Precious few mainstream British journalists can write sensibly about any aspect of the paranormal. One is Bryan Appleyard, who had a piece in yesterday's Sunday Times magazine about near-death experiences. The article discussed Dr Sam Parnia's new three-year study of 25 UK and US hospitals which aims to interview 1500 survivors of cardiac arrests and find out if any of them report anything. The idea is similar to Penny Sartori's at Swansea (Just Coincidence, June 13): place pictures on high shelves that would be visible only to a patient experiencing an out-of-body experience, and look for patients who can identify them as a means to rule out naturalistic explanations.
Sartori's study was negative, but Parnia's is bigger, and Appleyard is upbeat about its prospects. He speculates that positive results could finally persuade even hardline sceptics to accept the NDE's dualist implications. Against the complaint that a mind independent of the brain is inconceivable, he evokes the non-locality principle in quantum mechanics, which Henry Stapp, a physicist at the University of California, is convinced applies to large as well as small things.
'The observer,' Stapp tells me, 'is brought into quantum dynamics in an essential way not only as a passive observer but as an active part of the dynamics. He make certain choices not specified by the physical dynamics which seem to come from the psychological described realm rather than the physically described realm...'
Quantum non-locality, Appleyard goes on, could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room.
It can become, as Stapp puts it, 'unglued'. His words 'certain choices not specified by the physical dynamics' are world-changing. This idea would, if widely accepted, end the reign of scientific materialism, replacing it with a new dualism. It would mean the universe is not a 'causally closed' system, locked down since the big bang, as mainstream science has always insisted it is, but open to freedom of choice by the autonomous, floating, matter-altering mind. We would have regained our souls.
Appleyard thinks that positive results from Parnia's survey would be 'seismic'.
First, you'd have to accustom yourself to the idea that your mind is not just the little man inside your skull - he really is out there in the world. Second, you'd have to accept that a lot of the things that now seem like products of charlatans and grifters - telepathy, spiritualism, even psychokinesis - will suddenly seem much more credible. Thirdly, you need not anticipate instant oblivion on death but a series of very weird and very illuminating experiences.
This would be a revolution, Appleyard goes on, but it would also be return to the past, to a world when people lived with a lively sense of the presence of the dead.
Strong stuff, but now Appleyard produces the required 'bucket of iced water'. Scientists who believe in dualism are still a small minority; the evidence remains anecdotal; and the most impressive stories tend to look less convincing on closer examination. Cue Susan Blackmore. 'There are many claims of this kind but in my long decades of research into NDEs I never met any convincing evidence that they are true.' Appleyard also mentions Jason Braithwaite's piece on Van Lommel''s study which I critiqued a couple of months ago ; this refers to evidence that even a brain that is flatlining may still be active. He doesn't try to rebut any of this, but nevertheless concludes that in the present state of our knowledge to assume that what goes on in the NDE is just another delusion is 'crude and premature'.
I first came across Appleyard's name in diatribes by scientists and sceptics complaining about a recent book, which naturally I rushed off and read. Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man is an outspoken but intelligent polemic against hard-core reductionism. There's nothing at all New Agey about it: Appleyard is interested in all aspects of modern culture, and his pieces for the Sunday Times are commentary on the contemporary British middle-class zeitgeist as seen through the prism of new books, art and films. His stance on other paranormal aspects is interested but aloof - a recent book about alien encounter experiences views it purely as a cultural phenomenon, worth exploring for what it tells us about ourselves - and writing about the Scole séance phenomena a few years back he was unconvinced.
Expressing a positive view of near-death experiences holds fewer hazards. This particular article is an elegantly written and accurate snapshot of the debate, and coming from someone with a platform to influence opinion is very welcome. It does of course suffer from the inevitable journalistic shortcomings. The heading - 'The afterlife has long been an article of religious faith. And now scientists are finally putting the idea to the test' - could have been written any time in the past hundred years. It's probably the sub-editor's doing, not his, but it does reflect journalists' obsession with the present, a sort of Memento world in which anything that happened longer than ten minutes ago never happened.
More seriously, I don't at all share Appleyard's optimism. Far from hardline sceptics being forced to throw in the towel I'm sceptical that positive results from this study would change anything at all. He quotes Chris French, who regards this as 'definitely a legitimate scientific inquiry' and offers his full support to refereed proposals of this kind, which considering French's status as a leading sceptic Appleyard thinks is important. But French might have said exactly the same about Van Lommel's hospital study, which nevertheless was the subject of a ruthless put-down in his magazine recently.
It's understandable that there should be such a focus on the veridical element of out-of-body seeing, as it's the kind of thing that ought to settle things once and for all. But by now it's becoming clear that it never does. There is always wiggle room, some objection that the creative sceptical mind can come up with. In the last resort sceptics can simply imply deceit or collusion. As long ago as 1982, Michael Sabom produced some striking evidence that what NDEers observed while out of the body could not remotely be explained by chance, overheard conversations or lucky guesses, but Susan Blackmore swatted it away as if it meant nothing, and she's the one sceptics listen to. Similarly at one time there was speculation that a blind person having an NDE would be truly convincing, but Kenneth Ring came up with some examples, and guess what - it made no impression at all.
I don't mean that Parnia's study isn't important, but any positive evidence will just be another brick in what by now is becoming a very large edifice. The real work that needs to be done, I believe, is in helping to change public perceptions and make paranormal research a legitimate subject for discussion. In that sense, informed journalists like Appleyard with a large audience among the educated elite are just as much players as the scientists they write about.