The phrase "medical miracle" is a newsroom cliche. It means a situation in which a person makes an unexpected recovery despite great odds or a pessimistic prognosis.
Yet often the phrase is used much more broadly to describe a seemingly supernatural or paranormal healing or curing event such as faith healing. While to many people it may seem obvious that a miracle has occurred, in reality such miracles are rarely as impressive as they seem.
A recent segment on the popular ABC newsmagazine Primetime shows a good example.
A Canadian teenager named Adam Dreamhealer claims to cure cancer, coax the comatose to consciousness, and drive out infection. He has written books, sells DVDs, and offers seminars. Dreamhealer says he can heal people using his hands, mind, and mystical energies. Those who tout his powers include celebrities such as astronaut Edgar Mitchell and musician Ronnie Hawkins.
No good evidence
Many people continue to believe in miracle cures despite no good evidence that they occurred. When modern medicine fails to heal, many desperate people turn to unproven or "alternative" healers. What is the evidence that he can actually heal people?
Many of the miraculous "healings" attributed to Dreamhealer seem to be simply the result of misunderstandings, poor logic, errors in critical thinking, and the common uncertainty of medical knowledge. For example, one woman identified as Debbie believes that Dreamhealer saved her fiance's life. Her fiance Trevor was severely wounded in Afghanistan, and Debbie was told that Trevor probably would not recover from his comatose state. Debbie says she was convinced the doctors were wrong, and when she heard about Dreamhealer's self-proclaimed powers, she asked him to heal Trevor from a distance.
Over the next few weeks, Trevor did indeed begin to gain consciousness, an improvement that Debbie took as proof of Dreamhealer's powers. "The doctors said that he wouldn't recover, so to me, that's a miracle," Debbie said. "It's a miracle that he's still alive." Yet of course medicine is not an exact science; doctors can only go by the patient's condition at the time of the evaluation, which may change at any moment. Patients may get better or worse for any number of reasons. Doctors' prognoses are often at least partially wrong, so the simple fact that that Trevor defied one doctor's expectations and came out of his coma is hardly a miracle.
Although Dreamhealer claims (and Debbie believes) that he healed Trevor, it seems the "healing" has been far less than miraculous. Instead of a full recovery, Trevor remains gravely ill.
This case illustrates a common logical error in thinking, one that has Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of it").
Debbie assumed that because Trevor regained consciousness after Dreamhealer said he "healed" him, Dreamhealer caused Trevor to come out of his coma. But it is likely that Trevor would have emerged from the coma with or without Dreamhealer's efforts; people emerge from comas all the time without any psychic or "special healing" efforts. To find out if Dreamhealer's powers helped, we would need a control group: two sets of patients in the same condition, only one whom received Dreamhealer's "healings." This of course would be difficult and expensive to do, but it is the only way to verify powers such as those claimed by psychic healers.
Despite the fact that Dreamhealer has never proven his healing powers under controlled conditions, he claims that what he does can be explained by science.
According to the Primetime segment, "There are physicists who believe there's something to this," including astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who says he recognizes the science in Dreamhealer's work. "It's about channeling energy and resonating with the person. The principles of quantum physics explain many of these intuitive mystical aspects of attention and intention," said Mitchell, who (despite being introduced by Primetime as a physicist and a "doctor") is neither a physicist nor a medical doctor. While Mitchell may recognize the science behind Dreamhealer's powers, the medical establishment doesn't. In fact, many such studies have tried to find this effect, and all of them—including those involving prayer—have failed.
The impression of a miracle can be created by something as simple and common as a misdiagnosis. There have been cases where a doctor mistakenly diagnosed a patient with a disease. The patient then went to a psychic healer who claimed to cure the problem, and later X-rays or surgery confirmed that the person was in fact disease-free.
This can seem like powerful evidence, but instead of considering that the initial diagnosis might have been wrong, the patient assumes that the miracle cure was effective. Or, when giving a patient or family a prognosis, doctors may err on the side of bad news to avoid giving them false hope. It is better, they reason, to have the patient get good news if they were wrong (and recover unexpectedly or "miraculously") than bad news (and not recover when expected to).
In the end, of course, the results speak for themselves. Despite opinions to the contrary, the people that Primetime featured were hardly cured by Dreamhealer; one woman's affliction got worse, another's cancer came back, and the other two are still seriously ill. While some people who go to such healers improve briefly (either because of the placebo effect or because their symptoms go into remission), most end up just as badly off as before (or worse, if they have stopped medical treatments).
Though modern medicine has a spectacular track record of success (from stem-cell research to polio vaccines and cardiac surgery), it is not perfect, and patients should realize that doctors are only human. The fallibility of medicine is not a reason to reject modern medicine. It takes more than a faulty lab test, X-ray, or diagnosis to create a medical miracle. Real miracle cures are the result of careful, hard work by scientists, doctors, and medical researchers.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.