Friday, January 31, 2014

Spotting charlatans

When dealing with reputed healers and other reported miracles, how should we weed out the charlatans? I'm going to briefly discuss some criteria:

i) Let's begin by distinguishing ad hoc criteria from objective criteria. Here are some ad hoc criteria for assessing miraculous healings: complete, immediate, permanent, undeniable.

ii) The Bible has some classic criteria for distinguishing true prophets from false prophets (Deut 13:1-5; 18:15-21). This has some bearing on modern claims or claimants. Is the reported miracle in character with God's revealed nature? Is it a purposeful miracle or a stunt? Is it consistent with God's wisdom? Is the reported miracle consistent with prior revelation? 

iii) Does the report meet minimal standards of prior plausibility? Does it conflict with our understanding of how the world works? Of what's possible or implausible?

Obviously, our plausibility structure is indexed to our worldview. What's credible for a Christian may be incredible for an atheist.

iv) Is the claim consistent with other known facts at the time and place of the alleged event?

v) What's the source of information? Firsthand? Secondhand? Is there a reliable chain of testimonial custody? 

vi) Is this a memorable event? Is it the kind of event that observers normally remember? 

vii) Does the witness have an incentive to be truthful or untruthful? 

viii) Is the witness forthcoming or evasive? 

ix) Does the witness belong to small community and/or honor/shame culture where his livelihood depends on his reputation for honesty? 

x) Does the report enjoy multiple attestation? Is there medical verification? Is there a reasonable expectation that medical records would be available? 

Is it the kind of ailment that requires medical verification to confirm the diagnosis and cure, or is the ailment of a clearly public nature? 

Corroboration is useful, but not always necessary. We justifiably believe many things on the testimony of a trusted informant. 

xi) Finally, here's a useful analysis:


  1. Steve forgot to add flamboyant comb over or toupee as a possible indicator of a charlatan. However, many are making enough money "sheering the flock" that they can afford natural looking hair plugs. The miracle they perform is sheering the flock and miraculously turning their wool into hair.

    Elisha was a true prophet and was bald. The name "Calvin" means "bald. Therefore this infallibly proves that Calvinism is true. QED

  2. Elisha was probably shaved in mourning for Elijah. He'd be pretty young to be bald.

    1. There are some men who start balding as young as 20.

      Also, I'm obviously joking about being bald. There's no shame in being bald or wearing a wig. I don't want to make anyone feel bad if they happen to be bald or wear a wig or have had hair transplants.