Professor Brainiacs and Smarty Pants Know-It-Alls: Popular Perceptions of Science and Scientists


The follow-up to yesterday’s post.

Professor_frinkI’ll admit it: I sometimes get frustrated when I hear people dis science. I feel like people who dis science don’t get how hard scientists work, how careful they are, how passionately they value the truth — even more than they value being right. (And like most people, they value being right a lot.) And I feel like people who dis science don’t appreciate the unbelievably vast degree to which it’s improved our lives, from polio vaccines to clean drinking water, from AIDS drugs to iPods.

Biochemistry_bookBut I also get it. Dealing with science as a layperson can be frustrating. You have to have a lot of trust in people who are talking a gobbledygook lingo that you don’t understand, about concepts that are often baffling at best and wildly counter-intuitive at worst. And while both experimental methods and results are theoretically transparent and available to anyone for review, the chances that a layperson will be able to make heads or tails of some paper on low-resolution structures of thyroid hormone receptor dimers and tetramers in solution are, shall we say, slim.

So I want to talk here about some of the reasons science gets a bad rap — and why I think that bad rap is much less deserved than many people think.

*****

Newspaper1“Frontier” science and the news media. Most of the scientific research that most of us read or hear about in the news is what’s called “frontier science” — new research, new theories, new results. And pretty much by definition, frontier science isn’t very solid. Frontier science is one study, one person’s theory, one surprising set of results. It’s important, but it hasn’t yet gone through the whole process of replicating and review to see if it holds up. Some of it pans out — a lot of it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, people’s reaction is to say, “See? Scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Atkins_dietYou see this a lot in the science of nutrition. Because it’s a subject of tremendous personal importance to most people, new/frontier nutrition science gets a HUGE amount of news coverage. But because what’s being reported on is frontier science, the new research frequently gets discarded or discredited. And so people’s reaction to new discoveries in nutrition is often to say, “God, every week it’s some new damn theory — how the hell am I supposed to decide what to eat?”

Newspaper2The problem, of course, is that while frontier science isn’t solid science, it makes for excellent news. No news agency in the world is going to run with the headline “Scientific Consensus Finally Reached After Years of Careful Replication and Peer Review.” (Unless it’s about global warming — then sometimes they will.) It reads like something you’d see in the Onion. And no news agency in the world is going to run the headline, “No, Really, We Keep Telling You — More Fruits and Vegetables, More Whole Grains, Less Junk Food, And A Whole Lot More Exercise.” It doesn’t sell ad space.

Anyway, this problem doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

DoctorMedical science. Medicine is almost certainly the branch of science that most people have the most immediate personal experience with. And medical science can be extremely frustrating. The excruciatingly long, uncertain in the short term, “there’s way too much information that we just don’t have yet” nature of scientific research… that can be unbearable when you’re trying to get treatment for your cancer or your depression or your bad knee. And I think it leads a lot of people to think that doctors and scientists don’t know anything. It’s not very fair — science is science, and it’s slow and stuttering whether you’re researching gamma rays or HIV. But it’s awfully damn hard to wait fifty years for the research to play out when you’re in unalleviated pain, or you’ve only got one year left.

But as painful as this problem is, it doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

Dumb__dumberThe devaluing of the intellect in our society. Modern American culture is, to put it mildly, not one that values reason, intellect, or education. (To the great detriment of our school system, I might point out.) We’re a culture that sees intelligent, educated people as smarty-pants know-it-alls who think they’re better than the rest of us.

GeorgebushThis is a problem for a lot of reasons. I could write a whole post about it, and at some point I might. But one of the biggest reasons is political. When we don’t value reason or evidence, we play right into the hands of leaders who know how to manipulate us by pulling our emotional strings; leaders who get us to trust our gut — i.e., our fears and prejudices — rather than the evidence.

And we still have the central assertion on the table — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

Troy_mcclureCrappy science education. This, I think, is directly related to the previous bit about the devaluing of the intellect. Science education in our schools often seriously sucks. And I’m not even talking about the whole creationism/ evolution controversy; go read Evolutionblog if you don’t know enough about that, and how badly it fucks up our schools.

Fuzzy_bunnys_guideI got extraordinarily lucky. I got an elementary and high school education that didn’t just teach scientific facts and theories, but that taught — as early as third grade — the scientific method. (Really. In third grade science class, we had these weird little comics explaining, among other things, the difference between observation and inference.) Most kids don’t get that. And the grown-up news media doesn’t do a very good job of explaining it (see “Frontier science and the news media” above). So most adults don’t understand that much about it. (Oh, and for the record: I don’t think this is the fault of science teachers. I think most of them are great and do the best they can with what they have. I think it’s mostly to do with politics: lousy funding, and No Child Left Behind, and pressure from anti-science parents’ groups, and the like.)

And we still have the central assertion on the table — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

MriLimited resources. The complaint Layne made — about how no scientist is going to use their Magnetic Resonance Imagery equipment to examine the theory of interpsychic sexuality — is a very common one. People especially make this complaint about alternative medicine — that scientists dismiss it for not having been tested carefully, but then refuse to devote their resources to doing that testing.

And there’s some truth to that.

Mri2The problem is resources. Had they but world enough and time, I’m sure the researchers at Stanford would be delighted to use their MRI equipment for studies on telepathy in SM sex. (If for no other reason, it would be a whole lot more entertaining for the research staff than whatever they’re working on now.) But science is both ungodly time-consuming and ungodly expensive, and researchers aren’t going to put their very limited time and budget into avenues of research they think are unlikely to bear fruit. And the reality is that every single serious, careful study that’s been done on other forms of telepathy has failed to find any evidence of it.

Bone_scanSo when there are a hundred scientists in line to use the MRI equipment and the only slot you could get was on Labor Day between two and four a.m., you’re not going to spend it testing sadomasochistic telepathy. You’re going to spend it testing your theory about calcium supplements and bone density, or brain damage in alcoholics. (And even if you do want to spend your time and budget testing sadomasochistic telepathy, the people whose job it is to allocate time slots on the equipment aren’t likely to do it — for exactly the same reason.)

AlchemyTo believers in paranormal phenomena, that can seem really unfair. But here’s the thing we have to remember. In the early days of modern science, metaphysical theories were considered a lot more credible, and they got a fair amount of serious scientific attention. But when they were seriously tested, those theories fell apart — and the more the scientific method improved, the harder they fell. It isn’t that scientists are unwilling to do the research because they don’t believe the theory. It’s the exact opposite — they’re unwilling to seriously consider the theory because the research doesn’t support it, and never has.

Skeptical_inquirerAnyway, that’s what CSI (the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly CSICOP) is for. That’s what they do. They take claims of paranormal or spiritual phenomena, and subject them to the same careful scrutiny and controlled experimental protocols that physical phenomena get subjected to. (They do non-paranormal research and analysis as well, on subjects ranging from magnet therapy to sex predator panic, and from the Kennedy assassination to Bigfoot.)

And as unfair as it may seem, this problem still doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

BoxScientists can’t think outside the box. Again, this is one of the most common complaints leveled against scientists by believers in the spiritual, paranormal, and/or woo. It’s related to the argument above: people argue that scientists won’t even consider a theory of, say, telepathy or reincarnation, since it’s outside their narrow beliefs and expectations about the world. And of course, there’s some truth to this. Scientists are human, and like most people they have a difficult time thinking outside the box of their beliefs and expectations.

EinsteintongueBut it’s also true that in science, revolutionary thinking is highly prized. Possibly even too much. In fact, it’s a complaint I’m beginning to hear a lot of: every goddamn researcher wants to be Galileo or Darwin or Einstein. Nobody wants to be the reliable workhorse who clarifies a fine point of the existing theory. Everyone wants to be the world-famous breakthrough person who changes the paradigm.

And while this trait can be annoying, it also goes a long way towards counteracting the “inability to think outside the box” problem.

VenusIngrid once gave me a great example of this. She was watching a TV show where the guest was a woman who claimed to be from the planet Venus, who claimed that there were domed cities on Venus and she still had relatives there. The show also had an astronomer on, who asked this woman, “Okay, can you show me where on Venus I can find these domed cities?” The woman hemmed and hawed and said, “Oh, there’s no point, you won’t believe me, you scientists don’t want to believe this.” And the astronomer replied, “Are you kidding? I would LOVE to be able to prove that there are domed cities on Venus! If I could prove that, I’d be the most famous astronomer since Galileo!”

Scientist3And that’s true of all this other stuff we’ve been talking about. If a scientist could prove — really prove, with hard, carefully-gathered, carefully controlled, replicable evidence — that there was life after death, or metaphysical telepathic communication, or an animating force infusing all living things, or any of this stuff we’ve been talking about — it would be an ENORMOUS contribution to science. They’d be more famous than Freud and Oliver Sacks combined. They’d probably become the most famous scientist in history.

In any case, this problem still doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

Science_magazineScience keeps changing — so how can we trust it? One of the problems is that people who distrust or dismiss science often say things like Layne did, that “history is also littered with disproved and discredited science” — and that this somehow discredits science.

Scientific_method_2But people who value science don’t see this as a sign of science’s failure. On the contrary — we see it as a sign of its success, of science working exactly the way it’s supposed to. When enough evidence comes along that contradicts a theory, that theory gets discarded and replaced by a better one. A theory is only as good as the most recent results.

ScaleNow, obviously, there’s a limit to this “most recent result” thing. As a science professor of mine once pointed out, if one of his students got a result that the density of helium and the density of lead were identical, that professor would not be rushing off to publish the results in “Science.” He would, instead, be checking to see whether that student had turned on their scale.

Earth_axisThat’s where the whole “extraordinary theories require extraordinary evidence” thing comes in. If a theory has stood up for decades or centuries, if it’s explained all the evidence so far and done a good job of predicting new evidence, then one anomalous result won’t be enough to make everyone question the theory. And it shouldn’t. Anomalous results happen too often — and they too often turn out to be explainable by something in the “they forgot to turn on their scale” department. A really solid theory that’s held up for a long time needs a metric shitload of evidence for it to be discarded and replaced.

ApolloAnd here’s the thing: Of course it’s true that scientific theories have been discarded and replaced. But they’ve consistently been replaced with other scientific theories, other naturalistic explanations of the world. This is the point I was making in The Unexplained, The Unproven, and The Unlikely — not that naturalistic theories never get replaced, but that they never get replaced by supernatural ones. (Not ones that are supported by mountains carefully collected, carefully controlled, peer-reviewed, replicated, etc. evidence, anyway.)

Anyway, this problem still doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

Atomic_bombScience has resulted in bad things. From tasteless agribusiness food to the atom bomb, from racist intelligence testing to gays and sadomasochists being diagnosed as insane, from thalidomide to eugenics to the Tuskegee syphilis study, history is full of terrible, harmful results of science. (And I haven’t even mentioned Cool Ranch Doritos…) In many of these cases the science was bad science, and eventually got corrected — not just the results, but the scientific method itself. But it sucks deeply when the slow, self-correcting process of the scientific method is being corrected on your back. And in some of these cases the science wasn’t bad. It was flawless. It was just applied in a profoundly unethical way.

VaccineI’m not going to pretend that this stuff isn’t real. I don’t think it’s fair to praise the benefits we’ve gained from science — and they are legion, from vaccines to clean drinking water to HIV medicine to the Interweb — and not acknowledge the curses it’s handed us.

Witch_burningAll I can say is this: It’s not like human beings need science to do terrible, stupid things to each other. And it’s not like the religious/ spiritual impulses of humanity haven’t led to horrors as well. For every atom bomb and toxic farm and electroshocked homosexual you can show me, I can show you a religious war, a witch-burning, a piece of knowledge being violently suppressed, a fraudulent psychic preying on the hopes and fears of the gullible, a child getting beaten up for being Catholic or Jewish or Muslim.

Circle_of_arrowsAnd unlike the scientific method, religious or spiritual beliefs often don’t have a built-in self-correcting mechanism. Quite the contrary. Any religious or spiritual belief that’s based on the idea that faith/ feeling/ doctrine/ intuition trumps evidence (and many of them are) has the exact opposite — a built-in self-perpetuating mechanism.

Anyway, as troubling as this problem is, it still doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

TeslaScientists are arrogant.

Well — yeah.

Some of them are, for sure, what with them being human and all. And it could easily be a disproportionate amount. I don’t know if there’s ever been a double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicated study comparing the arrogance of people in different careers — but if there were, it wouldn’t surprise me to see scientists on the high end of the list. (Especially if you include doctors.) Science is not a field for fragile egos — it’s a field where you’re constantly having to defend your ideas, and the discourse is not always polite.

Richard_dawkinsBut even if scientists are, on the whole, more arrogant than average (and I’m not totally convinced that they are — arrogance is a pretty common human trait)… I’m not quite sure how to say this, but it’s a different kind of arrogance. There is nothing in the world like the arrogance and smugness of someone who has been vigorously trained to admit when they’re wrong — whose entire life’s work and professional community are based on the principle that people have to admit when they’re wrong or else the whole thing goes kaflooey — and who knows they’re capable of doing it, and has almost certainly done it dozens or even hundreds of times in their career. (There was just an episode of The Office about this, when Michael says, “It takes a big man to admit his mistake — and I am that big man.”) As smug and self-righteous as people can be when they’re loudly insisting that they’re right, it does not even come close to the smug self-righteousness of people who are loudly pointing out that they’re big enough to admit their mistakes.

And while that kind of arrogance can be extremely annoying personally, it’s not the kind of arrogance that gets in the way of the truth.

Aids_drugsIngrid was actually just talking about this. Ingrid is a nurse practitioner in the field of HIV and AIDS, and she goes to conferences where researchers report the results of their studies. And she says that people report surprising results ALL THE TIME. She says it’s a world full of enormous egos… and yet, people are CONSTANTLY reporting that, “We went into this study completely expecting A to happen, but much to our surprise, B happened instead.” (I keep saying this, but it bears repeating: You can have all the expectations in the world, but if your research protocols are good, the outcome is going to be the outcome no matter what you expected.)

Nelson_hahaAnd, she points out, nobody stands around them pointing and laughing and saying, “Ha ha, you thought A was right, you stupid twit, boy were you wrong.” There is hearty and fierce debate in the scientific world… but there’s also a basic understanding that having your hypotheses proven wrong is an essential part of how the process works.

Ted_haggardBesides
 you know, it’s not like there aren’t arrogant jerks in religion and spirituality. From Ted Haggard to Deepak Chopra, the world is full of arrogant spiritual leaders. Not just the leaders, either: ordinary spiritual believers can be every bit as condescending about their world view as scientists. And much of the time, they’re NOT in a field that’s founded on the principle that a theory is only as good as the last piece of evidence supporting it. Quite the opposite. (See Science has resulted in bad things above.)

Science_journals_2This is the big difference, the thing I keep coming back to. Scientists may be arrogant — but they can back up their arrogant opinions with carefully gathered, rigorously examined, replicable evidence. (And if they’re wrong, they’ll get some equally arrogant scientist smacking them across the head and telling them so.) Spiritual believers are much more likely to back up their beliefs with, “Well, that’s just how I feel,” or, “I know it in my heart,” or, “That’s what the Bible/ Torah/ Koran/ whatever tells me,” or, “It’s just intuitively obvious.” And they’re more likely to think that this somehow ends the conversation — that their intuition and/or doctrine and/or personal experience is good enough evidence, by itself, to base their beliefs on. While there are certainly exceptions (the Quakers are a good counter-example, as they so often are), many religious and spiritual beliefs have, at their very foundation, the idea that faith is more important than reason or evidence. (Again, see Science has resulted in bad things above.)

And this problem still doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

WeddingScience is limited – there are certain kinds of questions it simply can’t answer. Is the scientific method limited? You betcha. There are huge, important questions about life and human experience — what kind of art we like, what kind of sex we like, where we decide to live, what career we pursue, who we fall in love with — that are fundamentally subjective, that are about how we experience the world and not how the world is, and that are to a great extent best understood by introspection and emotion. (Although I sure do know a lot of people who would seriously benefit from applying a little more reason and evidence in their romantic and sex lives…)

DobermanAnd of course, in everyday life, we have to make quick decisions about the world without subjecting them to years of careful research and replicability and peer review. Whether to pet the dog or stay three feet away from it, whether we have time to make that left turn before the light turns red, whether someone we pass on the street might be a threat… all these evaluations and thousands more have to be made fast, with limited evidence and our gut feeling. (Although again, I think a little more reason and evidence could help improve these decisions for a lot of people. It could go a long way towards minimizing the “clutching your purse when a black man passes you on the street” phenomenon, just for example…)

Telepathy2But when you’re arguing — for instance — that the soul is a real metaphysical entity that survives death, or that prayer can help treat illness, or that people can communicate telepathically… that’s a completely different ball game. Those are claims, not about our personal subjective experience, but about the objective world. And those are exactly the kinds of claims that the scientific method is suited to investigate.

And once more, this problem still doesn’t contradict the central assertion — that the scientific method is the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it.

*****

Question_mark_headFinally: Even if, after all this, you remain dubious about science and the scientific method — how does that dubiosity support a claim of the paranormal? Even if someone could convince me that the scientific method was hopelessly flawed, how would that support a claim that paranormal phenomena are real? Even if someone convinced me that scientists are far too subjective and attached to their opinions to be able to observe the world accurately, why would that show that paranormal claimants are less subjective, less attached to their opinions? Even if someone convinced me not to trust CSICOP, why would that convince me that I should trust Deepak Chopra? (Or whoever.)

In other words: If you’re not going to rely on some sort of methodical system for evaluating what is and isn’t true — apart from “It just seems right,” which we know to be among the worst arguments in history — then on what basis are you trying to convince me (or yourself) that your beliefs are right?

AirplaneThere’s something Richard Dawkins says about this. It’s his response to the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” His response: “There are no cultural relativists at 30,000 feet.” If you’re in an airplane, he says, and it stays in the air, it’s because a whole bunch of scientists got their sums right.

Polio_vaccine_2And this is one of the things that bugs me most about the “What has science ever done for me?” argument. Science is why you can fly to London. Science is why you don’t have to be afraid of getting smallpox or polio. Science is why we understand that our planet is not the center of the universe, and that our species is not the center of the planet. Science is why you can go off about how science can’t be trusted… on the Internet. Science is why you have friends with AIDS with a life expectancy of more than six months. The reason for all of this is because of scientists who used the scientific method, instead of their gut, to make sure that their orbit calculations and polio vaccines really worked.

Inconvenient_truthRemember what I was saying earlier about the devaluing of the intellect in our society and the political consequences of it? One of the most crucial examples: Science is why we know global warming is happening. And the mistrust and scorn of science and scientists is a huge part of why we’re not doing enough about it. It’s not the motivation for the denial — the motivation is greed and inertia, mostly — but it sure gives a handy excuse. “Oh, those scientists, they don’t even all agree, and what do they know anyway?”

Scientist2Scientists aren’t perfect. But they work really hard doing something really important, something fundamental to what makes us human — trying to understand who we are, and what the world around us is, and what our place is in that world. They make mistakes, whammys sometimes. But in the long run those mistakes tend to get filtered out — and in the meantime, they’ve contributed not only practical assistance to our daily lives, but insight into who we are. And their method really is the best one we know of for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it. I certainly haven’t seen or heard of one that’s better. We should, of course, view scientists with as much skepticism as they view one another. But I strongly believe that, on the whole, they deserve our respect and trust.

Comments

  1. Eclectic says

    There’s a lovely story that Dawkins tells in “The Root of all Evil?” I wish I could wrap this in blockquote tags, but typepad doesn’t seem to allow any markup at all:
    A formative influence on my undergraduate self was the response of a respected elder statesmen of the Oxford Zoology Department when an American visitor had just publicly disproved his favourite theory. The old man strode to the front of the lecture hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing, emotional tones: “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” And we clapped our hands red. Can you imagine a Government Minister being cheered in the House of Commons for a similar admission? “Resign, Resign” is a much more likely response!
    Lots more at
    http://webspace.utexas.edu/jlp827/quotes.html
    including the rather nice
    Who ever heard a theologian preface his creed, or a politician conclude his speech with an estimate of the probable error of his opinion? — Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
    Feynman (whose essay on “cargo cult science” is also worth reading: http://wwwcdf.pd.infn.it/~loreti/science.html ) mentioned that one of the nice things about science is that if you’re right, it doesn’t matter what the academic qualifications are of the people who disagree with you. Nature agrees with you, and she casts the deciding vote.

  2. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Greta:
    Thanks for the splendidly organized defense of the scientific method, full of impeccable logic. However, as much as I may agree with many of your points, especially as regards science method as an ideal for exploration of the physics and chemistry of things, I disagree with the overall conclusions of your analysis when comes to matters outside the easily observable and replicable physical universe arena.
    I hope that you are not getting bored with me playing Dr. McCoy to your Spock. I will not engage in a point-by-point rebuttal. In general, I just don’t agree, that when it comes to so-called paranormal (what they view as paranormal) phenomena, scientists work hard, are careful or passionately seek the truth. On the contrary, I think they are condescending and often rather smarmy in their transparent glee at finding ways to debunk stuff that is hogwash according to their preconceived notions. Often the skeptics who review paranormal claims do so primarily by advancing a theory as to how the claims can be otherwise explained; and often those theories are pretty ridiculous.
    Furthermore, while I agree that the scientific method is indeed the best method we have for minimizing human error and bias in observing the world and trying to explain it, that method, in its strict application, only works well where the matters being examined are subject to objective scrutiny. It works less well and we need to be careful when it comes to — to cite examples — the social sciences and in psychology, where “operational definitions” require a lot of assumptions; in medical research, where financial considerations often drive the process; and in research of so-called paranormal matters.
    On the other hand, some of the most fruitful knowledge we have about human nature comes from ethnological research and depth interviews, hardly the stuff of hard science.
    Maybe I am wrong when it comes to the Center for Skeptical Inquiry that you cite as subjecting claims of paranormal or spiritual phenomena to the same careful scrutiny that physical matters get.
    So I decided to run a little test. I think I know what the results of my “research” will be. (If I am wrong in this instance I will post an abject statement of my experience.) I ordered a back issue of the magazine in which there is a review of Raymond Moody’s research into near-death experiences. I have followed along somewhat the Moody research since his first book came out and I have read some of the rebuttals. Here is what I expect the review to say: That the reports of people who have died and been resuscitated (the well-known going down a dark tunnel and seeing a being of light) can be explained by a sort of brain-fart of electrical activity that takes place in such circumstances according to some accounts. This is a poor explanation, a stretch, since this does not match the descriptions given as very real, more real than life experiences, and it does not account for the very frequent similarity in accounts. I also expect the review to question the Moody research because it was done in a confidential venue and getting access to the raw data is refused.
    Here is what I do not expect to see in the magazine: Any serious or careful effort to replicate the studies (Moody and his team in the second book state they interviewed many hundreds of subjects) which should be an easy thing to do. All researchers have to do is ask hospitals to report on resuscitations after clinical death and then ask the patients to describe their experiences. If they subject Moody’s research to careful scrutiny that is what they should do. I’ll report back later with the results after I get the back issue.
    Layne

  3. Barb says

    Re: Layne’s comments on Raymond Moody. 1) Anyone who refuses to provide access to his raw data loses all credibility as a scientific investigator. 2) I can think of two obvious explanations for the claimed similarity of accounts given by Moody’s subjects: a) The accounts are similar for the same reason that accounts of aliens who abduct humans and conduct sexual examinations of them are similar – there is a script in our culture for this event, which people unconsciously draw upon. b) The process of “dying” and being revived entails various biochemical events in the brain. Perhaps, as Layne puts it, there is something along the lines of a brain-fart of electricity. If the subjects undergo the same or similar biochemical events in their brains, how surprising is it that they have similar subjective experiences? If you step on five people’s toes, all five will report the same subjective experience of pain. 3) Layne suggests that the scienbtific method is less effective in studying such fields as medicine, the social sciences, and the paranormal. Assuming this is true, it does not refute Greta’s point that the scientific method is still the best means we have of investigating truth claims. What alternative does Layne suggest that is more reliable? Incidentally, Layne proffers reasons (not terribly convincing in my view) for thinking that the scientific method is less effective in studying the social sciences and medicine than the hard sciences. But he doesn’t offer any explanation for why the scientific method should be less effective in investigating the paranormal. In fact, the only evidence that the scientific method is unsuited to testing paranormal claims is its failure to substantiate those claims. Does this failure indicate a limitation of the scientific method? Only if you believe a priori, as Layne evidently does, that paranormal phenomena exist. Paranormal claims have been rigorously and repeatedly tested using the scientific method – the best investigatory method we have – and they have consistently failed. The only position a logical person can hold, based on the best evidence we have, is that there is currently no reason to believe in the paranormal and strong reasons to disbelieve.
    Barb

  4. says

    Well, a couple of things.
    Actually, a few things.
    First, Layne, I want to repeat back to you something you said to me earlier: which is that this debate has been a pleasure. I obviously disagree with your ideas and have problems with some of your reasoning; but you’ve been pleasant and more than civil, and you’re making me sharpen and clarify my own ideas.
    Okay. Back to the fray. Mostly I just want to say, “What Barb said.” Damn. Thank you, Barb. Yes. But I do have some more specific points.
    A broad observation first. In looking over your comments, it seems that you’ve been making two main points over and over again. (Please correct me if I’m wrong in my assessment.). One: Scientists are biased against paranormal or spiritual claims — therefore their testing of these claims is not to be trusted. Two: The scientifically-gathered evidence countering claims or the spiritual or paranormal goes against your intuition and subjective experience — therefore it can’t be right.
    And I keep replying: One: While bias and expectation can and does affect scientific research, it can’t shape it absolutely — if experimental protocols are set up right, the results will be the results regardless of expectations, and scientists are surprised by the outcomes of their experiments all the dang time.
    Two: It’s putting the cart before the horse to say that modern scientists won’t see the paranormal because they’re biased against it. It’s the opposite — they’re unwilling to seriously consider the theory because the research overwhelmingly doesn’t support it, and never has. For decades of scientific history (arguably centuries, depending on how you define “scientific”), metaphysical theories were considered quite credible. It was only when the research failed to support it that they began to reject it.
    And three: Intuition and subjective experience have historically been shown to be TERRIBLE judges of scientific theories: from the earth being round to humans being descended from apes. That’s the whole point of the scientific method — to test if the things we think are true really are true, or at least plausible.
    Is that your assessment of the debate as well? And if so, what is your counter-reply? I may have missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen it — just restatements of your original points.
    Now a couple of more specific replies.
    Yes, scientists investigating paranormal and spiritual claims are sometimes smarmy and condescending. I wish they weren’t. But why does that preclude them from being careful and passionate about seeking the truth? If anything, it seems to me that paranormal investigators are OBSESSED with making sure their experiments are not only rigorous, but fair, and more than fair. They want to be damn sure that their case is airtight. (The “Girl With the X-Ray Eyes” case is a prime example — they gave her the benefit of the doubt *way* more than I would have.)
    If you think a piece of research is biased, then critique the testing protocols — not the researchers. An ad hominem critique of the researcher’s character doesn’t address the validity of their results. As Ingrid keeps pointing out, if smarminess and condescension made us rule out scientific conclusions, then we’d have to reject an enormous body of AIDS research. (And if smarminess and condescension made us rule out conclusions in general, the world of religion and spirituality would be in deep trouble. There’s plenty of smarm and condescension to go around on both sides of this debate.)
    Re your “near death experience/Raymond Moody” example: That is one instance where you’ve responded specifically to my point that a good scientific investigation will get accurate data regardless of the researchers’ bias, and I want to reply to it. But Barb pretty much said what I was going to say — dead on — and I don’t have much to add. I do want to add this: I don’t agree at all that the research you propose would shed any light on the question of life after death. All it would tell us is how people who came close to death subjectively experienced it. It would tell us nothing about what caused them to have that experience. Like I keep saying, while subjective experiences are important and not to be ignored, they also can’t be taken as the final word on the subject.
    And as to the “all the debunkers do is offer their own alternative explanations without doing any independent research” critique
 well, according to the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” principle, they don’t have to. It’s not up to skeptics to prove that paranormalists are wrong — the paranormalists are the ones making the extraordinary claims, it’s up to them to prove that they’re right.
    But in fact, if you decide to read more than one of their articles, you’ll see that CSICOP’s approach to their investigations is multi-faceted, and does a lot more than offer their own naturalistic explanations of supposedly supernatural events. It includes lab-type experiments with cooperative subjects that attempt to replicate their claims; field studies of uncooperative subjects that investigate their methods; analysis of records, such as audio and videotapes; analysis and comparison of paranormal accounts from the past; analysis of whether paranormal claims make sense and/or are internally consistent; analysis of the literature on the subject; meta-analysis of the overall body of research on this subject; and more. For that matter, it includes skeptical investigations into non-paranormal phenomena, such as Rorschach tests and sex predator hysteria. (And if you don’t like or trust CSICOP… well, many others have done similar work for decades, beginning with Houdini.)
    Finally: I think some of what you’re seeing as smarminess and condescension is coming from a place of unbelievable frustration. There’s a pattern that happens over and over with skeptical investigators of the paranormal, and it’s frustrating to the point of madness. It goes like this:
    Someone makes a claim of paranormal ability — communicating with the dead, or telepathically diagnosing illness, or dowsing, or whatever.
    They agree to an experiment that will test their abilities — and before it’s carried out, they agree to a set of testing protocols that they agree is fair.
    The experiment is carried out.
    The claim doesn’t hold up.
    And then the claimant says that the experiment was biased or unfair — despite the fact that they’d agreed to every part of it ahead of time.
    Over. And over. And over again.
    So you can see why the investigators might get a little pissy when they get accused of being unfair.

  5. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi all,
    Gee, this is fun. I’m kind of a newbie on the whole blogging thing and probably would not have gotten involved in it now if it were not for a long-time hunger for discussion about these sorts of issues that has gone unmet because most people have little patience for it; and if it were not for my appreciation of Greta’s writing, which I long ago found to be honest and insightful. Other contributors to this blog are also very perceptive and interesting.
    First regarding Eclectic’s cite of Feynman’s comments: “
if you’re right, it doesn’t matter what the academic qualifications are of the people who disagree with you. Nature agrees with you, and she casts the deciding vote.”
    Yes, well, in the end, but small comfort to Alfred Russel Wallace, who proposed a theory of natural selection before Darwin did, but lacked the social standing or wherewithal to publish it, and was not properly recognized, according to a recent piece in the New Yorker. Also, Wallace was handicapped by his advocacy of spiritualism, which put him at odds with the scientific community of that day and would no doubt of this one as well. (One of my new heroes – a free thinker)
    Still, in the spirit of your comments, Eclectic, clearly truth, full and unvarnished, is what you seek, and what I seek as well, and judging from other comments here, what we all seek. Indeed, it seems that the desire for truth is the driving force behind the atheistic skepticism of the so-called paranormal that is the cause célÚbre of the recent posts. So, on that we agree. And someday, I hope and trust, truth will out.
    However, I fear that we may delay that day if we preclude what has been called the paranormal from more serious consideration. I usually refer to the “so-called paranormal,” because if something is in the nature of true reality, then it is by definition not “paranormal.” It is normal, whether we know it or not. Our discussions, in my view, should center around a search for truth, not a “claim” of paranormal phenomena or a debunking of such “claims.” I fear that we have reached such a pass by virtue, in part, of the role played by organized religions, which have set themselves against science historically. It has been a shameful history. As Bertrand Russell famously said, “nobody ever heard of a scientist burning a priest at the stake.” Recent stubbornness on the part of creationists who say the earth was created six thousand years ago does nothing to improve on the matter.
    The range of possibilities in the universe are not subsumed by the dogma of organized religions, however. Greta uses the quote (from Sagan?) that extraordinary theories require extraordinary evidence. I agree. However, I would add that extraordinary evidence ought to require extraordinary investigation. This is where I feel the scientific and academic communities have fallen way short. An excellent example of this is in the Moody studies and in other studies that have also found remarkable testimonies of vivid Near Death Experiences (NDE). Whole cadres of investigators, many with solid scientific and/or academic credentials, have participated in interviewing thousands of people on this, and not just in studies done by the Moody group. According to the Wikepedia account, a Gallup Poll estimated that eight million Americans have had NDE. This to me is extraordinary evidence. Yet efforts to continue the research are reportedly hampered by lack of funds and skeptics discount the data with lame explanations that obviously — OBVIOUSLY — do not account for the experiences of the people in the studies, which very often include floating above the scene of death and later reporting on what transpired, to mention just one of the common experiences that cannot be accounted for by transient electrical discharges in the brain or other equally dubious explanations. I await the report that I ordered from CSI before I include that publication in this indictment.
    A comment to Barb:
    You say: “Layne proffers reasons (not terribly convincing in my view) for thinking that the scientific method is less effective in studying the social sciences and medicine than the hard sciences. But he doesn’t offer any explanation for why the scientific method should be less effective in investigating the paranormal.”
    Here are a few reasons why the scientific method in its purest forms poses barriers for the investigation of what you are calling the paranormal.
    First, much of the information we can gather comes from interviewing people. Interviewing people is inherently subjective, putting the science more in the category of the research done by, say, sociologists seeking to understand inner-city cultural attitudes; a far cry from measuring chemical reactions in a test-tube. This is not to say that very meaningful information cannot be gathered using such methods. The ethnological research techniques pioneered by anthropologists involve actual living within or immersing themselves in the daily life and fabric of a culture, and the insights humanity has gained have been extraordinary. How can anthropologists build knowledge operating in such a subjective methodology? In large part the answer is through repetition with different observers in different cultures and the careful, detailed, notes and observations that others can review. To the extent that objective measures can be employed that is a good thing; but there is a great trade-off if efforts at objectively measuring interfere with the phenomena being studied.
    Related to this trade-off is that when it comes to understanding apparent powers of the mind it should be considered possible that those powers — assuming they exist in order to study them — may be influenced by other minds, other assumptions, by audience views if an audience is involved, etc. That sort of concern puts a crimp in the scientific process but not an insurmountable one.
    Oh, yes, I know. All this is going to be pretty hard for a skeptical scientist to swallow. But if there is a lot of evidence that needs explaining, it behooves us to do it using whatever good and proper methods are at hand. In the above example of NDE, which in my view, as outlined in several studies, involves most remarkable and potentially revolutionary information, investigation requires interviews with people who have undergone, essentially, death, for brief periods, although they call it “near death.” Obviously, you can’t kill people and then resuscitate them in order to obtain other brain measurements. So you do interviews. If you question the results — or even the honesty — of earlier interviews, then do them better, more sensitively, perhaps, or using more open-ended questions. Tape the interviews if people will talk to you that way
 or don’t if they won’t. Offer confidentiality if you must, but keep careful notes. Above all, avoid slanting or artificially influencing the outcome by betraying either faith in a predictable outcome or skepticism. No self-respecting anthropologist would do that.
    By the way, Barb, the original Moody study in 1975 (which took place during an era when medical resuscitations after long periods of flat-wave were becoming more common) was actually the first public information of the now common rumor about black tunnels and beings of light. Moody interviewed about 100 people and was struck with the similarity in their statements. Prior to that time black tunnels and beings of light were not a part of our common language. Therefore, at least in the first study, which was widely publicized, a preconception of what the experience was supposed to be could not have been a factor.

  6. Nurse Ingrid says

    OK, people, the nurse is going to butt in here and point out an essential fact about death: it is IRREVERSIBLE. Anyone who tells you they “died on the table” or some similar phrase, did NOT really die — if they’re here telling you about it. They may have stopped breathing, their heart may have stopped beating. Their brain may experience oxygen deprivation. But if you can wake up from it, it ain’t death.
    Given that, I have a hard time understanding how an experience a person might have while in that state — but STILL ALIVE — would tell us anything about what a person might experience after actual death. It’s still YOUR BRAIN having and remembering that experience, after all. But what is there to experience anything when your brain is truly gone — not just blood and oxygen deprived, but rotted away into dust and then nothing?
    I’m not all that impressed by the similarity of the stories, either — for all the same reasons Barb mentioned above. But even if that similarity did tell us something real and interesting about states of unconsciousness — it would still tell me nothing about actual death.

  7. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Nurse Ingrid:
    What if the person on the table is brain “dead,” or at least, brain wave flat-lined, for 15 minutes? Is it possible for them to “wake up?” Perhaps it is, but I think it is a matter of semantics. If we define dead as stayed dead, and still alive as perhaps clinical signs of life temporarily undetectable but now restored to normal, then we see why the various groups that have explored such experiences call it Near Death Experience (NDE), rather than “death.” They are in agreement with your perspective: If you “wake” up from it, it ain’t death. I’ll go along with that.
    However, the fact is that people who have gone through NDE report experiences that defy common sense preconceptions about what they should have experienced in any sort of “state of unconsciousness” that we might logically theorize. The obvious hope/wish implications of their experiences is that something — call it soul or whatever — exists independently of the physical brain. Perhaps that is not true. Perhaps there is another explanation. I’m open to suggestions. So far, transient brain activity falls far short of explaining the data collected. I think such explanations are a form of turning a blind eye, rather than a serious effort to look at the data rationally.

  8. Nurse Ingrid says

    “However, the fact is that people who have gone through NDE report experiences that defy common sense preconceptions about what they should have experienced in any sort of “state of unconsciousness” that we might logically theorize.”
    Sorry, but I truly don’t understand this. I have read the accounts of so-called NDEs, and to me they seem entirely within the realm of dreams, religious “rapture,” drug intoxication, hallucinations, seizure auras, migraines, psychosis, and other altered states of consciousness that humans experience. And again I would ask: regardless of how weird or mysterious such experiences might be, given that it is YOUR BRAIN that experiences and remembers them, how does that suggest that any such phenomena might persist when that brain has ceased to exist?

  9. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Nurse Ingrid,
    It has been some time since I read the Moody Books and they are boxed up someplace so I would have trouble finding them, but from memory one aspect of the NDE experiences was often repeated and pretty much consistent and that was that the experiences were vivid and clear — sometimes described as more vivid than life experiences are — not dreamlike or confused; and involved in many cases, a fairly prolonged and detailed series of experiences not at all like we might imagine from a very brief rush of brain energy at the instant of death. Also frequently mentioned during the “floating above the scene” prior to going “back through a dark tunnel” are various observations of events which were later confirmed as having taken place while people (in the operating room or accident scene) were working on the body (which is now — consistently — seen from outside the body).
    How can all this take place when the brain is no longer active according to normal medical measurements? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? If, as you say, it is a GIVEN that it is the brain that experiences and remembers things, we seem to have a mystery here. I believe that is a mystery to be explored, rather than consigned to a “paranormal” category and therefore basically ignored by science. Perhaps consciousness winks out at “death.” Perhaps not. Perhaps we will have to wait until “death” to find out. But it is, at a minimum, interesting, that large numbers of people who are brought back after being essentially “dead” after long minutes, report similar experiences.

  10. Rebecca says

    Just a few thoughts in response to Layne’s comment:
    1. “Often repeated” and “pretty much consistent” are two very different things. Not having read the study in question, I’m curious how many people who experienced the requisite medical event required for participation in Moody’s study did not report this experience, or reported one part, but not all. Consistency, after all, can be described quantitatively. Unfortunately, a quick search is not giving me any information about the study methods or subject selection. Can you point me towards a source?
    2. For the experiences described to be, “not dreamlike,” requires there to be a norm for dreams. And yet, not only do different individuals dream differently, but any given individual can dream in a number of ways. Time, for example, moves differently in different dreams — at least in mine. Some of my dreams encompass years.
    3. It doesn’t surprise me that people can report some of the events that occurred while they were apparently unconscious and clinically near-death, but not braindead. Consciousness, in my experience, is a spectrum, rather than a yes/no question. For example, my wife is clearly aware of me saying goodbye in the morning, while she continues to dream. How else could she have responded, this very morning, “Remember that I’ll be with you in the empty spaces of the rollercoaster.”

  11. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Rebecca,
    I read both Moody books on this topic, the first, groundbreaking book, in 1975, describing interviews with 150 or so people who had had an NDE. The later book involved a team of interviewers doing interviews with a much larger group of interviewees. No one was forced to be interviewed, and many subjects said they had previously told no one, or told only a few of their experiences because they did not want to be thought crazy or whatever. No doubt some who had undergone resuscitation after a loss of functions resembling death, and in fact could easily be called “death” were it not for the semantics of defining death as irreversible. Sorry, I don’t have easy access to the books or an online source for research protocols. The important thing to me when I read the first Moody book, “Life after Life,” was that so many people — most, as I recall — had experienced something with common features and it appeared very vivid to them. Those who were “dead” for longer periods got further along, generally, in the experience. See the Wikepedia summary for details of the common features.
    I understand your desire for seeing the exact definitions, etc and I appreciate that, yes, consistency can be quantified. I believe that is perhaps the greatest strength of the data. And yes, people dream differently, which only makes the NDE descriptions more interesting, because people described very similar experiences. Why were they so similar?
    You say:
    “It doesn’t surprise me that people can report some of the events that occurred while they were apparently unconscious and clinically near-death, but not braindead. Consciousness, in my experience, is a spectrum, rather than a yes/no question.”
    However, the Moody data contains accounts that go beyond that sort of explanation by far. People reported things happening beyond the immediate vicinity. I recall one person described a tennis shoe on a ledge outside a hospital room, a tennis shoe that could not be seen from the window of the room.
    In addition, it is well and good to say a person is “apparently unconscious” but not braindead, if you define braindead as irreversible. But if a person is near death to the point where brain activity is temporarily stopped, along with other functions such as heartbeat and breath, the spectrum of brain related consciousness is surely of a different order of magnitude than your wife’s semi-dreaming, semi-awake state. A person who has no clinical evidence of brain function on physical examination and /or a complete or apparently complete flat EEG for some time, is unlikely to suddenly make a comment like your wife made.

  12. says

    First: Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’ve been spending the last couple/few days (a) trying to get more than four hours of sleep a night, and (b) running around like crazy, so I haven’t been able to devote my usual attention to my blog.
    Okay. First. Layne, I think there’s something you’re not quite getting about Moody’s claims — namely, the degree to which the fact that he won’t release his raw data completely undermines the validity of his claims.
    I’ve been reading a little more about NDEs, on the CSICOP website and elsewhere. And from what I’ve been reading, the experiences are NOWHERE NEAR as common or as consistent as he claims. And if Moody won’t make his raw data available, I have no reason to trust even his data, much less his conclusions.
    More on that in a bit.
    But even if Moody’s data were accurate, and near death experiences really were as consistent and common as he claims, I don’t think it would tell us anything about life after death.
    Why not?
    Layne, you keep talking about the intensity and vividness of the “near death experience” as if that trumped naturalist explanations. But many states of altered consciousness are extremely vivid — and are not dreamlike or confused. Get Ingrid to tell you about delusional parasitosis sometime. Or single fixed delusions. People with these conditions experience them very vividly — and they fold those experiences very effectively into an otherwise rational mindset, without being confused or dreamlike.
    And when I was taking a lot of LSD, I had many perceptions that were extremely vivid — “hyper-real,” as you say. And they made complete and utter sense to me at the time. That doesn’t mean that what I was perceiving was really happening. An NDE may subjectively seem like no other experience in the world to someone who’s had one — but that’s true for a lot of altered consciousness experiences, and to an outside observer, it’s not all that unusual.
    And again. Even if NDEs were as consistent, as common, AND as vivid as Moody claims
 I still don’t think it would tell us anything about life after death.
    Why?
    I think you may be missing the essential point Ingrid keep making, which is this: Whatever may or may not happen in a near death experience, there is still a brain there. The experience therefore tells us NOTHING about what happens to our selves and our consciousness when our brain is — to get a little gross about it — rotted away into liquid, and eaten by worms, and decayed into dust and nothingness in our skulls. Whatever may or may not happen to my consciousness during a brief period of my brain having reduced or even absent functioning, it says absolutely nothing about what happened to, say, Beethoven’s consciousness now that his brain is rotted to an empty hole in his skull. It’s an altered state of consciousness — OF A PERSON WHO IS STILL ALIVE. Not “essentially dead.” As Ingrid keeps saying, there is no such thing as being “essentially dead.” If you live through it, you were not dead.
    Okay. Moving on. As to your suggestion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary investigation… um, no, they don’t. By that logic, my theory that tuberculosis is caused by an excess of chicken in the diet should get millions of dollars in research grants. Even if we lived in a world that valued science and devoted enormous staffing and budgets to it, limited resources would still be a problem. Scientists have to investigate ideas that they think are reasonably plausible. (And this applies to physical claims as much as metaphysical ones. You seem to think that there’s an unfairness to science’s rejection of metaphysical claims on the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” principle. But I can assure you that the exact same principle applies to straight-up physical claims as well.)
    There’s a point I keep making, and I think it’s an important one, and unless I missed it I don’t think you’ve replied to it. Scientists today are, it’s true, on the whole highly skeptical of metaphysical claims, and especially claims of life after death. But that hasn’t always been the case. Serious scientific investigations of the immortal soul BEGAN with the assumption that it was probably real.
    And experiment after experiment after experiment — testing people who claimed to communicate with the dead, testing claims of reincarnation, testing claims of photographing or audiotaping spirits, testing sightings of ghosts or other hauntings, etc. etc. etc. — has turned up nothing. Not when the experiment was done according to serious, careful standards of the scientific method in order to minimize bias.
    There comes a point when an idea has been tested and tested and tested, and it just doesn’t hold up, and you eventually have to give up on it. We had to give up on the idea of the four bodily humours, on the idea that light traveled through luminiferous aether, on the idea that AIDS was caused by poppers. We had to give up on the idea of turning lead into gold: partly because we kept trying and it never worked — but maybe more importantly because we came to understand the nature of those substances.
    And similarly, we’ve tried and tried and tried to prove that self and consciousness survive death. But none of the tests have worked — and the ones that claim that they did work didn’t survive serious scientific scrutiny. And maybe more importantly, we understand the nature of self and consciousness a little better than we used to (although we have a huge way to go yet). We understand that self and consciousness are, as far as we can tell, biological phenomena. Changes to our bodies — from drugs to sex to intense exertion to injuries to mental illness — affect our consciousness drastically. They can do this temporarily, but they can also do it permanently. (One of the women in the Blasphemy Challenge videos I included in my Defense of the Blasphemy Challenge put this beautifully, when she asks, “If you die and you have Alzheimer’s, which soul are you going with?”) And when people die — permanently, not just nearly — all signs of consciousness and selfhood cease.
    This is what I keep coming back to. The evidence supporting the theory that consciousness is, in some way, a physiological phenomenon, is solid, large, and growing, coming from many researchers in several different fields, and has been carefully gathered using all the methods that minimize bias — transparency, peer review, replicability, etc. The evidence supporting the theory that consciousness is metaphysical and somehow survives death is sparse, weak, carelessly gathered using biased methodology, doesn’t get subjected to careful outside scrutiny (or falls apart when it is)… or else it can be explained by naturalistic explanations. (Or else it’s flat-out fraudulent.) It’s just seeming increasingly clear that the idea of consciousness as a metaphysical substance needs to go the way of alchemy and the four bodily humours — it’s time to give up on it.
    (BTW, NDE experiences have a more detailed physical/ skeptical explanation than just “a rush of brain energy at the instant of death.” You keep saying that these naturalistic explanations of NDEs are poor or implausible… but it seems like the only reason you seem to think that is that the experiences seem subjectively vivid. Which, as I and others have discussed at length, isn’t a strong enough basis, to either hold the claim of life after death, or to dismiss the claim that the experiences are physical in nature.)
    Which brings me back to Moody, and why the fact that he won’t release his raw data makes his claims totally unworthy of serious consideration.
    Here’s the thing that drives me ape me about Moody: He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to get the cred of science — look at all this data I’ve gathered! — without subjecting it to the difficult and humbling processes that minimize bias and make science more reliable… most notably peer review and transparency of both methodology and results.
    Which leads me to my final point about bias:
    People who make claims that they can prove the existence of an afterlife are working with an ENORMOUS bias — the desire that we all have to not die, to not lose the people we love, for death to not be permanent. So they need to be extra-special super-duper careful that whatever research they’re doing is as free of that bias as possible.
    I mean… why would scientists WANT to be biased against life after death? Permanent death is bad news for everybody — including scientists. And I get that it’s hard to accept. I went through a major life trauma trying to accept it. It’s hard to accept in much the same way that the earth not being the center of the universe was hard to accept; that humans not being the center of life on earth is still hard for many people today to accept.
    You can argue that scientists are biased against believing in life after death. But I would argue that people who believe in life after death are MUCH more biased, MUCH more attached to their beliefs, MUCH more inclined to hang on to any thread of evidence that might possibly support that belief. And therefore, their research needs to have better transparency, better peer review, and much, much better replicability, than Moody’s even comes close to.

  13. says

    Layne” “It (the scientific method) works less well and we need to be careful when it comes to — to cite examples — the social sciences and in psychology, where “operational definitions” require a lot of assumptions; in medical research, where financial considerations often drive the process
”
    I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on this before.
    Yes. The scientific method is imperfect. And the fact that medical research is so driven by money does create serious problems. I have lots of friends who work in health care and public health, and they all bemoan the degree to which both medical care and medical research are driven by the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. At least in America, it’s a field that is far too driven by money.
    And the worlds of religion, spirituality, and alternative medicine AREN’T?
    The worlds of religion, spirituality, and alternative medicine are RIDDLED with greed, hucksterism, snake-oil sales, and flat-out fraud. Televangelists making millions of dollars hustling the faithful; John Edward and other “speakers with the dead” doing cold readings and clever video editing to make millions of dollars hustling the bereaved; fraudulent faith healers; people selling untested natural “cures” for cancer and AIDS; psychics convincing marks that their money is tainted and needs to be given to the psychic for cleansing… I could go on and on and on.
    I have no doubt that many, many practitioners of religion, spirituality, and alternative medicine are honest people who truly believe their own claims. But both traditional religion and alt-spiritual New Agery have more than their share of folks who are only in it for the money, and who’ll bullshit, manipulate, and flat-out lie and cheat to get it.
    And unlike the world of traditional scientifically-tested medicine, there’s no system in place for testing their assertions and holding them accountable.
    In fact, a lot of these people are completely immune to fraud charges. If I, as an atheist, claimed to cure people’s illness by putting my hands on them, I could be arrested for fraud, or at the very least practicing medicine without a license. If some shyster televangelist does it, he’s legally protected. And the vaguer the claims, the harder it is to legally pin someone down for making them. Jim Bakker could get indicted for embezzling money meant for the Christian theme park… but he couldn’t get indicted for telling millions of followers that Jesus wanted their money to build a Christian theme park in the first place.
    This is one of the biggest reasons I keep going on about this topic; one of the biggest reasons I care so much about it. I think that when people don’t think skeptically and critically and scientifically about, say, life after death, they’re much more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by hucksters and manipulators and frauds.
    I completely agree that the scientific method is imperfect. I even agree that it’s more problematic when it’s applied to humans than when it’s applied to, say, gamma rays. I never said it was perfect. I only ever said it was better than any other method we have for evaluating claims about what is and is not true about the world.

  14. Eclectic says

    There’s blog on Denialism that recently transferred to scienceblogs, and it pointed out a rather interesting paper titled “Why most published research findings are false”. Very crudely, the more you sift the data looking for some subtle effect – and we can sift quite a lot with computers these days – the more likely you are to hit on a lucky (but meaningless) coincidence.
    http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124
    The discussion is about how the whole idea of “scientific orthodoxy” is rather amusing to people doing science. Research that just confirms the status quo doesn’t get published and doesn’t get funded. In the “publish or perish” world of academic research, the competition to find something new and interesting varies from “fierce” to “vicious”.
    “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …'” — Isaac Asimov
    Unfortunately, the effects as obvious as John Snow’s Cholera map have pretty much all been found.

  15. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi all:
    Greta said: “Okay. First. Layne, I think there’s something you’re not quite getting about Moody’s claims — namely, the degree to which the fact that he won’t release his raw data completely undermines the validity of his claims.”
    Actually, I’m not sure he won’t release raw data. I did mention that and I remember reading years ago that someone said he wouldn’t but I don’t remember the source. I’m not sure if it had to do with the first study or the second, much larger one. If he will not release the raw data in the first study, I’m not sure exactly what that means, since the “raw data” was presumably notes from interviews, which are not very objectively reviewable in some respects to start with. Has anyone seen information on this?
    Greta: “I’ve been reading a little more about NDEs, on the CSICOP website and elsewhere. And from what I’ve been reading, the experiences are NOWHERE NEAR as common or as consistent as he claims.”
    Well, how common and consistent do you think they are? I don’t know how common or consistent Moody claims the experiences are. But if people (especially in the first study) kept coming up with black tunnels and beings of light, that strikes me as quite a “coincidence.”
    Greta: “
when I was taking a lot of LSD, I had many perceptions that were extremely vivid — “hyper-real,” as you say. And they made complete and utter sense to me at the time.”
    Maybe you had access to better acid than I did. I had experiences on LSD that felt real, like seeing a friend’s aura — sort of — and like having a sense of an underlying life force of some kind, and actually, I think they WERE, probably, real. But that is not the same sense in which I used the term vivid. I was usually a little zonked on acid in a way. My experiences were strong, even profound, and involved perceptions of colors and form that were impactful. But the Moody interviewees, as I remember, described their experiences as more real than life. I never had that experience on LSD. I always felt a little “out of it.”
    I just seems like a stretch, a huge stretch, to redefine the experience people say they have had into an “altered state” of some sort of hallucinatory experience.
    Greta: “As Ingrid keeps saying, there is no such thing as being ‘essentially dead.’ If you live through it, you were not dead.”
    Okay, fine. Like I keep saying, it is a matter of semantics. I’ll accept NDE, or if that isn’t enough, give me another word for it.
    Greta: “As to your suggestion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary investigation… um, no, they don’t.”
    Actually, I hope I didn’t say that. Without going back to double check, what I meant to say is that extraordinary EVIDENCE requires extraordinary investigation. I consider the Moody data, which has been supported by other studies to be extraordinary evidence.
    Greta: “The worlds of religion, spirituality, and alternative medicine are RIDDLED with greed, hucksterism, snake-oil sales, and flat-out fraud.”
    Good grief. How is it I have someone been cast in the role of defender of the entire fields of religion, spirituality and alternative medicine, not to mention hucksters and manipulators and frauds? That is not who I am, a defender of some sort of global great Satan of lies and misrepresentations. Mine is a more modest goal. It’s true that I am skeptical of some things that pass as science, but that doesn’t mean I am less skeptical of religion. I am very skeptical of most that passes for organized religion. I just have a tendency to raise my eyebrows whenever judgment is passed on ideas based on categorical thinking. If you put all matters great and small that you deem “paranormal” into a category, decide that there is no longer any need to investigate anything “paranormal” because all “that sort of thing” has been tested again and again and there is nothing to it, you blunder. And if science does that, science blunders. I really like Eclectic’s cite of Asimov’s quote:
    “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …'” — Isaac Asimov.
    That’s what science should be doing with extraordinary evidence like the Moody interviews. Science should be interested. Very interested. Something is “funny” in Denmark. Why isn’t science more interested? That’s what I want to know. Perhaps it’s just the Maya. We aren’t supposed to be interested. We have other things we are supposed to be doing.

  16. Barb says

    Hi,
    I commend you, Layne, for continuing to defend your position and responding to points raised by other bloggers given that you’re the lone defender of NDE here.
    That said, I continue to disagree with you and to think that you haven’t responded convincingly to other people’s points.
    1) The issue of whether NDE’s can tell us anything about what happens after death isn’t just a matter of semantics. It isn’t just a question of whether it’s appropriate to call something a near-death experience when the person doesn’t actually die soon afterward. I don’t think anyone has a problem with saying that someone has been near death without actually dying. It’s reasonable to call that a near-death experience, just as it’s reasonable to call water at 210 degrees “near boiling” or a narrowly averted plane crash as a “near miss” (actually a “near crash” is more accurate). What happens in a “near-crash experience” may be interesting and well worth studying, but it can’t possibly tell us what would happen in an actual crash. That’s the problem with extrapolating from a near-death experience to actual death.
    (The following point isn’t original to me, but I agree with it.)
    Even if whatever people experience while their brains are temporarily not functioning (or whatever the definition of “near death” is) could tell us something about actual death, we can’t automatically assume that reported NDE’s actually occurred during the period when the brain isn’t functioning. Presumably everybody who goes through being near death also goes through a period before that of being dangerously ill (possibly unconcsious, with many body functions operating far outside the normal range), but not yet near death, and a period of recovery after being near death. The NDE could happen during the before or after periods just as well as during the period when the brain isn’t functioning. How would the patient know the difference? The only way I can think of is if she had an out-of-body experience during the NDE in which she could see a clock and the monitors she’s hooked up to. If she could report afterward that at 10:52 she saw that monitor X had a reading of 10 (say for the sake of argument that 10 means the brain isn’t functioning) and this corresponded to the monitor records.
    Re: drug-induced experiences. Since people vary greatly in their response to mind-altering drugs (particularly illegal drugs, since they aren’t standardized), I’m not surprised that some people have extremely vivid (“realer than real”) responses to LSD and others don’t. The point is that experiences which are very similar to NDE’s in clarity, intensity, etc. can be readily generated by known physical causes (which I think is indisputable). That suggests that NDE’s are not unique; they could result from the same physical mechanisms as similar non-near-death experiences. This isn’t conclusive by any means, but it is an alternative to the supernatural explanation. Given that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, I would argue that we should only entertain the hypothesis that NDE’s are supernatural when we have eliminated all possible physical explanations. Given our experience with the world thus far, a physical explanation is always more likely than a supernatural one for an unexplained phenomenon.
    One last point, Layne, you say (in reponse to people’s expressed desire to see Moody’s data) “I’m not sure exactly what that means, since the “raw data” was presumably notes from interviews, which are not very objectively reviewable in some respects.” You’re shooting yourself in the foot here, Layne. If Moody’s interview notes or tapes (taping the interviews would have been a lot smarter) are “not very objectively reviewable” by outside investigators, how could Moody draw objective conclusions from them? If Moody had an objective rating method, other people could apply it and get the same results as he did. (“The same results” meaning that other people would find about the same degree of similarity in the reports as Moody did.) If you say that a skeptic would be likely to apply the rating system in a biased manner, then you’re really saying that Moody hasn’t created an objective rating system which minimizes the effect of bias on the results. And if the rating system is subjective, Moody’s ratings are just as subject to bias as the skeptic’s.
    Incidentally, I don’t find the similarities that are claimed for Moody’s NDE’s all that convincing. For one thing, he counts sewers, caves, and valleys along with tunnels. Sewers and caves may also be dark (valleys aren’t as a rule), but they have very different connotations at least to me. A sewer is probably wet and smelly and gross. A cave may be a place of safety, not a place you want to leave. You can’t travel through a cave or a sewer, as you can through a tunnel or a valley. And why would the way to the afterlife be via a supernatural sewer anyway? A tunnel maybe. At least a tunnel is supposed to go somewhere. I think the valley image might be influenced by the well-known line in Psalm 23, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou are with me,” As for seeing family members, that is so obviously what people would wish for and expect, that that similarity could be due to the fact most people have the same wish to meet loved ones again. I would be more impressed if people reported seeing something that they didn’t expect and have a strong desire to be real. The same argument applies to multiple reports of seeing religious figures. There’s an additional problem with religious figures though. All religions can’t be true. Some of them must be mistaken. A believer in a religion which isn’t true is not going to be greeted by the religious figure they expect. If Islam is correct and Christianity and all other religions are wrong, then Christians are not going to see Jesus or Yahweh or St. Peter in an NDE. Everyone would see Mohammad or Allah (or, if Allah only shows himself to Moslems, we’d still expect that non-Moslems wouldn’t their own god, because that god wouldn’t exist). Moody’s subjects were probably predominantly Christian, but I’d be willing to bet that if we collected NDE reports from people with a wider range of religious beliefs, we’d find the same range in the religious figures who are reported. And I’d be even more willing to bet almost no one would see a religious figure from outside their own tradition in an NDE.
    Barb

  17. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Barb:
    Sounds like you have read some of the Moody interviews. Is that where you are getting your comments re caves, sewers, etc? I haven’t read them for a while but I don’t remember that part of it.
    What I do remember is that people saw a “being of light.” For some, such as Christians, that was, to them, an “angel.” Others might believe the “being of light” was some appropriate figure in their belief system. However, the experience was similar even when the interpretation of it varied. The being was very loving and accepting, for example. That was a through line in most accounts.
    Thanks for your comment that you commend me for continuing to defend NDE, although I’m not exactly sure that’s what I am doing here. I got to thinking last night what this thread is all about. Stubborn independent judgment on my part, I think. It’s a lifetime pattern. I am by God going to resist group-think and categorical thinking no matter what. I brought the Moody studies into the conversation as an example of what I thought was a pretty egregious sin of omission by science in not doing back-up research on it, which wouldn’t be that hard to do. In the process, I encountered an interesting reaction in this blog, of which there seem to be two salient features, first, a big-time focus on the physical brain as the indubitable source of consciousness; second, a strange willingness to come up with all manner of possible explanations for how different people might have similar experiences to those described in the Moody books.
    Here is what I believe: Moody happened on the scene in the Seventies about the time that advanced medical techniques were making it more possible than it had been historically to bring folks back to life who previously would have been goners. He happened on a guy who gave a certain description of the experiences, and then he happened on another one, and then another and he began to see a pattern and proceeded to interview 150 people or so that had been brought back to life under circumstances where they once would have been goners. There was a remarkable consistency in the accounts, so remarkable that I have to conclude it was either a deliberate fraud or a very interesting phenomenon hinting at the possibility of life after life. Now, there is a common knowledge of the supposed experience of dying according to the Moody studies, the being of light, etc; but unless it was a fraud, the original Moody interviews were the first open publication of such experiences, so that the consistency (unless it was a fraud) is very interesting.
    Later Moody gathered together a team (for another book) to interview, as I recall, some thousands of cases, resulting in some pretty impressive, rather consistent results, again, either a fraud or a very interesting phenomenon. Others, including a Dutch investigation and studies by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, have apparently come up with some similar results, although I have not read those studies.
    I don’t know if there is life after life, if the soul continues on, but it might, and I hope it does, and, full disclosure, I think it more likely that it does than that it doesn’t. My main point in this thread, however, is not to try to defend the idea that there is an eternal soul, or that the physical brain is not the only source of consciousness. My point is that the evidence should be of interest to all, and the fact that it is not does not conform to the principles set out by Sherlock Holmes or Science Officer Spock.
    I rest my case.

  18. Rebecca says

    [To grasp where I am coming from on this, you might be interested to know that while I was growing up, my mother worked for — and eventually directed — the survey research arm of the RAND Corporation.]
    My question about Moody’s studies does not concern definitions, nor raw data. I am simply curious about the population studied.
    The only way I can think of to identify anything resembling a random sample for such a study is by first identifying a very large group of people who have undergone similar medical experiences. The similarity would be defined by measurable factors, for example, people who “flatlined” for a certain number of seconds or more and then regained consciousness. (I have no idea how long that time generally is in Moody’s “near death experiences.”)
    Then you’d have to convince a whole lot of those people to be interviewed WITHOUT knowing whether they had ANY memory whatsoever of of the time period involved. Only after identifying a participant and collecting demographics and medical records would you ask whether they have a memory of what happened to them or to the people around them while they flatlined.
    Then you’d be able to look at the really interesting stuff. Are there cultural or generational differences between people who report Moody-style NDEs and people who don’t? Do Muslims and Christians have different visions? Do men and women report different details about what they saw during perceived “out of body” experiences?
    And, as I originally asked, what percent of the study group had Moody-style NDEs? How many white lights? How many tunnels? Glowing entities? Visions of one’s own body?
    This is the stuff that might change my mind; anecdotal evidence without methodology is merely a curiosity, not science.

  19. Rebecca says

    Just to clarify: this still wouldn’t provide evidence of life AFTER death. It would just be interesting.

  20. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Barb,
    Beyond surface info from Wikepedia, NDE websites and the like, I can’t really respond in detail about the population studied for either Moody book, which I don’t have access to at the moment, nor do I have access to the other NDE research. Nor, as I indicated in my last post, do I fancy myself a defender of the research per se, which could be a fraud for all I know. I simply think it should be followed up on. Frankly, the issue of the population studied in the sense you raise it doesn’t concern me very much because the nature of the research, as I recall it from the book, is not of a type that requires random samples, control groups, statistical analysis of demographics, or tight, measurable criteria for eligibility to be included in the interviews. There are many forms of quite important research that do not involve such matters, ethnological research, astronomical observations, surveys, single-subject research designs, etc.
    From my memory of it, the interviews did not really involve people who had flatlined for seconds. Generally, the study involved people who had flatlined for some minutes, 5, 10, 15 that sort of thing, and then were resuscitated due to modern medical techniques, and then had a story to tell. Those who did not have a story to tell presumably did not make it into the sample. Or maybe they did and I don’t remember the report. But the interesting part of the research, for me, is the similarity in the stories from those who consented to tell their stories.
    I curious why you would find it interesting whether Muslims and Christians have different “visions” or whether men and women report different details. I do not consider that information very interesting at all. Do you think it would reveal something interesting about culture or gender that people report different hallucinatory perceptions cause by brain anomalies or whatever that actually are invalid accounts that provide no evidence of what they think they experienced?

  21. says

    Okay. I think I have about one more round of this in me, and then I’m going to call it quits. It seems like we just keep going around and around in circles, and I’m starting to lose interest in that circle.
    Here’s what the circle looks like to me. Layne keeps saying that Moody’s studies of near-death experiences are too weird to be explainable by natural/ physical explanations — and that traditional science is stubbornly ignoring this evidence and refusing to research it further, because it doesn’t fit their preconceived notion of consciousness and self as physical phenomena.
    I (and Barb, and Ingrid, and Rebecca) keep saying that:
    1. Moody’s NDE evidence isn’t reliable in the first place;
    2. NDE experiences aren’t anywhere near as common, or as consistent, as Moody and others claim it is (many people who are near death don’t have them, and the experiences vary widely among people who do have them);
    3. NDE experiences, far from being unique, really aren’t all that unusual; they’re totally consistent with other forms of altered consciousness, and people who weren’t near death have had similar experiences;
    4. NDE experiences, far from being inexplicable, are perfectly explainable as a set of natural phenomena;
    5. NDE experiences are still experiences the brain has while it’s alive — and therefore don’t tell us anything about the possibility of consciousness remaining after the brain is rotted and turned to dust;
    6. a subjective experience of an NDE being extremely vivid and realistic (either on the part of the person having the experience or on the part of the person reading about it) is nowhere near enough, by itself, to support a claim that NDEs are real metaphysical experiences happening to the soul;
    7. the desire to believe in life after death is such a powerful bias that any evidence or argument to support it demands a tremendous amount of care and rigor to avoid bias interfering with the results;
    8. an overwhelming body of physical evidence supports the idea that consciousness is in some way a natural/ physical/ biological phenomena;
    9. and finally — and possibly most importantly — the idea of consciousness as a natural/ physical/ biological phenomena is not the one that scientists started off being biased towards. Quite the contrary, it’s one that scientists were originally very much biased against, and have come to reluctantly after decades of research and data.
    And Layne continues to say that the Moody NDE studies are too weird to be explainable by natural/ physical explanations. And ultimately, he believes this primarily because of a personal subjective feeling about what he’s read about these experiences. The experiences just seem too vivid and compelling to him; the science investigating the experiences and concluding that they don’t support a theory of life after death just doesn’t seem convincing to him.
    And I’m just finding it really hard to escape the conclusion that Layne doesn’t like the science investigating this idea, not because he thinks it was careless or biased or insufficiently rigorous or that it ignored its own rules of evidence, but because it investigated the idea and came to a conclusion he didn’t agree with. I’m unconvinced that any evidence at all would be strong enough to convince him otherwise. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but to me the science is convincing (especially when you put Points 1 through 9 abover all together), and I’m getting a little bored with repeating it over and over again, and digging up more and more of it.
    So I think I’m done wth going around in this particular circle. It’s been really fun, it’s been really interesting, but it seems like we’re at an impasse, and I’m ready to move on to another debate. I could reply to the latest round, provide still more evidence to support my position or point out still more problems with Moody’s methodology. But Layne is an intelligent adult, and he’s capable of Googling “near death experience” + “skeptic” himself (or searching for “near death experience” or “Raymond Moody” on csicop.org). If any of you want to continue with the debate, y’all should feel free.

  22. Barb says

    Hello all,
    Thank you Greta, for the cogent summary.
    Layne, I wondered myself, before reading Greta’s post, whether your beliefs about NDE’s were more religious than scientific. I don’t mean motivated by religion; I mean held in manner similar to the manner in which religious beliefs are held – on faith, with the belief that any evidence that points the other way must be wrong. Can you imagine any experiment, any evidence that would convince you a) that NDE’s are explainable in in non-supernatural terms or b) that conscisouness/the soul do not survive death? If you can’t, then I would say that you are holding your beliefs religiously (on faith, rather than scientifically. A scientifically held belief must be potentially falsifiable.

  23. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi All,
    I agree that we are starting to go in circles and that it is time to put this one to rest. I also agree that it has been fun and interesting. Thanks, all, for taking my positions seriously enough to respond with thoughtfulness and care, and I hope you agree I have done the same.
    A last comment to Barb:
    You ask: “Can you imagine any experiment, any evidence that would convince you a) that NDE’s are explainable in non-supernatural terms or b) that consciousness/the soul do not survive death?”
    Answer: I cannot, off the top of my head, imagine any experiment that would “convince” me one way or the other, mostly because of the difficulties in the issues being explored.
    You say: “If you can’t, then I would say that you are holding your beliefs religiously (on faith, rather than scientifically. A scientifically held belief must be potentially falsifiable.”
    I say: I base my “beliefs” on neither faith nor science. I cannot think of a single scientific “truth” that I regard as sacrosanct beyond question. And while I am highly skeptical of the claims of much of what passes as religion, I generally do not give myself the luxury of assuming religious beliefs are false beyond question. On balance, I must conclude that the scientific method is a much more practical and effective way of understanding things than religion is, but I resist closing my mind to anything. I like to follow out matters using axiomatic assumptions, so that I can say, if such-and-such is true, i.e., if NDEs point to a soul surviving death, assuming for argument that is true, what then? How would that information jive with other information or insights we might have? And what would it mean for how we live our lives? I am looking for a comprehensive way to understand the many mysteries of existence. Science alone, especially to the extent that it has “concluded” that certain mysteries are solved, is by nature resistant to such searchings.
    I must concede one matter. In an earlier post, I said I would send for a Skeptical Inquirer re the Moody Studies and if it contained more than a casual dismissal of the studies I would abjectly admit to that. The issue I got in the mail was an old one (1979) and quite sketchy. But I did find an essay by Susan Blackmore which was published in a Skeptical Inquirer in 1991, and which did list studies she had done to investigate NDEs. I hereby eat my virtual hat on my contention that skeptical scientists were not doing research on NDEs.
    P.S. I did not agree with Blackmore’s conclusions, because it still seems to me it is too much of a stretch to discount the clear accounts people give of NDEs based on such tenuous ideas of how the brain could have created the experiences.
    Enuf said. Thanks for the lengthy comments. Fun discourse.
    Layne

  24. Eclectic says

    “I cannot, off the top of my head, imagine any experiment that would “convince” me one way or the other, mostly because of the difficulties in the issues being explored.”
    There’s the problem. A statement that is not falsifiable by any conceivable observation has zero predictive power and is not amenable to scientific investigation or discussion.
    That’s the basic requirement for a statement to be eligible as a hypothesis in the first place, and you should be able to think of an extreme case easily.
    For example, as I may have mentioned before, the pattern in the base-11 expansion of pi described at the end of Sagan’s book _Contact_ would definitely convince me that the universe was designed by an intelligent external creator. (Actually, lots of lesser evidence would, too; I have to give Sagan credit for imagining a deity more powerful than any religion I’ve ever heard of.)
    To actually be PRACTICAL to investigate requires some plausible-to-make (non-extreme) observations that conflict with other existing theories. That is to say, other theories say that something will be observed which the new hypothesis says will not.
    Only then is it worth going to the library and seeing if anyone’s looked into the matter before, and if nobody has, doing some actual observing.

  25. The Rabbit Ambulance says

    Now, I’m just observing American culture from the inside out, but I’d reckon that anti-intellectualism is one of the biggest problems it has, in the long run. And it’s a sad thing.

  26. says

    Many people will not accept the possibility that a north american primate still exists.. I know they do..I have seen one ! And I am studying some very interesting evidence in northern Ontario

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