Indre Viskontas – The Miracle Detective

October 03, 2011

Indre Viskontas is a neuroscientist, a soprano, and a skeptic. She is a host of the television show The Miracle Detectives that recently aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Indre appeared as the scientific investigator pitted against “believer” Randall Sullivan, author of the book The Miracle Detective. The show investigates claims of “miracles”; from supposedly miraculous dirt believed to cure cancer, through to a beam of light in a hospital alleged to be an angel of mercy.

In this interview with host Karen Stollznow, Indre talks about her experiences on the show. She tells us which skeptical messages were communicated to the public, and which ended up on the cutting room floor. She discusses how the audience responded to the show; the fact she has influenced viewers in a positive way, but that people are still very reluctant to relinquish their beliefs. Indre also ponders the dangers of these beliefs.

Lastly, Indre explains how to convince people to think more critically, and how to capture a large audience without sacrificing skeptical principles.

Indre Viskontas will be speaking at this year’s CSICon in New Orleans, October 27-30.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, October 3rd, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and the grassroots. My guest this week is Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist, skeptic and soprano. Indri is a host of the television show The Miracle Detectives that recently aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The show investigates claims of miracles, and she appeared as the scientific investigator in Dré will be speaking at the upcoming Psychon, a conference dedicated to scientific inquiry and critical thinking to be held in New Orleans this coming Halloween weekend. 

Indri, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thanks very much for having me. 

Now you’ll be appearing at the upcoming Psychon, talking about butling bias. Convincing audiences to think more critically. And you were one of the hosts of the television show The Miracle Detectives that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. In your experience with the show, what are some of these biases that we’re battling? 

Well, I think when people try to make sense of the world, in particular, when things are frightening or or there’s a notion that life is random and that at any given time, something terrible can happen to you. 

We try to battle that by believing in a world in which things are fair, just or that there is someone looking out for us or that everything’s going to turn out OK for us. In the end. And so if you wander around the world with that bias and you see something inexplicable, it makes sense for you to think that that inexplicable thing was caused by whatever it is it’s looking out for you. Whether it’s fate or God or just a general justice in the world. But when things happen that aren’t that that seem odd to us, we’re we’re often very quick to try to make sense of them within that framework. And so that that that. So a miracle, detective, we were really interested in looking at people’s experiences, who who felt that whatever had happened to them was evidence that there was someone looking out for them and that that side that this was beyond what’s possible, the natural world. 

And one of the things that I think that people believe is that whatever the sort of simple explanation is, even if it involves some pretty wild assumptions, like the fact that there is a God and that there is a just God and that that just God cares about you and would change the laws of nature in order to help you. It still sounds much simpler to say. Well, I can’t explain, you know, why it is that my child recovered from this rare disease. So I’m going to attribute it to this one line explanation, which is that, you know, God is looking out for me and helped to help us through this. I think our job as scientists is to point out where those where those assumptions really fall down and what it is. But we can explain and then what we have to leave up to chance or will be have yet to explain. And oftentimes, I think people just don’t realize how many assumptions are required in order to sort of make their beliefs viable. 

That make any sense? 

Absolutely. And I was going to add as well that I think skeptics would see the simpler explanation as being a natural explanation. 

That’s right. Well, in the sense of and by simple, I don’t mean by simple. I just mean in this case, you know, sort of how difficult is it to explain the thing in in words or notions. So on the one hand, it’s easier to say God did that than to say, well, you know, it was fun that was shining through this particular window that bounced off that that shiny thing, which then, you know, that explanation takes a lot more steps to do. So I don’t mean it’s necessarily the one with the fewest assumptions. It’s just simpler to say God did that. But that requires a lot of assumptions. If we go with the the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions, then and it’s also based on the things that we already know that in some ways that is the simplest explanation. But it’s usually the one that takes the longest to tell and it’s the one that takes discovery and that takes investigation. And that was really my job on Miracle Detective to try to investigate, to get the full story to to do the research and figure out what it is that we understand how much of it we can explain and then delineate the parts of the story that we can’t yet explain. And, you know, make some educated guesses on how those things might have happened. But one of the things I struggled with, and I guess is why I brought it up right away, is that often people would say, well, but, you know, your explanation is taking too long and you have to go through all of these things to just explain to me how light works and how light bounces off things. If I just say, but God sent an angel. That’s easy for me to grasp. And I can understand that. And you know. You know what I mean. And so I think that was one of the struggles that we as skeptics or scientists really faith, is that we have to learn to make our stories compelling. And we have to make the stories compelling by simplifying some things that can be fairly complicated concepts, but without compromising the infamous. And so that’s always a scientist’s job when they’re talking to people outside of their field. As you know, we study things that are very complicated because those are the interesting things in life. And we have a whole language of a vocabulary with which we talk about that thing with our colleagues. And when we turn around and talk to someone who doesn’t have the experience that we have in terms of studying this thing, we need to be able to talk to them in a way that they can understand, but that we’re not compromising what we know, what we know absolutely in by proficient. 

You’re a neuroscientist. How did you employ this expertize in the show? 

You know, I used neuroscience a lot and in particular for the psychology training that I have, the background that I have in and in the way that in understanding the way that people remember things, because a lot of times we were looking at really eyewitness testimony as one of the main sources of information about the event that we were exploring. So the fact that I know a lot about how memory works and how fallible it is and what kind of biases we bring to the table when to remember. I think that really helps me know how to question the eyewitnesses and also to be able to tell fact from from fiction, from where they’re things that actually had happened vs. the things that they remember or that they conflate from other memories or from retellings or information that they gathered from sources after the events like photographs or other people’s stories. So that was something. So what might my sense of memory really helped me a lot in terms of the interviewee, of the people that were involved in the experiences. But also I was very cautious to get to know people’s biases and what it was that was driving them, motivating them to remember or to tell the story. And of course, we know that our motivations and our beliefs affect the way we see the world. And, of course, the way that we remember the world, our mood today is going to affect what it is, what aspects of a memory that we’re going to recall. And so so knowing that in this in a lot of these cases, there is a real motivation for people to see the event that they had experienced as affirming their faith in the divine or the supernatural. I knew that I had to be very careful in terms of interpreting what it is they said, because I knew that that they are coming with that motivation already. You know, in in the conversation and then in other ways, too, you know, there are a lot of things like, for example, one of the episodes we were we talked about Carrie Dolia, which is when you look at an abstract or ambiguous figure and you see some meaning in it. So a lot of people who are religious might see the face of Jesus or the Blessed Virgin or some other kind of religious icons. But we also we are we are attuned to see faces in particular or animate objects in inanimate, ambiguous figures. I mean, and you can imagine how that could be adaptive, right? If you’re if you’re wandering around in the forest and you have this bias towards seeing faces or animate things in the forest. In terms of out of the shadows, you’re much more likely to be cautious and perhaps even correctly identify a present, a potential predator or prey. Whereas if you just think that everything that you see, that the shadows is inanimate and it’s not going to hurt you or is not worth looking at in terms of food, then maybe you won’t be as likely to see that that one element that that could really get into your survival. 

And I wanted to say as well that it’s really important that there was a real skeptic on this show. Otherwise we were misinterpreted. And it seems like for once, there wasn’t just a token skeptic that was appearing at the end as you were one of the hosts. But I wanted to ask overall, do you think that the show gave equal time to a critical view of the claims? 

You know, I think that I’m biased because I’m the one who is on the show. 

And there are definitely moments when I felt like I had made an argument pretty strongly and somehow it got left on the cutting room floor. 

But I also understand that the they have to make a television show. And two, if you know, if it turns out to early on in the episode that I discover something that that really can explain a lot of the mystery. There’s no show. You know, people are going to tune out and they’re going to change the channel because the mystery is solved in these kinds of shows. 

And, you know, in general, I think it’s very it’s. Nature to enjoy a mystery and to enjoy the feeling of the journey from not knowing to knowing. Especially, I think, for a skeptics. I think some people prefer to leave the mystery even at the end. 

And so I think that, you know, the the editors did a very good job in terms of giving me time to make, you know, make my case. And I felt it for the most part. They were fair. 

And and we had you know, I think I was able to make a case for most of the episodes of an alternative explanation that didn’t require an effort from the supernatural. I think, you know, I’m sure that they’re being in shows like this. You always film much more than you can keep in the episode, of course. You know, we filmed something like 40 hours for a 22 minute episode. So while there was a lot of things that had to get cut, I mean, there are there were entire interviews that I did with people that never made it onto the show. One in particular with Elizabeth Loftus. I remember, you know, an expert at eyewitness testimony. Yeah. And and a really great person. And we had a really great interview. And I was you know, I was really confident that that was going to make it to the show. And then it just turned out that, you know, it didn’t make it. 

It was because that the editors and the producers just felt like that information had already been covered in a previous shot that that they had to use. So know a lot of it. I felt like I don’t know how much of it was necessarily just due to the very medium, the nature of the medium itself that, you know, in television you have to tell your story and a lot less time than you would like. But, you know, then and then there were also times when I felt like, you know, this is the Oprah Winfrey Network. And so there already is this the in the audience, there is a desire to believe in miracles. And so I did feel like there were some times when, you know, the choices were made to make this, you know, make the stories. Me make my position somewhat less compelling. And in those in those cases, actually, I felt like that happened in times where in my life, in my experience and what I was feeling during that particular taping, there’s one case in particular that I thought it was a slam dunk, like there was no way people were going to believe. But you know, that this is supernatural. 

And so I kind of you know, I just took it for granted that that was creepy. And I was maybe a little less a little a little not careful enough in terms of how I framed my comments. 

Every time I kind of glossed over certain things that I just thought were self-evident. 

And then if you can ever expect that. 

Yeah, exactly. And then and then when I saw the final edit, I was it just made me look like I’m coming out of nowhere. And then I was more militant and close minded than I had been. You know, that I felt that I really am. So, I mean, I was that was kind of the danger. But, you know, I think that it’s important, too. Well, I you know, I know that I wasn’t one of the producers of the show, but my co-host was my co-host with a producer and Ms. 

Cleaver. It shows in the shower. 

Yeah. So, you know, it’s like I don’t have as much. I did I didn’t have any any clout in the editing room. Hand. They did show a lot of times where, you know, I made some good points. And we had some good investigative work with you. 

Ben Radford. 

And and, you know, a lot of other cases with. Yeah. Jim Jim Underdown to enjoy Necla. 

Mm hmm. 

Yeah. Joe Nicole and I felt like, you know, they showed those the aspects and they showed our our results. And so, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of comments from people who have watched the show who, you know, who want to believe, but, you know, found my position compelling. And, you know, some people are angered by that. They don’t they don’t like being, you know, and so they lash out at me. And other people have been very, very sort of nice and saying, look, you know, I you know, I want to side with Randall, but I find myself fighting with you some of the time. Thank you for opening my mind, but making me see the other side. So I feel like all in all the editors, you know, in the end they want to make great television show. And I think by having both sides of the story, that makes a better show than just having one side or the other. And I hope that this sort of move, the sort of skeptical movement forward in the sense that producers or other people who watch the show who are involved in the television industry will see that it is possible to have a skeptic on on a show that is a well-rounded person that isn’t just sort of one dimensional and kind of a cartoon character, but that rather is thoughtful and considered, you know, different avenues. 

But in the end, you know, makes a compelling case for why this isn’t evidence of the supernatural. 

I agree. It was really important to have to be represented by a true skeptic. And I wanted to say that in each case, it seems like you argue that the the evidence doesn’t support the belief that a miracle has taken place. But you don’t directly deny that a miracle has taken place. So I was wondering if this was one of those things to maintain a sense of mystery in the show, or was it something that ended up on the cutting room floor? 

Well, no, I actually think it was being curative to what science is all about. And in science, you know, we we really work at trying to see the world as it is. And we set out a hypothesis, which is our best guess at how the world is. And then we design experiments to see if we can disprove that hypothesis. Right. It’s very rare that we can say, look, this is how the world is. But it’s much. But but the way the world works is that we’re able to say, look, it’s probably not these 10 things. And that leaves this one thing that is sort of the most parsimonious, you know, the simplest explanation that likely is the true one. But until some evidence comes around that disproves that hypothesis. We’ll hold onto it. But we’re going to keep our minds open and we’re not going to, you know, just outright say one way or another how the world is. And so, you know, that that’s that’s been my my training in science has always been that way. That is that we put forth theories which we expect will change. And that’s the beauty of science, is that we’re not tied to some dogma, except, of course, in our belief in the power of the scientific method. But even that has changed over the years. 

It has gotten you know, we’ve gotten better and better at using logic to support or to want to understand the mysteries of the world. 

So I can’t say that I really can’t say that there is no God and that there is no supernational there is no divine intervention. I can only say that there is no evidence to support that claim. And that, in fact. Whatever it is, this mysterious thing that we’re trying to explain can be explained with things that we already know exist or how they work. So so I and I and I was pretty. I’m pretty. I still am pretty adamant about that. One of the problems with sometimes the way skeptics approach these these problem is these these issues by saying, absolutely, that’s not a miracle or that or that can never. Or God doesn’t exist. All of those things you don’t know that just just, you know, just in innocence. As far as we don’t know, a lot of we don’t know that there isn’t extraterrestrial, you know, sentient life out there. We’re pretty sure it’s not communicating with us. And that, you know, we’re not involved in it in any kind of intimate way. But. The real reality is that we don’t know. And so, you know, I think once you admit that there are things that you don’t know that opens you up to to investigation. And so so, yes, I don’t. And I. And so I think that that was important. Always committed to delineate what it is that we know and what it is that we don’t know. 

Mm hmm. I think people have different interpretations of what a miracle is as well. 

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And and, you know, I think for a lot of people think, oh, well, OK. So miracles just gonna be, you know, just something that we can’t explain or that has supernatural or. And then other people believe that there must be a component of God involved that has to come from a divine benevolent force that that is greater than all of us. And so that was one of the things that I think my co-host, Randall, and I struggled with a lot is that do you go with the definition of miracle, as you know, put forth by the Catholic Church, which is, you know, one of the big experts on miracles, self-proclaimed, or do you go by what the general layperson believe is a miracle? Or do you do you just go by what a lot of scientists think of miracles? You know, we talk about the miracle of birth. It is it does seem miraculous that, you know, healthy babies are born every day because all these things have to line up for that to happen. And when you think about all the different ways in which that the the from conception to birth, things that can go wrong. It does feel miraculous that it gets good. You know that if it’s right most of the time. And that’s that’s really where I came from. My father shows that, you know, I didn’t I didn’t see, you know, I guess a lot of things that were explained completely scientifically to me still seem miraculous and amazing. But that doesn’t mean that they involve the supernatural. And so I had to be very careful on the show to define my, you know, miracles for me as having to involve the supernatural, because otherwise, you know, I would say, yeah, that survival of a child with cancer that’s in this very way that, yeah, that is a miracle. It’s just it’s explainable. 

I think he did a very good job of making of making the distinction between medical miracles and supernatural miracles. So I think I made that very clear. But Randall Sullivan, maybe not so much. And he he’s your co-host and he plays The Believer. He’s a believer. Well, do you say that he was convinced from the outset that these were all miracles? He seemed very movable. 

Yeah, he yeah. I was surprised by that. I had to say he. You know, I don’t know whether it’s you know, I think I think there are a lot of things going on with Randall and his motivations for for, you know, what he believes he himself experienced what he calls a miracle, which was essentially a vision when he was in a war correspondent in Bosnia. And so I think that a lot of cases, you know, people that he wrote about this miracle in a book called The Miracle Detective, actually, and which was one of the basis for the show. And so I do feel that like, you know, as he approaches the world, he wants also to validate his own experience. And so as such, he’s sort of much more open to accept someone else’s experience of being miraculous because then that validates his own. And so and there were definitely times there are a couple of episodes where he really felt like, oh, this is definitely not a miracle. But again, I guess people, you know, whether it was him or be precursors that were, you know, working with him or whatever, that they decided, no, no, you need to you need to sort of stick to your guns on on the fact that this might be a miracle. And so, again, like, there are definitely moments where, you know, our conversations he would he would admit, you know, oh, you know, maybe not even on camera. Oh, this you know, this doesn’t feel like a miracle to me. But when I noticed the final cuts of the episodes, a lot of times that kind of conversation was cut short. 

You know, I don’t I don’t know. I don’t know how much of that was his decision versus, you know, the editor’s decision versus the decision of the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Of course, I also have to say, I don’t think you’re cut. 

So it just seemed most of the time, like you had to prove that these things didn’t exist rather than to prove that they did exist. 

Yeah. I mean, you analysis listen, was what was really interesting about the journey in the show for me is that I approached the show with the perspective that the burden of proof is not on me, you know, because I’m not the one going thing, you know, making all these assumptions about the supernatural. 

And yes, hopefully time and time again, it seemed like that was the burden of proof. It turned out that it was on my shoulders. But, you know, he would just say. But, of course, it is a miracle that I knew it. Right. I would say, well, a whole lot about it. There. Where’s the evidence of this? And so, you know, we get into these long conversations. A lot of it was semantics, too, about like, what do we know? What are we calling America? What are we not? 

So, yeah, that’s why I tried to be very definitive about the way that I worded my statements, is that, you know, this this is not evidence of the supernatural. 

But what is easy is a myth busters, I think. 

Yeah, I think so. I think so. Because the myth that there’s really. Yeah. They have that there is a true or not. And and with miracles and also with Miss Myth Busters. A lot of the time I think, I think that they’re investigating are not quite so emotionally involved. 

You know, the things that we what made our show special, that we were really tackling these very controversial and very emotionally charged events. 

So we had to tread lightly. Just being human. 

And that’s another point I wanted to raise. I mean, these are fascinating stories at the same time. If these are miracles, they’re very mundane miracles. The show you talked about, miraculous Durrs and miraculous lights and things like that. But to me, the stories of remission and recovery were far more interesting. So to you, what are the dangers of people believing that their cancer was cured by miraculous death rather than being cured by chemotherapy? 

Yes, a huge danger. And, you know, I think I think that that that none of the people that we talked to that had experienced medical miracles issued traditional medical treatment. Everyone was adamant that whatever happened to them was in addition to what was going on medically. 

And they were very they they they really praised their doctors. And they really felt that that whatever happened to them happened in it. You know, as a result and if it were in addition to the medical treatment that they had. But you’re right that the problem is that there might be somebody watching the show who, you know, listens to the story and then feels like they don’t need the standard medical care. And instead, they can go off and and, you know, do this alternative treatment and hope for a miracle. And in fact, when I was on The Oprah Winfrey Show promoting our miracle affected, that they actually had us in the audience of an episode of an episode of her show that was just before the one that that we were gonna be on. And it was an episode with John of God. I don’t know if you know about him. 

I do. A little skeptic to India. Right. OK. So. 

So they told me the producers had told me in advance that that they were going to do this interview with Jonathon and that I may or may not be asked to come on stage, you know, give my opinion or, you know, about what’s going on. So I did as a good skeptic would or the good scientist would. 

I did my research. 

I looked up the claims that that people were making about him, like the fact that, for example, he does these surgeries and nobody ever gets sick, you know, even though it looks like he’s rusty instruments. 

So I did a lot of surgery. 

So it’s like it’s like he actually takes forceps. I mean, he actually cuts people with rusty forceps. And, you know, people are like, well, why? 

You know, it must be miraculous because nobody is getting infections. Well, they’re, you know, sort of they’re two two things there. One is that it’s a true that nobody’s getting infections. And the second thing is that, you know, what is the rate of infection? Would we expect people to be to get an infection in this kind of surgery? And so I I did some research on both of those effects and turned out both of them are interesting information. One. There are people who have reported getting gangrenous infections after surgeries that he has performed to. 

Except those don’t make the news. 

Of course not. And I would think most of the time he wouldn’t actually be cutting people. He wouldn’t be doing the most. 

You’re most of time, you’re right. But he does. There is a substantial number of people that he does cut. 

And and but when you think about oh, so let’s say out of you know, if I say I think it’s about 10 percent of cases that come to him, he actually does cut typically. So it’s so. And then so what proportion of those that you expect to get infected? Well, the rate of infection are pretty low. But our standard of care and hospitals are pretty stringent. So if you get even if you get one or two infections in a hospital that can be completely attributed to the surgeon, you’re going to have malpractise suits on your hands. 

Absolutely right. 

So are are standards are very high in this case. 

And so it turns out that it’s pretty rare that even when you know, even even if if you don’t use particularly hygienic instruments, it these rates of infection are still fairly rare. That doesn’t mean that one of them is OK. 

And you wonder what kind of recourse these people would have if they were, in fact, infected. I think they’d probably just stop, treat themselves one way or another and not raise it and suddenly it wouldn’t sway their faith. 

That’s right. Well, I’ve seen I think it with. I mean, one of the people that I read about that did sway their faith and John of God. 

But the power movement, you have so much cognitive dissonance that occurs when when you experience this. 

Right. If you if you give up a bunch of money and you pay a bunch of money to go to Brazil, or you’re even if you’re already in Brazil, you know, you leave your your friends or family or whatever to go and see this man. And then you come away with an infection. You must feel very foolish. Right. Because, you know, you’re it just seems so ridiculous. 

Invested a lot into it. 

Yes. So if that happens to you, you have to change your whole worldview. And either you have to decide that you have been foolish, which most of us, most of us are. 

It’s very difficult for us to do to admit that we’ve we’ve been foolish or you have to, you know, reinterpret the evidence within your former framework and and believe that maybe you just didn’t follow his instructions to the letter and what he doesn’t. He asked people to not drink alcohol and not have sex for 40 days. And I mean, there he asks people a lot in an order. And, you know, it’s a part of the treatment. And so they’re very it’s very easy to. 

And one of them, you know. Yeah. And Marea, the blame on that. 

Then you put the blame on yourself. Exactly. And so you think, well, you know, I got this infection because I, you know, had a beer with my family or whatever, you know? So. So anyway, so that’s the part of my story with that. When I was when I was preparing for this interview and I’m really thinking about these medical miracles. Kerry, during the taping of the John Shook got episode, there was a woman who came went on the Oprah show and talked about how she her mother had died of breast cancer. And it was hereditary for early onset. And she was diagnosed, you know, in her late 20s, early 30s. And she decided that instead of getting treatment, she would go see John of God. And, you know, there she was a couple of feet in front of me, telling the world how she had decided not to do a traditional breast cancer treatment. And she was in stage four. And it was it was it was so sad for me. And I it made me so angry because I thinking, here’s a person who, you know, her cancer was caught early. They knew that she was she was a candidate for it because it was predatory. And her mother had it. And she watched her mother die of it. And because her mother she watched her mother suffer, obviously through chemotherapy and all the other difficult aspects of cancer treatment. She decided she didn’t want that. You know, she didn’t she didn’t want to go through that pain and suffering, which is which is her own decision. But the fact that, you know, she would then go and choose this alternative treatment. And it you know, as opposed as completely a who said her medical care was really it just made me feel sick. And Oprah actually called her out on it, too. You know, in her defense, she did say, look, you know, do you think that was the right decision? 

It’s one of the rare times here. 

But I did feel like, you know, there but there was also nobody on the panel that day that really called into question the person. 

That’s a very sad story to you. 

I mean, it yeah. It made me really angry. 

And I think that’s how a lot of skeptics feel. That’s why we’re so passionate about these topics. 

Yeah. Yeah. 

And we’ve just been talking about the audience’s reactions to the miracle detectives. And I’ve read some of the viewer comments on Oprah dot com. And unfortunately, it often seems like many people are more skeptical of you than suddenly skeptical of the claims. And you called it a dream killer. And you’ve got a lot of people who support you as well. But I just wanted to read a couple of the comments and I’d ask you to comment on them. One person said that I really enjoy watching this show. However, I’m disheartened each time it seems as if there were a miracle. And Indri always seems to come up with a scientific explanation. I’ll continue to watch your show. I do enjoy it, but some things are better left unexplained. So what do you think this tells us about how we need to get our message across? 

Well, I think. Well, I think I think there are two things. One, I think that we have to pick. We have to pick sort of wisely what it is that we want to investigate. 

And sometimes people do want a little bit of mystery left left out there. And so we can pick topics that are more that are less mundane, perhaps in some of the miracles we we investigated. And there will always be room for people to put in their own, you know, to look for that mystery to be left. Right. I mean, there are things in the world that are unexplainable. And so I think it is important to pepper shows in which we explain things with episodes in which we do say, look, you know, there’s this big aspect out here that we can’t explain, which doesn’t mean that we are not it, that it’s a reflection of how good we are or how smart we are or how good our methods are. It just means that the world is mysterious. And, you know, there’s there’s still a lot to learn. 

Well, it seems like a lot of people who want to reinforce their beliefs by watching a show like this rather than have anything explained. 

Yeah, but I think that I think that there might be a proportion of people that react that way. But, you know, you always have you always have to remember who would have who that that goes and writes these comments on the Oprah dot com. 

Right. Right. None of that matters. 

People who watch the show are not writing in on these comments. It’s a very self selected small percentage of the viewers know. What we really have to look at is the ratings, you know, of people watching the show. Are they doing it again and again? 

Again. That, to me, is much more interesting than, you know, a couple of comments. And you have to remember that these people who are making these comments do not make television shows. All right. But everybody thinks they’re an expert because they want to television shows. 

I think it gives some interesting insights, though, into the the mindsets of the people who watch these shows there. 

Absolutely. No, I totally agree. I totally agree. And I think I think that person is right in the sense that, you know, it it is like we’d like to watch the show, have a little bit of an element of mystery. But at the same time, I think that there are a lot of people that really want know that, like the explanation. And so I think there’s room for both kinds of shows. I think there are there are shows there’s a lot of like crime and courtroom drama show on television these days. And there are shows like Lost her friends that leave a lot of things unexplained and they have their viewers. And then there are shows like Law and Order or or other shows that sort of everything is tied up neatly in a bow at the very end. Right. 

And then it’s like both shows, too. 

So I think there are audiences for both types of shows. And I think, you know you know, on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to try to capture both audiences by producing a show in which sometimes there’s an ending that’s nicely tied up and other times there’s an ending where it left more open. But, you know, I don’t know whether that’s a mistake and whether it whether really we should be targeting one audience or the other. 

Yeah, well, I think what skeptics ultimately like to see are people’s minds being changed. And it seems like you are influencing viewers in a positive way. And I want to illustrate this with another comment that I read. It’s really challenged my perception of what is truly a miracle. I’m sorry that Ingres won me over with some of her views. So, yes, it does seem like you’re changing people’s minds. But do you think at the same time people are reluctant to relinquish their beliefs? 

Oh, absolutely. I mean, and, you know, watching one episode of a show vs. believing in something for, you know, 30, 40, 50 years, you know, those are not even odds. 


But I do think socialized into something. 

Yeah. And I think. But I do think it’s important that these people at least are recognizing that there is an alternate view and that their views can be shifted. And, you know, for me as a scientist or even, you know, as a skeptic, we know that that our views change with new evidence. I mean, that’s that’s the very nature of our thinking process, is that if there was really solid evidence of the supernatural, we would buy into it. 

It’s not like we don’t want to that that we don’t you know, we don’t want a world in which there’s supernatural forces at work. I mean, I think a lot of skeptics that I mean, you know, we we’d love we’re interested in these things. Right. 

We’d we’d load my evidence of Bigfoot. Exactly. Those Secich. Right? 

Yeah. Exactly. So I think that that’s sort of one of the differences between people who are who understand that their beliefs and their opinions can be changeable. And people who really haven’t had the time or the desire to explore their own beliefs. And so, yeah, I mean, I think that’s hard when you’re especially when the beliefs are like. Tied to your very sense of meaning and faith. And and, you know, for a lot of these people, their purpose in life. I mean, that’s that’s a big belief. And, you know, that’s that’s really it could be really catastrophic for someone if if their beliefs change. That’s not that drastic of fashion. And so that’s why. But I also think it’s important to, you know, investigate these these elements of faith. And a lot of the sort of religious. People that I spoke to both on the show and in my own experience in life, you know, the ones I resonate with the most are the ones who really understand that doubt is a very big part of faith and that, you know, exploring your beliefs and working through your doubt in some ways brings you closer to what it is that you believe in than leaving those thoughts and beliefs unexplored. You know, I talked to priests who really went through or continue continue to struggle with their belief in God. You know what I would say to them? You know, how do you how do you reconcile, you know, the suffering of innocence with this notion of an omnipotent, benevolent God? And, you know, they’ll they’ll answer very truthfully and say, I struggle with it every day. And that’s part of my faith to continue to struggle. There are a lot of other faith. You know, I guess religious people practice religion. Whoo hoo hoo ah. Scared of doubt. And you see that as a weakness in their faith. 

And, you know, I think that that’s that that’s something that the fore, in my opinion, should be explored further. 

And, you know, and like you said, these comments, you know, some of them are some of them are more hurtful than than others. And, you know, I’ve had to struggle with sort of my own. I grew up until I did. The show is a relatively private person about, you know, my own beliefs and my thoughts. 

And so it’s all gone now, pretty thin skinned. 

And now I, I might say this skin is much thicker. 

And when I get, you know, read of e-mails, like for people, they just repaired the 9/11 Miracles episode on Sunday at 8:00 p.m. prime time that, you know, that’s that’s an emotional thing for, I think, anyone to to consider. I was actually in Manhattan at the time, putting on a while, singing at a lady memorial concert for 9/11, showing my support for the people who had lost loved ones in the Twin Towers. And you know it just before I went on stage, I got this email from a woman who took the time to Google me and find my emails just not readily available and send me an insulting message about how she didn’t like my performance. And, you know, actually turns out she thought I was an actress and stuff. And, you know, it kind of it kind of reminded me of how a lot of these comments come from people who have clearly their own issues that they’re working through. And you know that that. So you take them for granted. But then there are other comments I’ve gotten from people like one woman in particular stands out in my head as someone who grew up in a very small Baptist community. No, I think so. A Pentecostal community should Pentecostal community, you know, where they’d speak in tongues. And they have all these kinds of rituals and snake handling and everything. 


And, you know, and she she said she said it wasn’t until I watched your show that I really had the courage to come out and say to my community that that I didn’t that I thought that they were sort of I was being mistreated and, you know, that it was it was a bad thing because, of course, they would sort of berate her if if she didn’t buy into the whole thing. And, you know, every church ministries, it’s different. And, you know, there’s some Pentecostal churches that are much more open than this one in particular. But, you know, I yeah, I think that even if I just helped a handful of people in that way or, you know, made them think about traditional medical treatment instead of the medical miracle road, then I feel very fulfilled. I think that’s great. 

And so you should I think even one person and it’s worth it. 

Yeah. Yeah, I totally agree. And, you know, certainly it’s been more than one. I you know, it’s been really interesting to see to obviously these are very controversial topics that people get very emotionally involved in them. Because if you look at some of the comments on on the medical detective blog, there are moments where, you know, people would say something negative about me or Rantel or whatever, and someone else would come back and defend me, you know, on the blog. 

And then these people would have the conversation about these very deep top topics. And that’s me. It’s more important for me to see people having the conversation than to win them over to my side, as it were, because in the end, you know what what someone believes? 

I mean, that’s that’s kind of it’s less interesting to me what they end up believing and it’s more insulting to me to see the journey in which they got there and that they’re actually questioning and thinking and and not just taking things at face value. 

You did pop on to the to the forum and in response to something that someone had said and you said it doesn’t matter what people end up believing, I just want to consider all of the alternatives. 

Yeah. And I and I really believe that. You know, people say, well, you know, I bet and you’ll see, you know, you probably notice a lot of comments. They really talk about why I believe Randall or I believe in Dré. Oh, it’s gonna stop. And that’s me is much less relevant that the fact that they actually thought about the alternative. 

I think learning how to apply critical thinking and learning how to think differently is very important as well. 

Exactly. Exactly. Trich, coming coming up with your own theory of what’s going on is a really valid practice. And that’s why I think we’re trying to you know, as a skeptic, scientists were trying to teach people how to think critically and how to evaluate evidence and how to really navigate a world in which people are ready to fool you or take your money and make you believe things that are true. Right. I mean, there’s snake oil salesmen everywhere. So especially in a free market economy like the U.S. is where, you know, there there’s a lot of different ways in which people can be parted with their money. 

Indeed. And so, yes, I think that that’s really you know, that’s a that’s really important. 

You know, I think learning the tools is just as important. But I really am looking forward to your talk, Psychon. I’m looking forward to meeting you and injury. Thank you for speaking with me today for a point of inquiry. 

My pleasure. Thanks very much. Care. 

Hey, this is Atomizing, the producer of the show, and I want to remind listeners that if you have not yet book your tickets for Psychon. Now, Psychon is an upcoming conference put on by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry. It’s this month, the 27 through the 30th. That’s Halloween weekend and it’s in New Orleans. Indre Viskontas. This week’s guest will be at Psychon, along with tons of other awesome speakers. We’re also doing a Whodini sans a costume contest. It’s going to be really great. So head over to sci conference dot org. That’s CSI Conference dot org and reserve your space today. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. You can find out more about Indri on her Web site, Indre Viskontas dot com, to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiries produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow