When self-fulfilling prophecies Knock

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2009 2:30 pm

A couple of weeks ago, thousands of people gathered at Knock Shrine in Ireland, gazing upward, looking for a vision of the Virgin Mary. Why?

Earlier in the week Dublin-based clairvoyant Joe Coleman predicted Our Lady would appear at the old parish church – scene of the 1879 apparition – at 3pm. Quite a number of those present were members of the Travelling community.

If people want to believe in something then that is their right, but doesn’t the Bible say a lot of things about divination and looking to the sky for signs?

OK, still, fine. But what we had here was several thousand people staring at the Sun. That’s a bad idea: it can cause temporary blindness, and permanent damage to the retina (though I know of no cases of both permanent and total blindness).

And of course it can cause you to see things. The retina floods with light and gets saturated, making you see afterimages with illusions of color, movement, and other weird things. And this is just what the pilgrims to Knock reported.

John Tunney, from Islandeady, Castlebar, said: “I’m 53 years old and I never seen the sun go like that before. I witnessed the sun go all different colours, yellow, red and green. Then it completely darkened and began shimmering. Sometimes the sun emitted a clean, bright light, then it would darken again.”

Mr Tunney’s wife, Nina, said: “The sun was spinning in the sky. I experienced a feeling of total happiness. It is a feeling I would love to experience again. It was amazing. I felt marvellous.”

Yvonne Rabbitte, from Dunmore, Co Galway, showed other pilgrims a photograph she had taken on her digital camera which showed vivid rays radiating downwards from the sun at the time the image was taken

The first two anecdotes sure sound to me a lot like illusions that happen when staring at a very bright object. And that last story is telling; that kind of thing will always happen when you take pictures of the Sun! I have lots of pictures with rays coming from the Sun that I have taken on days when a clairvoyant has not predicted the apparition of a religious icon.

As I have said here many times, people have the right to believe in what they want. However, I think they should at least try to educate themselves on the way the Universe works so they don’t leap to the wrong conclusions (as Richard Feymann once said, science is a way of not fooling ourselves)– and certainly the journalists out there have an obligation to do a little research when reporting on such events.

This is a case where I think people came to the wrong conclusion. I don’t know if the clairvoyant really believes what he says or if, like so many others, he’s got a somewhat different agenda. But either way the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: people went outside hoping to see visions, and that’s just what happened.

Tip o’ the sunglasses to Padraig Cleary.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Religion, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Virgin Mary

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