One of the best-known pieces of media in the skeptical canon, is a video in which James Randi debunks faith healer Peter Popoff. In the 1980s, Popoff ran a scam where he called out people’s names in a crowd, described their diseases, and claimed to heal them by laying on hands. James Randi and his associates demonstrated that Popoff did not get these names from divine revelation, but instead got them from his wife, who had collected that information beforehand and was speaking to him through an earpiece.
Under media fire, Popoff’s ministry declared bankruptcy in 1987–but rebooted again in the late 90s. As far as I know Peter Popoff is still at large, now on the Black Entertainment Network.
I want to talk about a particular kind of miracle that Popoff is said to perform: allowing people in wheelchairs to walk again. Back when I was more invested in the skeptical movement, I had heard that they just had fully mobile people seated in wheelchairs, and thought “well that explains it”. This is the explanation currently offered by Wikipedia:
Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic “cures” were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff’s assistants prior to broadcasts.
But years later, I had a quiet realization: such fraudulent tactics aren’t necessary, because many people in wheelchairs can in fact walk!
The fact that some wheelchair-users can walk is obvious once you know to ask the right question. I found multiple articles offering various reasons why people who can walk might still need wheelchairs. Maybe they can walk, but it’s painful, or medically inadvisable, or some days they can’t walk.
As a personal example, one of my older relatives has sudden attacks of vertigo that cause him to completely lose balance. He started using a walker not because he couldn’t walk without it, but because it would save him from breaking his hip again if he lost his balance. The reasons for wheelchair use can be similarly complicated.
When talking about Popoff’s wheelchair miracles, Wikipedia cites “God’s Frequency is 39.17 MHz: The Investigation of Peter Popoff” in Science and the Paranormal. This is the original 1987 article debunking Peter Popoff. Under a careful read, Popoff was employing not one but two methods to “heal” people in wheelchairs:
- The investigator saw two empty wheelchairs parked in the orchestra pit. Then two women in canes walked in and sat in the wheelchairs, one saying “I guess this is where they want us to sit.” These women were later “healed”.
- At the same time, the investigator was disguised as a woman in a wheelchair with uterine cancer (the investigator is a cis man). Popoff’s wife asked him if he could walk at all, and he said he could walk a little. Later Popoff “cured” his uterine cancer and got him to walk.
So contra Wikipedia, it was not always the case that Popoff sat fully ambulatory people in wheelchairs. Sometimes he “healed” people in wheelchairs when he received the information that they could walk at least a little.
I’m not sure how representative Peter Popoff is of faith healers. Popoff obviously knows he is a con man, but it seems plausible that other faith healers might believe in their own power. Seating ambulatory people in wheelchairs is a tactic that only a knowing con man would use. For “honest” faith healers, they probably try to heal many people in wheelchairs, and are happy to see at least some of them walk. But in a way, this is actually more insidious, because even if people in wheelchairs can walk, it might be dangerous to them. Science-Based Medicine described a case where someone actually died a bit later due to the stress on her spine.
Although not all Christians believe in faith healers, it seems that many Christians believe it is appropriate to pray for people with disabilities–even complete strangers–to be healed. This is described in a BBC article “Stop trying to ‘heal’ me“.
Reverend Zoe Hemming […] is a part-time wheelchair user who lives with chronic pain. She’s had her own encounters with strangers offering healing prayer and says she finds this approach can be “spiritually abusive”.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user in church and somebody was so determined to pray for us and we just kept ignoring them because we were in the middle of a conversation. In the end he just put his arms on both our shoulders and just prayed. It was really annoying and very disempowering. I was furious.”
Keep in mind that not all people with disabilities believe they are broken and need to be fixed. While it is said that Jesus miraculously cured many disabilities, adopting that attitude towards disabled people today is certainly inappropriate.