Cross-examining Zeitoun

I’ve managed to catch up to the comments on my post about the “apparitions” at Zeitoun, finally. Jayman, naturally enough, would like to rebut my observations, but I think the facts are against him, as noted below.

Oddly, though the Wikipedia entry claims that these apparitions were seen by skeptical observers (including President Nasser), I have not been able to find any first hand reports from these sources.

I don’t think you will be able to do a full-blown investigation of this apparition by merely using the internet. Plus, many primary sources are in Arabic.

If the facts are not available, then they’re not available. Certain facts are available, however. That means there’s some selective reporting going on. And the information that is available is being published by an organization which is receiving a multi-million dollar revenue stream from people believing the apparitions are real. There’s certainly a conflict of interest there, as far as unbiased reporting of the facts is concerned. But let’s see what we can glean from the facts we do have.

I think it’s safe to say that we do have enough facts in hand to draw a reasonable conclusion that Zeitoun was a (highly profitable) hoax. For instance:

There’s an indirect indication, however, in the fact that the police are said to have investigated the apparitions by looking for a projector of some sort. Apparently there was something about these phenomena that suggested a projected image rather than a tangible, physical manifestation. Additionally there was some suspicion that the photographs might have been faked or tampered with in some way.

I think the Wikipedia article is noting that the obvious natural explanations have been investigated.

In other words, there are obvious natural explanations, including projected images and faked photographs. Yes, these possibilities have been “investigated,” but by whom, and how thoroughly? James Randi doesn’t seem to have been invited, nor anyone else with the experience and training to root out this sort of fraudulent activity.

And the local police aren’t stupid: a multi-million dollar tourist/pilgrim trade means a tremendous boost in the prosperity of the whole district, including increased tax revenues and thus better funding for government offices like the police department. Once again, there’s a conflict of interest. I wouldn’t accuse them of anything dishonest, of course, but the fact remains that your ability to discern between A and B is influenced if A means third-world poverty for your entire district and B means prosperity and relative affluence for all (including family and friends). It’s nice that the police made an investigation, but they weren’t really the right group for the job, under the circumstances. Besides, since when is it a crime to use a projector?

Looking at the first indicator, there are a few things which would be consistent with a hoax based on projecting an image of Mary. First of all, the apparitions would be most visible after dark.

How would a projection work when lights were on around the church? Wouldn’t the source of the projection be obvious (especially when they cut power to the whole area)?

As I mentioned before, non-electrical projectors have been around for a lot longer than electrical ones have, so cutting the power would only reduce the amount of light pollution, and make the projection easier to see. And the source wouldn’t necessarily be obvious if you didn’t know exactly where to look. A simple baffle could ensure that light only went in the direction of the actual projection.

And you’d need something to project the image onto: a screen, or a sheet of acetate, or a fine nylon or silk mesh, or a mist, or some kind of smoke: anything that could reflect and/or scatter light enough to hold an image.

Wouldn’t a projector result in a 2D image? You need to posit a system where the apparition can be viewed from different angles without the hoax being found out.

I think the hoax has been found out, at least by those who base their conclusions on the evidence. It would look like a 2D projected image, and it did, which is why the police were looking for a projector instead of seeking a (3-dimensional) actor in a costume or something. If it had not looked like a projection, they would not have been looking for a projector. Plus, if you look at the photographs themselves, you can see that different viewing angles do not produce the change in shape and relative position that would come from shifting your perspective. The two different images of the dove flying over “Mary’s” head are identical, both in their form (and pose) and in their relative distance above her head.

Check it out: Mary has her space helmet on.

You can’t tell on the first or third image, but the head is most certainly in front of the halo on the second image. I even ran the second image through some image analysis software just to be sure.

I was being a bit facetious there. The point is that the “halo” was always painted as a perfectly circular disk behind the saint’s head, but “behind” is determined relative to the painter’s point of view, not the angle at which the viewer approaches the icon. It was a non-literal symbol in any case, and was never intended to suggest that the persons depicted went around with glowing disks behind their heads in real life.

What we’ve got here is a double-whammy: the halo shouldn’t be showing up at all, since it’s an iconographic symbol rather than a literal glowing disk. And even if it did show up, it should appear as an ellipse rather than a perfect circle, unless you happened to view it from exactly the same angle as the original iconographer who originally painted it. But it doesn’t: it’s a perfect circle from all angles. A globe could do that, if it’s around the person’s head (hence the flippant reference to a space helmet), but the stereotypical “halo” ought to be 3-dimensional, which would make it an ellipse from most angles.

Also, it sounds like you are complaining that the apparition is both too much like icons and too little like icons. Of course it couldn’t be an actual icon since there aren’t video icons. Ultimately, Mary’s form is not important in determining whether or not a hoax took place.

No, I’m only pointing out that the images are not merely like the icons, they are the icons, complete with literal representations of non-literal, non-representational symbols like doves and halos. And having looked over the available materials, I have to say that the only videos I’ve found are videos about the so-called apparitions, in which the only video segments showing the “apparition” are zooming and panning shots of photographs. We don’t have any “video icons” to explain.

The reason “Mary’s” form is important is because it highlights the fact that an appeal is being made to superstitious gullibility here. We are expected to connect the appearance of obvious icons as being a genuinely divine apparition, on the basis of familiarity with a number of art works that reflect what the iconographer imagined Mary might look like. Apart from traditional symbols, icons of Mary don’t necessarily look like each other, let alone matching the original appearance of the original Mary.

Therefore it’s highly significant to note that these “apparitions” are literally and unmistakably the images of icons, and not an apparition of Mary herself. You have to appeal to the idea that Mary magically shape-shifted in some way in order to promote the Church’s claims here. But if it were a genuine apparition, why would you need to make excuses for why Mary does not look like the real, original Mary?

I’m out of time for today, so we’ll pick this up again tomorrow.

 
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Posted in Unapologetics. 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Cross-examining Zeitoun”

  1. nal Says:

    If the apparition of the Virgin Mary was indeed a supernatural event, then the reason why the appearance occurred at a Coptic Church would be of great importance. Does this signify that the Coptic brand of Christianity is the one true faith?

  2. cl Says:

    DD,

    I’m not of one opinion or another regarding whether Zeitoun was a genuine miracle. I don’t know and I currently remain at the NULL position. I don’t think we can make a reasonable decision either way, so in that sense, I differ from both you and Jayman – that is – if Jayman thinks Zeitoun constitutes an authentic miracle. I’ve not asked him.

    If the facts are not available, then they’re not available. Certain facts are available, however.

    I see what you are saying here, but it presents a problem for your listener. You basically concede that not all the facts are available. This leads one to naturally wonder, how confident should we be in your conclusions which are admittedly based on impartial access to the pertinent facts?

    Incidentally, other factors besides “selective reporting” surely contribute to the situation. I don’t think we can fairly say the situation has resulted from “selective reporting.”

    On the other hand, this is my favorite post I’ve read here so far and I found myself nearly literally applauding the rest of this DD, and I don’t think Jayman’s objections hold up in this case. All the reasons you give regarding conflicts of interest are precisely why I’ve been so stubborn about securing precise definitions and criteria by which we can judge a set of miracle claims. I realize people got all annoyed by this and took to insulting me, but your very valid set of reasoning in this regard further supports my point. A Marian apparition is certainly unambiguous, isn’t it now jim? It was also stringently verified in that it was observed by many, many people. So again we see that “unambiguous” and “stringently verified” are near worthless as criteria in themselves.

    ***Regarding whether or not Zeitoun was a genuine miracle, after even just a little rational and skeptical thought, I can now say I might leave the NULL position in favor of fraud. I operate under the general presumption that current, published technology tends to always be dwarfed by confidential developments in the military-industrial complex. Now, current and published technology exists by which lasers blast fixed points of nitrogen and oxygen causing short-duration plasma emissions that etch ephemeral, three-dimensional, glowing light images into thin air. So this could reasonably be the VHS version of what the military-industrial complex is likely experimenting with. About the current, published technology, one source article had the following to say:

    With improved lasers, scientists say they’ll be capable of projecting images at greater distances with more color variation making the device suitable for pyrotechnics or outdoor advertising.

    “Outdoor advertising” – Gee, now isn’t that interesting?

    A few more small quibbles, though: I do slightly object to your dismissal of the circular halo, but it’s not really worth going into unless anyone wants me to. And when you say,

    If it had not looked like a projection, they would not have been looking for a projector.

    I see what you’re saying. That police were looking for a projector potentially indicates that they weren’t convinced of the apparition’s authenticity, enough so that the idea of projection occurred in their minds. OTOH, I’d say be careful with that, because we have no idea what the apparition actually looked like, and there are several possible reasons police might be looking for a projector besides the valid reason that perhaps the apparition looked phony and projected.

    Either way, I began this comment at the NULL position, and now I’m leaning considerably towards fraud regarding Zeitoun. Things can and do change, but for now that’s my final answer.

    Great post, DD, and I rarely backpat.

    nal,

    Good observation, although I’d be hesitant in ascribing a direct connection of support even if I did think Zeitoun was authentic. In fact, your keen observation actually pushes me even farther towards the direction of fraud.

  3. Jayman Says:

    DD, I don’t really care about the similarities between the apparition and pieces of art nor about possible motives for a hoaxter. The key issue is whether the apparition can be explained as a natural phenomenon of some kind. It appears you’re still promoting the idea of a 2D projection. I addressed the problem of a 2D projected image here. Other notes:

    1) Just because some information is not available on the internet in English does not mean that information is unavailable.

    2) James Randi and anyone else could have just went to Zeitoun. No invitation was necessary.

    3) You claimed that if the apparition was from a projector it would be most visible after dark. I pointed out that, if it was a hoax, they projected the image into a lighted area, not a completely dark area. At times at least, the roof of the church was floodlit.

    4) An actor could not do what the apparition did (change shapes, appear/disappear, give off light) so that would have been ruled out quickly. Some type of projector is the only possible natural explanation I can think of and so it would be the only thing to investigate. If they had not investigated anything you’d be on them for that too.

    cl, I’m leaning towards this as being a genuine miracle. At the very least no natural explanation actually fits the accounts I’ve seen. What would cast doubt in my mind would be if someone could point me to a technology that can project a 3D image that would do the things this apparition did. The projectors or laser light shows I am aware of do not match the accounts. If you have any good ideas I wouldn’t mind a link.

  4. cl Says:

    jayman,

    We can agree that “…any full investigation of this apparition, whether for or against its miraculous nature, would involve more than searching the internet.”

    But I must admit, I thought the Zeitoun apparitions were relatively recent. It appears the apparitions manifested over a period of 2-3 years in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s, and this takes at least some credibility away from the hoax theory. The current, published technologies I mention were not current, published technologies in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s. If the hoax theory is correct, then the state of top-secret technology in the military-industrial complex was absolutely astronomical in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s.

    As for photos, to me, the ones taken by Mr. Wagih Rizk appear completely amorphous. As shown on his site, they are certainly not enough to convince me that God was trying to show us a miracle via the resemblance of Mary and baby Jesus. Couldn’t God do better than these amorphous blobs of light? I could just as easily look at them and say I see Slimer from Ghostbusters.

    And as for concerns about the church being floodlit, Rizk states the lights were so great that one could not bear to look at them. Lights that great would hardly suffer competition from the church’s ambient lighting.

    cl, I’m leaning towards this as being a genuine miracle. At the very least no natural explanation actually fits the accounts I’ve seen. What would cast doubt in my mind would be if someone could point me to a technology that can project a 3D image that would do the things this apparition did. The projectors or laser light shows I am aware of do not match the accounts. If you have any good ideas I wouldn’t mind a link.

    Although I’ve now moved closer back to NULL, I still lean towards some sort of fraud. There is a particular technology I have in mind besides the one I already mentioned. I’m looking through some old notes to see what I can dig up. Should I find anything that might add to the conversation, I’ll definitely post it up here.

  5. nal Says:

    Also note that:

    <img=http://www.zeitun-eg.org/zeitun2002/zeitun200212.jpg

    is a drawing. As noted in the caption.

  6. nal Says:

    Third from the top.

    /Can’t do images.

  7. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    Honestly, Jayman, it really sounds from your objections that you suspect underneath it all that Zeitoun really is a hoax, and that you’re trying desperately to find SOMETHING that will let you keep believing in it. Not sure if it’s the case, but by your tone it certainly sounds it.

  8. Arthur Says:

    “A Marian apparition is certainly unambiguous, isn’t it now jim?”

    I think it’s safe to say that this apparition is being understood in a number of ways greater than one. Greater than two, even, given this thread.

  9. cl Says:

    Arthur,

    What I mean when I declare Zeitoun “unambiguous” is the factual existence of the apparitions themselves, not their source which is of course always debatable. How can anyone ever prove that particular God X caused particular miracle Y? Even if something calling itself God were to show up in real life, isn’t there still room for reasonable doubt? Isn’t there still room to understand a direct manifestation in a number of ways greater than one?

    Further, that you and I can have different understandings of the word “unambiguous” underscores my point – we need stringent and precise definitions and criteria, or else discussions over what is and is not a miracle amount to little more than subjective mental masturbation.

  10. Jayman Says:

    cl, the eyewitnesses said the apparition changed shapes and sometimes did look like balls of light. Considering the small number of photos on the internet (at least that I can find) I won’t make any sweeping generalizations. It is interesting that the first person to see the apparition thought it was a woman in danger on the church’s roof. This would be impossible if the apparition was always a blob of light.

    Nal, good point. Some of the images on that site are artistic representations and some are photographs.

    ThatOtherGuy, I have no evidence that it’s a hoax. The fact that I am not totally on-board about this being a miracle is because (1) I have not investigated the case thoroughly and (2) I realize I may be ignorant of a technology that makes a hoax a more likely scenario than it currently appears to be.

  11. nal Says:

    Pepper’s Ghost

    YouTube Pepper’s Ghost video

    Explains a lot. Like why it was only seen at night. Why it looks like an icon. There are other cool Pepper’s Ghost videos on YouTube.

  12. Arthur Says:

    “How can anyone ever prove that particular God X caused particular miracle Y?”

    I’m confused. Do you mean to suggest that there’s no data to support Christian claims?

    “Even if something calling itself God were to show up in real life, isn’t there still room for reasonable doubt?”

    Do you mean to suggest that God could be as convincing as He is able, and that an individual or a population He intended to convince could still be, or even pretend to be, genuinely unconvinced?

    “that you and I can have different understandings of the word “unambiguous” underscores my point”

    I don’t know… maybe, if you are open to multiple interpretations of the word “unambiguous,” it means something is wrong with your axioms. How did you make your peace with words like “stringent” and “precise”? And what do they mean to you that we cannot agree on what we mean when we say “unambiguous”?

  13. Mike Says:

    It is interesting that the first person to see the apparition thought it was a woman in danger on the church’s roof.

    If this report is true, doesn’t it suggest that the apparition was sufficiently vague as to be inconclusive? That an eye-witness wouldn’t necessarily interpret the apparition as Mary until they were “primed” by others’ reports?

    Further, I dismiss your claim that it would be “impossible” to mistake a projected image for a woman in peril on the roof of the church. Anything vaguely humanoid in shape can be mistaken at a distance for a human. Also, aren’t you claiming that Mary actually appeared; i.e., that there was a woman on (or around) the roof?

    Finally, why must Mary appear so far away? Why on the top of a roof? Why not get up close and personal with her admirers? I know one important reason why she might have to stay far away.

  14. Mike Says:

    Nevermind my comment about “aren’t you claiming that … there was a woman on the roof” .. Of course that is what you are claiming. Apparently I was quite confused when I wrote that..

  15. cl Says:

    Jayman,

    It is interesting that the first person to see the apparition thought it was a woman in danger on the church’s roof. This would be impossible if the apparition was always a blob of light.

    I see your logic, and it’s not necessarily incorrect, but I’ll still disagree. Here’s why: The possibility of an observer to frame an observation in any particular context says absolutely nothing conclusive about the actual appearance of the observation in question. IOW, that our first witness saw a woman on the roof does not entail that what she observed was anything more than just an amorphous blob of light. We could just as reasonably attribute her perception to pareidolia. And what do we know about this witness? Was she already a believer, which establishes a potential confirmation bias? Was she an unbeliever? All these factors weigh something in the larger case.

    Arthur,

    I’m confused. Do you mean to suggest that there’s no data to support Christian claims?

    First, let’s not unnecessarily frame our discussion in an exclusively Christian context. “Supernaturalism” and “Christianity” are not synonyms. Second, I do believe data exists that corroborates several spiritual claims. Note that corroboration is not tantamount to a hypothesis-proof.

    Do you mean to suggest that God could be as convincing as He is able, and that an individual or a population He intended to convince could still be, or even pretend to be, genuinely unconvinced?

    I don’t have an easily summarizable reply for the question of God’s omnipotence. Can God create something God cannot convince? If yes, is God < omnipotent, or are our interpretations of omnipotence flawed? Great questions, but my point is this: Let’s suspend God’s desire to convince from the equation, because we cannot presume that every miracle is motivated by God’s desire to convince an unbeliever. If God appeared right now and cleared out a cancer ward for whatever reason, then disappeared and went about doing God’s business elsewhere, there would still be some people that would doubt and propose things like SMERF’s as possible alternative explanations. That’s what I’m saying.

    How did you make your peace with words like “stringent” and “precise”?

    I haven’t, and that’s been the whole point of my constant reiteration that we need specific, pre-agreed definitions and criteria by which we might judge ANY alleged miracle and exclude the unlikely cases.

    And just of curiosity, what isn’t open to more than one interpretation? I’ve spent an entire day intermittently pondering this question, and no luck yet. For example, we see unambiguously that a woman is pregnant. The obvious conclusion is that she is not a virgin, but this conclusion can easily be incorrect. Or, you and I can unamiguously see and hear an angelic being of light that addresses us both by name, but does that prove the being is God, especially when the Bible states directly that Satan often masquerades as an angel of light?

    Mike,

    Anything vaguely humanoid in shape can be mistaken at a distance for a human.

    Good point, I agree.

  16. Jayman Says:

    Nal, thanks for the input. But how could witnesses sometimes be blinded by the light of the apparition if it was the result of a Pepper’s ghost effect?

    Mike, the first witnesses quickly concluded that it was the Virgin Mary. You are correct that from a distance someone might confuse a projected image for an actual woman. But these witnesses were on the street in front of the church. Some people did climb trees to try and get a better look and she also appeared in the church’s courtyard, not solely on the roof.

    cl, the first witness was a Muslim Farouk Mohammed Atwa.

  17. cl Says:

    Jayman,

    My mistake. I thought somewhere it was reported here that the first witness was a woman. I’ve never claimed to have investigated Zeitoun thoroughly, and apparently it shows. Also, that the first witness was Muslim significantly reduces the degree to which we might offer confirmation bias as an explanation.

    But you see my point, right? The possibility of an observer to frame an observation in any particular context says absolutely nothing conclusive about the actual appearance of the phenomenon in question.

  18. Jayman Says:

    cl, if your point is that people’s perceptions can be mistaken then you have no argument from me.

  19. Arthur Says:

    “The possibility of an observer to frame an observation in any particular context says absolutely nothing conclusive about the actual appearance of the phenomenon in question.”

    This is a long and complex articulation to come from someone who just claimed to have not yet found a satisfactory definition of the terms “unambiguous,” “stringent,” or “precise.” This sort of thing might be the source of some of those “muddying the waters” accusations you mentioned on your blog.

  20. cl Says:

    Arthur,

    Jayman summarized the articulation in question as the observation that people’s perceptions can be wrong. We can all agree that people’s perceptions can be wrong, correct?

    So, what in my juxtaposition of the fact that people’s perceptions can be wrong alongside a call for satisfactory definitions of “unambiguous,” “stringent,” or “precise” might justify one to believe I’m muddying the waters?

    Is there anything in the claim that people’s perceptions can be wrong which contradicts anything in the claim that we need satisfactory definitions to these words?

  21. Arthur Says:

    My only point is that, while you obviously have a broad and well-functioning vocabulary, every now and again you take an odd suspicious exception to parts of it. This whole “unambiguous” issue (which jim predicted– I thought he was joking) is simply strange: not believing that anything can be completely unambiguous doesn’t keep you from accepting a plain-language definition of the word. And what does it mean to call for “stringent and precise definitions and criteria,” and then turn around and say that those words you’re using also lack stringent and precise definitions?

    It’s entirely possible that my brain just isn’t keeping up. It wouldn’t be the first time. But, meaning no offense, I can see where it might become difficult for folks to take you at your word when you express a concern for clarity.

  22. cl Says:

    Arthur,

    I can see where it might become difficult for folks to take you at your word when you express a concern for clarity.

    Well, I’m not going to tell you that your perception of reality is wrong, and the best I can do is try to learn and improve from what you say. However, I do wonder at what compels people to presuppose ill faith or bad intent when they cannot make sense of a particular argument of mine, as many people often do. Either way, at the end of the day, we’re all just people talking.

    This whole “unambiguous” issue is simply strange: not believing that anything can be completely unambiguous doesn’t keep you from accepting a plain-language definition of the word.

    But therein lies a pivotal misunderstanding. It’s not that I don’t believe anything can be completely unambiguous, it’s that what each person is willing to accept as completely unambiguous is bound to differ. And why should that fact keep me from attempting to use or establish a plain-language definition of the word? The bottom line is this: If a group of people are going to have a discussion about what is and is not a miracle, and one of the criteria is that the alleged miracle must be “unambiguous,” and we’ve agreed that people will interpret “unambiguous” differently, then don’t we have a problem? I’m saying Yes, whereas it seems other people here don’t seem to mind so much.

    And what does it mean to call for “stringent and precise definitions and criteria,” and then turn around and say that those words you’re using also lack stringent and precise definitions?

    It means that we need to establish precise definitions for the words we are using, otherwise we’re bound to talk past each other indefinitely.

    And lastly, thanks for being candid without being condescending. Such can often work wonders.

  23. Arthur Says:

    I originally went over there looking for your reply to Damian. Is that something you could link to? He talks a lot better than I do.

  24. cl Says:

    I’ve been meaning to devote an entire post to Damian’s comment but I haven’t fleshed it out yet. It was a long comment! Keep an eye out though and when I get it posted I’ll come back here with the link.