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CSICOP Response to Fox’s Signs From God: Science Tests Faith

Matt Nisbet

July 29, 1999

Program Aims for Ratings while Abusing Science and Exploiting Belief Systems

AMHERST, N.Y — The Fox television network’s airing of Signs From God (July 28) represented a new low in journalistic ethics. Subtitled Science Tests Faith, the program was actually a shameless promotion of a particular belief system through staged “miracles” and the cunning misuse of science. Given the Fox network’s embarrassing past history of programming fiascos that sensationalize the paranormal, “Signs from God” could be likened to a “religious alien autopsy.”<

Unsuspecting viewers were treated to a litany of provocative claims-bleeding statues, messages from Jesus, stigmata-that were “investigated” by Australian journalist Michael Willesee. Actually, although representing himself as a skeptic, Willesee betrayed an agenda to promote such alleged phenomena as authentic. Going beyond mere mystery mongering, he employed science in only a very limited way, repeatedly avoiding skeptical experts in the specific fields (e.g. people knowledgeable of “weeping” statues) and often bypassing the essential tests necessary to detect fraud. For instance, no doctor examined a stigmatist’s wounds and no attempt was made to keep her from inflicting them surreptitiously, but the blood was afterward tested and proved to be her blood - as expected.

Similarly, no scientific protocol was followed in ruling out trickery with a "weeping” and “bleeding” bust of Jesus; however, a dubious CAT scan was afterward employed “to test for the possibility of trickery or fraud,” and the blood was forensically examined. When it was found to be female blood, Willesee suggested that that might be due to Jesus’ having had only a mother and “no father.”

Such stubborness, or perhaps sheer ineptitude - or worse - kept the program from presenting evidence that was contrary to the claims being made. For example, the stigmatist, Katya Rivas from Bolivia, was never shown actually producing a wound, but rather was presented in incremental shots after each appeared: first the supposed crown-of-thorn marks on the forehead, then those of the hands and feet. Her bed covers provided ample opportunity for concealment. Moreover, the wounds on her hands and feet were comprised of multiple slash marks, not single punctures, while the location of the wound on the top of her left foot was far from that on the bottom, suggesting they were indeed made separately.

Many phenomena went totally unexamined, or the examination was not reported, including the appearance of an image of the Virgin on a concrete floor (looking like the work of an unskilled artist) and the multicolored “glitter” that manifested itself on a print of the Image of Guadalupe (a bogus but widely revered “miracle” picture).

Dubious evidence was hyped, while more prosaic explanations were glossed over or went unmentioned. Ms. Rivas, for instance, was shown producing an unusual "delta state” on an EEG, while a neurologist’s suggestion that there “could be epilepsy” was not further explored. And when an art conservator and a botanist each demonstrated that image-bearing rose petals had been faked (they even duplicated the effects by pressing petals with medalions), Willesee became flustered and tried to redeem the claim. He suggested fakery was unlikely because the “miracle” petals were not being sold, ignoring the possibility of what skeptics term “pious fraud” - deception used in an end-justifies-the-means manner to promote religious belief. Too little was heard from a scholarly Catholic priest who cast doubt on the various phenomena presented and suggested the possibility of trickery.

The uncritical journalism of Executive Producer Michael Willesee was surprising considering his earlier skeptical reporting on such topics as psychic ability, dowsing, and acupuncture. For these efforts, Willesee received in 1987 the Responsibility in Journalism Award from CSICOP. But in producing Signs from God both Willesee and Fox Television have shown a willingness to betray skepticism and balanced journalism in favor of ratings and profits.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.