Skeptics Baffled By Yet Another Lame ‘Doctors Baffled’ Story

Non-miraculous Dermatographic Urticaria, or 'skin writing'

Non-miraculous Dermatographic Urticaria, or 'skin writing'

There are few things more fun than when two classic pseudoscience memes clash. It’s a little game you can play, like a form of skeptic snap. Psychic healing? Sure. Astrology meets homeopathy? Why not.  Baffled doctors meets religious apparition? Of course. Which brings us neatly to a recent news story which featured, erm, well – baffled doctors and religious apparitions. Which explains my introduction, obviously.

The particular doctor-baffler in question is young Ali Yakubov, a new-born from the Republic of Dagestan – a small republic bordering Georgia and Azerbaijan. And the religious apparition? The mystrious and sudden appearance of passages from the Koran on his skin. Apparently, the parents of nine-month-old were stunned when the word ‘Allah’ appeared on his chin soon after his birth. So stunned, in fact, that they didn’t tell anyone about the signs from the almighty one. At least, at first. But when the writings appeared on a more regular basis, coming and fading a few times a week, culminating in the direct order to ‘Show these signs to people’, the parents took action and immediately announced their little miracle to the world. And of course they had documented proof that the signs were heavenly, and they did some very simple tests to prove that the messages were appearing without human intervention – for example, by having a camera set up to watch their child 24/7 and see that nobody was leaving the amazing marks on his skin. Something simple as that. You know, actual proof.

Oh, no, that’s right – they did none of that. Their proof was, in fact, the rather helpful assurance that, as the young boy’s mother pointed out, Ali was a second child, and this never happened with his older sister. I see. She also stated:

“Normally those signs appear twice a week – on Mondays and on the nights between Thursdays and Fridays. Ali always feels bad when it is happening. He cries and his temperature goes up. It’s impossible to hold him when it’s happening, his body is actively moving, so we put him into his cradle. It’s so hard to watch him suffering.”

Which is a phenomenal standard of evidence at play there, I’m sure you’ll agree. Still, it’s enough for the boy to be touted as genuine, and enough for him to become a focus of religious attention in his home province, which has become something of a Mecca to Muslims (I’m so sorry, I always wanted to crowbar that gag in somewhere).

Local MP Akhmedpasha Amiralaev said of young Ali:

“This boy is a pure sign of God. Allah sent him to Dagestan in order to stop revolts and tension in our republic.”

However, despite headlines of the usual ‘Doctors baffled’ ilk, not everyone buys into the miraculous nature of the phenomenon. In fact, Ludmila Luss, a local doctor, believes that the story with the inscriptions is masterminded by the boy’s parents, telling a local paper:

“They might have treated his skin with irritants, such as pepper and salt, or medications, which trigger skin inflammation and leave red traces in the shape of Arabic characters”

The parents may not have used any substances or medications if the child suffers from urticarial dermographism, also known as ‘skin writing’ – a skin disorder that occurs with five percent of the nation’s population. It is one of the most common types of urticaria, in which the skin becomes raised and inflamed when stroked or rubbed with a dull object. Therefore, if the child has such a disorder, writing anything on his skin would be entirely simple. She added:

“Some people suffering from gastric pathologies have extremely sensitive skin. If you draw something on their skin with a little stick, for example, the drawing will later appear”

Despite the clear medical explanation, clergy of the Northern Caucasus do not doubt that the boy is a divine phenomenon.

So, divine intervention or boy with skin disorder and adults in his life who’d like to use his skin disorder in order to get a bit of media attention? What does your skeptic sense tell you…?

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  1. #1 by Dana on October 29, 2009 - 13:47

    I feel really bad for this baby because his parents are probably treating him poorly. I don’t want to know what they’re doing to him to cause his skin to act up but clearly it can’t be good if he’s crying and breaking out into a fever, and they have to hold him down

  2. #2 by Mexkeptic on October 29, 2009 - 14:12

    I also got a divine message:

    If it’s urticarial dermographism, they might not be treating him poorly. It doesn’t hurt, it just itches a little and disappears in about half an hour.

    Love the podcast!

  3. #3 by Hayley on October 29, 2009 - 15:16

    I can remember reading a story about a lady who had urticarial dermographism and writes her shopping list on her arm using her fingernails.
    However, for such a thing to be done do a defenceless baby is so sad and so wrong.

  4. #4 by Michael on October 29, 2009 - 20:00

    It is the ‘Balloon Kid” but on a tighter budget.

  5. #5 by bob dezon on October 30, 2009 - 00:13

    Interesting theory time.

    Historically, books have been bound in human skin. The practise is called anthropodermic bibliopegy. If the skin used was taken from a person prone to dermatographic urticaria, could it be considered a proto etch-a-sketch?

    Also, this child is merely a tool for religious and media hype. As I posted on FB (where I first saw this) I suspect the child is being purposely marked by the parents, based upon the stylised arabic script.

  6. #6 by Andy on October 30, 2009 - 11:36

    Proto etch a sketch. Love that.

  7. #7 by AJ on October 31, 2009 - 02:26

    How benevolent of Allah to inscribe passages from his best-seller on a child’s arm, rather than, say, ooh i dunno, a cure for cancer and an end to immeasurable human suffering.

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