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Do Faith Healers Heal? : THE FAITH-HEALERS by James Randi (Prometheus Books: $18.95; 314 pp., illustrated)

May 01, 1988|Thomas J. Scheff | Scheff is a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara. and

In Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I" Glendower proclaims:

I can call spirits from the vasty deep!

Hotspur replies:

Why, so can I and so can any man ; but will they come when you do call for them?

James Randi, a professional magician, raises the same question about the television faith healers, and answers with a loud no, they do not come. He shows for some of the lesser lights (W. V. Grant, Peter Popoff) a pattern of outright fraud and chicanery. For the major evangelists like Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts, he charges "statistical fraud." Here is an example quoted from one of Robertson's broadcasts:

"There is a woman in Kansas City who has sinus. The Lord is drying that up right now. Thank you, Jesus."

The author suggests that no one has ever shown that this unknown woman, or any other of the cures that have been claimed, was indeed cured. Examples of the opposite are offered, however: The author cites an instance from a book by Gerry Straub, a former associate of Robertson's, in which a man was "cured" on a "700 Club" broadcast. When Straub followed up, he found that the man had died 10 days later.

The author's approach to evidence is somewhat casual. It would be difficult to check his claims, since he identifies most of his informants only partially, by name and city, but without complete address. In one important case, the doctor who examined 30 of Oral Roberts' supposed cures, the only identification offered is "a Toronto, Canada physician." Some of the investigations are substantial, but some are not. The chapter on Pat Robertson is only nine pages long, and much of it is not about Robertson directly.

Nevertheless, the overall case is a plausible one, suggesting the need for further and more systematic investigation. One question that is raised by a book like this is whether the FCC, which is supposed to monitor fraud on the airwaves, has been doing its job.

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