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Bodyshock: The girl with x-ray eyes

Last Monday (14 Feb) Channel 4 broadcast a programme about Natasha, a Russian 17-year-old girl who claims to be able to see into the bodies of patients and diagnose what is wrong with them. Rather rashly, she agreed to go to the USA to be investigated by a team from CSICOP (the Campaign for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal). The results were pretty much what one would expect: CSICOP concluded she had failed to prove her case.

The girl herself seemed to believe genuinely in what she was doing, although it was not very reassuring to learn, at the end of the programme, that she is now asking for donations from patients. First we saw her at work in Moldova, giving diagnoses which impressed the patients. There were also some satisfied previous customers, including one young man who had been told he had tuberculosis by the clinic; however, Natasha said it was not tuberculosis but another disease she could not identify. The patient went to Moscow, where he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. This can in fact present symptoms rather similar to tuberculosis so this was quite an impressive result for Natasha, although I couldn't agree that her rather crude sketch of what she 'saw' bore any obvious relation to sarcoidosis.

Once Natasha went to the USA, things predictably went downhill for her. The CSICOP people seemed to want to appear fair but it was clear what outcome they expected, and their manner was impersonal and distant. There were two parts to their test. In the first, Natasha was able to perform fairly freely and here she got a number of diagnoses right although some were wrong; the investigators thought she was doing a lot of fishing and were unimpressed. The second part was more rigorous. Now she had to match 7 written diagnoses with 7 patients; a score of 5 right would be accepted as significant. In fact, she got 4 right, which was said to represent odds of 50 to 1. Since she had not reached the preset standard, this was taken to be a failure.

In this second part of the test Natasha took much longer to 'read' each patient - about an hour in most cases, whereas previously she had been quite quick. She herself thought that she had done badly.

The critics made much of the fact that she had failed to diagnose the patient who had had a metal plate inserted in his skull. However, this only seems to be significant if you think she was actually using a form of 'x ray vision' rather than unspecified paranormal means.

Needless to say, her supporters in Russia were unfazed by this outcome and continued to believe in her; it was suggested that her relative failure could be ascribed to the critical attitude of the investigators.

At the end of the film we were shown Natasha getting excellent marks in her exams and preparing to go to Moscow to train as a doctor. I do wonder what will happen to her 'gift' in that environment. If it is real it certainly could come in handy when she is taking her final exams!

My reactions to the programme? Well, I don't think that Natasha does in fact have x ray eyes. So how do we explain her apparent successes at home? Luck, the picking up of subtle clues from patients' body language, fraud? It's impossible to know. It would be interesting to find out how many wrong diagnoses she makes in the ordinary course of events. My reason for doubting that she has real paranormal ability is essentially that adduced by David Hume in relation to miracles: it is easier to believe that there is some non-paranormal explanation than to take on board the wholesale re-evaluation of our scientific world view that would be entailed if she were really what she claims to be.

However, I didn't find the CSICOP investigation wholly convincing either. A score of 4 out of 7 is still fairly impressive, and while it may not prove the existence of anything paranormal it does suggest that Natasha may have the ability to detect subtle clues that give her valid information at times. The rather unsatisfactory and inconclusive end to the story is typical of parapsychological investigations in general.

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