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September 2012
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November 2012

Sexist Sceptics Revisited

This article by a female sceptic is worth looking at. The author, Rebecca Watson, is one of the main writers on Skepchick.org. She's very active - a big fan of Randi, critical thinking, etc. etc. - and always assumed that she was part of the same community of likeminded folk. That is, until one day she took the men gently to task for hitting on women at sceptic conferences. Cue a tidal wave of misogynist abuse. Then Richard Dawkins weighed in with an extraordinary comment on Pharyngula and all hell broke loose.

Watson has now stirred the pot with this much fuller article on Slate.com. It gives an interesting slant on the sceptic movement, and is worth a read. I'd be surprised if there wasn't a lot of discussion about it, and about what it means to be a sceptic.

It's not just sceptics who behave badly online, obviously. But they seem oddly prone to it.


Proof of Heaven

As we know, the secular world pays little attention to scientific research on psi and survival of death. But every so often someone stirs the pot, and then all its confusions and anxieties rise to the surface. We saw it last year with Daryl Bem's precognition experiments. Now it's Eben Alexander's turn, with the Newsweek article trailing Proof of Heaven, his book on his near-death experience that's about to be published.

It's being treated as a big deal because Alexander is not just anbody, he's a neurosurgeon. The kind of person who knows that near-death visions are hallucinations. But he's had one himself, it was a zinger, and now he knows better. He's converted. These things do really happen, he recognises, and he's had to rearrange all his ideas and prejudices.

You can see why sceptics have so much trouble with this. A scientist is supposed to be above this sort of thing, not tamely to give in to it. The main line of defence is that the experience didn't happen during the period of coma, but as the patient was starting to recover. Less seriously, Alexander is just "making up fairy tales to comfort himself after a serious shock".

There are also those who reassure themselves that these experiences are just an expression of humanity's deep-seated "longing for heaven" - as described in its culture and literature through the ages - which in my view is about as anti-scientific as you can get.

A couple of things occurred to me. One is about Alexander's experience, and the way he's presenting it; the other is about the coverage.

I'll be interested to see the detail in his book. I hope and expect that it will engage with the very considerable NDE research, and with the critical comment. But I didn't get much sense of that from the article. There Alexander acknowledges that he's far from being the first person to have had this sort of experience, however he believes he's the first to have done so while their cortex was completely shut down. But surely that was the case also with Pam Reynolds, and we know what sceptics thought of that.

He also thinks he's the first to have had such an experience "while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma." Perhaps so. But it's not the kind of detail that will change sceptics' views. They will continue to insist that the experience must occurred as he was coming out of coma.

This looks to me like another case of a scientist suddenly becoming convinced about psi, often from some personal encounter or experience, and imagining that his status will brush away all resistance. Stand aside, parapsychologists - this is a job for a real scientist! But William Crookes was astonished to find that his reputation counted for nothing when it came to his psychic researches. I got the same sense of hubris from psychologist Gary Schwartz, whose work with mediums was trumpeted with great fanfare, as if nothing of the kind had ever been done before, but changed nothing.

The way Alexander's experience is being presented is very much in that mould. I'm sure it wasn't his idea to title the book - and the article - 'Proof of Heaven'; that has the smell of publishers and editors, who want to provoke. But it is provoking to sceptics, who will double down on him; scientists and medical professionals just don't talk like that. It doesn't help that the experience itself is so - from the sceptic's point of view - Disneyesque: fluffy clouds and meadows, riding on a butterfly's wing accompanied by a fairy. It invites derision.

I'm sure Alexander anticipated that and perhaps there's an argument for going for the maximum publicity. It's good to try to get people thinking and talking about these things. I'm impressed with the amount of coverage his article has been getting, and struck by how little many people appear to know about the NDE phenomenon. The way people are talking, you'd almost think that the last thirty years of near-death research had never happened, and that the phenomenon was completely unknown. But of course, to secularists, it always is new. It's like Memento. It comes to their attention very rarely, and every time it does they have to learn about it all over again.

I was startled to read in a piece by John Harlow in the Sunday Times that "the two most stinging attacks" on Alexander came from two neuroscientists, Colin Blakemore and Peter Fenwick. Well Blakemore, OK, no surprise. But Peter Fenwick? The near-death researcher and author Peter Fenwick? Perhaps Fenwick might have reservations, but I found it hard to imagine that he would have rushed to express them, let alone that they would be "stinging".

Of course he didn't. Harlow's source, it turns out, was Blakemore's earlier Daily Telegraph piece in which he briefly quotes Fenwick talking, in general terms, about the fallibilities of memory:

[He] acknowledges that there are deep problems in interpreting first-person memories of experiences that are supposed to have happened when the brain was out of action. Since the lucky survivor can only tell you about them after the event, how can we be sure that these things were perceived and felt at the time that their brains were messed up, rather than being invented afterwards?

That sort of consideration is part and parcel of a scientific approach to the NDE phenomenon. It's exactly the kind of thing that any scientific researcher is bound to consider. But taken out of context it looks like a criticism. You would never suppose from Harlow's piece that Fenwick is a leading NDE researcher who takes the phenomenon seriously. The point that needed to be made - and which of course Harlow missed - is that Alexander is not the first person who is knowledgeable about neuroscience to consider the NDE inexplicable in conventional terms, and without the benefit of having had a subjective experience.

Not everyone respected the taboo. After reading Alexander's article Telegraph writer Jenny McCartney took herself off to YouTube and listened to a lecture by Fenwick. Her piece, titled "Let's not be shy about the afterlife", points out that children are buzzing with questions about death, so why not adults?

I have no idea why such phenomena might happen, or indeed whether they might have a physical or psychological explanation. The fact is, however, that many people are aware of them, but are almost embarrassed to discuss them in case they are dismissed as crazy: they speak of them privately, to friends. We are taught that such things belong to the slippery, shameful realm of unreason. Yet while superstition is a deep, dark bog, science has sometimes assumed a rather blinkered resistance to lines of inquiry that might conceivably collide with spirituality: Dr Fenwick is in a minority. We are still in the dark about death, and it's the biggest thing that happens to us. Why, unlike our children, are we not brave enough to ask it many more questions?

That seems to me exactly right.


Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience

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When Chris Carter's first book came out he mentioned he'd originally tried to do it all in a single volume, but was advised to separate it into three. As a writer who was trying to do something similar I could readily relate to that, but didn't think that I had that option. As a result I spent a lot of time trying to telescope complex arguments into a small space.

Carter, by contrast, has given himself the room to do full justice to the various different topics. His first two instalments tackled psi research and NDEs. With this latest book on survival-related research - spirit communications, apparitions and memories of a past life - he has carried his ambitious trilogy to a triumphant conclusion.

This is more than a survey; it's an uncompromisingly partisan argument in favour of survival. The last person to make the case with philosophical rigour was Robert Almeder some twenty years ago, and it's fitting that the book includes an foreword by him. An earlier one was by CJ Ducasse, which Carter frequently references, also perhaps CD Broad's Lectures in Psychical Research, but these of course didn't include near-death experiences or evidence for reincarnation. Stephen Braude's Immortal Remains is up there too, but, like Broad, he's more concerned with exploration than in making a committed statement. So it's not a crowded field.

The advantage of having plenty of room is that the topics are pretty comprehensively covered, with case studies representing a good range of evidence and illustrating all the main issues. It's also admirably laid out and structured. Much of the material is probably familiar to anyone who is reasonably well read in psychic research. On the other hand there were quite a few examples which I was glad to be reacquainted with, and others which were completely new, leaving me with the feeling that I don't know as much as I thought I did. One such is the chess match between living and deceased grandmasters, concluded in 1993, via a medium who knew nothing about chess - an extraordinary and apparently successful experiment.

I thought it was brave of Carter to tackle the cross correspondences, which to get the full impact of requires a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman literature that few now possess. I'm still not convinced that they make the case for survival as watertight as the SPR researchers at the time clearly thought it did. But at the very least one can clearly see the convincing appearance of their deceased colleagues trying to come up with ways to persuade them that mediumistic communications are not just confabulations in the minds of the living.

But could that not be the case? The nub in books about survival is what to do about the super-psi hypothesis, the possibility that survival evidence can be more economically explained in terms of a virtually boundless psi capacity in living humans. I'm used to seeing this quite fully described with some seriousness - and in Stephen Braude's case, with a large degree of sympathy - as if it's a real contender. Carter will have none of this, and in what, for me, was one of the best chapters of the book, provides a full array of cogently argued examples to show why it is untenable.

That is one of the most striking characteristics of Carter's writing, his unwillingness to make the slightest concession to sceptics. This book takes full account of possible counter explanations, and indeed is largely concerned with showing why they must be set aside in the key cases he describes. But unlike the two earlier ones it does not focus very much on individual debunkers. When they do appear, it is to no great effect. For instance Paul Edwards is brought in as the chief prosecutor in the section on reincarnation, but since his basic position is that survival and reincarnation are simply incredible, and for that reason cannot possibly be true, one is left feeling that there is not much to argue about.

A part of me thinks that agnostic readers may object to this, believing that Carter is not giving their natural objections fair representation. After all, they may reason, if traditional materialist science rejects the idea of survival so completely, then its arguments must surely be stronger than Carter is letting on. Another part of me recognises that he is right, at least as far as psychic research is concerned: the evidence, across several different categories, locks together to provide an absolutely convincing case.

So I certainly don't disagree with Carter about his conclusions, which I think are absolutely warranted. I also think this book, and the trilogy as a whole, is a tour-de-force, and that it's vital that authoritative interpretations like this are available to set against the productions of sceptics like Richard Wiseman, which, alas, seem to get much more exposure. The really big question is whether the books we write about survival will ever make much difference to public perceptions.

Reading Carter's book reawakened in me that sense of wonder that something so entirely obvious should in our time be so effectively suppressed. The bottom line is that a great many people - clever and humane - will take their first steps in a new existence filled with puzzlement, confusion and perhaps even anxiety. That surely can't be a good thing. But if we want to address this, we will have to find ways to get them even to consider the question, never mind weighing up the pros and cons of the evidence.