Reposted from the article I wrote for Aeon (published 11th May 2016).
Image of partially buried moai statues on Easter Island by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0)
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is an island in the Pacific famous for the massive humanoid statues peppered along its coasts. These moai are commonly called stone heads, but actually most possess bodies, and the largest constructed stands at over 30 feet and weighs 82 tons. Ever since these monoliths were encountered by European explorers in the 18th century, the history of the island has been a topic of fascination and debate. Most captivating is the mystery of how almost 900 moai were carved and transported, mostly between 1250 CE and 1500 CE, only to be toppled and abandoned by the 18th century.
The history remains contentious and its scholarship is currently hosting a fierce debate between two rival camps. The first account, popularised by Jared Diamond in his bestselling book Collapse (2005), presents the island’s history as a cautionary tale of the destructive potential of humans to overexploit natural resources. A contradictory account has been advocated over the past decade by a group of scholars, led by the anthropologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, who contend that the ‘collapse’ Diamond describes is largely a European myth. Instead, continuity is the hallmark of settlement on Rapa Nui.
After writing recently about the flawed research of Sam Parnia on Near Death Experiences I was accused by a few NDE advocates in the comments section of employing unduly high standards of evidence in my analysis of the studies shortcomings. My critical stance, they argued, was due to a deep ideological bias against the very possibility that there could be life after death or a non-material aspect of human consciousness. Personally, I would characterise myself as deeply ideologically biased in favour of both hypotheses, as I would be very happy if we were able to find evidence that there is life after death and, similarly, who wouldn’t want things like telepathy and out of body mental projection to be possible? As such, the issue for me is not that these kind of findings are undesirable but rather, precisely because they are verydesirable, we need to be very cautious that confirmation bias is not seeping into our analyses.
In my experience advocates for psi and other paranormal tend not to appreciate just how necessary a strong critical environment is to the production of good science. A nice illustration of what I mean, is found in a relatively popular trend within academic journals to publish a single long form ‘target article’ which is then followed by a series of short commentary articles from relevant scholars, before the original authors have a chance to conclude with a response to the comments. The point here is that such commentaries typically run the gamut from being congratulatory to being overtly hostile to the theories presented in the target article. I’ve found that this format works well and produces some of the most productive articles for the reader, as it is possible to identify the wider field’s likely response through the microcosm of the commentary pieces. Unfortunately, this kind of engagement seems to be rare in psi and NDE research, with the proponents instead establishing their own journals, which become self citing cliques hostile to any critics- regarded as uninformed interlopers, as opposed to peers with different interpretations of the evidence.
Despite such unfortunate trends, the charge that even self professed skeptics can display notable selective biases in the application of their skepticism is warranted. Indeed, the fact that such a phenomena exists is also acknowledged by skeptics, who have a term for when people are failing to apply their critical perspective to a certain cherished topic; possessing a ‘sacred cow’. For instance, a widespread sacred cow, that I also possessed, is the popular Western perception of Buddhism as an atheistic and scientific philosophical system. I became disabused of such notions, swiftly and painfully, through my decision to study about Buddhist cultures and history during my undergraduate degree but the idealistic portrayal remains all pervasive and crops up everywhere from Academic articles to Russell Brand’s rants (and occasionally, my facebook feed). Although I had that particular cow prematurely slaughtered, it is almost certain that there is a whole invisible herd inhabiting my thought processes and views, just waiting for the right motivation (such as encountering evidence that vitamin pills are of practically no use) to make themselves heard. (more…)
About four years ago I wrote a post about the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) project being lead by Dr. Sam Parnia. The AWARE project is summarised on its official website as being about “using the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest… [and] testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above”. I previously expressed a number of concerns about the research, with the chief complaints being: 1) the methodology for placing ‘hidden’ images was poorly controlled (i.e. some images were visible to staff, giving patients a rather less esoteric means of learning about their content) and 2) the lead researcher, Dr. Parnia, was already promoting and offering dubious (quantum) interpretations about the meaning of the positive results, before the data was collected!
The study has finally been published, and despite breathless headlines such as the Telegraph’s “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study” or the Independent’s “Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may actually be real”, the findings are actually remarkably unimpressive. For a start, the main finding, which is not mentioned in the abstract and quickly dismissed in one sentence in the discussion section, is that none of the 140 patients interviewed were able to identify a single hidden image. The paper tries to downplay this by pointing out that 78% of cardiac events occurred in areas without the special ‘shelves’ that held the images, this percentage however appears to be based on the full sample of 2,060 cardiac events rather than the 140 cases included in the study. It may be that the percentage is similar for these specific cases but the paper doesn’t tell us that and regardless, since the researchers seem to feel this makes the measure all but useless, you have to wonder why such a serious methodological issue was not identified as a problem in the piloting stage. Indeed, if we go back to this report from the BBC in 2009, we find a rather different take from Dr. Parnia on the importance of this null finding:
“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity. It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.“
A recent study by Corriveau et al. published in Cognitive Science purporting to examine the differences in abilities to distinguish fantasy from reality between children from religious and non-religious backgrounds received a surprising amount of media attention. It was, for example, featured recently on the BBC, the article covering the study on the Huffington Post has been shared over 23,000 times and the I fucking love science summary has over 81,000 shares. The narrative presented in the paper and the popular press summarises the research as revealing that children exposed to religion are deficient in their ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic narratives (in comparison with children from secular, non-religious backgrounds). The findings are also argued to undermine the claims of researchers, like Justin Barrett and Jesse Bering, that we are “Born Believers” or possess a “Belief Instinct“, since the secular children do not display the same deficiency in reasoning. Unfortunately, these narratives are themselves largely a fantasy as the research fails to provide strong evidence for either of these claims. I detail the reasons why below.
... although this form of acupuncture may carry slightly greater health risks.
So while killing time on facebook researching new science articles I came across this short Guardian article containing a startling headline announcing that:
“Dozens killed by incorrectly placed acupuncture needles”
But before I could begin hunting for news stories about the recent activity of an acupuncture themed serial killer the sub heading informed me that a “survey reveals punctured hearts and lungs among causes of death over past 45 years”. Despite my general lack of statistical competence even I can work out that ‘dozens’ of deaths across more than four decades does not work out as a particularly scary statistic and certainly not one that warrants such a sensationalist headline. In fact as the first paragraph of the article explains the total recorded deaths numbers 86 over 45 years which works out as an average of around 2 deaths a year.
What makes this figure even less impressive is that the number was obtained from worldwide reports including those from Japan and China. Two deaths a year from a treatment that is performed on millions of people, multiple times every year is really not something which people should worry about. Winning the lottery would appear to be more likely than dying from a botched acupuncture treatment.
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.
Skeptiko is a pro-parapsychology podcast which attracts a mix of ire and exasperation from the skeptical community due to its misleading title and the tendency of its host, Alex Tsakiris, to promote the show as being an agenda free exploration of ‘controversial science’. A quick listen to any episode of Skeptiko will confirm to an impartial listener that the host, far from being ‘agenda-free’, possesses a painfully evident bias which infusses the entire character and tone of the show. Tsakiris tends to fawn over guests who are on to promote forms of parapsychology he supports and is openly hostile to- the point of occasionally berating- skeptical guests.
In light of the above, and to try and redress some of the bias inherent in the show, I have decided that I will try and offer some skeptical commentary on the Skeptiko shows as Alex adds them and I get time to go through them. It is unlikely that this will have any impact on Alex or the fans of his show, but it might mean that someone who listens to Skeptiko without an agenda and then does a google search on the topic could come across an alternative perspective rather than falling further down the Skeptiko rabbit hole.
So without further adieu, here are my thoughts on ‘Skeptiko episode 100: Dr. Garret Moddel Brings Psi Research to University of Colorado Classroom‘.