Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Who will watch the watchers?

Michael Prescott is writing a continuing series of blog posts investigating the quality of a CSICOP "debunking" of one particular near-death experience with veridical perception. Here are parts one, two, three, four and five. Here's a small taste of this excellent series to whet your appetite before you go read them on Michael's blog (background: Clark reported the NDE, while Ebbern and Mulligan are the Skeptical Inquirer researchers):

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. . .

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. . .

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.) . . .

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....

Now go read the entire series of posts from Michael. They are not to be missed. . .

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