In March of 2012 Alex Tsakiris of skeptiko.com interviewed Caroline Watt about the paper she co-authored with Dean Mobbs: There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them. This paper is one of the main sources skeptics refer to when asserting that near-death experiences can be explained by ordinary biological means. The article misrepresents what is known about near-death experiences. In the interview, Alex does a thorough job of showing how inaccurate and misleading this paper is.
Key Facts About NDEs
- Medical explanations cannot explain NDEs.
- Researchers have ample evidence that NDEs occur when there is no brain activity.
- Veridical NDEs, where an experiencer perceives verifiable events that he should not be able to perceive without brain activity, or would not be able to perceive with his normal senses even if he was conscious, are common.
How Alex's interview exposed the inaccuracies in the paper:
- In the interview, Watt admits that neuroscience does not show there is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences. She admits the title of her paper is an overstatement and explains this deception by saying that the article is designed to be provocative and is not intended to be balanced.
- Alex goes on to point out that all the main NDE researchers say that neuroscience cannot explain all the data about NDEs.
- Alex gives further evidence that the paper is deceptive by pointing out an example of an assertion made in the paper that is not supported by the reference cited.
- Watt tries to fall back on the canard that no one can pinpoint when the NDE actually occurs, implying NDEs could occur after the experiencer recovers consciousness. Alex replies with a quote from NDE researcher van Lommel stating that they do have evidence that the NDE occurs when there is no brain activity. Alex also cites papers by Jan Holden and Penny Satori that also support this view.
- The strongest evidence that NDEs are paranormal comes from people who perceive verifiable events during their NDE which they could not have perceived with their normal senses even if they had been conscious. Watt explains that this aspect wasn't covered by the paper because it only happens rarely. Alex counters this by naming an NDE researcher who has of hundreds of these types of cases in his database.
- Alex quotes Dr. Bruce Greyson: “If you ignore everything paranormal about NDEs, then it’s easy to conclude, there’s nothing paranormal about them.”
- Alex also points out how the paper cites a researcher who denied being a researcher and who's work on the subject has been refuted.
- Dr. Caroline Watt for all practical purposes admits Greyson is right and her paper is a inaccurate when she says the paper, "... was intended to be a provocative piece. It’s not claiming to be balanced."
Excerpts from the Interview:
Watt admits the title of the paper is an "overstatement", that it "goes too far", that neuroscience does not show there is nothing paranormal about NDEs.
Dr. Caroline Watt: These articles are deliberately designed to be provoking of debate. The whole idea of this group of articles, this type of articles in this journal, is not to claim that you’re making some comprehensive review. It’s not to produce any new evidence for testing a theory, for example.
Alex Tsakiris: Do you stand by the title?
Dr. Caroline Watt: ...I believe it’s an overstatement. It’s too soon to say there’s nothing paranormal, because we don’t have all of the evidence in yet.
I think the title, which is deliberately provocative, is going too far because it’s too soon to say there’s nothing paranormal. The content of the article itself is not saying anything new.
Alex points out all the main NDE researchers say medical explanations do not fit the data.
Alex Tsakiris: ... all the main researchers in the NDE field; Bruce Greyson, University of Virginia; Pim van Lommel, who you cite in the paper; Jeff Long; Peter Fenwick; all of them agree in saying a conventional medical explanation of NDEs doesn’t fit the data.
I don’t know where you can point to any prominent NDE researchers that would support the title like that. It’s provocative, okay, but is it representative even of the field and of the research?
Alex points out an assertion in the paper that is not supported by the reference cited:
Alex Tsakiris: In the paper, your first citation for van Lommel doesn’t seem to be correct. You site this case; here’s from your paper. ... “One example is a case study in which a patient with diabetes reports a near-death experience during an episode of hypoglycemia. There’s REM…” At the end, it’s cited as being in the Van Lommel paper.
I can’t find that in the van Lommel paper; I have it pulled up right here. Did I miss something? What is going on there?
Alex shows Watt is not accurate when she questions whether NDEs occur when there is no brain activity. Alex names a number of researchers who have evidence that NDEs occur when there is no brain activity:
Alex Tsakiris: Here’s the point, I guess. What I read, I’m going to read directly from his paper on his findings, and this is the most important point. Occurrences of the experience, the near-death experience, were not associated with duration of cardiac arrest—that’s very important, or unconsciousness, medication, or fear of death before cardiac arrest.
This directly contradicts what your inclination or theory about what some of the causes would be. That’s why this was such a landmark study, because they looked for these things on the physiological or psychological front, and they didn’t find it. I guess I’d come back to saying, if we’re really going to push against this, then I think it behooves you to put forward some data.
Dr. Caroline Watt: I disagree with you on that, because I don’t think van Lommel or anybody else has yet provided the evidence that the experience occurred during the time when the patient was clinically dead.
Alex Tsakiris:Dr. Pim van Lommel: …an out-of-body experience, where they have [inaudible 32:57] perception. These aspects can be corroborated by doctors, nurses, and family members. It’s important, because it not only can tell us what they perceived, but also the moment that it happened can be corroborated. That what they perceived from a position out of the body really happened at a time that they were unconscious. In other words, no cardiac function; there was no brain function at all.
Alex Tsakiris: He goes on in that quote, then, to cite the paper by Dr. Jan Holden, who I told you we just had on in the previous episode to talk about this paper. She did a peer reviewed published paper that did exactly that; it followed up with people, and found that their perceptions were significantly more accurate than the control group. We’ve also had Dr. Penny Sartori from the UK who’s done a similar study, and had similar findings. I think we can pinpoint and say that these conscious experiences are happening during the time when there is no brain activity.
Alex corrects another incorrect assertion when Watt suggests that veridical NDEs are rare:
Dr. Caroline Watt:
These out-of-body experiences are actually quite rare when you tabulate their frequency. Even when people have a near-death experience, they don’t always have an out-of-body experience as part of it, so it takes a lot of time to gather the data.
Our paper didn’t deal with this question of veridicality at all.
Alex Tsakiris:... Dr. Jeff Long. ... He’s compiled probably the largest database of NDE accounts, and has done some very insightful analysis that I think would contradict a couple of things that you’re saying. One, the veridicality of the evidence and the number of percentage of people who have had an out of body experience is much larger. Hundreds and hundreds in her [sic] survey have experienced that, and have reported that.
Alex points out how the thesis of the paper is contrived with a quote from Bruce Greyson:
Alex Tsakiris: Let me just throw this last quote. I’ve been dying to get this quote in. Please. This is Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia, and it’s a great response to your article.
His quote is, “If you ignore everything paranormal about NDEs, then it’s easy to conclude, there’s nothing paranormal about them.” That’s what I think I hear over and over again. Let’s ignore this, and then we can talk about how they’re not paranormal.
Watt's paper cites a researcher who denied being a researcher and who's work has been refuted.
Alex Tsakiris:You also reference people like Susan Blackmore in the paper. We’ve had her on. She said, specifically, “I’m no longer a researcher in this field. I shouldn’t be considered a researcher in this field,” and yet she’s cited, even though her research has been pretty thoroughly countered in, for example, the Handbook of Near-Death Experiences by Greyson and Jan Holden. They cover all that stuff.
For all practical purposes, Watt admits the paper is inaccurate:
Dr. Caroline Watt: As I said, it was intended to be a provocative piece. It’s not claiming to be balanced.
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