Some skeptics have set themselves up as the gatekeepers of science, the sentinels who will keep out false or invalid information and hypotheses while protecting proper, scientific methodology and conclusions. It's may not be a coincidence that the largest skeptical organization in the world was known until recently as CSICOP, which is pronounced psi-cop. The skeptics are the cops on the beat, protecting science (and a gullible public) from charlatans, tricksters, and urban legends.
But of course when a group of people set themselves up as the guardians of truth, an age-old problem emerges. Who will check to make sure that the guardians themselves are truthful and trustworthy? Who will watch the watchers?
In this regard, it's instructive to look at a well-known skeptical analysis of a famous near-death experience. The experience itself was reported by Seattle social worker Kimberly Clark. It involved a migrant farm worker named Maria who, during cardiac arrest at Harborview Medical Center, purportedly left her body and observed various details of the hospital, most notably a running shoe that had been left (inexplicably) on a third floor ledge.
The complete story is told at the Survival Top Forty site, though it is not listed as one of the top forty cases. You can read it here (PDF).
The only detailed rebuttal of the case, as far as I know, was offered by three skeptical researchers, who published an article called Maria's near-death experience: waiting for the other shoe to drop, in the July/August 1996 edition of Skeptical Inquirer, CSICOP's magazine. The researchers are Hayden Ebbern, Sean Mulligan, and Barry L. Beyerstein. (I had some trouble with the above link. Click here for Google's cached version if the link doesn't work.)
Not having visited Seattle and investigated for myself, I would not presume to say what actually happened at the Harborview. What I would like to do is submit the above article to the same kind of "skeptical" critique that it would surely receive had it been written to endorse Kimberly Clark's account. The article is long, and this analysis will be lengthy, as well. It will appear in multiple parts.
Remember, I don't claim to know the facts of the case. My point is to apply the standards used by the skeptical authors to their own claims.
Before we get into the debunking article itself, though, let's read a passage from a different article by Barry Beyerstein that appeared (PDF file) in the Rational Enquirer: The Skeptics' Newsletter for Western Canada (March 2002). Beyerstein writes,
Along with two of my students, Hayden Ebbern and Sean Mulligan, we examined the Maria case to see if it could support all the weight the near death studies movement places upon it. Sean and Hayden travelled several times to Seattle, where the event took place. They visited the hospital and interviewed the social worker who assisted Maria after her NDE. The social worker was Kimberly Clark who has gone on to prominence in the near-death studies movement and written yet another best-selling NDE book based on supposedly verified facts from the Maria case. Hayden and Sean also attended a meeting of local NDE enthusiasts and engaged them in conversation. They came away with the clear impression that these people were scientifically illiterate and far more interested in bolstering their religious beliefs than they were in getting to the truth of the matter.
Note first the disparaging tone adopted by the author. Near-death studies is a "movement." Kimberly Clark has written "yet another" bestseller about NDEs. People interested in NDEs are "enthusiasts." Moreover, these enthusiasts are "scientifically illiterate" and only interested in their "religious beliefs," not in "the truth."
Note also that it was two students, Ebbern and Mulligan, who got "the clear impression" that the NDE group were scientifically illiterate. It would be interesting to know what sort of scientific background, training, and credentials the students themselves had. It would also be interesting to know their qualifications for determining someone else's scientific literacy and psychological motivations. Were they trained psychologists?
Finally, note that Beyerstein sets up a clear dichotomy. There are the pro-NDE people, who are scientifically illiterate, highly religious, part of a movement with an agenda, and probably motivated by personal profit (writing bestsellers). Then there are the skeptics, who apparently suffer from none of these liabilities. They are evidently not part of a movement, have no agenda, and do not want to publish commercially successful books. They have no religious (or anti-religious ) views to promote, and of course it goes without saying that they are scientifically sophisticated and knowledgeable.
Yet where is the evidence for any of these implications? An objective observer, I suspect, would regard the organized skeptical community as very much a "movement" with an agenda. Many skeptics have written and published books, and presumably they hoped for bestseller status even if few have achieved it. Many skeptics display a deep-seated hostility toward religion. (The same issue of the Rational Enquirer that carried Beyerstein's article carries this quote from comedian Richard Jeni on religious warfare: "You're basically killing each other to see who's got the better imaginary friend.") And we have already seen that the Maria case was investigated by "students," whose level of scientific training and knowledge is unknown.
If a parapsychologist said that he'd sent some "students" to visit a CSICOP meeting, and the students came away with "the clear impression" that the CSICOP people were scientifically illiterate and only interested in bolstering their materialist belief system, skeptics would surely cry foul. Then why is it okay when the skeptics themselves use these tactics?
Next time, we'll begin to take a look at the Skeptical Inquirer article itself, and see how it holds up to the same kind of skeptical analysis that its authors endorse.