Not long ago, I argued a contract case before an appeals court after losing in a bench trial (trial to judge, as opposed to jury). We were suing a couple who basically swindled my client, a builder. At some point disagreements between the parties developed, and the purchaser-defendants began to request add-ons and upgrades in order to exceed their loan guarantee. The contract made the purchasers responsible to apply for a loan once the house was built; failure to do so would be a material breach of the contract. When the loan officer for the bank testified, she told the judge that she was "certain" that the couple had applied for the loan, but that the mortgage was denied because the cost exceeded their guarantee. On cross, however, she admitted that she only assumed that the couple had made application for a loan "because we would not have sent the application package to them" had they not, and that without an application there could not be a letter of denial (which had been admitted into evidence). The trial court found for the defendant purchasers and we appealed.
If you read the above paragraph and concluded that the judge could not reasonably assume that the purchasers had actually applied for a loan, you probably understand post hoc reasoning. Briefly, to quote the Nizkor Project (www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/post-hoc), "...The fallacy [of post hoc] involves concluding that A causes B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim." Broken down into a syllogism, it appears like this:
1. A occurs before B.
2. Therefore, A is the cause of B.
Adequate evidence is the key. There is no reason to suspect a causal connection between two events simply because one follows the other. There may be a correlation between A and B, but correlation does not equal causation. T. Edward Damer, in Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (1995), says that such hypothetical relationships require further testing but are never sufficient evidence of a causal relationship on their own. A website based on Damer's work can be found here: www.fallacyfiles.org.
The new Pope has put on the fast track the canonization of a predecessor, the "Polish Pope," John Paul II, based on evidence of at least one "miracle." It seems that John Paul II "miraculously cured" a Costa Rican woman from a distance of about 6,100 miles, a fact confirmed by a "Vatican spokesman," the Rev. Federico Lombardi. Details are sketchy. The AP quotes a "Spanish newspaper La Razon" saying the woman is one Floribeth Mora, who suffered from a cerebral aneurism, "inexplicably cured on May 1, 2011 -- the day of John Paul's beatification, when 1.5 million people filled St. Peter's Square to honor the beloved Polish pontiff."
La Razon "reported last month that Mora awoke with a debilitating head pain on April 8 and went to the hospital, where her condition worsened to the point that she was sent home with only a month to live. Her family prayed to John Paul, and the aneurism disappeared." The AP story quoted Ms. Mora's physician, one Dr. Alejandro Vargas, as saying, "It surprised me a lot that the aneurism disappeared. I can't explain it based on science." Then the agency said it had "traveled to Mora's home in Costa Rica but has been told that she is bound by secrecy and cannot discuss her case."
A scientist might merely discount the Mora story as "anecdotal" if other factors did not make it appear completely ridiculous. As it is, the tale reminds of the "Field of the Miracle" sequence in Federico Fellini's movie, La Dolce Vita. There, the cynical, world-weary newspaper reporter, Marcello, is dispatched to a Roman suburb where two small children have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The media coverage is shown to rival, say, that outside the O. J. Simpson trial. Additionally, the sick and crippled have come from all parts to gather in the "field of the miracle," no doubt hoping for some post hoc cures of their own.
Night falls without the appearance of the children. Suddenly, they emerge from their home and lead the reporters to a spot. Rain begins to fall and the field becomes a muddy mess. The children are shown changing their minds repeatedly, going to this place and that, the sick and cripples attempting to keep up. The torrent causes flood lights to pop and shatter. Soon, there is a near-riot, the crowd climbing all over each other to get closer to the boy and girl. Then, the spell is broken: the children begin to snicker and giggle mischievously. The whole affair has been a pathetic farce.
The criteria cited by the AP for qualification as a "miracle" performed by the intercession of the candidate for beatification or canonization is a "medically inexplicable cure that is lasting, immediate, and can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful." Interestingly, there have been some 10,000 canonizations in church history. Since one miracle is required for beatification and another for canonization, one can conclude that the Vatican has recognized some 20,000 miracles in its roughly 1,690 years. That averages out to almost 12 a year. Not only do extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, it can easily be shown that all, or nearly all of the claims of miraculous healing have been nothing more than superstitious post hoc conclusions.
As it happens, miraculous cures are one of the most common examples of the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this"). The Nizkor article, for example, imagines "Jill, who is in London," sneezing "at the exact time an earthquake start[s] in California," and concludes, "It would clearly be irrational to arrest Jill for starting a natural disaster, since there is no reason to suspect any causal connection between the two events." (One is reminded of the evangelical Rev. John Hagee, a megachurch pastor in Texas, claiming Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because that city hosted a gay pride event.) The Nizkor writer also depicts "Jane get[ting] a rather large wart on her finger. Based on a story her father told her, she cuts a potato in half, rubs it on the wart and then buries it under the light of a full moon. Over the next month her wart shrinks and eventually vanishes. Jane writes her father to tell him how right he was about the cure."
Similarly, Damer, noting that superstition and magical thinking usually involve post hoc reasoning, envisions a "sick person...treated by a witch doctor, or a faith healer, and becomes better afterward," allowing his or her superstition to lead to the conclusion "that the spell or prayer was effective. Since most illnesses will go away on their own eventually, any treatment will seem effective by post hoc thinking...." To this, I might add that no treatment at all might also prove effective. If the Vatican has obtained Ms. Mora's medical records, why won't they publish them? Why does Ms. Mora hide behind a claim that she is "bound by secrecy" and cannot discuss her case? Who imposed "secrecy" on Ms. Mora? Why was she sworn to secrecy? The only way to prove that she even had a cerebral aneurism in the first place is with an MRI or other imaging of it, and the only way to prove that it is no longer life-threatening is with follow-up imaging. Not proved is all that can be said.
And if the "miracle" is not proved, how can John Paul II be beatified by Pope Francis? If the Vatican will not open its files on the 20,000 miracles that have led to canonization, how will we know whether most if not all belong to the same category of silliness that led to centuries of insistence that the sun orbited the earth?
As for Dr. Vargas's inability to "explain" the miraculous cure, one might say it is a good thing he practices in Costa Rica and not here. The prognosis for patients with such aneurisms depend on many factors, including age and degree of seriousness, none of which data is supplied either by this presumed Roman Catholic or the headquarters in Rome. Is Dr. Vargas sworn to secrecy as well? Fully a third of all persons with cerebral aneurism survive, recovering "with little or no neurological deficit" says Wikipedia. (Or does the Vatican discount that source, perhaps re-labeling it "Wickedpedia"?) The accounts of Ms. Mora do not give her age, a rather important factor since many if not most of the 33.3% of survivors tend to be young.
No wonder evangelicals want public schools to quit teaching "critical thinking": miracles happen because the Bible tells us so. Oops! Another fallacy there. Or two, actually. Circular reasoning and an appeal to authority. Schiller said it best, if you will pardon the way he put it: Against stupidity, even the angels fight in vain.