TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 1

COULD THE FIELD OF PSI RESEARCH HAVE FOUND ITS BREAKTHROUGH?

 

Near as I can figure it, this is the year the debate over whether or not telepathy exists shriveled down to an argument over the statistical analyses common throughout the entire field of psychological research.

As a result, I’d argue the field has reached a kind of crisis point. This development shouldn’t come as a surprise: The period right after I turned in Fringe-ology started with such promise for psi proponents that hardcore skeptics were likely to reach for nuclear options.

Daryl Bem’s paper on retrocausality—can an action taken in the future influence the present?—sparked massive media interest. You can read up on it here. But the upshot is that Bem’s research suggested yes. A storm of coverage ensued, and opponents of all things paranormal leveled a large argument: Not only were Bem’s results flawed, the story went. But, essentially, the entire field of psychology does a poor job of handling statistics, producing false-positive results.

“False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant,” argues that researchers in the field of psychology essentially leave themselves too much wiggle room. For instance, according to the authors, researchers often do not predetermine how much data they will collect before moving on to the analysis phase. Further, they write, “it is common  (and accepted practice) for researchers to explore various analytic alternatives, to search for a combination that yields ‘statistical significance’ and to then report only what ‘worked.’”

To be clear, “psi” comes up in this paper just once, and then only in terms of how statistical data are analyzed. There, the authors list a paper critical of Bem’s retrocausality study. I had read this source material, by Wagenmakers, et. al, but only became aware of  the “false positive” paper when I saw it referenced in a tweet by the skeptic Richard Wiseman:

“Psychologists,” he writes, “this neatly sums up why some studies appear to support psychic ability.”

He then links to the article.

And there you have it—an entire field of research dismissed in a less than 140 character tweet. Only a hardcore skeptic could make so extraordinary a claim. And given the history of the field, it’s hard not to think that skeptics are guilty—again—of moving the goal posts. As sociologist of science Trevor Pinch told me during my research for Fringe-ology, every time parapsychologists cross some new threshold in terms of the evidence they present, skeptics ask for more.

In other words, for many years skeptics cried that fraud was involved in the production of positive results for psi. Then they cried for stricter protocols to eliminate opportunities for fraud or for subliminal means of influencing the results. With all those calls heeded, positive results have continued to turn up. So the new skeptical battle cry is that psi researchers—and psychologists in general—mishandle their statistics. For a fuller discussion of this trend in the argument, please see my discussion of a paper critical of Bem here. For now, I want to offer up a couple of wishes: First, that the current debate ultimately produces more meaningful and congenial dialogue between skeptics and believers than this field usually enjoys. (As usual, the not so great James Randi is more hindrance than help in this regard.) Second, I want to take a moment to suggest an approach that might, not to put too fine a point on it, change absolutely everything.

 

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What I have in mind is a paper from the Journal of NeuroQuantology by Dr. Michael Persinger, who has made headlines many times in the past with his God Helmet.

Persinger is a curiosity to me because his research lands on both sides of the believer-skeptic fence: His God Helmet work leaves little doubt that he is not a believer in God; but his work touting psi or telepathy runs counter to strict atheist-materialist orthodoxy. In other words, where most atheists or materialists seem to hold the position that claims of a God and psi are somehow equal, Persinger is willing to look at these ideas separately. And this paper on Sean Harribance, a psychic he’s studied for many years, advances his argument considerably.

“The Harribance Effect…” includes references to a series of studies Persinger has conducted over the years. He found, for instance, that when Sean Harribance is accessing accurate information the alpha rhythms in his brain increase. Conversely, when the information he is “receiving” proves inaccurate, there is a corresponding decrease in alpha activity. But, as Persinger puts it, those findings are not the wow.

The “wow” is that when Harribance is obtaining information from a human subject whose mind he is supposed to be reading, a correlation occurs between his brain state and theirs’.

“An effect was shown conspicuously in all four separate subjects,” writes Persinger. “As the duration of the proximity increased over the approximately 15 to 30 min period there was increased similarity in the EEG patterns over the temporal lobes of [Harribance] and the subject. The increased similarity was most apparent within the 33 to 35 Hz range. More specifically, there was increased coherence within the 19 Hz to 20 Hz range and the 30 to 40 Hz band for SH’s right temporal lobe and the subject’s left temporal lobe.”

The subjects also reported that Harribance was more accurate when correlations between their brain activity and his was higher. Persinger theorizes, in part, that Harribance might be using his right temporoparietal region to access information from the subject’s left temporal region, an area “associated with the representation and consolidation of experiences that become the individual's memory.”

 

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I won’t argue for or against the validity of Persinger’s study. And I will also acknowledge, for the sake of skeptical readers, that where there is a “wow” there is also a “whoa”—a need to slow down and be sure of our findings. But what I want to stress is that this line of research is worth pursuing.

First of all, if one brain really is sending information to a receiving brain, or one brain really is reading another, we have no idea how such a thing would be possible.

The result is a possible paradigm shift. In the current culture wars, the debate is usually framed as a battle between materialists, who say matter is everything, and those who argue there must be something… more.  The battle lines usually shape up, at least in media portrayals, as materialist-atheists to one side and believers to the other.

This puts me in mind of a lecture I saw given by Dr. Charles Tart to fellow parapsychology researchers. Tart argued that materialism is dead, and a chill wind seemed to sweep through the room. Even parapsychology researchers, men and women dedicated to teasing out evidence in favor of telepathy, are largely materialists. So when Tart concluded his talk, silence reigned for several long, awkward seconds before one of his colleagues finally raised his hand and forced a question out of his mouth. “You-, you-, you’re not advocating dualism, are you?” he asked.

The word “dualism” clearly stuck in his questioner’s throat. But Tart smiled genially.

“Maybe,” Tart replied. “I mean, monism and dualism are not our only choices. It could be one-ism, or two-ism or even three-ism. It could even be 2.5-ism.”

In other words, any assault on materialism throws the windows open and what exactly is outside those windows would be an open question. Of course, that’s a big problem, sociologically and psychologically speaking. But is telepathy research really an assault on materialism?

I hasten to point out here that a scientist like Persinger is looking for material explanations for psi. And such possibilities should not be dismissed out of hand. In other words, a materialist universe could be far stranger—and admit far wilder possibilities—than materialists normally admit. Even controversial quantum theories of mind are, at heart, materialist theories, which also—in some hands—allow for the possibility of telepathy and even an afterlife.

But I think we need to set these larger arguments aside, at times. And psi research is one of them. In fact, I think that rather than worrying over the philosophical implications of parapsychology research, psi proponents and opponents and scientists should do something particularly novel here and just, you know, shut up. And do some more science.

Think about it: If other labs could reconstruct Persinger’s study or conduct a similar study that is itself then replicated, subjective statistical arguments about “Bayesian priors” would likely fall by the wayside. Suddenly, we’d have stats and associated physical findings in, theoretically, two test subjects (the “sender” and “receiver,” or “sitter” and “reader”). We’d have multiple lines of evidence that seem to demonstrate some communication directly—there is no other way to say it—from brain to brain.

Of course, one of the things I learned while attending a parapsychology conference in Seattle is that the field of telepathy research is underfunded and understaffed. The barriers to doing this sort of research, then, let alone replicating it in different labs a few times, is extraordinary. But my response to that is so what?

Yes, putting on this kind of dog and pony show will be expensive and labor intensive, requiring expertise and equipment—in the form of perhaps fRMI machines or SPECT-imaging devices—beyond what’s available in the standard parapsychology lab. But after more than a century of pitched debate about the existence of parapsychological phenomena isn’t the prospect of victory worth putting together what might be the most ambitious set of experiments in the field’s history? Isn’t it time, after all this time, to go for a killshot?

I could be wrong. But I bet the prospect of testing so definitive might persuade a lot of potential funders to kick in a few dollars more.  And I’d also argue that without so definitive a set of tests we are likely to remain in this position—stuck in a debate without end, mired in a pitched battle with people more worried about their worldviews than the data in their hands.  

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 2

THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE: STILL UNDEAD

While other fields within the paranormal seem to fade in and out of the conversation—look at the dearth of psi-related happenings immediately preceding and directly after Daryl Bem’s precognition study—the Near Death Experience nearly always seems to offer some new development to discuss.

Working in its favor, the NDE has a fantastic and ever-growing compendium of cases at the website of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, run by Dr. Jeffrey Long. But in the months since I finished Fringe-ology there has also been no shortage of news.

Illinois woman Julie Papievis had her NDE story optioned into a film this year by the same production team that made the hit movie The Blind Side. The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, reports that at 29 Papievis suffered a horrible traffic accident. Her injuries were so great she had to be resuscitated and fell into a coma. Her brainstem was “all-but severed,” according to the account, yet she retains a distinct memory of being visited by her two deceased grandmothers. They told her to come back and keep living. (This seems like a story worth following up on; perhaps I’ll give her a call and see if she can offer some supporting evidence of her injuries.)

The Colton Burpo story lit up the book charts, chronicling the NDE of a four-year old boy. This story is most noterworthy because NDEs with specific, religious content are a rarity, rendering Burpo’s story a statistical anomaly for hewing so closely to his parents’ beliefs.

The year 2011 ended with NDEs gone viral—namely, Ben Breedlove’s two YouTube videos, documenting his illness and his Near Death Experiences. I posted Breedlove’s videos earlier here with no analysis. But to give my take, I found the story quite moving. Breedlove unveils a series of flashcards, describing a life he spent living in particularly close proximity to death due to a condition called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.” The illness thickens the heart, forcing the organ to work increasingly hard to pump blood. It is difficult to understand the pain this might cause, both physically and psychologically. The disease acts as a boa constrictor, slowly tightening its coils. But Breedlove describes all this, including a vision he had during a close brush with death, with a satisfied, contented and warm expression.

The kicker is that Breedlove died shortly after shooting these videos, on Christmas day. And his peaceful demeanor in these shorts suggests he “fits” the NDE profile: The vast majority of those who experience the NDE are greatly changed, rendered more spiritual by the experience. Yet his story, too, violates one of the chief statistical truisms of the NDE. Rarely do experiencers see a living person. Breedlove, however, saw the very much living rapper Kid Cudi. It’s tempting to dismiss that vision as something other than a Near Death Experience. And of course it’s possible that he hallucinated or grafted the "memory" of Cudi into hi experience later. But there is also the chance that the consciousness we experience after the death of the body—if indeed we experience consciousness at all—allows the new reality we’re in to mix with personal thoughts, a merging of objective and subjective realms.

Whatever the case, Breedlove’s story, as told in two videos, has now tallied more than 10 million views.

To me, however, the biggest development is that the Near Death Experience remains, well, so alive.

The NDE has been remarkably consistent over time. Though there is variability in the experience, historical accounts dating from before the phenomenon got a name in 1975 do seem to describe the same event. So the power of suggestion simply does not work as an explanation. And the pattern of distressing NDEs makes it hard, if not impossible, to argue that wishful thinking is at play. Further, as the years have passed, skeptics have responded with a remarkable variety of arguments, which total up to, by now, more than 20 potential explanations. If the skeptics are to be believed, anoxia, carbon dioxide, ketamine, repressed memories, overactive temporal lobes, seratonin, REM intrusion, cardiac massage, lucid dreaming and more are at work (not all at once, of course) in the NDE.

The deluge of possible causes reminds me of the Onion spoof news article that purported to “solve” the Kennedy assassination: “KENNEDY SLAIN BY CIA, MAFIA, CASTRO, LBJ, TEAMSTERS, FREEMASONS,” reads the priceless headline.

To skeptics, the experience is clearly a brain-based illusion. But I placed this particular item so high on my list because I think it is the one area where skeptics are most clearly suffering a kind of brain-based illusion all their own. To me, it simply follows that neurological explanations require skeptics to find some association between the circumstances of the experience, the content reported, and what we know about brain function. In other words, until skeptics deliver a working model explaining how the different circumstances NDErs find themselves in at the time of their experience produce predictable changes in the content and character of what they report, they have yet to produce any scientific explanation at all.

As an example, people lacking oxygen at the time of their experience should report something different than people who had plenty of oxygen. People under anesthesia should describe something different than people under the influence of no narcotics at all. After all, if I took a shower under some form of anesthetic or with something impeding my ability to breathe, it would be a far different experience than if I took a shower with no such variables in play, right?

Let me be clear: The current lack of such a model for how Near Death Experiences are produced doesn't mean no such explanation or combination of explanations will emerge. It doesn’t mean the Near Death Experience does or doesn’t represent a glimpse of an afterlife. But what I am arguing is that because skeptics have thus far failed to produce that model the NDE represents a continuing, deepening mystery.

Quite recently, Dr. Mario Beauregard and co-researchers recorded a case involving veridical (verified, accurate) perceptions in a patient undergoing emergency surgery. The patient, a 31 year old they call J.S., was undergoing a procedure called hypothermic cardio-circulatory arrest, very similar to the famous Pam Reynolds “standstill” case. The authors write: "J.S. did not see or talk to the members of the surgical team, and it was not possible for her to see the machines behind the head section of the operating table, as she was wheeled into the operating room. J.S. was given general anesthesia and her eyes were taped shut. J.S. claims to have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). From a vantage point outside her physical body, she apparently ‘saw’ a nurse passing surgical instruments to the cardiothoracic surgeon. She also perceived anesthesia and echography machines located behind her head. We were able to verify that the descriptions she provided of the nurse and the machines were accurate (this was confirmed by the cardiothoracic surgeon who operated upon her). Furthermore, in the OBE state J.S. reported feelings of peace and joy, and seeing a bright light."

The full write-up, “Conscious mental activity during a deep hypothermic cardiocirculatory arrest?” is available in the January 2012 issue of Resuscitation and can be found here.

Beauregard and his co-researchers admit they cannot be certain the 15-minute subjective experience occurred during the 15-minute cardio-circulatory arrest. But, they write: "Nonetheless, the tantalizing case of J.S. raises a number of perplexing questions. For this reason, we hope that it will stimulate further research with regard to the possibility of conscious mental activity during cardiocirculatory arrest."

That last line, about “further research,” is the final point I’d like to hit: In the battle over worldviews—do we suffer the same fate as meat? Or do we have a consciousness that continues beyond death?—we often seem unable to admit that we really don’t have an answer yet. In this sense, the NDE represents one of those fields that has essentially been hijacked by philosophical agendas rather than studied in careful, rational and patient terms.

Usually, skeptics hold the line against calls for further research, portraying the paranormal as somehow frivolous. Usually, this part of the argument is contextualized as a plea to see scientific research funding and brainpower applied only to worthy and credible causes. But in the case of the Near Death Experience this argument doesn’t really carry any weight.

Skeptics and believers all agree that death provokes great anxiety, often detracting from the quality of the life we live. Yet the great majority of people who undergo NDEs no longer fear death.

If this “cure” for death anxiety is purely the product of brain function—in a materialist sense, the secretion and absorption of various chemicals—then pinning down the exact mechanism that makes this possible seems the most humane thing we could do for ourselves and each other.

In this sense, the skeptical position of “go on about your business, there’s nothing to see here,” seems not only bankrupt of evidence—but simple decency. And the Near Death Experience, 37 years after Raymond Moody first coined the term, simultaneously sheds light on death and retains its deep sense of mystery.

 

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 3

THE PROSPECT OF A HITCHENS STATUE, AND HOW THE NEW ATHEISM GETS IT WRONG

The recently deceased Christopher Hitchens was one of the journalists I looked up to while in college, his career suggesting to me that journalism encompassed far more than the boiler-plate, inverted pyramid stuff I had grown up reading in the daily paper and learning in my high school journalism courses.

I would expect that a lot of writers of my generation feel a similar sense of debt to Hitchens—for pushing the envelope so damn hard, for demonstrating how much invective the marketplace will tolerate and intermingling reportage and opinion.  

When he died, I felt protective of that Hitchens and hoped commentators might refrain, for a time, from using his death as a cudgel. Hitchens had reached his zenith, in terms of name recognition, as a General in the Culture Wars—siding with the New Atheists in the battle over religion.

I dashed off a quick post, which concluded: 

The vast outpouring of words Hitchens sent spiraling off his keyboard, over four decades, has amounted to something so great, and so vast, that the rest of us should respond with a respectful silence.

Sitting in silence isn’t the way of the world, and I am of course shoveling my own meager offering on you right now. But in the wake of Hitchens’ passing, I feel a need for white space. Just print the news of his death and follow it with what’s left.

A void.

I was of course under no illusions. I figured the death of Hitchens would keep tongues wagging and keyboards clacking forever. But when I heard about a petition being circulated requesting Hitchens be immortalized in a statue—in London, and Washington, D.C.—I laughed, presuming it to be a joke.

Hitchens seemed an altogether unlikely candidate for a statue. I doubt he would have wanted that kind of tribute.  He wasn’t much for idolatry or hero worship, after all. More importantly, as a political polemicist, he wound up, over the last decade or so of his career, a man without a home. A product of and aide to the political left for so long, his late in life conversion to the neo-con position, touting the war in Iraq and urging along the war on terror alienated many of his previous fans. So the right could only appreciate one facet of his career and the left would choke on how it all ended. In practical terms, this hardly seemed the stuff of which men cast in bronze are made.

Thus perplexed, I sat down at my computer keyboard, wondering who would advocate for a Hitchens statue. And a silly thought passed through my mind: It wouldn’t be an atheist group, would it?

I only had a moment or two to ponder that. And in that space I thought about how contrary it would be to the entire atheist position to erect a statue of Hitchens. After all, atheists object to any appearance of religion in the public square. Surely, they would recognize that putting up a statue of a prominent, outspoken atheist because he was a prominent, outspoken atheist, would be a religious statement.

I typed “Hitchens” and “statue” into Google, clicked a link and, a moment later, sat viewing the petition itself. At atheist-reference.org. So. Well. Yeah.

Incredibly, it was a faction of atheists who were advancing this odd and, to my mind, boldly hypocritical idea.   

A hero to many people… a hero to reason, logic, literature, intellect, research, truth, and so much more. He should be remembered, and one day when the world becomes a better place people will look at that statue and know that he was at the forefront of the struggle to make it so, and that without him we would not have arrived there.

And:

We the undersigned ask you to please give permission and a plot for a memorial statue in a prime position within the City of London, honouring national treasure Christopher Hitchens for his contributions to the UK and the world. We will raise the funds and build it, we just need the place and permission. The statue will be made of tough stuff, as he was, and we will accept suggestions and/or votes from his many fans as to which of his numerous famous quotes to have on the plaque.

So much for my wish, then, that Hitchens’ death not be used as a cudgel in the culture wars.

Rather than holding a respectful silence, the new atheist movement—which proselytizes for its position in the same way priests cultivate penitents—was evidently ready to select a saint.      

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All right, I get it.

Before anyone flies off into the ether, I understand that requesting someone be immortalized in a statue is not the same as declaring a “saint.” But I do think the statue push suggests a similar zeal—enough passion, in fact, to overcome the sense of reason new atheists hold so dear.

Personally, I have long felt the new atheists lost the plot somewhere before completing their first sentence: “There is no… "

Lacking a God-ometer, I’m not sure precisely how one would expect to find evidence of God. So I believe it’s far from established that God’s existence is even an empirical question. And in my view, this is a problem that can be seen in Hitchens’ writing.

His masterful takedown of Mother Theresa is a case in point. A flesh and blood character who had undertaken a trail of documented actions, she stood, comparatively speaking, right in front of his poisoned pen.

God?  

Well, the deity is known to be one thing, first and foremost: unknowable. So the horrors Hitchens catalogued in his book God Is Not Great and onstage—the dead babies, doomed innocents and bereaved mothers—look multitudinous and impossible to reconcile from our perspective. But they are more difficult to judge from the vantage point of the creator that's been claimed, timeless and eternal.  

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8-9 (KJV)

Understand, I do not intend this essay as an argument for or against God. But I do intend every inch of it as a critique of the new atheism. Because this disconnect, between the varying concepts of God the Unknowable on display and the need new atheists have for a definition of God they can dismiss is a problem that I believe vexes all the new atheists in one form or another.

The new atheist tribe has put forward cartoonish images of God—from the old man with a long white beard to a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The data, however, suggests that believers are worshipping something far more complicated and indefinable. As I learned while researching Fringe-ology, University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Andrew Newberg even asked a mix of believers and agnostics and atheists—young and old—to draw a picture of God. He found that atheists and children were the groups most likely to draw an old man on a cloud-type God. Believers, on the other hand, tended to draw an abstract God—a being, in only the loosest of terms, best understood as a force or idea.

Unable to contend with such a slippery, not to mention Omnipotent character, the new atheists have largely been reduced to emphasizing any bad action the religious have undertaken while ignoring or diminishing any good done by believers or belief.

This, it seems to me, is a losing strategy. Because the central tenet of the new atheism—that religion “poisons everything,” as Hitchens put it—is demonstrably untrue. Religion helps people cope with chronic illness. In fact, merely inquiring about a religious or spiritual person’s beliefs has a palliative effect in hospital settings. Spirituality is an indicator of greater resilience. The spiritual do better, post-operatively. Prayer cultivates feelings of forgiveness. HIV patients do better by virtually every measure if they undergo a spiritual transformation. Repeating a mantra provides soldiers with a greater sense of existential wellbeing and reduces the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, has referred to raising children in a religion as “child abuse." The problem is that scientific data suggests the opposite is true: Michael J. Donahue, at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, and Peter L. Benson, now a Baylor fellow, analyzed previous research on “Religion and the Well-Being of Adolescents” and found that religiousness is associated with pro-social behavior and values, and negatively related to suicide, substance abuse, premature sexual involvement, and delinquency. More recently, in 2005, sociologist Christian Smith released some of the findings from his National Study of Youth and Religion. After breaking the kids in his survey into four groups indicating their degree of religious involvement— the Devoted, the Regulars, the Sporadic and the Disengaged—Smith found the closer the kids were to “devoted” the healthier their choices and attitudes.

Kids vested in a faith are less likely to smoke, cut class, rebel at home or in school, engage in sex at an early age, take drugs or feel depressed. They were more likely to feel satisfied with their physical appearance, plan for the future, have a sense of meaning in their lives, volunteer, participate in community groups and care about the poor, the elderly and racial justice.

I could go on. But my point here is simply that grievous inaccuracy is never a good strategy in debate or as a matter of persuasion. So I think the new atheists have often hampered their own cause just by being wrong. Tell someone who is receiving these benefits of religion that it “poisons everything” and they are likely to believe you—and the movement you represent—don’t know what you’re talking about.  And beyond that, it seems to me, they’d be right. So yeah, the new atheist movement would be better off acknowledging the nuances of the debate. But nuance, with rare exception, doesn’t seem to be part of the basic new atheism skill set.

Religion contributes to division, the sort “us” versus “them” thinking that leads to war, goes the new atheist battle cry. It’s a clear, black and white argument, they make, visible in the pages of our history books. But that most secular of political movements, communism, produced copious bloodshed and misery and squashed the whole concept of individual liberty in the bargain. So clearly, the human condition, our penchant for selfishness and anger, catches us all—believers and nonbelievers alike. So…what exactly was their point about religion leading to violence, anyway? Because from the vantage point of history it seems abundantly clear that what leads to violence is being human.

In this context, what I’d really like to see is not talk of statues, then—or any similar glorification of the past. What I’d like to see is real progress: the religious, and atheists, and agnostics, holding not debates but panels on how we might build a better, more humane world whether we’re religious or not. But the next step for the new atheist movement is this weekend’s Reason Rally, a gathering in D.C. of nonbelievers, which will feature music, comedy and various speakers, including Dawkins and James Randi.

Division, it seems, really is part of the human condition.  

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A friend of mine, who is an atheist, has quickly grown tired of all the evangelizing for non-belief. “Atheists,” she told me, “shouldn’t have meetings.”

Now, please, before anyone takes her too literally, understand her meaning. “I thought the whole point of atheism is for people to make up their own minds,” she went on, “to be individuals and not get caught up in the kind of groupthink associated with religion.”

And that is the core of the problem with atheists erecting statues and holding rallies and behaving, in so many respects, like the religious they criticize. There is a groupthink at work, with all the attendant—and dangerous—in-group/out-group nonsense that can mar religion.

One of the most famous examples is Dawkins’ endorsement of the moniker “brights” as a means of identifying the irreligious. And what would the religious be called—dulls, or dims, perhaps?

Intriguingly, Hitchens admirably refused to fall into that particular trap, insisting that believers are often quite intelligent indeed. The problem is, he fell into so many others. And I don’t think the new atheist movement can ultimately withstand making him a public face for reason through the creation of two prominent statues.

In sum, there is, as I noted, the hypocrisy of erecting a public statue memorializing an atheist “hero.” And then there is the extreme inaccuracy and cherry picking of facts that comprises such a huge part of the new atheist message, which I think equates the movement more with a zealous passion than rationality. And then there is Hitchens himself.

I believe that Hitchens’ stature within the atheist community is more a matter of celebrity and style than substance. His anti-religious screed, God Is Not Great, didn’t qualify as philosophy and offered nothing new to the debate beyond his rancorous delivery. Readers related to the anger he expressed. But anger seems a dubious emotion with which to fuel a movement based on reason, doesn’t it? And anger is so much of Hitchens’ appeal—and downfall.

Let's take a brief tour of how he comported himself around the subject of America’s not so great war:  

Hitchens referred to grieving mother, Cindy Sheehan, who began protesting the Iraq war after the death of her son, as a “shifty fantasist” among other things (and who can forget him going full grade school on us and calling the anti-war bluegrass singers the Dixie Chicks “sluts” and “fat slags?”). Worse, he defended the pack of neoconservatives who swore to us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Only, well, it didn’t. So who, precisely, was fantasizing?

Hitchens.

But he doubled down, accusing those who complained when no weapons turned up of childishness. Right. As if going to war under false pretenses was equivalent to not receiving the sweetie we’d been promised.

Adam Shatz, in "The Left and 9/11," captured the later-days Hitchens, a strangely bloodthirsty sort for a man of reason.

“Hitchens's enthusiasm for the war on terror has led him to adopt some strange positions,” writes Shatz. “You would think that, as a longstanding champion of Palestinian rights, he would be disturbed by Rumsfeld's cavalier talk of the ‘so-called occupied territories’ and Bush's crude ultimatum to the Palestinians to either vote out Arafat or continue living under occupation. But Hitchens told me that while he objects to ‘that whole tone of voice,’ he prefers Bush's ‘tough love’ to the ‘patronization’ of Clinton's peace negotiators. Nor is he troubled by the mounting civilian toll exacted by America's crusade in Afghanistan. ‘I don't think the war in Afghanistan was ruthlessly enough waged,’ he says.

“What about the use of cluster bombs?

“‘If you're actually certain that you're hitting only a concentration of enemy troops,’ [replied Hitchens] ‘...then it's pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too. So they won't be able to say, 'Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.' No way, 'cause it'll go straight through that as well. They'll be dead, in other words.’”

Corey Robin wrote a particularly lucid, and devastating, attack on Hitchens, in which he quoted the above and this bit, originally published by the great man of logic and reason in “Images in a Rearview Mirror.”

“I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last,” writes Hitchens, “once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. All my other foes, from the Christian Coalition to the Milosevic Left, were busy getting it wrong or giving it cover. Other and better people were gloomy at the prospect of confrontation. But I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”

These passages—his emphasis on pellets piercing the Koran, his confession at exhilaration at the sight of the fallen Twin Towers and the prospect of open warfare—reveal a hatred in Hitchens’ heart. And so, well, maybe there is no point in holding anything back. Maybe we should forget silence entirely. Maybe Hitch, and the whole idea that he deserves a statue, simply have it coming. Because it is one thing to acknowledge that Hitchens assumed a towering reputation in literary circles. And another to take the charitable view that the whole point of the exercise, for him, was to somehow build a better world. (I actually subscribe to this last theory myself, as even in his worst moments there was some sense that he was trying to harangue everyone toward civility. Misguided, he was, but of good intention.) It is yet another thing entirely, however, to suggest that he deserves a statue—and immortalization as a figure representing the values to which we should aspire.

They aren’t tallying the “no” votes at the web site pushing for a Hitchens statue. But I vote “no” just the same. And I humbly suggest that the ability of so many atheists to look past Hitchens’ often loose relationship to logic and reason and proclaim him a “hero”, suggests that believers and disbelievers really do have quite a lot in common, including an ability to see what we prefer to see while glossing over the rest.

Perhaps we should start focusing on our commonalities, rather than the things that divide us.

Perhaps we should find some statue that exemplifies the ways in which we are the same.

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 4

Consciousness, Free Will and the Paranormal

Just a few years ago, while researching Fringe-ology, I found the chapter I wrote on “consciousness” provoked the most quizzical looks. The reason is that the issues involved—really, the central riddle—isn’t like ghosts or UFOs or any of the other topics in Fringe-ology. Ghosts carry a certain romance—the whiff of the grave and some hope of a new existence beyond. UFOs trail entire worlds and galaxies in their wake. But consciousness, for most people, hasn’t traditionally suggested the same realms of mystery.

Consciousness— that inner monologue; the sensation of eating a steak or drinking red wine—is something most people have taken for granted. But the fact is, the source of consciousness is a mystery: How do the mechanistic processes of chemical secretions and neural impulses, these materialistic operations in our brains, produce something as non-physical as thought? We don’t know. And in the years since I first began work on Fringe-ology, more people seem to recognize this fact.

Certainly, topics like consciousness and general neuroscientific research have gained a lot of traction in recent years. The term “Neuroplasticity” has entered the lexicon, cluing people in to how they can change the shape and function of their own neural circuitry. More people are meditating, investigating their own consciousness. And there has been a boom in meditation research. Of the 2,289 articles on meditation available on PubMed this winter, the National Institute of Health web site, 676 of them, or 29.5 percent, were published since January 2009. (By way of comparison, in the three prior years, of 2006-2008, just 405 articles were published.) But the topic that saw the most surprising uptick in exposure is free will.

Most of us take the idea that we make voluntary choices or decisions for granted. I have the sense that I could finish writing this post, or just quit and go buy an X-Box (believe me, I’m tempted). But within neuroscientific and philosophical circles, this vision of ourselves as free agents, sifting through our various choices—vanilla or chocolate, sandwich or salad, steal the company stationary, or buy your own—is a hugely contentious issue. And in recent times, free will has taken something of a beating in the popular media.

Author David Eagleman, in his book, Incognito and the Atlantic, argues that we need to begin rethinking our legal system because current findings in neuroscience do not support free will. As an example, he cites a man who developed a brain tumor—and an urge to molest children. When the tumor was removed surgcally, his urge to commit this particularly heinous crime went away. The reason for this massive change in the man’s desires and behavior is purely mechanistic, in Eagleman’s formulation—beyond his choice or control.

More infamously, atheist blogger and biologist and Jerry Coyne recently argued in the incredibly mainstream publication USA Today that free will is incompatible with everything we know about the brain and physics. I’ll quote Coyne extensively because I find it so incredible that heartland Americans, waking up in Holiday Inns all over the country, saw this with their coffee: 

“You may feel like you've made choices,” writes Coyne, “but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your ‘will’ had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.” 

This already seems likely to turn the casual reader’s coffee to bitters. But Coyne really only hits his nadir here: 

“We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the ‘choosing.’ ...Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics. True ‘free will,’ then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because ‘we’ are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will’ on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program. And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.”

 

                                                               * 

     

   Coyne’s vision strikes me as bleak, but of course the truth is sometimes nasty, so that can't be counted against him. In his estimation, we (and presumably him) are “simply meat computers,” which lack even the dignity of being “real” computers. And yes, there are potential problems with his argument that can be spotted at a great distance.

Avid meditators, skilled in directing their awareness for long periods of time, show remarkable changes in brain function. Most notably, fMRI scans of long-term meditators show a dramatic reduction of activity in their amygdalas and greater activity in the left-frontal cortex, rendering them better able to focus. Similar structural changes begin in short-term meditators, too, after mere weeks. Further, this change seems to be based on what we think about, as opposed to the physical act of sitting through long stretches of silence or chanting. (For instance, nuns who focus on the centering prayer have brains similar to monks but reflect a greater emotional response, presumably as a result of focusing on a sense of communion with God.) In short, then, there is a well-developed line of research that appears to represent the exact phenomenon Coyne claims can’t happen—the brain modifying its own workings, the computer reaching “inside itself” to “change its program." But Free Will, nonetheless, remains on the run.  

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that Free Will is a kind of non-starter. Near as he can tell, there seems to be no place in the brain for it to exist. (He expands on all this in his 13,000-word e-book, Free Will.)

Harris remains, for me, the most fascinating character among all the new atheists. An avid meditator, he professes that he sees room for at least a broadly defined spirituality; he has argued that the paranormal gets a "unfairly stigmatized;" and he acknowledges that consciousness is a mystery. But as I read him, there was one person I particularly wanted to hear respond to his thoughts: Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and researcher who has now published five books on neurotheology, the study of the relationship between religious experience and the brain. It is Newberg, in fact, who performed the studies on nuns and meditators I mentioned above.

Like Harris, Newberg makes multiple appearances in  Fringe-ology. Though I portray them both in a (mostly) positive light, I characterize Newberg, in particular, as a curative figure: In a media landscape where each new scientific finding, no matter how tangential or tenuous, is portrayed as groundbreaking and definitive, Newberg always seems to play the responsible adult, reminding us of the limited conclusions we can draw from the data at hand. Given this, it seemed to me that where Harris sees an exclamation point—we have no free will!—Newberg would likely spy a question mark. And that is precisely how he responded. "He's got an interesting perspective," said Newberg. "But I don’t feel his sense of certainty. I think whether or not we have free will is an open question."

Newberg went on to cite the difficulty of defining what we mean by free will, the challenges to testing it in some authoritative way, and the findings already present in neuroscience that seem to grant us some sense of self-direction. For example, Harris (and Coyne) both trot out the findings of Benjamin Libet, who famously demonstrated that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move—in this instance, to lift a finger or wrist.    

Looking at the same data, Newberg says the Libet study is intriguing but does not necessarily eliminate free will: Libet was observing only a small fraction of his patient’s brains. Further, since the experimental subjects knew their task was to decide when to lift a finger, it seems reasonable to expect that their motor regions would demonstrate preparatory behavior. And their conscious awareness of a decision to act did precede the actual movement by 150 milliseconds.

This last bit, the lag between the conscious awareness of an act and its occurrence, might actually rescue choice.  Libet himself thought so, and the form of free will he described is now commonly typified as “free won’t.”

As Harris writes, our brain is a fount of automatic thinking—thoughts and impulses that urge us along certain courses of action. But as Newberg points out, our rational frontal lobes do gain awareness of this information; and a feedback loop forms between these unconscious and conscious parts of our brain. Imagine free won’t, then, through the use of a baseball metaphor. The catcher, (your brain), gives signals to the pitcher (your consciousness). Just as the pitcher can shake off a signal and ask the catcher for another option, we constantly receive impulses from the brain. Some of these impulses, like quick motor reflexes, get processed and acted upon automatically. When I see a car drifting over into my lane, I register no choice to honk the horn and move to the shoulder of the highway. I even begin the actions involved before I have full, conscious awareness of the danger. But in other situations, when I have the impulse to eat a peach, or a slice of pie, I would retain the ability shake that off—the pitcher telling his catcher-brain “no” and receiving another suggestion.  

The writers assaulting free will are so confident (add the Churchlands to this list) one might expect that, well, there really is no place to look. Our own conception of ourselves as free agents is doomed. But in addition to the meditation and prayer research I mentioned earlier, free won’t has received some serious, scientific backing from researchers Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who began teasing out what they call the “neural signature of self-control.”

A solid discussion of their work and releated research is available here.

Now, I think the presence of all this research supporting free will raises a serious question: Namely, what are Harris and Coyne thinking?

I’m not alone in asking this question. Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the city university of New York, questions why Libet’s work is trotted out as an argument against free will—at all.

“Not even Libet himself took his experiments to show that people don’t make conscious decisions,” Pigliucci, “in part because reporting awareness of an urge (in this case, of pushing a button) hardly qualifies as a conscious decision. The latter is the kind of reflective deliberation that Jerry and I engaged in while composing our respective essays, and it is simply not measured by Libet-type experiments. Indeed, it is not surprising at all that we make all sorts of unconscious decisions before we become aware of them, as any baseball batter, or anyone catching a falling object on the fly, will readily testify. Furthermore, there is ample empirical evidence that we do engage in conscious thinking (largely catalyzed by the prefrontal cortex)… and in [a] continuous feedback loop with our subconscious processing of information.”

In the end, Pigliucci accuses Coyne of not practicing science at all, but metaphysics. And, for me, this is the crux of the matter.

When confronted by the topic of consciousness, or free will, even the most rational among us push—seemingly against our will—beyond the bounds of science and into philosophy and metaphysics. And so I think Harris and Coyne both wind up blind to the moves they have made—the shift from describing scientific findings, to interpreting them.  But it’s a shift that makes all the difference.  

 

                                                           * 

 

Though I have just described a long, ongoing intellectual conflict, I think there are some wonderful takeaways from this current state of affairs.

First, the mainstreaming of the free will debate can only serve to convince people that neuroscience, and the battle to interpret its findings, are fundamental to how we view ourselves. Are we robots of a kind—meat puppets, to recall the raucous band of the same name? Or are we the causal free agents we have always taken ourselves to be?

With this much at stake, following developments in neuroscience, at least through the press, seems a matter at least as important as keeping up with the political news of the day. But most importantly, I think delving into these realms forces us to get comfortable with an aspect of life we usually avoid or explain away: Mystery.   

How deep is the mystery of consciousness? Well, first, let me refer you to the work of Colin McGinn, a leading philosopher who advances five possible explanations for consciousness in this New Statesman article—and quickly demolishes them all. For McGinn, the mystery of consciousness is fundamental and must be acknowledged. And so, in this context, consider that when Harris says there seems no place for free will in the brain, that this observation may reveal nothing about our ability to choose and everything about our ignorance, everything about the mysteriousness of consciousness.

As I said at the outset, there is an explanatory gap between materialism and consciousness itself. Just how is it that the physical firing of neurons and the secretion and absorption of chemicals produces something so incredibly nonphysical and comparatively ephemeral as the subjective experience of thought?

The answer, again, is we don’t know. And it is our lack of understanding, I think, that actually offers up the greatest riches of all. In short, our current inability to explain consciousness should even have ramifications for the way we think of the word “paranormal.” As I write in Fringe-ology:

 "The word 'paranormal' is itself a kind of victim of human psychology, too often conflated with 'supernatural:' of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil. 'Paranormal,' conversely, can be and often is defined in far broader and, I’d argue, more scientifically useful terms: of or pertaining to events or perceptions occurring without scientific explanation. …If we take these definitions, the supernatural seems to force us toward religion, while the paranormal merely forces us to say, 'I don’t know.' There should be no shame in that, but I think the faithful too often want to equate their belief with knowledge; while the skeptic fears admitting we lack a final answer opens the door to all manner of hoo ha, including God. The skeptics also tend to view the words 'supernatural' and 'paranormal' as if they are easily interchangeable, but whereas the supernatural seems to lie firmly beyond science, the paranormal waits patiently for the technology and the willing scientists necessary for its discovery."

My position, then, is that if we can set aside all worry about being declared proponents of “woo” or New Age nonsense long enough to look at the true nature of our understanding, consciousness might itself be understood as “paranormal,” as consciousness occurs—to this point—“without scientific explanation.”

No, we don’t generally equate consciousness to ghosts. Or UFO’s. But it is a deep mystery—one we encounter all the time. And in this last year or so, we encountered it more than ever. 

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 5

 

JAMES RANDI—SKEPTICISM'S GREAT ACHILLES

I have long felt that the skeptical community has a James Randi Problem.

At one time or another, seemingly every professional skeptic offers thanks and praise to Randi, lauds his Million Dollar Challenge and/or joins his self-named foundation (JREF). They applaud him for forty years spent debunking all things paranormal, line up in droves to attend his annual Amazing Meeting—“a celebration of critical thinking and skepticism sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation”—and they rarely, if ever, engage in any critical thinking about Randi himself.

Thus far, they seem unmoved even by the specter of “Jose Luis Alvarez.”

I put the name in quotes because Randi, a Plantation, Florida resident, has lived and worked with “Alvarez” for roughly 20 years, even traveling the world together to debunk psychics and stage mediums. But the feds, this last September, arrested “Alvarez” and charged him with stealing another man’s identity—obtaining passports and getting paid under the name of the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide in the Bronx.

So, who is the man who has been living in Randi's home and working with him for 20 years? According to the Sun Sentinel, Alvarez is actually Deyvi Pena, who came to the United States from Venezuela in the mid-80s on a student visa to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. And now? The questions about Pena extend from his identity to his age to how the feds have come to accuse him of stealing the name, date of birth and social security number of a New York man, back in 1987, in order to travel internationally with Randi. And it is this relationship—the long partnership between Alvarez/Pena and Randi—that should now concern the skeptical community.

In short, what did Randi know and when did he know it?

The answer would seem to matter—a lot.

The identity Randi puts forward for public consumption is truth seeker. His professional role, at least on the surface, is to unmask hoaxers and charlatans—not live with them, or abet them. But as I write in Fringe-ology, Randi strikes me as proving, at best, a highly problematic spokesman for a movement purportedly engaged in truth telling. In fact, I would argue, the now 83-year old Randi, a one-time stage magician and long-time skeptic, has always been too consumed with the prospect of claiming total victory to be bothered overly much by more nuanced truths. But let’s back up a step.

Judging by what has been written about the case thus far, those who know Randi’s partner, who we’ll call Pena/Avarez, like him. They describe him as having arrived in America, in the mid-80s, with serious ambition to further his art. He has since had gallery showings in New York and San Francisco of what the Sun-Sentinel describes as “colorful, modernist” paintings. Operating under his allegedly assumed name, he gave a lecture, in 2011, at the University of California in Berkeley, billed in fantastic terms and garbled syntax: “Utilizing the concept in theoretical astrophysics of parallel universes and space as a continuum membrane with no beginning or end, Alvarez will place his cast of characters as a stand-in for the strong human desire for knowledge and transformation and his continued visual inquiry into the realms of the fantastic and the philosophical."

Pena/Alvarez remains best known, however, for his late-80s work with Randi. He took the stage as “Carlos,” a supposed mystic channeling the spirit of an ancient seer, while Randi oversaw production of what proved to be an elaborate hoax. The idea was to educate people by fooling them: Get audience members and the media to believe in “Carlos” the psychic, then tell them the truth: They had been fooled.

See? Randi argued. All you have to do to convince people you’re a psychic is proclaim yourself one—and act the part.

But the problems with any Randi-led narrative begin immediately. For starters, the media saw right through Carlos. So when Randi goes around saying how easy it is to fool people, using Carlos as an example, he is propagating a myth. The Carlos hoax largely backfired—as these pieces from the Grail and The Skeptic (click The Second Coming, "Skepticism," here) neatly attest. And of course, the layers of mythmaking where “Carlos” is concerned now seem endless. In fact, the false “Carlos” narrative hides Randi’s actual inability to hoax the media. And “Carlos” himself was less person than Chinese box, hiding “Alvarez,” who allegedly hid Pena.

Identity theft is a serious federal offense.

Randi’s partner, who renewed the “Alvarez” passport as recently as 2008, faces a sentence of up to 10 years. His attorneys have notified the court they intend to plead guilty. And while a plea agreement would likely land him a far shorter sentence, he could also face deportation if he is here illegally.

At first blush, there are good reasons to root for someone like Pena: I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who feels they might find a better life for themselves in the United States. And while I’ve never been in that position, I believe I understand how the desire to take part in all America offers could lead someone to take tremendous risks and even break the law. 

The problems with extending too much sympathy to Pena/Alvarez is that the real Jose Luis Alvarez has faced myriad inconveniences, indignities and hardships in the years that someone else has been using his identity. According to the complaint filed against Alvarez/Pena, the real Alvarez was not surprised someone had stolen his identity. He had spent years enduring hassles with the IRS and credit card companies.

As the Sun-Sentinel reports: “Alvarez, a teacher's aide from the Bronx, said he has suspected for several years that someone had stolen his identity — … that he's been dunned by the IRS for taxes he didn't owe on income in Florida, that his bank account has periodically been frozen and that he had difficulty renewing his driver's license. He's had to repeatedly prove he is who he says he is, brandishing his New York driver's license and a birth certificate, as well as his employment record.”

Recently, when the real Alvarez tried to obtain a passport to travel to his sister’s wedding in Jamaica, his application was pegged as potentially fraudulent—because, after all, someone else had already been traveling the world with a passport bearing all the same information. Sadly, the real Jose Luis Alvarez was not able to work the matter out in time to attend his sister’s wedding at all.

Events like family weddings don’t reoccur. And if Pena/Alvarez is guilty as charged, he stole that event from the real Jose Luis Alvarez and severely compromised his quality of life for many years. Worse, according to the affidavit of the special agent in the case, when Pena/Alvarez was questioned, he allegedly tried to do still more harm to his victim. Pena/Alvarez told the agent “he was aware that an individual was using his personal information in New York City.”

Certainly, then, if Randi did know the man he lived with was living under someone else’s name, this is a sad aspect of his legacy. But thus far he has remained mostly mum on the subject—a real change of pace for the usually irrepressible, irascible and outspoken skeptic. “I’ve been advised silence is the way to go,” he told the Sun-Sentinel.

Even worse for the reputation of the great Truth Teller, when the Sun-Sentinel asked him what he thought of their conclusion that “Alvarez” is really Pena, he didn’t take the traditional, and dignified way out, and simply say “I have no comment.” Instead, he offered this meek obfuscation: “Well, if that’s who you think he is.”

There is, however, a trail of facts that critical thinkers might pursue in order to come to their own conclusions. The Sun-Sentinel has done a diligent job of pursuing the story, and their coverage offers up a timeline that figures to grow clearer as legal proceedings continue.

1984 —  Deyvi Pena moves from Venezuela to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida under a student visa. His listed age is 22.

1986 — Randi wins a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, for $272,000 and hires Pena as an assistant. Pena starts appearing around town with Randi and is known to associates as Deyvi or David. In 1986 a Toronto Star reporter shadowed Randi at La Guardia airport, while researching a profile, and wrote: “A few feet behind him, David Pena, a young man of about 20, struggles with three large suitcases.”

1987—Pena allegedly becomes Jose Luis Alvarez, applying for a U.S. passport using the name, date of birth and social security number of a man living in the Bronx, New York. The newspaper cites one person who knew Pena/Alvarez around that time saying he needed a new identity and did not have legal identification.

So, Pena allegedly becomes Alvarez—and performs on and off as “Carlos.” A quick look at the JREF site shows Alvarez is mentioned there 9 times—though nothing (outside the message boards) I could find in connection with the legal charges he faces and nothing on Pena. Is it possible that Pena/Alvarez was confiding his situation to a friend, but not Randi, the man he worked for and ultimately lived with?

There are some telling details. Pena would now be 50, and Alvarez’s listed age is 43, a seven year difference. And intriguingly, the Sun Sentinel found, when Alvarez first performed as “Carlos” Randi billed him as 19 years old—the same age as the New York man whose identity was allegedly stolen by Randi’s partner. Further, in this video, recorded in 2009, Randi says, around the 2:40 second mark, that one worry they had before they put Pena/Alvarez on stage as “Carlos” is that his “Bronx” accent might creep through.

Really?

The real Jose Luis Alvarez is from the Bronx. But the man by Randi’s side, who had allegedly adopted that identity, was from Venezuela.

Had Pena/Avarez somehow known, from the moment he met Randi, that he would one day adopt the identity of a man from the Bronx, and fooled the incredible skeptic by adopting a Bronx accent? Or was Randi just continuing to perpetuate Pena/Alvarez’s cover? Does he himself not know the difference between Venezuelan and Bronx accents? We await the answer. And at this stage, answers are finally forthcoming: Alvarez/Pena has admitted in court that his real name is Deyvi Pena. A court hearing is set for March 14, and Pena's defense attorneys has claimed the whole truth will be revealed, which she bills as a “compelling story”. But clearly, in the meantime, this whole episode looks awfully bad for Randi—and I expect it will look bad for many in the skeptical community when all is said and done.

Why?

Because, if the last months are any indication, the skeptical community will largely ignore or rationalize the story as they have done thus far.

Just recently, in fact, Richard Saunders, host of the Skeptic Zone, spent a half-hour fawning over Randi, the legend, without asking him a single question about the Alvarez kerfuffle.

Has Richard Wiseman weighed in, on his site? Nope.

Nothing at U.K. Skeptics.

Or Ben Radford.

I can find nothing from Michael Shermer on the topic, or Mike Hutchinson, and—well, this is what we humans tend to do on behalf of the people and beliefs we’ve come to revere. And in this case, too many of the people who drape themselves in the cloak of “Critical Thinking” have willingly, I would argue, pulled the wool over their own eyes when it comes to James Randi.

The JREF message board is a case in point. They deserve props, I suppose, for leaving this long thread in place for people to monitor developments in the case and discuss it.  But JREF’s president D.J. Grothe strikes a sour note in his post on the subject: “We at the James Randi Educational Foundation are shocked by the sudden arrest of James Randi's beloved longtime partner, Jose Alvarez,” he writes. “Many of us have known Jose for years, both as a friend and as an ally to our cause who has traveled around the world to promote skepticism and critical thinking. Our thoughts are with Jose and Randi in this difficult time, and we hope they will be quickly reunited.”

Is that what it comes down to? Which side we’re on?

Is it not somehow troubling that an organization built on rooting out fraud had, in its midst, a man allegedly committing fraud at a federal level? And there is nothing from Grothe on the seriousness of the charge?  Nothing about waiting for the process to play out before reminding us of “Jose’s” accomplishments?

We all search for something to believe in. And while those who chose James Randi believe themselves to be above the rabble who get taken in by street-side fortunetellers, I believe they simply fell for a hoax of another kind. In Fringe-ology, I write at length about what I consider the most irrational moments in Randi’s rationalist career. So I won’t get into them here. But Randi is a fount not so much of critical thinking but critical gaffes: Rupert Sheldrake, Zev Pressman, Arthur C. Clarke, Gary Schwartz (and Loyd Auerbach), Dennis Rawlins and Dennis Stillings have all, at one time or another, fallen into the gap between Randi and reason.

And Randi himself clearly enjoys his own shapeshifting. On the Skeptic Zone podcast, he talks at length about the title of the forthcoming documentary about his life. It's called An Honest Liar, and the conceit is that, as a magician, Randi's job is to deceive and misdirect and create illusions.

         All I can say is that, after the Jose Luis Alvarez case shakes out, there might be a great jumping off point for a second documentary.

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 6

GREAT GHOSTS: SPIRITS, SCIENCE AND SUPERSTITION 

 

It would not be inaccurate to claim my book, Fringe-ology, is shot through with ghosts. Though I explore seven different paranormal phenomena in great depth, the book starts with ghosts, raises the subject in the middle, and concludes there, too.

We are used to encountering ghosts, as a culture, in several places. We have some strange experience in our own lives. We meet someone we trust who tells us some incredible story. Occasionally, a newspaper or some local TV news broadcast will cut some “light” news feature on a haunted hotel or bar, particularly around Halloween. Most commonly, I think, we happen across one of the many rigorously awful ghosthunting programs on television.

Of these, the one I think most worthwhile is the first-hand account.

My initial inspiration for writing Fringe-ology is an old family ghost story I grew up with as a child. So, as I promoted the book in various settings, I heard many ghost stories from attendees, usually after the crowd dispersed for the night. One man told me about a ghostly, feminine voice that would cry in the family dining room every night. A couple told me their daughter’s invisible friend proved to be the ghost of an old train conductor. Their daughter described him in detail, particularly his uniform, with the boxy hat, before they researched the house and found that a train conductor had lived and died there many years beforehand. A woman told me about a ghost who “played” with her, moving her car keys, for instance, from the peg where she habitually hung them to various, unlikely places, including inside the refrigerator.

There are potential skeptical explanations for some of this that should occur to us immediately. But the narrative arc of these stories often includes some fairly dramatic steps to come up with a prosaic explanation. During my time spent ghosthunting as part of my research for Fringe-ology, I ran across many people who seemed excited by the idea that their house was haunted and disinterested in any Earthly explanations. But I also met many who felt they were being plagued by something they didn’t understand, and hoped for a rational, terrestrial cause to be discovered.

One story passed on to me concerned a woman who claimed her house was haunted by a pair of children, who had the highly annoying habit of messing with various devices around the house. They changed stations and volume settings on the radio. They turned the lights on and off. She would go to the radio or the light afterward and see that the controls in question appeared to have been physically manipulated—the light switch maneuvered “up” and “on” from the “down” and “off” position, for instance. But the most dramatic and annoying thing they did is switch the ringer off on her phone.

To provide some context, her whole story took place before cell phones, when handsets included a little plastic tab on the side that could be slid in the opposite direction to turn the ringer off.  Over a period of months, as these phenomena occurred, she got especially tired of friends, family and colleagues telling her they could not reach her. “I called again and again and you never picked up,” they’d say.

Finally, after finding the ringer turned “off” on numerous occasions, she put a strip of tape over the ringer to fix it in the “on” position. I find this detail delightfully funny. Why would a “ghost” have the power to move the ringer switch but not the tape? She told me that throughout the experience she doubted the idea that her home was haunted. She had, at this stage, conducted enough research to know that a pair of children had died in the basement of the house. And their antics did seem playful, and  attention-getting, like a child grabbing at her skirt. But she was skeptical and thought of the tape as a barrier and a test.

So she put the tape on and went about her business in the house for several hours. Then she returned to find the tape rolled into a tight little ball beside the handset. And the ringer? Now switched to “off.”

We are left with only a couple of possible explanations, including a stealthy intruder who crept into her home, undetected, for the sole purpose of mystifying its occupant. Or she was making the whole thing up. Or… well, we have to concede that there is a mystery afoot.

In the many months since I completed Fringe-ology, there have been plenty of ghost stories in the media: The publicity department at Thorpe Park, in Surrey, claimed a ghost caused an entire, 64-foot water ride to be moved because it was frightening everyone who caught sight of it. Cries of "hoax!" followed quickly. Touring comedienne Karen Rontowski revealed her alter-ago as a ghost hunter. Some paranormal investigators in Knoxville, Tennessee have cooked up a plan to restore a historic building by charging admission to give “ghost tours” of the site. Turning to the truly outlandish, Gawker reported on a ghost that supposedly liked to grope one old woman—all night long. (This reminds me of a story I’ll get around to writing in one of my next projects, an e-book.) Gawker also wrote an item on a pair of ghosts seen—and photographed—copulating in Ohio.

This next story sits behind a pay wall. But the sheer number of ghostly goings on at the Naval Academy Grounds in Annapolis, Maryland is impressive, complete with one employee who quit the place over ghosts. And lastly, unexpectedly, one Salem hotel operator denied her spot is haunted—never mind what extra business the reputation might bring her.

The best developments in this particular aspect of the paranormal, however, are more scientific. I myself guest-hosted an episode of Alex Tsakiris’s Skeptiko, interviewing writer Guy Lyon Playfair about some research he collaborated on with Dr. Barrie Colvin.

In the paper Colvin published, he claims that true poltergeist sounds actually demonstrate a different acoustic signature than “normal” sounds. But an even more intriguing study was just released from the lab of Dr. Michael Persinger, who partnered up with one of the early pioneers in parapsychology research: Dr. William Roll.

The paper, “A Prototypical Experience of ‘Poltergeist' Activity,” is an adventurous ride across the far frontier of science—and a whole lot more intriguing, I think, then putting all hauntings down to superstition and imagination. In this instance, Roll, Persinger and their co-authors report on a woman they call “Mrs. S.”, a middle-aged woman with no kids, a divorce in her past and a husband in her present. About 17 years before the experiments discussed in the paper began, Mrs. S. suffered a traumatic brain injury so severe she fell into a coma for two days. After she awoke, strange things started to happen.

Knocking sounds, luminous discharges from her left hand, disruptions in electronic equipment, and an ability to see strange, colored lights—or “auras”—around people in her view. The authors further claim that The Incredible Mrs. S. can move a pinwheel with her mind. A photometer, which measures photon emissions, caught an increase in photons around her when she entered a particular, anomalous “brain state.” She hears voices, but displays no other signs of any mental illness. In fact, she seems to be functioning normally but for these strange occurrences, after which she feels a profound sense of… sadness.

As I read over the paper, I must confess to a profound feeling of skepticism. No matter how open minded we might be, such reports are tempting to simply dismiss. But the intriguing part of the study is the line of thought researchers are following. They claim to have found an anomaly, an uptick in electrical activity, over her right temporal lobe. They further claimed to have cross-referenced scans of 1,000 people who had suffered closed head injuries with a comparable number of students with no such medical history. No one had the same pattern of chronic, increased activity. Moreover, as it states in the abstract, “The rotation of a small pinwheel near her while she ‘concentrated’ upon it was associated with increased coherence between the left and right temporal lobes and concurrent activation of the left prefrontal region.”

A similar effect was noticed during these odd, spontaneous photon emissions.

What are we to make of this?

Well, Roll and Persinger conclude that there is no need to verify the more extreme claims reported by the woman, her husband and friends—or even the claims of the research group, which saw the pinwheel move at Mrs. S’s, presumably only mental, effort. Instead, they argue, the people reporting “sensed presences” or odd sounds and sightings of auras—who feel distressed about it all—can be investigated for this temporal lobe anomaly and perhaps treated with anti-convulsant medication. They also might be taught, the paper concludes, to see these phenomena not in supernatural terms but as the product of a dysfunction in the brain.

Of course, there are questions that remain: If Mrs. S can actually make a pinwheel move, why not something else, less prone to moving in an invisible breeze or exhalation? If she can make a physical object move, including the pinwheel, then just how is that happening? One thing to like about Persinger, who includes geomagnetic energy as part of the equation in this paper, as he has in the past, is that he is willing to man the gates of western science on one hand—undercutting the whole notion of ghosts as disembodied entities—while storming the ramparts on the other. After all, if Mrs. S. really can move an object with her mind, we do need to start drawing up some rather serious amendments to our current understanding of physics.

I’d like to toss out one intriguing point, by the way, which runs in favor of the paranormal. According to this paper, when Mrs. S. was asked to move the pinwheel, the anomalous activity in her brain occurred only when the pinwheel actually moved. Not when it didn’t.

I’ll leave this here, for now, on that mysterious note. And I will close by mentioning that Persinger’s co-author William Roll died just as this paper was published. An 85-year old psychologist, Roll was born in Germany and lived in Denmark before coming to America. He conducted parapsychology research at no less august an institution than Oxford for eight years, and worked with J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab at Duke, where some of the most successful and hotly contested telepathy experiments ever completed took place.

He was the lead investigator on a 1984 poltergeist case, which produced a famous—and again, roundly debated—photo of Tina Resch. And on his way out the door he left us this strange paper.

With any luck, perhaps someone will contact Persinger and invite the Incredible Mrs. S. to their own lab, to see if the results of this study can be replicated.

 

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 8

OH WOW: STEVE JOBS AND HIS PARTING GIFTS

 

   We all know the basic bio: Apple mastermind Steve Jobs changed the way we relate to every manner of computer and gadget, marrying form, functionality and ease of use in a way unlike any electronics company before. The result—the iPod, iPhone and the company’s sleek computer line—are now cultural touchstones, changing the way we relate to information, entertainment and each other.

   Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s revealing biography, Steve Jobs,  we now know that Jobs was a control freak and a monster of a boss. He drove his charges crazy, asking for things they didn’t think were possible. As a result, those same employees achieved more than they had ever dreamed. But when Jobs passed away last fall, after a long battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, there were new lessons to take from his life, both of which land in the realm of Fringe-ology.

   For roughly the first nine months after Jobs was diagnosed with cancer in October, 2003, he pursued an alternative treatment regimen. He even declined an operation that, statistically speaking, promised him at least 10 more years of life.

   When he finally did consent to surgery, in July, 2004, his cancer had advanced to his liver. The media gossip website Gawker quotes a specialist in Jobs’s form of cancer lamenting the corporate wizard’s decision-making: "In my series of patients, for many subtypes [of this form of cancer], the survival rate was as high as 100% over a decade... As many as 10% of autopsied persons in the general population have been reported to have one of these without ever having had any symptoms during their life."

   I have always maintained an uneasy relationship with alternative medicine as a whole. I don’t believe that all these therapies are as worthless as the skeptical community would have us believe. Acupuncture is often dismissed as outright quackery here in the west. But the record is mixed. (See this Mayo clinic roundup, for the list of pain-related uses of acupuncture. There is also evidence it reduces the symptoms associated with chemotherapy.) “Aromatherapy” is also a constant target of “quack” watchers. But a quick search at PubMed—a U.S. National Institutes of Health website—reveals multiple studies that show aromatherapy has a positive effect on anxiety and, in some cases, post-operative pain. The Mayo Clinic says research on aromatherapy is thin, but acknowledges there is evidence of some benefit for people suffering from anxiety or depression. But the tendency of skeptics to overstate their case isn’t reason for believers in alternative medicine to overstate their own.

   The wisest course of action, it seems, is to pursue alternative therapies as additions to the most well researched, evidence based treatments. (Here in Philadelphia, actually, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, one of the most advanced partnerships between alternative and mainstream medicine is underway.)

   Jobs, sadly, reminded us in the most final possible terms that the quality of the information we’re using is critical. So take the lesson that tragedy offers to heart: Look at the available research, and engage in your own care—pro-actively and without prejudice. If Jobs had looked at all the data, free from his own biases, he would almost certainly still be with us today. 

   Of course, Jobs also left us something else when he passed away, something we first learned of through the eulogy delivered for him by his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. The New York Times published the text of Simpson’s talk, in which she describes Jobs’ final days in unsparing terms—at turns romantic and bitter. But it was the final passage that got everyone buzzing, relating the very end of Jobs’ storied life:

 

   Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

   He seemed to be climbing.

   But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

   Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

   Steve’s final words were:

   “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

 

   Some speculated that Jobs was only reacting to the feelings of love he felt for those closest to him. Others (including me) pointed out that Simpson—a novelist, after all—undoubtedly chose her words very carefully. And she noted that he looked “over their shoulders past them” before uttering those last words: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

   I contacted Simpson, to see if she did intend to suggest that Jobs had a deathbed vision—a glimpse of what’s next. She declined to be interviewed.

   For the record, however, judging by the research I did for Fringe-ology, if Jobs did see something fantastic on his journey toward death, Simpson’s account seems to fit with the existing lore on the subject.

   The deathbed vision is a staple in paranormal circles. In Fringe-ology, I relate the story of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous psychologist who wrote On Death and Dying—the book that gave life to the hospice movement.

   Kubler-Ross repeatedly encountered terminally ill patients who claimed to see deceased loved ones in their hospital rooms. She initially resisted these stories, failing even to take notes. But the stories kept coming. As her research partner, the reverend Mwalimu Imara, told me: “We weren’t looking for this. It was just happening, again and again, to us.”

   Over time, they relented. They decided that if their project was to chronicle the fears, wishes, hopes, needs and experiences of the dying, they needed to write it all down, no matter how strange it might seem. As their work continued, Kubler-Ross and Imara started filling filing cabinet drawers with these unexpected tales. In fact, patients who had been resuscitated told them stories of what we now call Near Death Experiences (NDEs), years before these stories became popularly known.

   When it came time to write On Death and Dying, in 1968, Kubler-Ross included an entire chapter on the paranormal subjects of NDEs and deathbed visions in her original manuscript. But, as I chronicle in Fringe-ology, she ultimately decided against sending this outlandish material to her publisher, lest they deem she’d lost the plot. It was only years later, after the phrase “Near Death Experience” was coined and popularized, that she began sharing these stories at all.

   Intriguingly, in the context of Steve Jobs, Kubler-Ross noted a stark difference between what she termed a “deathbed visitation” or vision and a mere hallucination.

   Patients suffering from some form of dementia or drug-addled state are unable to understand or coherently interact with the objective, verifiable world around them. Patients Kubler-Ross described as having deathbed visitations, however, remained lucid. What this means is that they described people and things that weren’t visible in the room. They even carried on conversations with these unseen visitors. But they were also fully aware of their surroundings and able to continue interacting with the objective world, without fail. 

   In researching Fringe-ology, I found these reports remain prevalent among hospice professionals today. In the case of Steve Jobs, if he did have a deathbed vision, it’s far from the most spectacular. But it does fit the standard template: the dying man, encountering the material world before him and another one besides.  

   We should acknowledge that skeptics would scarcely spend any time on this subject, rebutting any idea that Jobs had a deathbed vision and positing that all such reports are the product of dying, deluded people, unable to discriminate any longer between hallucination and reality.

   Believers might simply take such stories as evidence for an afterlife.

   Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, offered the New York Post the following opinion: “Well, I’m glad—as with everything in Steve’s life—he leaves us with a slightly inspiring mystery.”

   I don’t envy Isaacson, a terrific writer and researcher, who has likely never looked at any paranormal research, being put in the position of answering for Jobs’ last words. Reading the entire Post item, you can almost feel his discomfort as he tries to find some convenient exit. That said, I don’t think I’m being too unfair to Isaacson to say that his response is “slightly spot on,” while also being “slightly off.”

   What are we to make of Jobs’ final words?

   Well, in my opinion, no one should run from—or be embarrassed by—any hope occasioned by Jobs’s last statement. And the mystery of what awaits us—the suggestion of new lands beyond the veil—is more than “slightly inspiring.”

   The way I think of it, Steve Jobs left us one last gift on his way out, a final, useful tool, which operated according to the same elegant aesthetic that marked his products: Monsosyllables, two words, repeated three times, capturing one of the great existential mysteries of humankind’s existence—and boundless possibilities.  Its function is merely to instill in us an appropriate sense of wonder. And it worked for me. In fact, the first time I read this passage, the day Simpson’s eulogy for her brother appeared, it put me immediately in mind of one of my favorite stories that never made it into Fringe-ology.

   I spoke to a few hospice workers along the way, one of whom had read On Death and Dying but was unfamiliar with Kubler-Ross’s more metaphysical research. She, too, had encountered strange happenings. She, too, drew a sharp dividing line between patients suffering from hallucinations and those buoyed by what she took to be visions.

   In most instances, she said, when a patient was consumed by a vision, she allowed them to narrate what they were seeing as they wished. But once, an old man to whom she felt particularly close had asked her to remain silent as he locked his eyes on a far corner of the room. He seemed pleased, excited even, and engaged someone or something in conversation.

   She only saw the same old room. 

   “Hey,” she broke in, “what is it? What are you seeing?”

    The old man glanced at her briefly. “Oh honey," he said. "I could tell you. But you wouldn’t believe me.”

 

  

Author’s Note: As the year wound down, I started thinking about the most important things to happen in the realm of the paranormal since I finished writing Fringe-ology in the late fall of 2010. I’ll post a new item here roughly every week, though many of my top 10 will only be found on my website, stevevolk.com.You can follow me on twitter @stevevolk

 

 

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 8

OH WOW: STEVE JOBS AND HIS PARTING GIFTS

 

   We all know the basic bio: Apple mastermind Steve Jobs changed the way we relate to every manner of computer and gadget, marrying form, functionality and ease of use in a way unlike any electronics company before. The result—the iPod, iPhone and the company’s sleek computer line—are now cultural touchstones, changing the way we relate to information, entertainment and each other.

   Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s revealing biography, Steve Jobs,  we now know that Jobs was a control freak and a monster of a boss. He drove his charges crazy, asking for things they didn’t think were possible. As a result, those same employees achieved more than they had ever dreamed. But when Jobs passed away last fall, after a long battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, there were new lessons to take from his life, both of which land in the realm of Fringe-ology.

   For roughly the first nine months after Jobs was diagnosed with cancer in October, 2003, he pursued an alternative treatment regimen. He even declined an operation that, statistically speaking, promised him at least 10 more years of life.

   When he finally did consent to surgery, in July, 2004, his cancer had advanced to his liver. The media gossip website Gawker quotes a specialist in Jobs’s form of cancer lamenting the corporate wizard’s decision-making: "In my series of patients, for many subtypes [of this form of cancer], the survival rate was as high as 100% over a decade... As many as 10% of autopsied persons in the general population have been reported to have one of these without ever having had any symptoms during their life."

   I have always maintained an uneasy relationship with alternative medicine as a whole. I don’t believe that all these therapies are as worthless as the skeptical community would have us believe. Acupuncture is often dismissed as outright quackery here in the west. But the record is mixed. (See this Mayo clinic roundup, for the list of pain-related uses of acupuncture. There is also evidence it reduces the symptoms associated with chemotherapy.) “Aromatherapy” is also a constant target of “quack” watchers. But a quick search at PubMed—a U.S. National Institutes of Health website—reveals multiple studies that show aromatherapy has a positive effect on anxiety and, in some cases, post-operative pain. The Mayo Clinic says research on aromatherapy is thin, but acknowledges there is evidence of some benefit for people suffering from anxiety or depression. But the tendency of skeptics to overstate their case isn’t reason for believers in alternative medicine to overstate their own.

   The wisest course of action, it seems, is to pursue alternative therapies as additions to the most well researched, evidence based treatments. (Here in Philadelphia, actually, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, one of the most advanced partnerships between alternative and mainstream medicine is underway.)

   Jobs, sadly, reminded us in the most final possible terms that the quality of the information we’re using is critical. So take the lesson that tragedy offers to heart: Look at the available research, and engage in your own care—pro-actively and without prejudice. If Jobs had looked at all the data, free from his own biases, he would almost certainly still be with us today. 

   Of course, Jobs also left us something else when he passed away, something we first learned of through the eulogy delivered for him by his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. The New York Times published the text of Simpson’s talk, in which she describes Jobs’ final days in unsparing terms—at turns romantic and bitter. But it was the final passage that got everyone buzzing, relating the very end of Jobs’ storied life:

 

   Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

   He seemed to be climbing.

   But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

   Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

   Steve’s final words were:

   “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

 

   Some speculated that Jobs was only reacting to the feelings of love he felt for those closest to him. Others (including me) pointed out that Simpson—a novelist, after all—undoubtedly chose her words very carefully. And she noted that he looked “over their shoulders past them” before uttering those last words: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

   I contacted Simpson, to see if she did intend to suggest that Jobs had a deathbed vision—a glimpse of what’s next. She declined to be interviewed.

   For the record, however, judging by the research I did for Fringe-ology, if Jobs did see something fantastic on his journey toward death, Simpson’s account seems to fit with the existing lore on the subject.

   The deathbed vision is a staple in paranormal circles. In Fringe-ology, I relate the story of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous psychologist who wrote On Death and Dying—the book that gave life to the hospice movement.

   Kubler-Ross repeatedly encountered terminally ill patients who claimed to see deceased loved ones in their hospital rooms. She initially resisted these stories, failing even to take notes. But the stories kept coming. As her research partner, the reverend Mwalimu Imara, told me: “We weren’t looking for this. It was just happening, again and again, to us.”

   Over time, they relented. They decided that if their project was to chronicle the fears, wishes, hopes, needs and experiences of the dying, they needed to write it all down, no matter how strange it might seem. As their work continued, Kubler-Ross and Imara started filling filing cabinet drawers with these unexpected tales. In fact, patients who had been resuscitated told them stories of what we now call Near Death Experiences (NDEs), years before these stories became popularly known.

   When it came time to write On Death and Dying, in 1968, Kubler-Ross included an entire chapter on the paranormal subjects of NDEs and deathbed visions in her original manuscript. But, as I chronicle in Fringe-ology, she ultimately decided against sending this outlandish material to her publisher, lest they deem she’d lost the plot. It was only years later, after the phrase “Near Death Experience” was coined and popularized, that she began sharing these stories at all.

   Intriguingly, in the context of Steve Jobs, Kubler-Ross noted a stark difference between what she termed a “deathbed visitation” or vision and a mere hallucination.

   Patients suffering from some form of dementia or drug-addled state are unable to understand or coherently interact with the objective, verifiable world around them. Patients Kubler-Ross described as having deathbed visitations, however, remained lucid. What this means is that they described people and things that weren’t visible in the room. They even carried on conversations with these unseen visitors. But they were also fully aware of their surroundings and able to continue interacting with the objective world, without fail. 

   In researching Fringe-ology, I found these reports remain prevalent among hospice professionals today. In the case of Steve Jobs, if he did have a deathbed vision, it’s far from the most spectacular. But it does fit the standard template: the dying man, encountering the material world before him and another one besides.  

   We should acknowledge that skeptics would scarcely spend any time on this subject, rebutting any idea that Jobs had a deathbed vision and positing that all such reports are the product of dying, deluded people, unable to discriminate any longer between hallucination and reality.

   Believers might simply take such stories as evidence for an afterlife.

   Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, offered the New York Post the following opinion: “Well, I’m glad—as with everything in Steve’s life—he leaves us with a slightly inspiring mystery.”

   I don’t envy Isaacson, a terrific writer and researcher, who has likely never looked at any paranormal research, being put in the position of answering for Jobs’ last words. Reading the entire Post item, you can almost feel his discomfort as he tries to find some convenient exit. That said, I don’t think I’m being too unfair to Isaacson to say that his response is “slightly spot on,” while also being “slightly off.”

   What are we to make of Jobs’ final words?

   Well, in my opinion, no one should run from—or be embarrassed by—any hope occasioned by Jobs’s last statement. And the mystery of what awaits us—the suggestion of new lands beyond the veil—is more than “slightly inspiring.”

   The way I think of it, Steve Jobs left us one last gift on his way out, a final, useful tool, which operated according to the same elegant aesthetic that marked his products: Monsosyllables, two words, repeated three times, capturing one of the great existential mysteries of humankind’s existence—and boundless possibilities.  Its function is merely to instill in us an appropriate sense of wonder. And it worked for me. In fact, the first time I read this passage, the day Simpson’s eulogy for her brother appeared, it put me immediately in mind of one of my favorite stories that never made it into Fringe-ology.

   I spoke to a few hospice workers along the way, one of whom had read On Death and Dying but was unfamiliar with Kubler-Ross’s more metaphysical research. She, too, had encountered strange happenings. She, too, drew a sharp dividing line between patients suffering from hallucinations and those buoyed by what she took to be visions.

   In most instances, she said, when a patient was consumed by a vision, she allowed them to narrate what they were seeing as they wished. But once, an old man to whom she felt particularly close had asked her to remain silent as he locked his eyes on a far corner of the room. He seemed pleased, excited even, and engaged someone or something in conversation.

   She only saw the same old room. 

   “Hey,” she broke in, “what is it? What are you seeing?”

    The old man glanced at her briefly. “Oh honey," he said. "I could tell you. But you wouldn’t believe me.”

 

 

TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 10

AFTER THE FALL: CHARLES FORT AND OUR STRANGE SKIES 

Paul Thomas Anderson, in his movie Magnolia, with its climatic rain of frogs plummeting out of the sky and pummeling people, windows and automobiles, did more to memorialize the odd phenomena of “falls” than anyone since Charles Fort.

Still, despite this now iconic, onscreen moment, falls still qualify as perhaps the least well-known and most whimsical in the entire realm of the paranormal—a strange happening that lacks the rabid following enjoyed by ghosts and UFOs. And Fort, a kind of professional, philosopher-crank—a whimsical human being, it might be said—still seems similarly unable to get his due. For instance, in my proposal for Fringe-ology, I promised editors I would use Fort as a kind of launching point for the entire enterprise. That claim, on my part, received some gentle pushback. One editor in particular, who I shall not name, professed to “love Fort” but argued that he “was more a great personality and curator than a thinker.”

It is true that Fort’s reputation rests largely on his role as the ultimate chronicler of all things odd. But to me this pursuit to catalogue the strange itself reveals Fort to be a novel thinker—and moreover, committed enough that he built his life to accommodate his strange, singular passion.

For most of his young adult life, as the 1800s bled toward the 1900s, Fort engaged in menial day jobs and sporadic fits of journalism, breaking up furniture for firewood while buying armfuls of newspapers and scouring the stacks of the New York Public Library, making notes on “anomalous phenomena” at a time when literally no one else in recorded history had ever engaged in such a practice. Ultimately, a modest inheritance from an uncle allowed him to commit to writing and research, full-time. And the results, The Book of the Damned, Lo!, Wild Talents, and New Lands, suddenly and roughly formed the boundaries of what we now call “The Paranormal.”

Odd creature reports of humanoids and animals. Hauntings. Airships (which later came to be called UFOs). Psychic phenomena. All the biggies found their way into Fort’s pages. And yes, to that unnamed editor's point, those old writings admittedly did move in fits and starts. Fort was a passionate but often graceless writer, more bull than ballerina. But his efforts reveal a great depth of intelligence, and a unique, rigorously upheld commitment to, well, a lack of commitment.

Consider this passage:

“I’d not like to be so unadvanced as to deny witches and ghosts,” he writes in The Book of the Damned, “but I do think that there never have been witches and ghosts like those of popular supposition.”

Fort, as he often does, leaves this statement behind quickly, on his way to some other place. But the meaning of this passage is entirely clear once even a few whole pages of Fort have been read, pretty much no matter where one starts or ends: To Fort, nothing was worse, nothing betrayed greater intellectual dishonesty or emotional fragility, than dogmatism. Whether the dogma he confronted was religious or scientific, he had at it with a hacksaw. So, while he clearly held grave doubts about “witches and ghosts” he was simultaneously committed to maintaining an open mind on the subject and to considering all the possibilities.

The roots of all good scientific and philosophical thinking rest comfortably in this couple of sentences, I think. But there is something more in his books, besides: Today, skeptics cleave to explanations that generally reduce down to “superstition.” But Fort would reject that—rightly, I should think—as useless dogma. The way to address these topics is with a light heart, a serious mind and a willingness to hear out every possibility, no matter how outlandish.

Finally, Fort seemed to anticipate pretty much everything that has happened in this field since he began studying it in the late-1800s: Namely, that anomalies of various kinds would continue to keep cropping up; that believers would embrace them and define them without enough supporting evidence; and that skeptics draped in the mantle of science would simply deny them outright.

Given these facts, I’d argue that defining Fort as “more a personality and curator” than a “thinker” because he did not write in a traditional, philosophical form reveals a sorely limited perspective of what it means to “think” at all. Fort gets us to a place we need to be, at times by circuitous means, through sleight of hand and indirection. But he gets us there. And in the end, when I wrote Fringe-ology for HarperCollins, I stood on many pairs of shoulders. But in order to get started at all, I clambered upon the shoulders of Charles Fort.

I give you that background as an introduction to the 10th-ranked development in Fringe-ology because Fort and Falls shall remain connected, forevermore. A surprising number of unlikely things fall from the sky. And Fort had the temerity to not only capture them for posterity but to question the official explanation, which is that a whirlwind or storm picked the objects up in one place and deposited them back down in another.

I ran across reports of several falls this year.

Orange eggs fell from the sky in Alaska.

Fish seem to fall from the sky, with some regularity, in Lamanju, Australia.

Worms, last spring, In Scotland.

Apples in Coventry.

The worm fall, for starters, is instructive. The report described the fall of a great many worms from what the leading witness described as a “cloudless sky.” Teacher David Crichton was leading his class through warm-ups for a soccer lesson (they call it football in the article, of course), when they heard a soft thudding noise in their midst. Many worms were lying on the ground. As reported by STV, “the class then looked to the cloudless sky and saw worms falling on to them.”

Crichton subsequently collected many of the worms, tallying more than 100.

The phenomenon of falls has its own Library of Congress entry, which puts forward the tornado- or storm-based theory. But for another possibility I’ll refer to the inimitable Brian Dunning, of Skeptoid.

I praise Dunning in Fringe-ology, and he does his level best to explain falls while expressing grave doubts about the whirlwind or weather-based explanation.

       If the wind is picking up animals, why is it so damn selective? Why just worms, and not dirt? Why just fish, or frogs, and not grass, sticks, twigs or other debris or… something of the same approximate weight and size? 

       In The Book of the Damned, Fort writes, more than a century before Dunning:

      According to testimony taken before a magistrate, a fall occurred, Feb. 19, 1830, near Feridpoor, India, of many fishes, of various sizes—some whole and fresh and others "mutilated and putrefying." Our reflex to those who would say that, in the climate of India, it would not take long for fishes to putrefy, is—that high in the air, the climate of India is not torrid. Another peculiarity of this fall is that some of the fishes were much larger than others. Or to those who hold out for segregation in a whirlwind, or that objects, say, twice as heavy as others would be separated from the lighter, we point out that some of these fishes were twice as heavy as others.

 

       So, let’s set aside the whirlwind explanation as insufficient in the judgment of the philosopher-crank (Fort), the skeptic (Dunning), and the journalist (me). But Dunning, in one of his podcasts, has offered up a separate answer. His thesis is that the animals in question were already there. Then something happens—like a rainfall—to draw attention to their presence. The problem, of course, is that Dunning’s explanation is refuted by numerous reports.

       First, let’s turn again to Fort, who tells of fish found flopping “atop haystacks”, or covering the “roofs of houses”; of frogs “seen to fall”; of one frog-storm in Kansas City, Missouri, that was so great the frogs “darkened the air”; of frogs found in impossible places for a Dunning-like migration to be remotely possible, like the “city of London” and “a desert.”

       This central mystery of Charles Fort’s work, all these years later, still holds up. And in the last year, since I finished my own book, falls continue to confound. Clearly, the idea that the insects or animals were already on the ground doesn’t fit Crichton, or his students, who observed the worms falling from the sky. It also wouldn’t explain the fish, in one of the other accounts I listed, which fell in the desert, hundreds of kilometers from water. One source in that story even claims the fish were alive when they hit the ground.      

I am a fan of Dunning. But like many skeptics, in this instance he chose to interpret the data that most readily yielded to a simple explanation and simply ignored the data that didn’t.

       This doesn’t, of course, mean UFOs are responsible. It also, obviously, doesn’t mean anything particularly outlandish has to be happening at all. In short, the lack of a great, definitive explanation or explanations that account for all the cases—like the fall of worms from a cloudless sky on a “clear, calm day”—doesn’t mean no such information will ever be found. But it does mean that, for now, we must give this victory to mystery.

Author’s Note: As the year wound down, I started thinking about the most important things to happen in the realm of the paranormal since I finished writing Fringe-ology in the late fall of 2010. I’ll post a new item here roughly every week, though many of my top 10 will only be found on my website, stevevolk.com.

Sagan and True Fringe-ology: Part II

In my last post, I described how Carl Sagan sought to explain away the Near Death Experience as a repressed memory of birth. The tunnel, the light, the meetings with deceased relatives can all be explained, argued Sagan, by resurfacing memories of the birth canal, the sudden bath of light in the hospital delivery room and the looming presences of the doctors, nurses and, ultimately, mom.

I will not repeat the many objections to this explanation, which can be found in my previous post. But I do want to extend the conversation I started there a few beats more. Because Sagan’s non-explanation, I think, reveals something about believers and skeptics alike. We are all prone to confirmation bias. And Sagan can only have put forth such a non-starter of an explanation for the NDE for that very reason. In other words, this repressed memory idea fit so well with his understanding of the world that he didn’t question it, didn’t subject his own thinking to the same rigorous inquiry to which he would subject a claim he with which he disagreed.

The question we’re left to answer is: what are we to do about it?

We all know that we are prone to accept arguments that support our pre-existing worldview without thinking critically about them. But how can we break out of this trap?

For an answer, I turn in part to neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, who has advanced a new philosophy of his own creation: possibilianism. A possibilian is quite unlike both hardcore skeptical figures like James Randi or committed religious believers like, say, Pat Robertson. A possibilian enjoys engaging in deep thought on all the possible explanations available to us on any number of subjects and phenomena without, as Eagleman puts it, committing to “any particular story.”

In this sense, the many worlds hypothesis, string theory, the philosophy of materialism, Buddhism, Christanity, Scientology, The Lord of the Rings and even the benefits of aspirin all count as “stories.” 

The next step in the exercise, of course, is to consider the evidence for any claim while refusing to commit to any final conclusion until one is truly warranted. And of course, this is where the trouble starts. One man’s data is another man’s detritus. One woman’s evidence is another woman’s anecdote. But I do think, in the contours of Eagleman’s stance, we can perceive the outline for a better way of handling discussions about the paranormal.

For instance, consider any old outlandish ghost tale. A skeptic could profitably point out that the unexplained noises in my old family home—a subject I describe at great length in Fringe-ology—do not comprise evidence of a deceased person’s spirit looming about the house. In fact, the cast of any ghost hunting show would do well to remember as much. An odd noise doesn’t equal a disembodied spirit. A door that closes on its own, without any wind or hand to push it, does not equal a mischievous ghost. It is simply what it is—a door that seemed to close on its own, without any wind or hand to push it. This doesn’t mean no such thing as a ghost could exist. But when it comes time to look for explanations for such an occurrence, given the paucity of data we’re (almost always) left with, we should be willing to consider all the possibilities—from the outlandish (some unseen intelligence with power, however limited, to interact with the physical world) to the mundane (fraud and misperception) to some more exotic, physical theory.

In Fringe-ology, for instance, I write about Vic Tandy’s theory of infrasound and Michael Persinger’s work with Electromagnetic energy and the temporal lobe, both of which might account for various forms of visual or aural hallucination, as well as sensations of being watched.

This is, admittedly, a limited sample of the various possibilities. (William Roll has suggested a kind of unintentional psycho-kinesis.) But I hope you take my point: In committing to some “particular story” about any ghost tale or ghosts as a whole we risk missing other possibilities that may be worth our attention. So for now, what I’d like to get believers and nonbelievers to agree on is simply this: we don’t need to rush to a conclusion before the data truly dictates one; and that, in fact, we will learn far more about the world by exploring various possibilities, however unlikely they might seem.

The benefit of maintaining this mindset should be obvious. We might very well learn things we can use. Surely the military or any intelligence service might be interested in Tandy’s infrasound or Persinger’s neuroscientific work. But not all the applications we might glean from paranormal investigation need be so dark. In Fringe-ology, I find ways to make use of religious and spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and lucid dreaming. I explore an obscure but seemingly powerful and beneficial psychological therapy called Induced After Death Communication. I view the traditional idea of an Unidentified Flying Object as an opportunity to be creative in our thinking and consider all the possibilities, from black military projects to ball lightning or, yes, life from some other planet. If we discover, for instance, that some as yet unknown atmospheric or energetic “anomalies” or some strange aspect of our consciousness explain some UFO reports, we only lose if we were committed to some other outcome (whether it be alien life or ignorant witnesses). Otherwise, we win by learning more about our world. 

To bring this back to Sagan and the Near Death Experience (NDE), well, I wonder what we might have learned by now if we had looked at this singularly strange occurrence through the lens of possibilianism.

We know now—people who undergo an NDE are profoundly changed by it, and for the better. People who undergo an NDE report less death anxiety, a greater affinity for their fellow beings and increased tolerance for various beliefs and religious systems. They often change professions and seek deeper relationships. In a truly rational world, I would think, we would for this reason alone embrace study of the NDE. But skeptics are so caught up in maintaining the boundaries of a worldview in which there is no such thing as a life beyond this one that they can’t even see what’s right in front of their face—what is, in fact, implicit in their own way of viewing reality. Because if a truly materialistic explanation of the NDE is correct, if this profound, life-altering event is purely neurological, then there very well could—even should—be some way of recreating it in people without, well, killing and resuscitating them.

Release the appropriate chemicals in the rights amounts and voila!

An NDE (of sorts).

It is, at least, possible. There could be something in the NDE that we can use, regardless of our beliefs about it. But that isn’t a conversation we’re close to having because we’re so caught up in debating the source of the experience. This is, to some extent, understandable. After all, whether or not life continues past the point of physical death is of primary concern. But it seems to me that skeptics and believers might find more common ground with one another if we stopped focusing so much on the questions to which we lack the answers—a UFO, for instance, is by definition unidentified—and started regarding these mysteries as opportunities.

To learn something.

To find ways to better the human condition.

To use anomalies as an opportunity for exploration.

 I hold out no great hope that we are about to turn the corner and start thinking or behaving in this way. But I do believe this sort of view is worth pushing for and far more productive than the debate in which we’re currently mired.

Thanks for reading. I have my own blog at stevevolk.com but will try and contribute something to the Daily Grail every couple of weeks. I also invite some pushback to my thoughts here, and of course raving applause is also welcome. I'm just trying to sort out a new way of handling an old subject.