Abusing Science with Stories of Post-Death Experiences

I love Kojo Nnamdi’s show on NPR. He’s a smart, tech savvy, engaging host, and I almost always learn something new when I listen in. A few weeks ago, unfortunately, I learned that Kojo is not immune to falling for pseudoscientific nonsense.

The topic came up when Kojo interviewed Judy Bachrach about her new book  Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and “Science” of Life After Death. Before I go any further, I want to point out that I added the quotations around the word “science” in the title because I can’t bare to see the word abused the way Bachrach uses it.

In case you would rather see much more expert folk  than me address the subject, please head on over to my older post on the topic of supposed after death experiences with a video of  some really smart people debating the issue (along with two not-so-smart ones – I’ll let you decide who is who).

Bachrach is a journalist, and it looks like she did a great job tracking down people who have studied alleged post-death experiences (in people who didn’t actually die, of course, ’cause dead people can’t talk), and several people who have had supposed death-like experiences and “came back” to tell about it. The book is full of moving stories and details that seem, to Bachrach, to be tellingly similar from person to person, as well as said tales of the apparently universal remorse and difficulties these people face after “choosing” not to die.

I wouldn’t for a moment argue that these people don’t actually have the memories they recount. Of course they do. In the video linked above, you can see that neurologist Steven Novella has some great explanations for how and why those memories might come about, without the experiences being of physically real events. I’m not interested in doing a second rate job of repeating Novella’s arguments when you can get them straight from the neurologist’s mouth by watching the video.

I’m not even going to address physicist Sean Carroll’s discussion of the mechanisms that make it clear that the mind is the result of physical and chemical activity in the brain. Which in turn means that when the brain turns off, the mind is gone, just as when you turn off your computer, the programs that run on it simply stop.

No, the key point I want to address is that Bachrach has decided that commonality of “post death” experiences from person to person means that the experiences must be real. But what about post death memories that are physically impossible?

For example, on the book site hosted by publisher National Geographic (BTW, shame, shame on you Nat Geo, you are supposed to be a scientific organization), Bachrach says that the people she calls death travelers can ” . . .  circle the planets, turn into pure light  . . . predict the future or intuit people’s thoughts.”

In her book, which I hope you don’t buy because this sort of thing really should not be encouraged with monetary rewards, Bachrach and her post-death experts posit that the “travelers” don’t just predict the future, but actually see it. One of her interview subjects supposedly has developed an amazing ability to pick stocks, I assume because he now knows the future of the market.

I’m not sure what it means to turn into pure light, but light has a speed limit. Just to travel to Neptune and back would take light  more than eight hours. “Circling the planets,” if I understand that properly would take at least 2*pi=6.28 times as long. That would require a “post-death” experience lasting 25 hours or more. Clearly, that provides a simple check on the validity of at least one death experience. Imagine a scientist, or science journalist for that matter, named Salviati interviewing a post-death researcher named Simplicio:

Salviati: So, you say the death traveler circled the planets as pure light.

Simplicio: Yes

Salviati: Was he or she dead for more or less than twenty five hours?

Simplicio: Less.

Salviati: Physics fail. It didn’t happen. Your pure light death traveler would have to move faster than light to do that. So the subject must not have been light, but nothing travels faster than light. And we’re done.

Time travel is trickier. It’s not definitively impossible, but if you want to try to find a physical way it might be possible, feel free to start by reading the extensive and entertaining Wikipedia piece on it. But even in the extremely unlikely event that it’s possible, it’s a pretty simple thing to confirm. You don’t even have to be a scientist to check it, a plain old journalist will do just fine.

First of all, I would ask, “Is the time-traveling stock-picker rich yet?” If his portfolio performs about as well as mine (so so), I don’t think we need to investigate him much further. If he’s a stock market millionaire (frankly, I’d be a billionaire in a couple months if I’d seen the future), it would still have been a good idea for Bachrach to test him with a stock pick or two, and perhaps make a couple bucks along the way to enhance those book royalties. If she did, there’s no sign of it in her writings in the book or online.

How about mind reading? There is absolutely no explanation in Bachrach’s book as to why death-travelers should have developed such a skill. I mean, sure, if you’re death traveling, I guess you could travel inside someone’s brain and looks around, but what good would that be once you’re back? Mind reading means reading now, not having read once at some time in the past.  That would be useless.

Like stock picking, it’s pretty darn easy to test the mind reading claim. In fact, I’d be happy to offer my mind for the reading, when they aren’t busy performing psychic interrogations for the CIA or whatever mind readers do for a living. If there have been any real mind readers, there’s no evidence of it in the scientific literature. There is also no physical mechanism to explain it. No mechanism and no effect (I’m going to assume there’s no effect until a study showing otherwise is published in a reputable science journal) means no truth to the claim.

The bottom line is this: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Post-death experiences are about as extraordinary as things can get, especially when they include phenomena that violate physics in the world of the living. Question: why not provide said evidence if a few very simple tests are all it takes? Answer: because “post-death” experiences, and Bachrach’s book, are utter nonsense.

Come on Kojo and National Geographic – you folks are better than this.

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