At long last, the shoe!
Maria, the authors report,
went on to describe being distracted again, this time by something on a third floor, outside window ledge at the north side of the hospital. Maria said she "thought her way" up to the object and discovered that it was a shoe. She described it as a large tennis shoe that was worn at the small toe and sitting with a shoelace tucked under the heel. Maria then asked Clark to search for the shoe as a way of verifying that her spirit had really been out of her body.
According to her own account, Clark could not see any shoe on the ledge from ground level. But when she went inside and began looking out the windows on the third floor, she eventually saw the tennis shoe -- though she was able to see it only by pressing her face to the glass. From that angle, she could not see the shoelace or the small toe. She was convinced that Maria could have known about the shoe and seen those details only from a perspective outside the window, looking down on the ledge.
How did Ebbern and Mulligan investigate the critical matter of the shoe?
They placed a running shoe of their own at the place Clark described and then went outside the hospital to observe what was visible from ground level. They were astonished at the ease with which they could see and identify the shoe.
Clark's claim that the shoe would have been invisible from ground level outside the hospital is all the more incredible because the investigators' viewpoint was considerably inferior to what Clark's would have been seventeen years earlier. That is because, in 1994, there was new construction under way beneath the window in question and this forced Ebbern and Mulligan to view the shoe from a much greater distance ...
The construction site had been, until 1994, a parking lot and patient recreation area. Thus, back in 1997, many people in this high-traffic area would have had the opportunity to get a better view of a shoe on the ledge than we had.
Moreover, the authors continue,
They easily placed their running shoe on the ledge from inside one of the rooms and it was clearly visible from various points within the room. There was no need whatsoever for anyone to press his or her face against the glass to see the shoe....
Having visited the scene ourselves, we determined that one did not need to be pressed against the glass to see the issue, but we did find that by assuming that position it would have been easy to discern the additional details that so impressed Clark. Looking down from that angle at the shoe we place on the ledge, we had no difficulty seeing the shoe's allegedly hidden outer side.
So we have a clear discrepancy between Clark's account of the shoe and that of the two student investigators. It seems to me that there are two ways of resolving this discrepancy:
1. Clark's account is simply wrong, either because of dishonesty or because she has unwittingly embellished the story over the years. Or ...
2. Ebbern and Mulligan did not put the shoe in exactly the same place where Clark says she found it 17 years earlier.
The authors obviously want us to accept the first option and do not even mention the second one. Yet the second possibility cannot be ruled out. If we skip ahead just a bit in the Skeptical Inquirer article, we find the authors observing in a different context, "As far as we were able to ascertain, Clark never photographed the shoe on the ledge." They also take pains to report that "Clark has not produced notes or recordings from her interviews with Maria."
Now, if Clark did not take any photographs of the shoe in situ, nor did she make any contemporaneous notes or records, then how did the students know where to place the shoe? The article tells us that they put it on the ledge "at the place Clark described." The article does not say that Clark accompanied the students and pointed specifically to where the shoe should be placed. It appears that the students were relying on Clark's verbal description alone.
It should be obvious that the visibility of the shoe, either from the ground or from a window, would vary tremendously depending on exactly where and how it was placed. For instance, if it was right up alongside the wall of the building, perhaps it would not be visible from the ground. Or if it was some distance away from the window, perhaps the telltale details would not be seen even when pressing one's face to the glass.
One detail the authors offer inadvertently lends credence to the thesis that they put their shoe in a more visible position than the original. When they returned to the hospital "one week after placing the shoe on the ledge, the shoe had been removed, proving that it was also discernible to someone not specifically looking for it."
No doubt it was. But if the original shoe, back in 1977, was equally visible, then why wasn't it removed from the ledge before Kimberly Clark hunted it down? If people could see the shoe from both outside and inside the hospital, and it was easily retrievable, then what was it still doing there when Maria had her NDE?
The bottom line is that we have no reason to assume that the student researchers put the shoe in exactly the same place where it was found 17 years earlier. Without photographic records or detailed notes, and without Kimberly Clark's direct participation in the recreation, they could rely only on guesswork. And yet on the basis of their guesswork, they were willing to call into question Clark's recollection of the entire event.
And they were willing to do more than that. The supposed visibility of the shoe both from the ground and from the window is the key to the authors' explanation of Maria's NDE.
It is not a far-fetched notion to assume that anyone who might have noticed the shoe back in 1977 would have commented on it because of the novelty of its location. Thus, during the three days prior to her NDE, Maria could have overheard such a conversation among any of the doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, or other hospital staff who frequented this busy area....
[Moreover] it is apparent that many people inside as well as outside the hospital would have had the opportunity to notice the now-famous shoe, making it even more likely that Maria could have overheard some mention of it.
At this point, the authors have gone from saying that the shoe could have been seen from the ground or from the window to the rather more sweeping assertion that the shoe could have been a topic of conversation throughout the entire hospital. If so, it is even more peculiar that no one retrieved the shoe when it was first noticed. And it is even more peculiar that at the time when Maria's NDE was first reported to the hospital staff, no one seems to pointed out that the shoe was common knowledge. Wouldn't some alert staffer have said, "What's the big deal? Everybody's seen that shoe. We've been talking about it among ourselves for weeks. It's the most exciting thing to happen to this hospital since I started working here!"
This is, apparently, the sort of conversation that the authors imagine to have been taking place -- and that Maria, recovering from a cardiac arrest and on the verge of suffering another one, took notice of.
But what about the telltale details -- the worn toe, the tucked-in shoelace? Here the authors engage in what appears to be a bit of verbal sleight of hand. (In what follows I must reproduce some text I quoted a moment ago, but in its full context.)
Clark has repeatedly declared that the only way Maria could have known about the worn spots on the shoe and position of the shoelace was if she had been hovering outside the window -- allegedly these details were undetectable from anywhere else. Having visited the scene ourselves, we determined that one did not need to be pressed against the glass to see the shoe, but we did find that by assuming that position it would have been easy to discern the additional details that so impressed Clark. Looking down from that angle at the shoe we placed on the ledge, we had no difficulty seeing the shoe's allegedly hidden outer side.
Thus we believe we have shown that it would not have been as difficult as Clark claims for Maria to have become aware of the shoe prior to her NDE. It would have been visible, both inside and outside the hospital, to numerous people who could have come into contact with her. It also seems likely that some of them might have mentioned it within earshot.
Now, wait a minute. It's one thing to imagine that some hospital workers might talk about a tennis shoe on a third-floor ledge. It's quite another to think that they would talk about the shoe's detailed appearance -- remarking on the worn toe and the position of the shoelace. No matter how boring the life of a hospital orderly might be, I find it hard to believe that these mundane details would provide fodder for conversation around the Mr. Coffee machine. ("And did you see how the shoelace was tucked under the shoe? How about that? A tucked-in shoelace. Wow!")
The authors don't really believe that anyone on the hospital staff talked about the exact position of the shoelace. That's what I meant by verbal sleight of hand. They worked their little digression about the unusual details of the shoe into their larger discussion of the placement of the shoe, conflating the two issues.
There's also another bit of verbal trickery at work here, when the authors tell us, "It also seems likely that some of them might have mentioned it within earshot."
There's a pretty big jump being made. When exactly did this scenario make the transition from being "not a far-fetched notion" (as originally stated) to being "likely"? And just how "likely" is this scenario, anyway?
Actually, the authors themselves don't seem to find it very likely, since, directly after the sentence that ends with the word earshot, they add, "But even if we assume that none of this occurred, there are other considerations that make this less than the airtight case its proponents believe it is."
Here I thought the above scenario was "likely." Now it turns out, apparently, to be so unlikely that the authors have to immediately come up with a whole different set of explanations.
Not surprisingly, these new explanations turn out to have a lot in common with the freewheeling speculation that was used to explain -- or explain away -- Maria's vision of the hospital equipment in action and the emergency room entrance. (In the quotes that follow, I have added all emphases.)
As Clark has not produced notes or recordings from her interviews with Maria, we have no way of knowing what leading questions Maria may have been asked, or what Maria might have "recalled" that did not fit and was dropped from the record...
In talking about her NDE, Maria could have unintentionally filled in inferred details to flesh out the story. Pressed for details by someone in a position of authority, this woman of modest status could easily have succumbed to what psychologists call "demand characteristics" and, quite innocently, filled in more than she knew from direct experience...
Once Maria had reported a shoe sitting on an outside ledge, it would have been plausible to infer it was an old shoe -- otherwise wouldn't the owner had taken the trouble to retrieve it? From this, it is only a small step to assume a worn toe, not unusual in an old shoe. That the shoelace was correctly described by Maria as tucked under the heel may also have been a later addition to a story that, as we have seen, is marked with memory distortions on Clark's part.
Notice that the "memory distortions on Clark's part" exist only if Ebbern and Mulligan placed the shoe in exactly the right location. If they placed it incorrectly -- even if the location was off by just a few inches -- then Clark's story might hold up just fine. Yet on the basis of this dubious recreation 17 years after the fact, they are willing to indict Clark for a hopelessly faulty memory. And having characterized her in this way, they find it easy enough to accuse her of asking leading questions, eliminating certain testimony from the record, and adding key details to the story.
As for the claim that Maria could have simply inferred that the shoe was old and had a worn toe -- well, that Florida swampland I mentioned earlier is still available. But don't hesitate; it's going fast.
How could Clark so thoroughly fail to interrogate Maria or to accurately recollect one of the most dramatic events of her life? The authors suggest an answer. "Kimberly Clark is not a trained investigator," they say.
This, of course, raises the question of whether the researchers in this case, Ebbern and Mulligan, were trained investigators at the time when they took their trip to Seattle. Here is what we are told about the pair at the end of the article:
Hayden Ebbern is an undergraduate in the Department of Psychology and Sean Mulligan is a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
Ebbern was an undergraduate?
Are we supposed to believe that an undergraduate -- a college student who has not even earned his degree -- is a "trained investigator"? Are his powers of observation, analysis, and memory automatically assumed to be better than those of an experienced social worker at a major hospital?
At least Mulligan was a graduate student at the time, but does a grad student in the biology department have the skills necessary to evaluate the testimony of witnesses or determine their allegedly hidden motives? Are biology departments teaching interrogation techniques nowadays?
I would suggest that if a parapsychologist sent two students with comparable qualifications to investigate a controversial case, he would be roundly criticized -- especially if the students began casting aspersions on the honesty, intelligence, training, and motives of the people they were sent to interview.
The authors go on to complain that Clark "did not publicly report details of Maria's NDE until seven years after it occurred." This statement is perhaps a bit misleading, since Clark apparently told her colleagues at the hospital about the NDE as soon as she found the shoe. Nurses, doctors, and other hospital employees were reportedly all aware of the incident, which caused a great deal of discussion (and, as we've noted, no mention of any hospital-wide awareness of the shoe prior to Clark's retrieval of it). What the authors presumably mean is that Clark did not report the details in any official journal or anthology until seven years later. And this is true. Clark's report was part of an anthology about NDEs called The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives, edited by Charles Flynn and Bruce Greyson. The book was released in 1984, seven years after the events in question.
Now, I know little about publishing. Everything takes longer than it should. Finding a publisher for a book can take a year or more, and even after the contract is signed, it can take the publisher another year or two years or even longer to get the book into print. So an interim of seven years is not terribly surprising. It can take a while even for an article to get published in a magazine. For instance, consider the very Skeptical Inquirer article we're discussing. It was researched in 1994 but not published until two years later, in 1996. If a similar delay occurred in the publication timetable of the book containing Clark's essay -- which is not unlikely -- then she actually wrote up her report no more than five years after the event, and quite possibly much earlier.
Furthermore, if a lapse of time calls her account into question, then how do the authors explain the fact that they did not undertake their own investigation of the case until a full ten years after it had been reported? If waiting seven years to discuss the case is problematic, then surely waiting seventeen years after the fact is even more so.
Besides allegedly taking too long to report the case, Clark was found to have a "cavalier attitude." How so?
When Ebbern and Mulligan asked Clark about the current whereabouts of the shoe, Clark replied that she probably had it around somewhere, maybe in her garage, but that it would be too much trouble to look for it. The cavalier attitude toward the most important artifact in the field of near-death studies struck us as odd.
Two responses are possible. First, I'm not aware of any near-death researchers who regard the shoe itself as an especially important "artifact." It is, after all, just a beat-up old shoe. What's important is the story associated with it, not the shoe itself. Second, and more important, there may be another explanation for Kimberly Clark's lack of cooperation with Ebbern and Mulligan. I submit that it is at least possible that Clark, upon meeting the intrepid pair of student investigators, sized them up as militant skeptics, strongly biased against any nonmaterialist interpretation of NDEs, researching a CSICOP hit piece. She may also have noticed that the researchers were contemptuous of her friends in her NDE support group, and were more than willing to cast aspersions on her own memory, intellectual capabilities, honesty, and motives. Under the circumstances, she may not have felt particularly interested in presenting the shoe to Ebbern and Mulligan so they could snicker at it.
The authors finish up by allowing that "perhaps" Clark "now honestly misremembers" the details of the case -- the alternative, of course, being that she dishonestly misremembers or misrepresents the details.
The motivation to defend cherished or self-serving beliefs makes it easy for unintentional embellishments to creep into key accounts as they are retold. In our discussions with her, Clark exhibited obvious emotional commitment to the spiritual interpretation of Maria's story. She has become a minor celebrity because of her involvement with it and is writing yet another, potentially profitable, book on the subject.
Unpacking this passage is almost too easy. I'll leave it to you to count all the ways that the authors cast aspersions on Clark's psychology and motives. Naturally, no skeptic could ever be motivated to "defend cherished or self-serving beliefs," or to have an "emotional commitment" to a point of view, and and no skeptic has ever become "a minor celebrity" or written a "potentially profitable" book. By the way, aren't all books potentially profitable? This is like saying that someone just bought a "potentially salable house." Why would they phrase it like that? What are they trying to imply? Gosh, I wish I knew.
The authors take a moment to disparage Clark's NDE support group, which, they claim, "bills itself as devoted to scientific research into NDEs." If so, it's a pretty unusual support group, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that the group did characterize itself this way. So what, exactly? Even if the members of the group are rank amateurs, they are hardly typical of the leading researchers in the field of near-death studies -- accomplished professionals like Michael Sabom, Melvin Morse, Peter Fenwick, Bruce Greyson, and Pim Van Lommel, who have published their research in peer-reviewed journals. (Skeptical Inquirer, incidentally, is not peer-reviewed.) In any event, Ebbern and Mulligan reportedly
were struck by the revival-meeting atmosphere. The participants exhibited a conspicuous lack of scientific knowledge and low levels of critical thinking skills. They seemed quite unaware of how to mount a proper investigation of such incidents. The appeal throughout was strictly to faith. The few mildly critical questions the visitors raised were decidedly unwelcome.
So a group of people who have experienced NDEs are met by two researchers -- one, a grad student, the other, an undergrad -- who are openly skeptical of the most meaningful, life-changing event of their lives, and the NDErs made the students feel "unwelcome." How welcome do you think Kimberly Clark would feel at a CSICOP meeting?
Perhaps it is cynical of me, but I can't help thinking that Ebbern and Mulligan would regard any gathering of spiritual seekers as having a "revival-meeting atmosphere." (From what I've read of CSICOP events, the description might be better suited for the get-togethers sponsored by that organization.) As for "critical thinking skills," well, we've seen Ebbern's and Mulligan's critical thinking skills on open display in their paper. One might argue that it is Ebbern and Mulligan who seem "quite unaware of how to mount a proper investigation of such incidents." And if the NDErs were appealing "strictly to faith," then why would they show any interest in Kimberly Clark's empirical investigation of Maria's NDE in the first place?
The authors conclude their essay in an effusion of self-congratulation:
We have shown several factual discrepancies [have they? or did they put the shoe in the wrong place?] and plausible ways [plausible? really?] that Maria's supposedly unobtainable knowledge could have been obtained by quite ordinary means. In delving into this incident, we were first disappointed [sure they were], then amused, that such a weak case should have achieved the importance it has been accorded.... Maria's story has shown us the naïveté and a power of wishful thinking in a supposedly scientific area known as "near-death studies." Once again, it is apparent why Demosthenes cautioned, more than 2000 years ago, "Nothing is easier than self deceit, for what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true."
With this rhetorical flourish, which brings us back to the article's original motif of self-deception, the Skeptical Inquirer story comes to a close.
All that's left to examine is how the article has been used in a more recent skeptical assault on NDEs. We'll briefly cover that subject next time.