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‘Getting People to Think More Deeply’

Interview

Sharon Hill

Volume 35.6, November/December 2011

An Interview with Miracle Detectives Scientist Indre Viskontas

Miracle Detectives is a new television series that examines miracle claims via a team of investigators—one a believer, the other a scientist. The show premiered with the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in January 2011.

The believer of the show’s team is Randall Sullivan, journalist and author of the book The Miracle Detective (Grove Press, 2005). Sullivan reportedly experienced his own personal religious event in Medjugorje, Bosnia. He is an avowed believer in the existence of miracles.

The adept foil for Sullivan is neuroscientist Indre Viskontas. Broadly trained in psychology, specifically in cognition, at UCLA, Viskontas specializes in the neural basis of memory and creativity. She is affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco, Memory and Aging Center and edits the journal Neurocase. (She is also an accomplished opera singer, having obtained a master of music degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.)

At least two miraculous claims are highlighted in each episode. The miracle detective team of Sullivan and Viskontas (a setup akin to Mulder and Scully in The X-Files) travels to the location of the event to interview witnesses and also consult with various experts.

Questioning witnesses who believe a miracle has taken place is as much of an art as a science. Viskontas employs both to examine the claims made by people who believe these events are miraculous communications from God. In this interview, she shares with Sharon Hill strategies and some insights into working in television.

Indre Viskontas

In the show’s introduction, you say, “Some would call me a ‘skeptic.’” Do you identify as a skeptic?

Would I call myself a card-carrying skeptic? No. I didn’t know of the whole skeptical community until I started doing research for the show. I hadn’t been involved in it previously, so for me to say “Yeah, I’m a skeptic too” seemed disingenuous. I know what it means to be a scientist because that’s what I’ve been trained to be. I don’t have a good sense of what it means to be a “skeptic.”

What is the scientist’s role on the show?

My goal is to get people to think more deeply about what they believe without threat or disrespect. The target audience is not exactly on “my side,” and so I have to walk a very fine line.

When I talk to people, I try to assess whether their stories are backed up by other evidence. I realize people are very susceptible to all kinds of memory failures. Misremembering things that happened, while at the same time conflating memories from similar but separate events, is very common. Of course, most of us are not very good at resisting the temptation to infer causality when two events follow each other closely in time.

What’s it like to do an episode and a whole season?

The shooting schedule was grueling. It was a twelve-hour day on camera. We’d shoot for twelve hours and then return to the hotel room, where I’d still have to do a diary cam session (talking about your feelings into the camera) and research for the following day.

Also, I’d be preparing for the next week’s case at the same time, so if I got six hours of sleep a night that was great. It was nonstop. I would do so much background research on each case, downloading and reading papers from PubMed, calling up colleagues, talking about the case with my husband, and so on.

For the interviews [with experts and witnesses], I didn’t always have enough preparation time, and sometimes I didn’t know what to expect. That’s part of the challenge on a show like this.

How do you go about interviewing witnesses who have a story about a miracle? How do you use that information?

I look to question witnesses in a way that gets around them just telling the story in the same way they’ve told it before. Instead, we try to access other information they might not share in the regular telling. They might have told this story a hundred times before. When you start to ask them questions about the event—things they aren’t used to talking about, other aspects they aren’t used to recalling—you can find out if what they are saying makes sense or if they are conflating multiple incidents or coloring the past with their knowledge of what happened after the incident.

I assume that people are telling me honestly what they remember, but when there is something out of the ordinary [such as an event they may attribute to paranormal causes] there are other ways in which I can corroborate their story. For example, I can look at a police report and at specific details of the account. Then I can get a sense of how accurate a memory is and to what extent the person’s recollection is faulty.

How does editing for television affect the presentation of the investigation? Have you been pleased with the editing?

For the most part I’ve been pleased. When you have a television show, you need to make a story out of [the content]. There was one episode about a medical intuitive where I felt that . . . [the editors] left out some critical components. We picked a subject with one salient complaint. The intuitive came back with a very long list of potential problems but no mention of that complaint. Many items mentioned on that list were cut out to save time, and the editors decided to keep the relevant bits in—that is, the ones that the subject felt actually did apply to him. They edited out stuff that seemed superfluous. But in the case of an intuitive, this is really problematic! When listing every possible symptom that a person could experience, you’re going to get some hits, but what’s important is the ratio of hits to misses—not simply the hits.

The editing is not designed to show that the skeptic is wrong and Randall is right. The goal is to make good television. Especially given the target audience, [the editors] do a good job. If I felt they were really skewing it, I would have left the show midway. But we have to remember that the target audience won’t watch a show debunking miracles, and what’s important here is to engage that audience, not simply to preach to the choir.

Is it hard to explain the science in a one-hour show?

It’s very hard; it’s one of the biggest challenges. What I say is, “The evidence suggests it’s most likely this thing over the other.” That’s not very satisfying to many people but it’s the truth. To say that God did that or it was some supernatural thing requires such a mountain of evidence.

What has been the viewer reaction?

The feedback has been mixed. I get emails from people who say they like my point of view. They’ll say, “Most of the time I find myself siding with Randall, but you’ve made me think about things that I hadn’t before.” Other times they’ll say, “Wow, I never really thought about that possibility. It’s changing the way I think about my relationship with God because maybe he acts in ways I never considered before.”

It can also be hard to hear the criticisms from the skeptical community, such as “You weren’t hard enough on him!” In some cases they’re right; there were better ways to do it. But I did the best I could, since one of my goals was to engage the audience, not be dismissed outright by them. I think in most cases I did a pretty good job of bringing things to the table that people hadn’t thought about.

To me, it’s not exciting to say, “This is not a miracle.” It’s exciting to say, “There is something here we hadn’t thought about before that’s worth investigating further,” or “Look how interesting the brain is that it can do this.” That’s what fascinates me.

How do you think skeptical/rational advocates can successfully promote their viewpoint?

I’d say don’t simply discount a person’s belief but find what it is that interests you both. For example, a Bigfoot print: Instead of dismissing it by stating that’s not what you think it is, bring up another discussion point. Find something interesting [to discuss] that doesn’t rely on the existence of a mythical creature or supernatural explanation. Perhaps you can find something in common that you can start out with: “Isn’t it odd that there is one footprint here and nothing else around it? How do you think it got there? What are possible explanations? Let’s explore and keep talking.” Once you dismiss them, you’ve lost them. They don’t want to talk to you anymore.

When you ask people questions that force them to come up with answers, they are much more likely to change their belief system if they realize these questions are unanswerable within their viewpoint.

They also want to talk about the experience. So, if you question and try to understand what they base their beliefs on, you can lead them in a direction to show them that their beliefs might be fiction, and you can also develop a rapport with them that will encourage them to trust you.

What are your future plans?

My goal in the future, through this show or other means, is to share my passion for life and to illuminate what I can about the human experience. Just as physicist Richard Feynman has observed, we can enjoy beauty at all levels of observation, from the microscopic to the abstract. Knowledge doesn’t take away; it only adds.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.