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Faith Healers

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The very first placebo-controlled trial may have been the debunking of the charismatic Anton Mesmer (the enigmatic source responsible for the verb “to mesmerize”), an enlightenment figure with a healing technique that Ben Franklin, for one, thought was basically placebo performance. Historians Ed Cohen and Ann Harrington fill in the details.

Last, producer Gregory Warner takes us into the tent of a Christian faith-healing, where preacher Steve Buza treats all sorts of ailments, including scoliosis and carpal tunnel, and the healed reflect on the relationship between pain and doubt.

Comments [22]

Biljana from Macedonia

The power of faith in getting better is key to the placebo effects. People believe they will get better if they take medication or have a surgery. There are proven records of people that got better even they just had a sugar pill.
But when it comes to cancer or other great illness, people are not easy to convince that they will get better or even survive. The power to control your mind is key to success. I read another article about the power of self healing by controlling your thoughts here:

Oct. 28 2015 08:50 AM

this shows how the brain can be easily manipulated, A great way to see this in action is on the show by derren Brown a British illusionist, mentalist, trickster, hypnotist, painter, writer, and sceptic. many great showns on youtube

Nov. 12 2014 03:43 PM
William Walker

I am looking for more information about faith and healing. I have already looked at and some other sites. Do you know where I can find more info?

Jan. 17 2014 12:06 PM

I am a christian and I always find "healing" very suspicious. I do believe in the power of faith and I believe in the power of God. I also believe in a God that has the ability to heal and that perhaps people through faith can be healed of all kinds of illness. But to state that sickness is the devil living in you or that one may be sick because of lack of faith is unbiblical. This belief is just another silly thing that a small amount of christians believe but seems to get a lot of media attention, mainly because it is so mindless (a common theme that the media portrays Christians to be). We live in a world full of disease caused from all different things not because some one is possessed or the devil is attached to their spine and causes a curve. I would encourage people to take that segment lightly as the majority of Christians would not agree with what was reported on. Every church I have ever attended would never encourage someone to substitute medicine with prayer. Prayer is for faith, to grow closer to God, not to replace a doctor.

Jun. 25 2013 02:25 PM

I like this article. It reminds me of a giant party bus. Thanks for posting.

Aug. 31 2012 01:13 PM
Joe Cantrell from Portland Oregon

I photographed and otherwise documented faith healers in the Philippines, in the early 1970s. Among these, several from Western countries arrived with their medical portfolios and diagnoses of uncurable/terminal from such respected institutions as the Mayo Clinic. The patients and their supporting families varied from credulous and very hopeful, through complete skepticism.
I saw some of them cured, some were not. The most dramatic was probably a Jesuit priest who had metastasized cancer, and a very dismal, short prognosis from Mayo; in a couple weeks of treatment, he has a complete remission.
"Psychic surgery" was the most common treatment among the faith healers I covered; I smuggled some of the "tumors" the healers apparently removed out to a helpful biological lab, which determined that they were chicken and pork flesh. But whatever, I did witness "miraculous" healing in a number of cases.
I'm not claiming this proves anything, but it is what I documented.
This leads me to wonder, given what appears to be a tremendous psychomatic role in healing, whether in our mercantile culture, we are simply persuaded to some degree that we must be getting well because we are plugged into a stainless steel robot shooting things into us and taking things out, and costing horrendous sums to access. The monetary cost itself may be our capitalist equivalent of impetus to heal---if it cost THAT much, I must be better!

Jan. 14 2012 04:18 PM
Rino Slim from Yompton

@ person from boulder, the piece you were inquiring about also peaked my interest when I heard it. The artist is Hauschka and the piece is "La seine for piano."

Nov. 30 2010 01:00 PM
Live Band

The placebo effect can have a great impact on those who are being fooled. It just goes to show the extent to which pain is mentally induced. I've heard of many magicians who claim to heal using animals, live bands, and other hypnotic methods.

Sep. 13 2010 06:10 PM
A person from Boulder

During the Placebo show, does anyone know the piece of piano music playing in the background of the introduction to the section on faith healers (0:20 until 0:50 of that seciton; 42:49-43:19 of the podcast for the whole program). For bonus marks, does anyone know the actual performer playing the piece? Radiolab is just amazing. Thanks for this and so many other great shows.

Jan. 05 2010 02:08 AM
Nathaniel from WA

The presentation of the final segment really bothers me.

Faith healers' claims have consistently failed to pan out within controlled studies. Their argument that any failure results from "doubt" is just special pleading (an excuse that tries to exempt a testable claim from any testable standard of evidence). I'm surprised that neither point got any mention in this episode.

Thinking critically about the findings of science is GOOD - that's how science moves forward. Omitting the scientific consensus and ignoring logical fallacies... less so. I worry that you're doing a little of both here.

Jun. 09 2009 07:00 PM
Julia from Burlingame, California

Just a quick question:

I am trying to figure out how to spell the name of the Shaman described in the beginning on the show. He's from the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia, his name sounds like "qe-so-lid", and he was studied by Franz Boas...

Jun. 02 2009 12:41 AM
Susan Shaw from Washington

I was fascinated by the whole show. It confirms a lot of what Mary Baker Eddy came across when she was looking for healing back in the 1800's. She turned against mesmerism, when she found her own kind of Christian healing. She founded a religion called Christian Science and wrote a "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" with a whole chapter devoted to debunking animal magnitism. In it she basically covered what you did about Anton Mesmer. That's why I loved the part of the show illustrating the French experiment showing that animal magnitsm relied on imagination. The whole show is a treasure.

Apr. 18 2009 06:18 PM
Timothy from NJ

Initially, I felt the same as Ben, but the show was not about proselytism. It was about the power of suggestion, and that segment of the show certainly exemplified this premise! (Albeit in a scary, naive, influential, coercive way...)

An aside, I am a fan of the show. I listen to it on the way to work and then, later, on the way home. Keep up the great work!

Feb. 06 2009 06:02 AM

I think the faith healers section was perfectly balanced and unbiased. It leaves it up to the listeners to form our own interpretations, and I do not see any way in which Radiolab encouraged or discouraged the point of view of the faith healers. It was an inside look, but with a healthy skepticism and interest.

Thank you, Radiolab, for consistently producing such a great show.

Feb. 03 2009 01:52 PM
a woman from manhattan

I think the listeners were perfectly capable of forming their own point of view. I don't think any of us heard that portion of the program and thought the better of faith healers.

I like a show that lets me come to my own conclusions. I certainly don't seek any moral guidance from radio shows.

Jan. 12 2009 12:23 PM
Ben from MD

I love radio lab. I've been addicted ever since I heard it on the radio, and found the podcast.

That being said, I was screaming in my mind during most of the "Faith Healer" section of this show.

You guys generally do a fantastic job of keeping things scientific and reasonable in your program, but I really wish there was a different point of view on this portion of the program.

For instance, a valid point of view was that what the faith healer was doing was despicable. Telling a nervous young woman who trusts you that her back problems are from Satan, "healing" and then grilling her immediatley afterward in front of everyone "are you healed?" where an answer of "no" is obviously unwelcome to the preacher and the crowd is not doing anyone any favors.

Jul. 11 2008 02:54 PM
Heather from NJ

ok... now i'm listening to the last part and you do talk about that...

Feb. 20 2008 04:57 PM
Heather from NJ

this sounds very similar to 'healing by faith' in Christianity... do you think there is any connection at all?

Feb. 20 2008 04:22 PM
Radio Lab from WNYC Radio


Thanks for checking out our links! The hotlink for Gregory Warner IS actually the right one--it's his blog. Right now, he's reporting in Afghanistan and occasionally posting.

Jul. 18 2007 02:12 PM
Gail Okulczyk from Oak Ridge, TN

When I click your hotlink for Gregory Warner, I get something much different and probably not what you intended for your listeners. Here's the address that the link gets me to.

Jul. 16 2007 04:04 PM
Radio Lab from WNYC Radio

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You can email us directly @ to ask about obtaining copies for use in the classroom.

May. 18 2007 04:38 PM
Suzanne Yates from Lehman College -- CUNY -- Bronx, NY

If there is a way to get this show downloaded on a podcast or on a disk -- PLEASE let me know. I would like to be able to listen to it again, in full, without having to be at the computer.

Would it be possible to buy a copy of the show and use parts of it in a classroom to illustrate points in the lecture?


May. 18 2007 03:45 PM

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