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

Comments (39)

Links to this Post

  1. Harmful pareidolia « A Man With A Ph.D. | December 2, 2009
  1. Bill

    Funny thing about afterimages like that – since they change shape and color while they last, you can interpret them to be shaped almost any way you want. Expect the Virgin Mary, and wow – there she is!

  2. Sarcastro

    No no no no. It’s only the “no homos” part of the Bible that is inerrant. Everything else is optional.

    What’s funny, from an anthropological point of view, is that both the proscriptions against divination and those against homosexuality are, basically, non-competition clauses.

  3. As an Irish native, I’m more than a tad embarrassed about this. To think that they are expecting 50,000 people to go there this weekend beggars belief.

    Earlier today I wrote a blog entry that’s likely to be a bit closer to the mark… http://bit.ly/3AWKWX

  4. Sarcasto wins! That was funny! 😀

  5. I’m shocked, Phil — just SHOCKED. I mean, how can a sensible man like yourself discount EVIDENCE SEEN BY PEOPLE’S VERY EYES?

    You see, that’s what Common Sense is all about: believing YOUR VERY OWN EYES instead of such fabricated claptrap like airy-fairy “evidence” and “reason-based arguments” and these so-called “error-controlled studies with rigorously designed methologies.”

    I mean, come ON. If you can’t have blind faith in YOUR VERY OWN EYES, what *can* you have blind faith in?

    Yours in jest,
    Chester Burton Brown

  6. Adrian Lopez

    I remember a local report many moons ago (suns ago?) involving the supposed appearance of the Virgin Mary. Once of the signs, viewers were told, was the dancing sun. Video of a “dancing sun” was presented, but it was obvious to me they were just moving the camera around to make it seem as if the sun was moving against a static blue sky (you couldn’t see the ground in the shot).

    I couldn’t believe anybody watching would be so stupid as to not recognize such an obvious fraud and wondered why those who were watching in person appeared to believe the sun was moving when it obviously wasn’t. I suppose that for people who go into a miracle situation already believing in miracles, it is only but a small leap to make from optical illusion to miracle.

  7. I’ve been trying to get several skeptic sites to notice this event since it first (didn’t) happen(ed).

    Don’t forget about the Virgin Mary Tree Stump.


    Knock is a major place of pilgrimage in the West of Ireland ever since the original visions were reported in 1879. The Gaelic name is “Cnoc Mhuire” or “Hill of Mary” and people have been going there for cures ever since. You can read about it here:


    They even have their own airport.

  8. This Just In:

    ‘The Virgin Mary is very angry . . .’


    Coleman claims that Mary, in her latest apparition, told him she is very angry: “She will rock the foundations of the church if the people do not listen, from Rome back down to where we are, down to Knock. And the gates of Heaven will be closed.” How will she do this? “She says she’ll do it, I don’t know how she’ll do it, but she’s angry,” he repeats. The latest request from Mary, Coleman claims, is for Coleman to say the rosary with a priest in the Basilica at 3pm on Saturday.

  9. Chris

    And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.
    Deuteronomy 4:19

  10. sophia8

    “She will rock the foundations of the church if the people do not listen, from Rome back down to where we are, down to Knock.
    If She wants everyone to listen to Her, She should get Herself a blog and a Twitter account and a Facebook page. She’ll reach many more people that way than by passing messages via some mad Irishman.

  11. Charlie Young

    Do you think the anti-vaxxers are taking the H1N1 vaccine shortage as a sign? OK, a little off topic…

  12. Dan

    So this Coleman guy correctly predicted (albeit in a roundabout way) a sunny day in Ireland.

    Which is really not all that common an occurrance….

  13. etg

    similar sightings were reported by several thousand people in Fatima, Portugal.

    Astounding, how history repeats itself :) Or virgin mary.

  14. I’m Irish, and back in the 1980’s we had a huge moving statues craze in Ireland that shifted the whole country into reverse gear for a few months. Twenty years on, I thought that all this rank superstition was behind us, but no. It’s Moving Statues Part Deux – The Virgin’s Revenge..

    I can’t wait to see the trailer.

  15. Gary Ansorge

    I don’t know what all the noise is about visions. Just wander out to the horse manure and scarf up some of those tasty mushrooms. Then you can have all the visions you ever wanted,,,and probably quite a few you DIDN’T want.

    Anticipation is the bane of spontaneity. As the guy who introduced me to the music of the Dead stated “If I tell you what to look for, it won’t feel the same. Just try to be surprised, ok?

    I wonder how come the debil never shows his ugly mug in a splotch of tooth past? Maybe he’s just not into clean teeth,,,or maybe these random images are the only power the gods have to bug people.

    Gary 7

  16. Cory

    @11. You have a very good point.

  17. mariana

    Dan (11) has a point. Maybe this Coleman fellow is for real? 😉

    bah, Cory beat me to it.

  18. Thank goodness they were not looking up at Uranus! Who knows what strange sights they would have seen!

  19. Strahlungsamt

    Image Of Virgin Mary Appears In Bird Dropping On Area Family’s Truck


    BRYAN (July 16, 2009)–The Pachuca family of Bryan says an image on their pickup truck is a miracle.

    The image that came in an unlikely form of a bird dropping appeared on Sunday.

    That was the first time Salvador Pachuca had been back to the home since having an accident there four months ago.

    “I told my brothers come over here and see what this is and they say this is the Virgin,” he said.

    Family members made their way outside to see the image on the truck’s side mirror.

    Cristal Pachuca said she took pictures and began making calls to invite others to see, what she describes as, a miracle.

    “We just all feel protected. It’s a blessing to our family and to everybody that comes to see it,” says Cristal Pachuca.

    Cristal says the truck doesn’t get much use, but last weekend her husband decided to take it out of their garage and wash it.

    A few moments later the image appeared.

    Since Sunday, a steady stream of family, friends, neighbors and strangers has stopped by to pray and take pictures of the image.

    The Pachuca’s say the image is more than a coincidence especially since it happened on the 12th.

    The family says in Mexico, Dec. 12 is celebrated as the day of The Virgin Guadalupe.

    Onlookers say the image is a miracle because the distinct colors and outline of the image on the truck match the image of Virgin Guadalupe.

    The Pachuca’s say they will continue to welcome anyone who wants to see the image, because the image isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

    “I think we’re going to just put it on a shelf outside, probably take off the mirror and keep it there cause its something special to us. I’m not going to wash it off,” says Cristal Pachuca.

  20. Sam

    I predict that you will have a religious experience of you shut your eyes and the rub them very, very hard.

  21. Jon B

    Time to get out the Jesus Toast Press, fire off a few grilled cheeses and hit eBay, then…

  22. My favorite is still the moron in Burbank or Pacoima or some other town in So. Cal’s San Fernando Valley who got himself a story in the L.A. Times because his TV set was inhabited by an angel.

    His living room had become a place of pilgrimage for the local stupids, who would pray before the vaguely triangular looking “angel” that appeared on the TV. Naturally, the pilgrims were unfazed by the commentary from a local TV repairman, who noted the effect was a common occurrence when a TV tube was on the fritz.

    Face it, as smart as human beings can be, a heck of a high percentage of our numbers are dumb as a posts.

  23. Spectroscope

    @ 21 Kuhnigget : Very true. Sadly.

    Staring at the Sun is plain dumb.

    Believing the afterimages are visions of an angry virgin is dumber.

    Angry Virgin mary? That’s not something that jibes with the traditional picture. What’s she going to do to punish us? Not appear on cheese sandwhiches and stains on walls anymore? 😉

    I regard all religious visions as hallucinations or misinterpretations or tricks of the mind &/or eye and will do so until some clear evidence emerges to the contrary. I don’t expect it to anytime soon.

    Outside of fairytale myths and legends has any such religious “vision” EVER provided useful information? I don’t think so.

    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).

    Galileo Galilei stared at the Sun – to sketch and observe sunspots – and went permanently blind because didn’t he?

    Mind you, that was through a telescope albeit a very primitive and early model one.

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Spectroscope (22) said:

    Galileo Galilei stared at the Sun – to sketch and observe sunspots – and went permanently blind because didn’t he?

    Mind you, that was through a telescope albeit a very primitive and early model one.


    Galileo projected an image of the sun using a telescope and sketched that.

    I would strongly advise that no-one ever look at the sun through a telescope or binoculars. I have not done the calcs, but I imagine it would take only a few seconds for the the focussed sunlight to burn out your retina.

    The only time any astronomer ever looks directly at the sun is through a seriously-expensive bit of kit known as a hydrogen-alpha filter. These typically have a pass-bandwidth of only a few Angstroms, which means that the astronomer is observing less than 0.1% of the sun’s light.

  25. Ian

    @22 “Outside of fairytale myths and legends has any such religious “vision” EVER provided useful information? I don’t think so.”

    I appreciate this i shard to accept for many, but you need to be very knowledgeable of such apparitions before passing comment on them. One might argue that all apparitions provided very useful information for those who witnessed the visions. That could be said to be personal revelation.

    Fatima (also included a ‘miracle of the Sun which did not permanently damage the eyes of the witnesses – short, medium or long term) provided very useful information however with respect to World War II and Communism in Russia. (see http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFATIMA.HTM for example)

    It is also worth noting that no apparitions pertaining to Catholicism are approved by the Church until the apparitions cease and fully investigated. Can I suggest – if you are truly seeking information on them to assess them critically – to research them and don’t abandon reason.

    God Bless


  26. Darth Robo
  27. Yeebok Shu'in

    @ian I can _accept_ personal apparitions. I’ve used things in my past I don’t use now.
    That some reasonably significant religious icon that’s always presented as kind and loving appears and tells someone she’s angry and will close heaven if some Irish guy doesn’t do the rosary ? No.
    I can also accept that these people were quite mislead into potentially damaging their bodies, and then immediately after deliberately hurting themselves, they saw things easily explainable by science. You can emulate this to a much milder and less risky extent by staring at the drain in your shower if you have one of them that’s silvery and has more detail than rays coming from the centre. Happens every time I do it and I’m quite sure there’s no religious icons hiding in my drain.
    I can’t accept the sun “dancing around in the sky” – how much energy would it take to give that much mass some intertia ? LOL. Don’t say god can do anything, for my experience so far, he’s done nothing to make me think his being real is more than an amusing anecdote to get people to behave, just like my kids get with Santa every year.
    You have as much chance of convincing me it is real, than I have of convincing you it is not.

  28. Wow… just wow… I can’t say any more than that.

  29. mike burkhart

    I’ve said I am Catholic but I’m skeptical of claimed images of Jesus, Mary or other religous . Uless the church says some thing about it the church invesagates these before saying anything about it Phill is riight about the Bible condeming divination and Jesus says “only a faithless generation ask for a sign”

  30. Justin Olson

    @ #24 Ian:

    Check the text of your link. Ratzinger admits that the three “secrets of Fatima” weren’t actually written down and sealed until a quarter century after the fact. That hardly constitutes credible evidence.

    “When anyone tells me, that he saw a [miracle], I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”

    – David Hume

  31. Flying sardines

    … and don’t let your people practice divination or look for omens or use spells or charms. and [sic] don’t let them consult the spirits of the dead. The Lord your God hates people who [sic] these disgusting things. …(18.10-13)

    So all the omens & signs such as “stigmata” and all that bizarrely monstrous “Rapture” nonsense with its accompanying signs, plagues and judgements, eg. weird locust-demons, freaky psychedelic “horsemen-lion” thingys, huge earthquakes, Babylon* vanishing, ad nauseam are anti-Christian! Someone should tell Tim LaHay & Jenkins the authors of the sadly best selling “Christian” (one weird sect thereof anyhow) ‘Left Behind’ books a.k.a. the worst books in the world! 😉

    (See http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/ if you haven’t already for some great analysis of these terrible books.)

    Good to see at least one Christian site disowning such baloney.

    * Babylon is meant to vanish as dust and the Euphrates river dries up in one of the later “bowl” or “trumpet” judgements according to one rather marginal and loopy form of Xnty. Of course, the fact that there’s no such modern city – that Babylon has already passed into the history books and Baghdad is the modern capital and centre of Iraq seems to have passed these whackjobs by .. :roll:

  32. Eamon

    This kind of shite is sadly very common in Ireland, North and South. There’s a Faith Healer called Eddie Stone who’s actually endorsed by the Catholic Church in Ireland who feeds on people’s need to believe. A relative who went to see him was convinced when he said:

    “There’s someone in this room who hasn’t been to Confession in 2 years.”

    Now I’d have been more impressed if he’d continued in this fashion:

    “…and 4 who haven’t been for a year, 20 haven’t been this month – and none of ye, save Mrs McArdle, have been today!”


  33. rob

    ach. it was a nefarious plot by Big Ophthalmology.

  34. Len

    Its quiet unnecessary of the Times to single out the presence of the Travelling community as if to distance the rest of us from this crazy gathering.
    “Oh look at all these crackpots, well its mostly Travellers, sure we expect this sort of behavior from them so its ok”.

    I guarantee the Travellers were outnumbered by the frustrated old farmers wives.
    So perhaps that line should better read “Quite a number of those present were morons”, that would be a bit more inclusive & accurate.

    Oh and the “tree stump” virgin mary was clearly not a hoax, it had rosary beads around its neck ffs. 😉

  35. JB of Brisbane

    Thanks, Phil. You just explained the so-called “Miracle of the Sun” that was reported by many eyewitnesses (excuse the pun) at the final “appearance” at Fatima in 1917. I will have to check, but I think there was a similar report from Lourdes as well.

  36. slw

    Oh what delicious irony when an astronomer scoffs people for staring at the sky 😉

  37. Spectroscope

    @ 24. Nigel Depledge Says:

    Spectroscope (22) said:

    Galileo Galilei stared at the Sun – to sketch and observe sunspots – and went permanently blind because didn’t he? Mind you, that was through a telescope albeit a very primitive and early model one.

    Galileo projected an image of the sun using a telescope and sketched that.

    Okay, if you’re sure that’s how he did it. I’ve always heard he went blind from staring at the Sun & presumed through his scope. I could be wrong.

    @ 36. slw Says:

    Oh what delicious irony when an astronomer scoffs people for staring at the sky

    Not the sky, dude the *SUN*.

    There’s quite a difference between the two things you know. :roll:

    Staring at the sky in order to learn about the stars and astronomy is one thing.

    Staring at the Sun to claim you’ve had some blinding “magic visions” sent by God’s Mum in the afterimages are is quite another!

  38. Carigeen

    Not surprisingly, the multinational business that claims a monopoly on “apparitions” is not keen on outsiders muscling in on it’s territory.

    The Catholic Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam had suggested that the promised “apparitions” risked misleading “God’s people and undermining faith.”

    Liam Meehan had a wonderful response in Wednesday’s Irish Times:

    “This is the same faith that believes a cosmic Jew who was his own father by a virgin can enable you to live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh, drink his blood and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from something invisible called your soul that is present because a woman made from a rib was convinced by a talking snake to eat an apple from a magical tree.”

    I’ve got news for Archbishop Neary. It’s not nonsensical “apparitions” that have undermined Catholic faith in Ireland. It’s the vile litany of abuse by Catholic religious over a seventy year period as documented in the Ryan Commission report http://www.childabusecommission.ie/

    The nine-year investigation found that Catholic priests and nuns for decades terrorised thousands of boys and girls in the Irish Republic, while government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rape and humiliation.

    Neary, and other senior managers in the Catholic hierarchy, ran this system for their own benefit and actively protected the abusers.

    The people who gathered in Knock on Saturday are deluded fools but the Catholic church hierarchy are scoundrels. I’ll take an honest fool any day!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar