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Brother Andre, a Holy Cross Brother in Quebec and whose personage is said to have healed thousands, will be canonized a saint tomorrow, October 17.

Color me skeptical. As part of the process for beatification on the road to canonization, the Vatican must verify that two (it is now one) miracles involving the subject has occurred. Two? A measely two? I would think that the Law of Large Numbers mixed with human nature will produce quite a few ‘miracles’. The association of a human figure up for canonization with a large sampling in which statistically unlikely events will always occur, especially when the sample size is increased by weird associations, like the oil from a lamp that Brother Andre used. Here’s one of the so-called ‘miracles’ as described in the Montreal Gazette:

The second phenomenon involved a 9-year-old who was cycling when he was struck by a car in 1998, said Father Claude Grou, rector of St. Joseph’s Oratory. The boy suffered severe head injuries and his parents were told there was no hope of recovery. Friends of the family prayed at St. Joseph’s Oratory, bringing a bottle of “St. Joseph’s oil,” a medal and a prayer card back to the parents, Grou said.

The oratory distributes more than 100,000 bottles of the oil annually. In his day, Brother Andre offered a bit of oil to the sick from a lamp that was burning in front of a statue of St. Joseph. He would tell them to rub it on their bodies and pray to St. Joseph to heal them.

Soon after the parents of the boy started praying to Brother Andre, “the healing started to come,” Grou said. “In a few days, he was no longer in danger of death, and in a few days more, they found he was recovering his faculties; he started to talk.”

The child’s parents were told that there was no hope for recovery? I doubt that. Neuroplasticity is a well-known phenomenon wherein the activity of the area injured can be taken up by an uninjured area. It is well documented in the peer-reviewed medical literature, and while not well understood, is not dependent upon prayers said or religious belief.

Some amazing things have been done to re-acquire lost function in recent years. For example, Paul Bach-y-Rata developed a device which did the work of a damaged vestibular system, which is what gives us our sense of balance. The subject’s vestibular apparatus was sending random signals to the brain which caused a complete loss of balance. The device transmitted balance information from the user’s tongue directly to the brain. Eventually, the subject no longer needed the device at all. This can only have occurred through the brain altering its own pathways to accomodate sensory input from an entirely new source to and ignore the scrambled signals from the old source of equilibrioception information. Is this a miracle?

Treatment of severely brain injured patients either through traumatic brain injury or stroke with progesterone can reduce mortality by 60% and greatly increase functional recovery because someone noticed that female mice fared better than male mice after experimental brain injury. In one case, the subject was one point on a standard score test from being declared brain dead. After three days of progesterone injections, this man recovered fully. Is this a miracle?

I am sure this child was given the best medical care, giving him the best possible chance of recovery. But to claim that this was a miracle would require that there be absolutely no chance of recovery and that there was never any treatment given. In other words, the child would have to be brain dead and then recover fully. Then you have my attention. Until then, I think it vastly more likely that it was the fruits of modern medicine which allowed this child a chance at recovery. But this ‘miracle’ brings to mind a piece by comedian Dara O’Briain that sums up the post hoc ergo proctor hoc logic fallacy that calling this miracle is: “We would sooner believe the story that our mother tells us about a woman she knew who had a headache, and then she rubbed a cat on the side of her head and the headache was gone the next day.” If you look for them, you can find a nearly infinite (if not infinite) number of such false cause/effect associations. In this case, the Vatican was looking for a particular association – no matter how ridiculously tenuous! – between someone that recovered from a brain injury and Brother Andre. If you look hard enough, you will find many such associations.

Here’s a ‘miracle’ which gave Canada its first domestic saint:

In 1987, hematologist Jacalyn Duffin, now a medical historian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was hired to review the files of a woman who suffered from acute leukemia. She wasn’t told anything about the case and assumed the review was related to a lawsuit.

It was only after Duffin submitted her report that she learned the Vatican had commissioned her study to verify the story of an alleged miracle attributed to Marguerite d’Youville. Founder of the Grey Nuns, d’Youville was recognized as a saint -the first born in Canada -in 1990.

“What the church was looking for from me was not to declare that it was a miracle, but to give a scientific explanation, and I didn’t have a scientific explanation for why she was still alive,” Duffin said. “If I could have provided a scientific explanation, then they would have moved on and looked for a different case.”

Oh, bother! Just because there is no explanation for a particular case does not mean that there isn’t one. Here we have – surprise, surprise! – another logic fallacy known as the Argument from Ignorance. Again, Dara O’Briain (I wish he’d cross the Pond and tour North America…) has something apropos to say: “Science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it’d stop. But just because Science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale that most appeals to ya.” Amen, Dara.

We are not told in this article which type of acute leukemia this person has, but with some investigation I found out that it was acute myeloid leukemia. With AML, 5 year survival as low as 15% (78% relapse rate), but as high as 70% (33% relapse rate), depending on cytogenetic factors which further subdivide the disease. While remittance rates complicate the calculation, we would expect from a 5-year survival rate of 70% for the most favorable form, survival after 10 years is even money. Survival after 20 years is still at least 20%. Even with the worst prognosis form of AML, 20-year survival would be expected to be 5/10,000, not 0. Talk to me when the subject who received the miracle is a 20-year survivor after verified diagnosis with acute erythroid leukemia, with median survival being about 36 weeks. But a 20-year survivor of acute myeloid leukemia a miracle? Even with the sub-type worst prognosis there will be 20-year survivors. I’m happy for the person, but, come on! The Vatican is just scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Stephen J. Gould was diagnosed in 1982 with having peritoneal mesothelioma and given only months to live even with treatment. This atheist lived for another 20 years, and died of a cancer completely unrelated to the first. I don’t see atheists or – Heaven forbid! – the religious coming out and claiming this was a miracle. When people are given a timeline for the end of their life, even the best people medical science has to offer are working from statistics. Gould realized that 50% of people died from his form of cancer within 8 months, but a significant percentage are still breathing long after most of those who share the disease are dead and gone.

The point is, the Vatican is going about this completely the wrong way if they are trying to convince people like me. Want to convince me? That’s easy. Set up a double-blinded randomized trial. Take sufferers of a particular form of cancer – one with poor prognosis across the board – and randomly (very important!) assign each patient that agrees to undertake the experiment to one of two groups. The first is the control – they get no prayers to Brother Andre from anyone and they get oil of the same composition as – but not from – Brother Andre’s stock. The second is the group to be tested for an effect: they get prayers to Brother Andre, they get Brother Andre’s oil. Neither group, nor anyone in contact with the patients knows which group any patient is in (hence both physician and patient are said to be ‘blind’).

With a large enough sampling, we can make the above experimental design more sophisticated. For instance, we can add groups (properly controlled, of course) who are only prayed for to Brother Andre or only given his oil; we can add a group that knows they are being prayed to Brother Andre for (the control group would only think they are being prayed for).

We then set out the null hypothesis. That is, prayer to Brother Andre and/or oil from Brother Andre’s stock has no effect on mortality or outcome than that for the control group. We then monitor outcomes of all patients and compare the group that received prayers/oil to the control. The sample size must be large enough to avoid Type I statistical error. That is, we observe a false positive effect. It must also be multi-site to ensure that there was not something funny in the methodology of any one study which might impact on the conclusions.

If, however, all the Vatican is attempting to do is “preach to the choir”, then they ARE going about it the right way. Their way is designed specifically to avoid the possibility of falsifiability, which is exactly why I have no respect for it. The strategy seems to be that the Vatican searches for unusual (but hardly impossible ones….) recoveries where an association with (but not cause and effect!) can be made. The Law of Large Numbers assures this will happen. Something very, very likely is not much of a miracle, now, is it? It is the appearance that a very likely event is associated with the personage up for canonization that makes it convincing to a good many people – only the application of critical thinking skills shatters the illusion. Why should it be that the recovery of the brain injured child or the leukemia survivor need be associated only with those up for sainthood? They don’t live as hermits, I’m sure. Look at the myriad of other possible connections that can be made with other people. Why is this one association the only possible one? Why should we believe any such association is responsible? I don’t thingk the Vatican would be responsive to such questions, no matter how valid. Even if they did, I’m sure their answers would be as vacuous as they usually are.

But this design is set up to not fail. It is a design based on post hoc ergo propter hoc with searching for associations of persons (no matter how tenuous, and this is tenuous indeed) with unlikely remissions or recoveries. Literally millions pray to Brother Andre for help with a wide variety of illnesses every year (2 million visit the Oratory itself to pray for loved ones alone). What of all the victims of traumatic brain injuries or leukemias who prayed and whose family prayed to Andre or d’Youville who didn’t beat the odds and died? Are those anit-miracles? And when a scientific explanation can not be given – and for specific patients who do recover this may be largely the case – we are then to turn to the supernatural? Nonsense. Something that is unexplained is – pause for the profundity – unexplained. Remissions happen. We are not always able to explain them in a specific instance. And we should not then fall into the Argument from Ignorance trap and proclaim that because we don’t know that we then do know and assign credit to a dead Catholic rather than where it should be. There’s a reason modern medicine doesn’t include appeals to demi-gods or gods in standards of care: Nothing fails like prayer.



  1. Good article. I would really like to ask the Pope why surgeons, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, police, paramedics, nurses, firemen and other professionals who perform miracles and save lives, in some cases almost everyday, aren’t all sainted.

  2. Another noteworthy aspect to this is the fact that the survivability of something like cancer has been going up. Better survival rates in general track with improvements in science-based medicine.

    If we can safely assume that the methodology and efficacy of prayer have stayed consistent, we can see that far more people benefit from evidence-based treatment than do from prayer (since when prayer was the dominant paradigm they fared far worse both individually and on average).

    The Catholic Church has to commission whole studies just to find something that *looks* like prayer curing someone. Meanwhile, oncology departments all over the developed world are showing a better batting average for managing and curing cancer than has been known in human history.

    There’s an old Jewish saying: “Pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you.” I like to amend that by pointing out that if we are to do only one of these things, the better choice is clear.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. By World Wide News Flash on 16 Oct 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Miracles and Sainthood…….

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  2. By Miracles and Sainthood…. | Top & Popular on 06 Nov 2010 at 3:10 am

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