On the 16th April 2010, another episode of the pro-parapsychology show Skeptiko addressing the topic of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) was posted by its host, Alex Tsakiris. This was part of a series of episodes looking at NDEs and featured the return of a previous skeptical guest Dr. G.M. Woerlee. Dr. Woerlee is an anesthesiologist and has written a couple of books on NDE from a skeptical perspective. As for the content of the interview itself, I recommend anyone interested in NDEs ignore the dismissive title and introduction and take a listen, as there is some good discussion to be heard.
The first thing to note about the episode is that the interview itself is actually quite balanced. Alex makes his case for why NDEs are simply unexplainable by current medical knowledge and Dr. Woerlee responds by presenting and discussing the natural explanations for NDEs. As you might predict, Alex does not find such explanations compelling and Dr. Woerlee similarly does not find Alex’s conclusions- that NDEs prove dualism correct and that consciousness can survive bodily death- to be convincing. However, despite the disagreement a respectful tone is kept throughout the interview and Alex gives Dr. Woerlee the time to present his case and respond to points he raises.
The start of the interview is Alex questioning Dr. Woerlee about a point one of his listeners raised regarding how Dr. Woerlee had been wrong to claim that cardiac massage was always involved in NDEs. Dr. Woerlee acknowledged that the criticism had some validity but continued to argue that:
There are a number of factors here. In fact, I still maintain that most of them would have received the cardiac massage for the very simple reason that you lose consciousness within 4 to around 30 seconds after a real ventricular fibrillation begins, or asystole, in other words, no heartbeat at all, begins.
However, rather soon after this point Alex shifts the conversation to a discussion of a specific case which he feels is representative of a number of cases in the literature. This is a technique Alex frequently employs in interviews with skeptics and I have mixed feelings about its utility. On the plus side, it often brings differences relating to how evidence is interpreted into stark contrast but conversely, you lose the chance for a wider discussion and the cases are also typically raised on the spot, and related by Alex, meaning that the researchers have no time to look into the specific details of the case they are discussing.
Despite this I think Dr. Woerlee did a very good job of presenting natural explanations for the experiences of the woman Alex raised. However, for Alex the explanations did not stack up and in particular he seemed focused on the fact that she a) had died and b) was observing events in the operating theatre from outside her body.
But Dr. Woerlee, what we’re dealing with here, what I think most people would focus on, especially in the context of our conversation is this woman died. Her doctor has reported that she died. They hit her with the paddles three times. And just like in all the other discussions we’ve had, she’s viewing this from above and she’s seeing everything happening. There isn’t a good medical explanation for how you could see them preparing and defibrillating your body while you’re dead.
Dr. Woerlee responds to these points by arguing that she did not ‘die’ unless you define death as occuring as soon as the heart stops which is really a matter of perspective. It is irrelevant though because we are all aware that people can be resusciated after their heart stops (it usually occurs at least once in your typical Holywood action movie!) so the fact that someone can come back to life after their heart stops is not really as weird as Alex makes it sound. Alex’s second point regarding the out of body experience Dr. Woerlee explains as being most likely due to the effects of anaesthetics, decreased awareness and muscle relaxant drugs which are known to cause “a loss of body image in many people”.
I would also add the rather straight forward point that Alex’s assertion that she saw and reported her experience accurately is based on anecdotal accounts. Doctors and emergency staff are not infallible and neither are patients when it comes to their memories of high stress situations and as with all NDEs the likelihood is that the ‘out of body’ experience was reported long after the actual event when there was plenty of time for memories to be influenced by information from other sources. Confirmation bias is not something that doctors and nurses are immune from however and it is also perfectly possible that they found her account to be more accurate than it actually was.
Ignoring such factors Dr. Woerlee’s explanation seems to me to be perfectly reasonable but, illustrating once again the huge gulf in responses between believers and skeptics to the same evidence, Alex comments that the natural explanation “sounds like a rather fantastic interpretation of this particular case in particular”.
Finally, towards the end of interview Alex explicitly acknowledges that their debate is really impossible to resolve as their respective positions largely depend on different interpretations of the same evidence with Dr. Woerlee finding natural explanations convincing and Alex firmly convinced that research has now proven that consciousness can survive death.
Hence, Alex comments that:
I guess this is where we get to the point where we just have to kind of back off and leave it to people to decide
I don’t know. I think at this point we just have to leave it up to the listeners. If listeners accept your explanation of Kimberly’s case, the woman who was shot, then I guess they just have to go with it.
And Dr. Woerlee agrees…
But for the rest I think that as you say, basically what we would have here is differences of opinion as regards many things.
So far, so good and the concluding comments by Dr. Woerlee were excellent in summing up the skeptical position by pointing out that there was no single explanation for all NDEs and that it was therefore a mistake to see the various explanations offered by skeptics as competing with each other (they are all likely to play a role in different circumstances). Alex also appeared to acknowledge this as a valid point by responding:
I think that’s a good wrap-up and explanation of why there are so many explanations. Dr. Woerlee, again, thanks for coming back on and we’ll get this out so that we can keep the dialogue going.
All of the above makes Alex’s decision to title the episode as “101. Near-Death Experience Skeptics Running Out of Excuses” a little surprising. To follow up on this inspired heading he then frames the discussion on his website with the ludicrous introduction that:
The idea of an afterlife doesn’t sit well with the science-minded. Our mind is our brain and when we die we die they claim. But as conventional medical explanations for near-death experiences fall flat, and NDE research progresses, tradition-minded scientists are facing the impossible notion that the afterlife may be real.
With this Alex abandons any pretence of balance and, instead, declares himself and all those who find the NDE research compelling evidence for an afterlife as vindicated while those “tradition-minded scientists” and their natural explanations all “fall flat”. So much for letting the listener decide and so much for a balanced episode of Skeptiko! Instead, Alex opts to insert his personal position as the definitive ‘sensible’ perspective at the expense of the credibility of the show. Frustrating but sadly predicatable. Overall this was one of the better episodes of Skeptiko because it is a good interview so it is doubly unfortunate that Alex could not resist the urge to insert his bias in post production.