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NDEs In the Press

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.

Reply to James Randi

James Randi commented on my SPR talk on skeptic psychology (November 2 08), in which, among other things, I suggested that an unacknowledged fear of psi may motivate some skeptics. Here is his comment and my response.

I read this unsigned essay with great interest. Therein, I found a few canards of which I'd not previously heard. For example, I can assure the author that I, as a devoted skeptic but not a cynic, personally have no fear nor worry whatsoever that claimed psi phenomena might turn out to be real, as he thought might be the case with some. In fact, upon being presented with firm evidence establishing this wonderful circumstance, I would delight in trying to solve the modi operandi that might bring about telepathy, precognition, or other such phenomena.

The author writes: "Sceptics - identified as such from prior personality profiling - have been found unconsciously to influence the results of psi experiments by consistently producing results lower than would be expected by chance." Using that same standard, substitute "believers" for "sceptics," and "higher" for "lower." I believe this is properly described by an old saying involving interchangeable sauce for geese and ganders...?

The "It's the kind of thing I would not believe in even if it were true" statement is, to me, unforgiveable, and I cannot embrace that thought. I am a rationalist, and proper evidence will establish, for me, any claim. For the last decade, through the James Randi Educational Foundation, I have offered a one-million-dollar prize to any person who can establish that any paranormal, supernatural, or occult claim is true. The fact that no one has won this prize, nor even passed the preliminary stage of testing, either indicates that no one can do so, or that a suitable applicant has yet to apply. I prefer the latter possibility, though I admittedly have no belief in these wonders, because all that I've seen in my 80-plus years, have been the results of trickery or self-delusion.

The author also writes: "A great deal of what debunkers write in their books is not really researched at all closely, but simply lifted from earlier books." In respect to this comment, I refer you to the geese-and-ganders sauce application mentioned above... I note, too, that the author quotes extensively from staunch believers, and expresses little - if any - doubt that they speak sooth.

True skeptics are always willing to be shown, as I am. And it may happen, though I note that none of the prominent figures of today such as Uri Geller have expressed any interest in accepting my challenge. That, in itself, speaks loudly to the skeptic. But then, Geller appears to be making a bid to tell all, since he now only accepts the designation "entertainer" or "showman," not wanting to be described as "psychic." What will the next phase of his newly-adopted stance involve, I wonder?

James Randi.

James, thanks for responding to this. I was interested to hear your comments and I have a few small rejoinders.

'... substitute "believers" for "sceptics," and "higher" for "lower." I believe this is properly described by an old saying involving interchangeable sauce for geese and ganders...?' 

I agree that in a general sense bias works both ways. Here I was talking about its effect in psi experiments. Mean scores in card guessing, for instance, would suggest that a person is showing no evidence of psi. Consistent above-mean scores might indicate the action of psi, while below-mean scores is thought to imply that a person is unconsciously suppressing it. In these three scenarios, both the latter two are held to be paranormal.

I know skeptics have difficulty with this 'psi-missing' idea. It requires accepting that getting none right over a large number of card guessing trials, where five is expected by chance, is as abnormal as getting ten right. This is fairly well accepted in the parapsychological community, which it would surely not be if it was statistically unsound. It can be argued that abnormally poor scores are just the negative tail of random guessing scores, but if that was the case, they would be as common as the above average scores, when in fact they are quite rare. Also, they would not correspond to skeptic psychological profiles, which however they often do. 

'The author also writes: "A great deal of what debunkers write in their books is not really researched at all closely, but simply lifted from earlier books." In respect to this comment, I refer you to the geese-and-ganders sauce application mentioned above...'

I could have expressed myself more succinctly.  Of course both skeptics and paranormalists form their own communities, talking and listening to each other, as in any controversy.

My complaint relates to the claim of skeptic authors to offer expert guidance about paranormal reports, for the benefit of scientists who don't believe them but need expert guidance. This claim is suspect, when debunkers do so little direct investigation, and instead are often content to recycle alleged exposes and confessions which, in many cases, even a little critical thinking would show to be problematic. By contrast paranormalists really do make an effort to get to grips with abnormal experiences first hand, and with the primary sources.

A small example is your paper on the 1984 Columbus 'poltergeist' incident, which attributed the effects to pranks played by a 14-year old girl to attract attention, and is widely quoted in skeptic literature on the topic. Another main source is a chapter in a book by another magician, Milbourne Christopher, whose examples of hoaxes and confessions seem to be mostly gleaned from news reports, and again is widely quoted. That's pretty much it, apart from references to the Borley and Amityville cases, which arguably aren't typical of the poltergeist genre.

It's interesting that neither you nor Christopher, who tried to debunk the 1958 Seaford, Long Island case, gained entrance to the house in question or actually saw the incidents that caused all the fuss. By contrast this type of thing has been witnessed close up by a number of psychical investigators - eg Roll, Gauld and Cornell, Scott Rogo, Owen, Playfair and Grosse, etc - sometimes on several separate occasions, leading them to consider it a genuinely paranormal phenomenon. It's not clear to me that it needs skilled magicians to catch out teenagers playing tricks, or why their armchair analysis should be the more reliable.

'True skeptics are always willing to be shown, as I am. And it may happen, though I note that none of the prominent figures of today such as Uri Geller have expressed any interest in accepting my challenge.'

I've never thought that Geller was a good reason for believing in the genuineness of psi, or any single self-professed 'psychic' for that matter. But could their reluctance to be tested by you have something to do with the fact that they don't trust you?  In that case, it's not so much an indication of psi's non-existence as the short-comings of your challenge as a vehicle for advancing our understanding.

'...proper evidence will establish, for me, any claim.' What is 'proper evidence'? What James Randi says it is? Why not the tests and investigations devised by scientists who believe it to be a genuine entity? Or for that matter other magicians, like Robert-Houdin, who believed the clairvoyant Alex Didier to be genuine, or J.N. Maskelyne, who debunked seance mediums, but then privately experimented with table turning and, far from being convinced by Michael Faraday's explanation - which skeptics take to be the last word - thought a genuinely psychokinetic effect was at work.

It's difficult to reconcile your apparent openness in this posting with the aggressive polemic for which you are better known. My understanding is that your fame and influence rests on your skill in persuading people not to take psi claims seriously, which is hardly compatible with encouraging a genuine demonstration. The idea that the million-dollar challenge is a meaningful test is surely an illusion. Even if, by some fluke, someone actually did win the prize, what then? Would your followers believe it, or would they just say, poor chap, it got him in the end?

best wishes

Robert McLuhan

Unengaged, implausible, illogical

Among many issues that came out of my last entry, I was asked to provide evidence for certain claims I made about skeptics' behaviour. Here they are:

1) refusing to engage with parapsychological investigations on any level as being of no interest, undoubtedly fraudulent, obviously nonsense, etc.

It's surely not uncontroversial to say that this is true of many scientists, as most might proudly agree.  Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and Lewis Wolpert have all been fairly explicit about their lack of interest - to name only three. If you want a specific example, try Lewis Wolpert's attitude during a public debate with Rupert Sheldrake on telepathy - notably his refusal even to watch a relevant clip that Sheldrake was showing to support his case. 

Another example is the public exchange between Sheldrake and Atkins, in which Atkins candidly admitted he hadn't read any of the evidence of telepathy that he had dismissed as a 'charlatan's fantasy'.

2) engaging with [psychical investigations], but explaining them away with all kinds of implausible scenarios which in any other context no one would entertain for a moment

One could fill a book with examples. One that comes to mind at once is psychologist C.E.M. Hansel's 'explanation' for a successful experiment reported by J.B. Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s. Rhine's colleague Gaither Pratt tested a theology student named Hubert Pearce for ESP in card experiments. In four series involving a total of 74 runs, where 5 was the mean, Pearce scored averages of 9.9, 6.7, 7.3, and 9.3 - the odds of that happening by chance are a hundred thousand billion billion to one. In one of the experiments Pearce was guessing cards at pre-arranged intervals while Pratt was turning over the cards in another part of the building. (Rhine, J B and J G Pratt (1954), ‘A Review of the Pearce-Pratt Distance Series of ESP Tests’, Journal of Parapsychology, 18, 3, pp. 165-77.)

Hansel discovered that the office had a glass window opening onto the corridor, and proposed that, unknown to Pratt, Pearce had simply nipped upstairs and peeked through. When a different office was used, Hansel noted a trapdoor immediately above the table where the experimenter had sat; obviously Pearce had got above the ceiling somehow and looked through it to catch a glimpse of the cards. 

The effectiveness of this explanation is that it provides a theoretical loophole. But it's not remotely plausible in practice. Even if Pratt had been conveniently sitting just in front of the window with his back to it, Pearce would have constantly courted discovery, lurking in the corridor. As for getting into the ceiling and looking through a trap door... (ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Re-evaluation, (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1980), pp. 111-23.

Another example might be Richard Wiseman's attempt to debunk the Feilding Report, a minutely detailed description of sittings with the séance medium Eusapia Palladino in 1908, which concluded in a firm endorsement of paranormal effects. The sittings were held in a hotel suite, in a room (B) that could only be entered via the corridor and then through another room (A). Wiseman argued that once the sitting had started an accomplice effected entry into room A, removed a false panel from the wall separating it from room B (which had somehow been constructed prior to the sittings), clambered through, where he/she remained hidden from the investigators by the curtain which separated a corner of the room behind Palladino (this was where much of the phenomena originated, eg the appearance of hands and faces, instruments playing themselves, the curtain billowing outwards, etc). The accomplice, Wiseman maintained, faked all these things and then effected his/her escape prior to the end of the session.

Among many objections, critics of Wiseman pointed out that, quite apart from the implausibility of a panel being constructed without anyone knowing, and an accomplice doing tricks a few feet from the investigators without ever being spotted:

  • the curtain often billowed up high, revealing the space behind, which would instantly have given the accomplice away

  • much of the phenomena occurred in front of the curtain not behind it

  • the phenomena continued after the session had finished

  • Palladino achieved precisely the same effects in numerous other investigations where an accomplice could not have gained entrance.

(Richard Wiseman, 'The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration', Journal of  the Society for Psychical Research 58, 1991-92, pp. 129-52.)

I also think of Susan Blackmore's approach in Dying to Live to explaining away veridical out-of-body perception. This category of experience includes accident victims and hospital patients giving accurate descriptions of objects, scenes and events which they witnessed while they were unconscious, and which they could not normally be expected to have knowledge of.

One idea, which Blackmore puts forward, is that hospital patients are not always knocked out by anaesthetics and may have some residual sense of hearing, from which they can piece together what happened. There is some evidence that anaesthetics are not 100% effective in 100% of cases, so it's a point worth making. But she fills it out with the usual Humean claims about witness unreliability, that people get confused, or forget things, or exaggerate. This doesn't begin to account for the detailed visual descriptions recorded, for instance, by cardiologist Michael Sabom in his Recollections of Death (1982), where one patient commented on the surprising shape of his heart, as the surgical team lifted it out and snipped bits off, and another was surprised to see how deep her spine was within her body - other similar accounts describe incidents that occurred in other parts of the hospital out of range of their hearing.

Blackmore's performance here is spirited and confident, and out of context will convince like-minded sceptics who don't know exactly what it is she is trying to explain away. But if you do understand the context it's utterly lame - the desperate gambit of a clever defence lawyer with a patently guilty client and nothing to lose.

It's very hard to understand how a serious minded, objective person could take these sorts of 'explanations' at all seriously. One is left with the feeling that they are permissible because the alternative is just so flat out impossible that virtually any alternative scenario will do, no matter how implausible.

3) carrying out experiments in order to prove that, when properly conducted, the effect will not appear, getting an effect, and then explaining it away on the grounds of 'experimental flaws'

This happens on the rare occasions when skeptics carry out psi experiments. An example is their attempt to debunk Rupert Sheldrake's experiments in the sense of being stared at. In one experiment, Richard Wiseman used randomization tables to ensure that the subjects didn't start noticing patterns that enabled them to get correct guesses. But he still got significant results, and then decided it was because of the randomization.  (R. Wiseman & M. Smith, 'A further look at the detection of unseen gaze' Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association 37th Annual Convention. Parapsychological Association, 1994, pp. 465-78.)

4) carrying out experiments with psychics on television with a very precisely determined pre-agreed protocol, getting highly significant results, and then refusing to accept the results as valid

In 2005 National Geographic made a TV film on remote viewing. The publication has a reputation for skepticism, but Joseph McMoneagle, one of the most successful participants in the US military's Stargate programme, and Edwin May, who ran it, nevertheless both agreed to take part, on condition that the protocols were specified in advance and followed exactly.

The target, a bridge, having been chosen with no means whatever of McMoneagle identifying it from sensory clues or anything else, to the producers' satisfaction, he nevertheless not only proceeded to draw an accurate image of it, but described the route leading to it in surprising detail. The crew and producer expressed astonishment at the exact match, and two policemen who stopped by said McMoneagle's drawing was so detailed that they would have easily recognised the spot from seeing it. 

Interviewed at the end of the programme, the experts who had been invited to comment were unimpressed, a) because McMoneagle hadn't named the bridge, and b) because the match could merely have been a coincidence, achieved by guesswork. Why agree to a protocol, only to dismiss it so casually when it is precisely fulfilled?

Damien Broderick, who describes this curious tale in his book Outside the Gates of Science, comments: 'You get the impression a chimpanzee could have done it by reaching into a hat and pulling out a number. The copious valid and surprising details were ignored. Because it couldn't happen, therefore it hadn't happened.' (p. 113).