On Sunday, 10/05/98, and reprised on 06/01/99, the TV show 20/20 had a long segment about a woman with a sick child and many religious statues that appear to ooze oil, so much that she has attached cups to them to catch the overflow. This seemed to baffle the reporters. Many people have taken this as a sign from God that the sick girl has miraculous powers. The pious pilgrims come from far and wide to see the phenomena, often bringing their own sick relatives in the hope that they will be cured.
The 20/20 reporters claim that "the experts are baffled," "children have been cured of their ailments after the visit," etc. Who the "experts" are is not mentioned. The reporters looked in vain for plumbing, holes and contraptions near the pictures and statues, and found none.
If you really want to investigate a magic event, you need the services of a magician; 20/20 did not obtain one. Had they done so, they would have had a lot less of a baffling story, for any magician knows how this fraud can be done. It requires only two easily obtainable factors: a credulous audience and a perpetrator who can lie and act convincingly.
Although I cannot be sure that the following method is the one used, it has been used before and is the most likely explanation. The mother simply poured cooking oil on the statues/paintings when no one was looking! Very simple, not miraculous and easy to prove with a properly conducted videotape session.
Note that the request of the news crew to videotape the statues for a length of time was denied and a statue brought along by a Catholic investigation team (who have no knowledge of magic either) had oil on it after an overnight stay. A sample of the oil was analyzed by 20/20 and reported to be "75% olive oil, 25% unknown," not very miraculous. God uses olive oil? Another analysis of one sample by a Pittsburgh laboratory revealed it to be "80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken fat." God uses schmaltz? You want a knish with that?
Note that despite the reported cures of others, the sick girl is as much of a vegetable as ever.
If you wish to investigate this topic further, I suggest:
Here is magician and psychic investigator James Randi's comment on this TV show (reprinted verbatim from a public emailing, although the boldface emphasis is mine):
- The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on Miracles
- The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on Occam's Razor
- Mass Media Bunk
- Worcester bishop's preliminary findings, etc.
- Worcester bishop's preliminary findings as interpreted by a skeptic organization
- How Come TV Psychics Seem So Convincing?
- Book: Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures. 1993. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.ABC-TV's "20/20 Sunday" program last night was about 20/80. They featured the case of Audrey Marie Santos [Audrey Santo ?], a comatose 14-year-old girl of Worcester, MA, who is believed by thousands of persons to be interceding with God to heal them. The coverage was, in my opinion, biased and superficial, most kindly described as mildly skeptical.
This unfortunate little girl has spent ten years in a coma, following a swimming-pool accident, and is now displayed in the family home through a window for the faithful to adore. Seldom have I seen such a callous, opportunistic use of misfortune. The state pays for the three shifts of nurses who maintain Audrey's life support. She is fed intravenously, has breathing tubes inserted, and a respirator pumps at her body. Her only reaction to stimulus is that her eyes sometimes follow movement, and she grasps a finger placed in her hand. These are expected automatic reactions that newborn babies exhibit, and not, as the exhibitors would have us believe, signs of recognition by Audrey. Her legs and arms are grotesquely crooked due to "contractures," an expected result of being bedridden without proper therapy being applied. Audrey simply cannot manage without 24-hour-a-day care. It's such a heartbreaking situation, I'm not surprised that those who flock there to see her, come away emotionally affected. It was hard enough to take via TV.
The ABC interviewer oohed and aahed her way through an interview with the girl's parents. When the "clincher" for miracles was described – the presence of olive oil on some religious statues and holy pictures in the display room – she wonderingly turned a picture around to show the back of it, and said to the camera that there was "nothing there." Lest you think that's rather naive, I must tell you that I have been receiving e-mail and calls all day from [amateur] magicians – who should certainly know better – asking me how this could possibly be a trick, and if it is, how it could be accomplished! I have responded thus: when an artist shows a completed canvas, no one expresses astonishment about how the paint got there. The assumption is that the artist simply applied it, with a brush or palette knife. That was done in his studio, out of sight of the observer. Similarly, to get oil onto a picture or an icon, you can simply put it there during the 16 hours that the display room is closed and out of view or during any of the many periods during which Audrey is being attended to, and not on display. A squirt of oil takes only a few seconds. That should not be any sort of mystery.
The ABC commentary said that the presence of the oil has "baffled the experts." No, it hasn't. It's very simple to do. What "experts" do they refer to? A committee of "psychologists and clergy." I'm sorry, but I must ask: where is the expertise here? There is nothing here that indicates anything but a parsimonous conclusion: while no one is looking, someone puts oil onto the figures and/or pictures. Is there any evidence that this is NOT the explanation? No, none.
More importantly, is there any evidence offered in this case to show ONE healing as a result of Audrey's presence and/or intercession? No. Not one example. ABC-TV did cite the case of an 18-year-old boy who visited this shrine after serious leg damage, and showed him walking quite well. But they also mentioned that his doctors had given him a 75% likelihood of recovering from that condition, so we end up with zero supporting evidence – except for reports of phone calls and letters from persons who aver that they've been healed. No evidence.
Yes, the psychologists and clergy on that committee looked behind the pictures and found nothing, too. I'm not at all surprised, but I fail to understand their surprise. A report was made that a religious figure the committee brought with them "suddenly oozed oil." Were they there when this happened? No, they noticed it after it had appeared. The local priest, apparently a devout, well-meaning, and honest man, said that he has "not seen the slightest evidence of fraud" in this case. I remind him that he's also not seen the slightest evidence that the oil is not simply placed there.
I was interviewed here at the JREF for the "Inside Edition" program a few weeks ago, on the same case. They brought along with them a plaster figure purchased – for an incredible sum – from a local religious store. During the interview, I was asked about how oil could appear on such a figure. We examined the statue in detail, close up, and found it unprepared in any way. We continued the conversation, and then I asked the interviewer to look at the face of the figure. Olive oil was running down the face, dripping from the chin and from the hands of the statue. Without any closing of curtains, turning out of lights, or other subterfuge, I had accomplished something that appeared similar to the Audrey miracle. A moment later, a religious print in a frame showed oil flowing down its surface, too.
The oil that runs down the figures in the Santos home was analyzed by ABC. It was declared to be "75% olive oil and 25% unidentifiable." That's nonsense. A good forensic analysis would identify 100% of the substance.
But what really got me in this case was that there was no mention, anywhere, of how the Santos family supports itself and the poor little girl they are exploiting. There were no questions about offerings or fees asked of those who crowd the place daily. Nor of the very substantial fees that the parents ask, to appear on camera. This is a small industry, turning out a product that is of questionable merit, and no track record at all. A family tragedy is being used to make money, probably a very substantial amount, to judge from what could have been a much more complete and penetrating examination of a claimed miracle.
In closing, the ABC interviewer told the TV audience that their request to set up a surveillance camera in Audrey's room – to see if anyone applied oil to any of the artifacts – had been refused. The reason? The family preferred to await the conclusions of the church committee, which we are told may take "months or even years." I'm sure it will. My question: why would a surveillance camera in any way interfere with any investigation? In my opinion, that would aid substantially in an investigation, and perhaps save "months or even years" of time and expense.
Audrey Santos, my heart goes out to you. I wish you had been granted the dignity of an anonymous life, such as it is, rather than the circus that has been created around you.
– James Randi