Oprah Show on John of God: OMG

Potentially Harmful and Other Questionable Therapies

Monica Pignotti, PhD, discusses potentially harmful therapies and and other questionable mental health practices

Pseudoscience, Quackery, Michael Shermer, Orac, Oprah, John of God, Jeff Rediger, John Mack, Susan Casey, Richard J. McNally, UFO Abductees, Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Show, sleight of hand, James Randi, Harriet Hall, Dr. Harriet Hall, Dr. David Gorski

Oprah Show on John of God: OMG

November 18, 2010

After all Oprah has done over the years, all the Jenny McCarthy’s, the anti-vaccination people, The Secret, and other new age nonsense she has endorsed, I really and truly thought that nothing she could do would surprise me. However, after yesterday’s show featuring a man who is called John of God who people from all over the world, many with very high levels of education are flocking to a remote Brazilian town to see, hoping and believing he will heal them, I have been proven wrong.


I want to preface these remarks with the acknowledgment that over the years, Oprah has also done some very good work, her strength being when she exposes truly abusive situations such as her episodes on polygamous cults, battered spouses and other forms of abuse.

However, I was appalled at her show yesterday, where she featured John of God. I don’t know what Dr. Phil would have to say about all this, but to borrow his words from another context:

What on earth were you thinking, Oprah?

She claimed she was going to have skeptics on but the only one she had on was a psychiatrist who got himself immersed in the experience and became a true believer who in spite of his scientific lingo was quite obviously not considering the kinds of alternative explanations that would be all too obvious to any real skeptic with his or her thinking cap still on. This just goes to show that having high education level and credentials all too often is no protection against being taken in. With an Editor such as this, it is no small wonder that Dr. Harriet Hall’s skeptical column on medicine in O Magazine did not last.

The least Oprah could have done is have someone on like Dr. Harriet Hall, Dr. David Gorski (an oncologist who specializes in breast cancer and has a very successful skeptical blog), Michael Shermer, James Randi or Penn & Teller and given them a full half of the show to counter the BS presented by her own Editor in Chief of O Magazine who claims to have come into this neutrally yet obviously is now a true believer. The latter three as trained magicians could have given Oprah and the psychiatrist a lesson or two about what could be going on there with the so-called “surgeries” which are nothing new. The psychic surgery con is one of the oldest tricks in the book. At least that’s what I hope he was doing. The alternative is even more grisly to imagine. If he is not doing psychic surgery, then it is appalling that intelligent, educated people would be willing to turn off their thought processes to the extent where they would allow some man with a second grade education to shove long probes up their noses, scrape their eyeballs with a knife and cut them open with knives with non anesthesia or sterile precautions.

Oprah’s Editor in Chief, Susan Casey who wrote an article for O Magazine on her experiences with JOG, to anyone with a knowledge of the dynamics of how people get taken in by cults or other questionable practices, fits the classic picture of someone who is a walking target for such: a person who is going through a hard time in their life and looking for answers. People who get involved in these kind of things, contrary to popular belief, are not necessarily your stereotypical kooks. They are intelligent, caring, educated people just like Susan Casey who are in a crisis of some kind and looking for some kind of peace of mind. On Oprah’s website and on the show itself, Ms. Casey described how she had experienced the loss of her father, who two years later she was still grieving and experiencing depression.

Ms. Casey claims she came into this situation neutrally, but what does that really mean? Based on how she described it on the show, to her, being “neutral” seems to have meant turning off any kind of skepticism which she saw as a bias and a setup of some sort. She seems to misunderstand what skepticism is all about. Skepticism is open-minded but still having an active mind and engaging in critical inquiry. Skepticism means that the person making the claims has the burden of proof, being open to such evidence but also continuing to ask critical questions, not just turning off all critical thought, putting ones mind in “neutral” and surrendering to the experience as she appears to have done.

The guests on this show made it clear that the social expectation was that people could not allow themselves to have any doubts, if they were to be healed. Even so, most of the people were not healed, including a woman with breast cancer who refused all standard medical treatment and went to see John of God instead. She now has a diagnosis of stage four cancer and has been given by her doctors only a short time to live, but she still seems happy with her choice, which Oprah condoned.

The so-called “skeptic” was psychiatrist Dr. Jeff Rediger who was presented as a rigorous, scientific person who experienced it for himself and became a believer. In one video clip, Dr. Rediger’s chest was bleeding in the heart area, after he had witnessed one of the “surgeries.” When asked how this happened, he said he had no idea. I decided to look into Dr. Rediger’s background. Is he really the skeptic Oprah claimed he was? Here is his website. You decide. But wait, there’s more. Dr. Rediger has also been involved with the late John Mack, also a Harvard psychiatrist. Mack was known for his belief in UFO abductions. Dr. Rediger was interviewed by the BBC about Dr. Mack, but the BBC, unlike Oprah, had the good sense to have a real skeptic on, Dr. Richard J. McNally, a Harvard psychologist.

Whether John of God’s machinations were sleight of hand or something else, some of the people he performed these so-called healings on did claim that they were actually bleeding. After all, he was shoving long probes up people’s noses and even if he managed to avoid the brain and put them into the sinus cavity as Dr. Rediger suggested, this looks like a highly dangerous procedure where the risk of infection would be high. His followers claim that no one ever got an infection or was harmed by this, but when Oprah actually asked one of the few good questions in the entire show, whether anyone as followed up with these people to really see if they developed infections, none of her guests responded and she did not persist in getting an answer to this excellent question. Talk about a potentially harmful treatment!

The Oprah Effect is well known. Once someone or something has been featured on her show, it goes viral. Now, thanks to Oprah and her uncritical show, it is very likely that people will be flocking in droves, even more than they already are, to see John of God and submit themselves to his “invisible surgeries”. The very least she could do is devote an entire additional show featuring people who are skeptical and are genuinely thinking critically about all this. Oprah, you owe your public this much.

Details on the show including a full recap, can be read by going to Oprah’s Website. I don’t know if her producers are screening out critical commentary, but thus far, most comments are highly positive. If anyone has tried to post there and it has not gone through, I welcome your comments on this blog. It is truly scary to me that something like this would be allowed to go unchallenged.

I just posted a comment to Oprah’s article on this show. Let’s see if it gets posted.

Monica Pignotti

Update 11/19: There is now an excellent analysis of Oprah’s JOG show on Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog. Orac is a surgeon and an oncologist specializing in breast cancer, so his comments were particularly helpful in shedding more light on the issues at hand, although he noted that Oprah’s videos made it impossible to tell what was really happening in the so-called “surgeries”.

PS: Here is a video clip of Randi performing the type of “surgery” that looks very similar to that offered by JoG. Very entertaining and amusing when done by Randi on TV, but not so much when done on people who are truly desperate and/or gullible, by JoG.

I just noticed that on another WordPress blog, there is a very disturbing account by a JoG believer, that while driving to an Omega Institute event, she decided that she no longer needed glasses and removed them while driving without first going to an eye doctor to have an actual eye exam to see if this is actually the case and claiming that JoG restored her vision. Given that people can easily be deluded into believing their eyesight has improved and throw away their glasses when it has not really improved, this is another cause for concern. The safe and responsible thing to do would be, if you believe your eyesight has improved, go get an eye exam and see, but please, do us all a favor and not just remove your glasses while on the road without undergoing such testing.

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From → Critical Thinking, Pseudoscience


kelsie permalink

I am in the mainstream medical world… I just appeared on the cover of the National Headache Foundation Journal and I am not a quack. I have been to see John of God 3 times along with several friends who are MDs. We have all had profound healings. I personally know of 4 people who were healed of cancer and two of them were on death’s door… now, totally healed.

I remember about 10 years ago seeing something about John of God on TV and dismissing it that he was a fraud. Only when I was struck with a major life challenge did I open my mind to what is beyond the mind. So, as a very scientific person myself, I can understand why you dismiss this.

Yet, it is unfair to judge this if you have never been to John of God personally. It sounds from your blog as though you have not been. I would suggest you go and then write an article about your experience!



Eosine permalink

Evidence for the cured cancer? None… why do people tell stories that cannot be verified? You tell me.


Lily permalink

I agree with Kelsie. Until you have gone to see this John of God and had your first hand experience, then you can write all the close minded opinions that you have. Until then, they are all just opinions with no basis but your prejudice.


Monica Pignotti, PhD permalink

As this blog’s history shows, this is not the first time believers have attempted to use that argument, that one has to experience something to have a valid opinion, a notion I challenge.
Sorry, but no, I do not have to experience having a probe shoved up my nose, my eyeballs scraped with a knife, or have surgery performed by someone with a second grade education to know that this is a very, very bad idea and that is not an opinion without basis. It is a scientific fact based on the laws of human physiology. On the other hand, first-hand experience is accompanied by the biases people bring to it and no one is free of such biases, including the burning need to get answers and to believe.
My mind is very open, to actual evidence, not anecdotal experience. Experience can be deceptive. As the saying goes, it’s fine to have an open mind as long as you do not allow your brains to fall out as it seems happened yesterday on Oprah. It is the believers who have very closed minds to anyone who challenges their cherished notions.


Kainai permalink

What about the CT scans of a person with a cerebral aneurysm that was documented before their visit and then confirmed ‘gone’ after the visit? Isn’t that scientific evidence/suggestion that some sort of spontaneous regression occurred? I also understand that the same thing has happened with a glioblastoma.


Monica Pignotti, PhD permalink

I would need to have much more information than what you are providing about this anecdote. There are many possible alternative explanations. You assert that it was “confirmed” but do not specify how it was “confirmed”. If you mean before and after medical tests of some sort, no, that would not be compelling scientific evidence. Several questions would need to be asked and answered first, such as how often such things remit on their own, whether the person was receiving other treatments, what type of testing was done, whether it was done under controlled laboratory conditions and by whom, and much more. Actually, there is a program on Oprah’s new network that I do highly recommend called Miracle Detectives. The show features a believer and a skeptic/scientist. The skeptic/scientist, Indre Viskontas on that show investigates miracles and provides excellent examples of the kinds of questions that need to be asked before we can conclude anything is a miracle. I have to say that after seeing some of the “skeptics” Oprah has presented on her show, I was initially skeptical about Indre, but I have watched a few episodes and have to say, so far I am impressed with her and so far, the excellent job she is doing educating the public on what kinds of questions to ask when there are claims of miracles.