it happens, the more inclined I am to discount it as supernature and say that it seems rather quite natural. After all, every cause of every phenomenon ever successfully verified has been natural. When we find one confirmed supernatural cause, then we'll have some reason to accept supernature can reasonably be put forward as a cause. But until supernature is even demonstrated to _exist_, the fact is only things that exist CAN be the cause of other things, and so the assumption of cause will be "natural" (since nature is existent), rather than "supernatural" (as supernature is not demonstrated to exist).

    Anyone who then wishes to posit supernature as the cause of any event had first better meet their obligation to demonstrate supernature is even existent. Until we have that, we can only presume things that are known to exist as causes--since only things that exist can cause other things.

  26. @Sungyak

    tracieh seems to imply that 50% is not an impressive odd. i wonder if 90% would suffice. or 95%? 100%? Who defines these probabilities to be accurate standards of truth verification?

    The point is that the success rate is not beyond statistical noise. That is to say, given the information about the story, this girl's capacity to predict has the same success rate as someone randomly guessing.

    There's nothing impressive about that.

    If there were 10 genders, she'd have to consistently beat 10% accuracy. At some point, you'd have to set up some control groups, because it may simply be that the father can't create seed any males, and the girl is picking up on a 100% natural pattern, due to biological circumstances.

  27. Why is a personal experience of Gods presence the proof of her existence?

    I have met God a few times. He was reoccuring in my nightmares as a boy. It happend when a was between 5 and 9 since I remembered where I woke up. God was really scary and very real in the dreams.

    But I conquered him, I got rid of the nightmare and I am an atheist.

  28. Trash: "in my nightmares as a boy. It ..."

    The name Trash is quite similar to tracieh. For a moment I thought I had learned something surprising about tracieh who I had assumed had spent her childhood as a girl.

  29. @Sungyak

    It is not a "fairly balanced article". I mean, almost immediately I came across this sentence: "Most psychic occurrences are spontaneous and therefore hard to test under laboratory conditions." How could the author possibly know this? I mean, we can all agree that there are psychics who are fakes, and others who are simply deluded. The point of controlled testing is to try to distinguish those from any real psychic events that might happen. If you throw controlled testing out the window, you can't know anything about "most psychic occurrences", only about "most claims to psychic occurrences". If we translate that sentence to describe what the author might actually know, instead of what he pretends to know, then the sentence should actually say "When people claim they have psychic experiences, it usually happens to be in a situation where we can't easily check and see if that's what really happened." Doesn't that seem suspicious? Like a magician who can only make things vanish when he's wearing loose clothing?

    Then there was this howler: "If one doesn't believe we have a soul, then you are stuck trying to explain why we have an area of our brain which allows us to experience an NDE. Some will say it is there from an evolutionary standpoint to ease a person through the dying process." First off, let me just say that I would be absolutely blown away if anyone who actually understands evolution ever said this. Evolution really doesn't give a damn about making people comfortable or happy. So by listing this claim as "some will say", the author is pretending to give the skeptical, scientific side of things, but actually setting up a straw man; he listed something ridiculous as if it was what scientists actually say.

    But there's a worse problem with that part I quoted. He says "we have an area of our brain which allows us to experience an NDE". But that's not what was shown at all! What they found was that when people were experiencing NDEs, that happened to be the part of the brain lighting up. But that does not mean that the purpose of that part of the brain is to produce NDEs. To give an analogy, when people see the "auras" that proceed migraines (not paranormal auras, but fuzzy dancing patches in their field of vision), there's often an excess of unusual activity in the visual processing centers of their brains. But the purpose of the visual processing centers is not to see those auras, but to see things that are real; the auras are what happen when this normal processing is broken. Similarly, seeing that the temporal lobe lights up during certain strange experiences, does not mean that those parts of the temporal lobe are designed to produce those experiences; it could also mean that those experiences are hallucinations that occur when that part of the brain is temporarily screwed up (which seems to be what NDEs are).

  30. Also, the article just doesn't cite anything at all. So it's hard to tell how hard the author actually tried to verify any of this. I don't think he's lying, but I also don't trust most people to spend as much energy on fact-checking as they should.

    For example: "After accounting for the length or extent of the NDE, if the NDE were simply a hallucination or concoction of the brain, would we not have varying degrees of vividness and memory of the NDE, unlike the 'all or nothing' that is reported?" Am I supposed to take his word for it that no one ever has a fuzzy or vague NDE? How do we know that people don't have fuzzy NDE's, but when the NDE is fuzzy they are more likely to call it a "dream" than an NDE? In fact, later he says: "Though the weakest NDE with OBE cases, which do not have the clarity or the narrative quality about them and are paranoid in nature, are likely just hallucinations and thus probably not NDEs." Which is it? Is NDE "all or nothing", or are there some which are fuzzy and some which are vivid, just like different forms of hallucination?

    And this: "But what explains the brilliant light and emotions filled with such bliss after the darkness? Hardly what you would expect a dying brain to produce." What kind of argument is that? Is this guy a neurologist? How does he know better than anyone else what dying brains do? Besides which, we know that conscious and awake people sometimes experience feelings of spirituality and bliss (see Jill Bolte Taylor's extremely strange TED talk). I think the talk is mostly nonsense woo, but notice that Taylor has many of the same sensations as are described as being typically NDE, but they are associated, not with clinical death, but with parts of her brain shutting down or becoming damaged (especially in the left temporal lobe) even while the rest of her mind continues to function fairly lucidly.

    The whole article just gets more and more ridiculous. At some points he suggests "science can't explain why the experiences are all the same", and at others he suggests "science can't explain why the experiences are not all the same". True, science can't yet explain every facet of unusual mental states. So, what, that means that really bizarre things that people only see when they have oxygen-deprived brains are real?

  31. Well, CYA disclaimer: he does cite some things in the article, just not the vast majority of his evidence.

  32. Since Matt brought it up in this episode I will post my comment here since there was no post here about the NonProphets episode.

    Matt here says he believes his co-hosts argument was terrible (I forget her name), but I think it was Matt that was wrong and even contradictory based on his past comments.

    He said that he should have waited until "Jesus" was mentioned in the prayer at the government meeting before protesting. His reasons for this were that since atheists have a reputation for being moody, or that it would have won more supporters from the other side.

    Hmm.. I think that if an atheist is seen objecting ONLY when their favorite savior is mentioned, if anything that would help turn them against the protest when in fact the main concern is prayer in general.

    And changing the nature of the protest to satisfy potential allies on the theist side? This sounds awfully like the stuff you'd hear from Chris Mooney and other accomodationalists. I know Matt doesn't agree with their position at all so it struck me as odd that Matt was suddenly caring about the public opinion of atheist views.

    I guess the reason I object to Matts comments is that he was so boistrous in his disagreement with the co-host when she simply stated that she wouldn't compromise in any way with this sort of violation and I agree with her.

  33. @Sungyak

    The question I would ask you about post death experiences is a very simple one.

    What actually is it that survives death?

    The soul? the spirit? some other incorporable component of a human being.

    When dead, the human ceases to function as human and the atoms that made up the human are redistributed elsewhere.

    The time to attempt to answer what happens after death is when we know that there actually is something that can survive.

    Basically I am saying "Show me your soul", until then the question is moot.

  34. @Kenny

    I think that I may agree with you but for a slightly different reason.

    I think Matt was being unreasonable towards Lynnea in one aspect.

    I doubt that the people protesting would have foreknowlege of the exact wording to be used in the prayer. There was no guarantee that JC was gonna get a mention. So to object at beginning was on a point of principle.
    The fact that another objection was raised at the mention of JC was good timing and alertness by the protesters wife. I don't think that aspect of it could have necessarily been planned ahead of time.

  35. "Hmm.. I think that if an atheist is seen objecting ONLY when their favorite savior is mentioned, if anything that would help turn them against the protest when in fact the main concern is prayer in general."

    To add onto this comment. The solution by the council may be simply to abstain from mentioning Jesus in the prayer if that is timing of your objection. After all, why didn't you object earlier if you had a problem with prayer, it must have been the mention of Jesus that you found offensive, right? By objecting at the get go, it is made clear that the objection is against prayer itself and not the specific form it was in that day. Its much more clear than waiting 2/3s of the way in before objecting.

  36. My favourite part was: "A man who has failed every CPR test in his life, brings her back to life". Isn't it convincing?
    Oh, we silly atheists...

  37. About the idea that older siblings are able to tell the sex of a fetus, that reminds me of something that happened to a friend.

    This couple already had two kids, an older girl and a younger boy, then the woman got pregnant again. They asked the older girl (who was about 4 IIRC) what she thought the baby would be, and she said she thought it was a girl. Why? "Because we already have a boy!"

  38. Previous commenters have already voiced many of the objections I had when listening to the show--and some that hadn't occurred to me. (Loved the 'did they burn her as a witch?')

    So I'll settle for this minor quibble: she was "between 3 and 4 years old". That doesn't work.

    Well, I guess if it followed her 3rd birthday but preceded her 4th, she was "between" the numbers. But we still calll that 3. Oh, sure, the first 2 years or so are measured out in months (ie 'he was walking at 18 months old'). But that provides more precision rather than less.

    Sure, it translates to 3 OR 4.

    I realize it may just be semantic, but it's yet another detail suspicious for its absence.

    How could details like no white rooms or white-clad nurses be trusted when even the age of the (hmm) nameless heroine of the tale is hazy.

    I'd think that, if true, the date would have been noted by the family. Indeed, mightn't all other family events be dated relative to such a miracle? ie "When did grandpa die? Oh yes, it was the winter after Suzy fell in the pool. So it must have been around December of '97."

  39. Failed a CPR test? There's no CPR test. You take a course and get certified. If you don't demonstrate something correctly during the course, they show you right there. Even if he did do everything wrong, he still would have done enough. That's how easy CPR is. You can watch it on TV, get it wrong, and still have the same chance of saving someone's life. I know this is a small, unimportant detail, but being certified myself for four years now, it really irks me when people get stuff like this wrong to validate their stupid stories.

  40. The repetition of threes... First two boys, then Emily. This is way too common in myths.

    The repetition of threes is a mark of good story-telling, and therefore very likely to be a fabrication.

  41. Bruce, I don't have a problem with the age thing. I believe this story is being told by an older sibling. I dont know if I could reliably tell you when major events happened in my childhood. Besides, the major part of the "miracle" didn't happen until at least 3 years later with Emily's birth so they may not have taken note since it was, at the time, significant, but not miraculous. Plus, I bet if the sibling who submitted this story thought about it enough, or asked older family members with potentially more reliable memories, they might be able to give a more reliable age. I can understand where its not really a major point of the story. Would it make the story any more likely or change the significance if the kid was 3 or if the kid was 6?


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