Responding to the “Can you explain that?” challenge

I have written several posts recently about investigations into the paranormal. While there is no conclusive evidence for such phenomena, many people do believe in them. I also recently had a discussion with some friends who are broadly skeptics but two of whom told me about events that seemed to have no material explanation. It was clear that they were puzzled by not only what they felt was a lack of a material explanation for the events but that the facts suggested that such an explanation was not even possible.

One of those friends later sent along two articles. One of them was a Reader’s Digest article with various stories of people recounting past lives. But it was hard to gauge their veracity because all the names of the people were fictitious (supposedly to protect their privacy) and there were no citations to any sources. The other was this report about a three-year old boy recalling his own murder in a previous life as a member of the Druze community in the Golan Heights and correctly fingering the murderer even though he could not possibly have had access to the information.

I tracked down the origins of this story. In 1998, someone named Dr. Eli Lasch told this story (that he said he had witnessed himself) to someone he knew named Trutz Hardo who is a regression therapist (i.e., claims to recover lost memories and even of previous lives) who published it in 2002 in a book, when it was picked up by the media. The passage in Hardo’s book can be read here. Notice some things about the story: there are no names, dates, other witnesses, and identifying places. There is no corroborating evidence at all. Even that photo of the little boy is a stock photo, not the boy himself. Lasch and Hardo are both believers in reincarnation and the Druze community also believes in it. Lasch, the only source for this story that has no corroboration, died in 2009. As this news report says, “While there are a lot of details of the case that have survived, it is odd that all of the names were either not recorded or forgotten over time. The only known witness of the incident, Dr. Eli Lasch, died in 2009 and the information provided here is everything that is known about the case.”

So that story is hardly credible.

The way that such stories spread is because people hear of them and then challenge skeptics to provide alternative, non-supernatural explanations for them. If you cannot, then that is taken as evidence that the supernatural likely exists. Ian Rowland is the author of The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading and he himself is not a believer in psychic powers but says that it is possible to become so good at cold reading that people actually believe that you have such abilities. He puts on such performances for audiences and because he himself is a skeptic, he always tells them after his performances that he has no such powers.

But he says that people repeatedly tend to challenge his own skepticism about the existence of psychic phenomena by recounting to him their own experiences or the experiences of others and the stories always ends the same way, with the challenge “How do you explain that?” This has happened to me too many, many times and I am sure that it has happened to readers of this blog as well.

Rowland says that when people start along this road, he can see this question coming miles away and groans inwardly. He says that he always declines the challenge for the following reasons. (He describes this in the section Handling Skeptics in Section 2 of his book.)

Like anyone else, I can only explain something if I can get at the facts, and a story told over a drink or two at the bar is not a set of facts. It is a recollection. A view. An impression of what someone thinks happened. Of course, my friend felt sure he knew exactly what happened during the reading, and exactly what was said. Alas, his confidence was probably misplaced.

Accurate recall is prone to at least four kinds of contamination. Generally speaking:

  • people are not very good at observing things very accurately
  • what little they observe well, they are not very good at remembering very accurately
  • what little they remember well, they are not very good at describing very accurately to others
  • and what little they describe well, they tend to simplify

He says that the research is very clear on this but you can test it for yours3lf.

If you do not care to check out the research, and I do not blame you, just try out your friends and family. Ask them to recall the opening words of the TV sitcom they have just watched. They probably won’t have the faintest idea. If you have been talking to a friend for ten minutes face-to-face, ask them to close their eyes and describe what you are wearing. Very few will be able to remember the details (although women will do better than men).

Many people cannot even say with certainty whether the numerals on their own watch are regular ‘Arabic’ style (1, 2, 3) or Roman (I, II, III). Or which way the head faces on their country’s coins and stamps. Try asking people to describe basic details of pictures that hang on their own walls and that they see every day. Most people cannot even recall the opening words of this paragraph (no cheating!).

His last point about our tendency to simplify (and thus subtly distort) is particularly relevant. Most people like to tell a concise story and they do this by stripping away all the details that they think are irrelevant to the point they are making or adding items to make it ‘clearer’. But in doing so, they are also subtly tailoring the story to make their point and each subsequent retelling tends to sharpen it further until the final story may bear little resemblance to what actually happened. This is why different people can have widely different recollections of the same incident.

The book Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring paranormal belief & experiencei by Christopher French and Anna Stone is a scholarly examination of the literature on various paranormal phenomena including past lives that I reviewed here. The consensus is that there is no hard evidence that any of these past lives stories are true and much evidence that they are the product of false memories that have been acquired unconsciously from various sources or been planted by regression therapy and/or hypnosis. In many cases where the people have recounted concrete details that could be investigated, researchers were able to find sources (films, TV, books, articles) where the stories originated. In short, there really is no evidence that these past lives stories, that the media love and report uncritically, have any merit.

So if you are challenged with some story and asked “How do you explain that?”, your best response might be to decline the challenge and give the reasons that Rowland gives and quote the research by French and Stone.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Another major problem with a lot of people is mistakenly ascribing causation to nearby events. So, Johnny gets diagnosed with autism shortly after a vaccination. Hilarity ensues.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    In many cases where the people have recounted concrete details that could be investigated, researchers were able to find sources (films, TV, books, articles) where the stories originated.

    The same applies to just about all peaceniks spitting on Vietnam vets stories.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … he can see this question coming miles away …

    Yet he still denies having psychic powers. Ha!

  4. busterggi says

    Doesn’t matter how well something is explained to someone who wants to believe in the supernatural.

  5. mnb0 says

    “If you cannot, then that is taken as evidence that the supernatural likely exists.”
    As long as they are incapable of separating correct claims about the supernatural from incorrect ones nor can tell me how a supposed supernatural entity is capable of interacting with our natural reality (including means and procedures) the term “supernatural explanation” is totally void.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    I would place Ian Rowland’s “Full Facts” comfortably in the top ten books every skeptic should have read.

    I’ve used its contents to some effect. One of the most depressing responses I’ve got (more than once) is, when I’ve told the recipient of my startlingly “accurate” performance that it was trickery, they’ve chuckled and told me no, I definitely DO have the power, even if I don’t believe it myself. How do you explain that?

  7. says

    Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. —Arthur Conan Doyle, as Sherlock Holmes.

    In those case I always refer to the above and suggest two improbables (at least in the teller’s mind): the source is mistaken or the source is lying.

  8. says

    I’ve had people people ask that question, and I usually just reply, “I don’t know. I’m comfortable being ignorant and not filling the vacuum with my imaginings. I understand that for some people ‘ignorant’ is an insult but really, it’s a state of awareness.”

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