On January 5th, listeners to National Public Radio were treated to a story dubbed “Searching For The Science Behind Reincarnation,” in which the veteran journalist, Rachel Martin, interviewed Jim Tucker, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, about his work studying evidence for reincarnation.
The story, both audio and transcript, is here.
I was surprised, and not in a good way, to hear this piece on NPR, which usually does a decent job – better than most mainstream media in fact – covering science stories. Not that NPR covers a lot of science, but when it does, it’s usually pretty responsible.
In this case however, the story, really an interview, may as well have amounted to the reading of a press release by a paranormal claimant. There was no skepticism, no alternative point of view, no glance at what the wider world of science might have to say about Dr. Tucker and his research. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of such information to be had.
It turns out that Jim Tucker is continuing the work of the late Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who, over the course of more than forty years), studied reincarnation and, travelling widely (thanks significantly to a generous bequest to the University of Virginia by a supportive wealthy patron), collected some 3000 or more stories of children who reputedly remembered past lives.
As anecdotes, the tales are compelling. As science … maybe not so much. Careful listeners might have gotten some clues to this effect in the words of Dr. Tucker, who, in the NPR interview, makes statements like this one:
Well, I think it's very difficult to just map these cases onto a materialist understanding of reality. I mean, if physical matter, if the physical world is all there is, then I don't know how you can accept these cases and believe in them. But I think there are good reasons to think that consciousness can be considered a separate entity from physical reality.
Well, I've certainly become more persuaded that there is more than just the physical reality. I do think it's quite likely that if we do survive, that there's not just one experience that everyone has; that the afterlife may be as varied as life in this world.
And so we have a believer with an opinion who has some nice ghost stories to tell. In this interview, he tells one about a two-year-old Louisiana boy who remembers being a pilot who dies in a plane crash.
In a 2010 story on the Psychology Today blog about Ian Stevenson’s work, the commentator, Michael Kaplan, observes:
Now, Stevenson never proposed a mechanism; there was nothing here to test - no potential counterexample where a child with the same apparent memories could be shown not to be reincarnated. Stevenson also couldn't gauge how likely this phenomenon was to appear by chance alone, because the data had selected itself - he only knew about a case because it was unusual. There was no way to isolate these remarkable stories from the other remarkable coincidences that mark life on this numerous earth.
From a thorough and well-considered reference in the online Skeptic’s Dictionary, this lengthy excerpt considers the difference between the work of scientists as compared to that of researcher/storytellers like historians and journalists:
Stevenson compared his method of collecting stories to the method required by those who study such things as the weather, volcanoes, fossils, earthquakes, and meteorites. These kinds of phenomena do not lend themselves to controlled experiments in the lab. Science, he said, is "a process for appraising evidence wherever we find it."* He thought of himself as studying spontaneous cases of the paranormal. It is certainly true that much science is observational and involves collecting data that occurs naturally and spontaneously. Scientists then examine the data collected and try to make sense out of it. Historians, journalists, and juries do something similar. They try to come up with best explanation for data collected or presented to them, data which consists of testimonies of witnesses or experts regarding physical facts, alleged observations, statistical probabilities, and so on. Many times the data are contradictory or unbelievable. Often, the data is inconclusive, but suggestive. In my opinion, collecting past-life stories is more like the work done by a historian or jury member than it is like that of a vulcanologist or paleontologist. The vulcanologist doesn't have to deal with the problem of spurious volcanoes. And though Piltdown man might indicate that paleontologists have to worry about spurious fossils, the issue of hoaxes has been such a rarity in that science that it hardly need be considered. The historian, the journalist, and the jury member, on the other hand, must constantly deal with issues like lying, hoaxing, and fraud. Most important, though, is the fact that historians, journalists, and jury members have to evaluate the words and perceptions of people, rather than the structure or properties of things. Stevenson's work would require constant vigilance against being deceived by his subjects. Furthermore, since we know that people can have memories and be completely unaware of the source of those memories, he would have to be vigilant in identifying which memories were likely the result of crytomnesia. Also, there is the major problem of providing an explanation for how a personality can survive death and transfer to another body, something Stevenson had no answer for. Finally, the most problematic issue Stevenson would have to face using his method of collecting stories would be the fact that nothing could ever count against his hypothesis. Stories that are rejected as hoaxes, frauds, questionable, unreliable, or based on experiences in this lifetime would be discarded, but they wouldn't count against the reincarnation hypothesis. The worst case scenario for Stevenson's method would be that his evidence does not compel belief and that even the best of it is open to alternative interpretations. Unfortunately, that is also his best case scenario. Most people are not likely to be too impressed when they realize that all Stevenson had to show for over forty years of research is that it is now false to claim that there is no evidence for reincarnation. It is still quite reasonable, however, to claim that there is no compelling evidence for reincarnation.
Science, critical thinking, and skepticism are concerned with the nature of evidence, and what qualifies as good as opposed to poor evidence. Children’s stories – no matter how many thousands collected over how many years – do not compelling evidence make. As the Skeptic’s Dictionary points out, “We need not grant that these cases can only be solved by appealing to a paranormal explanation, however. Coincidence, faulty investigation, deception, and other normal explanations are available.” Listeners might consider writing to NPR and asking why there wasn’t any responsible science reportage in a story that claimed to be about “The Science Behind Reincarnation.”
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.