Near-death experiencs (NDEs) were in the news for all the wrong reasons last month, with journalist Luke Dittrich’s ‘exposé’ of bestselling author and NDEr Eben Alexander in Esquire spreading far and wide across the internet. Dittrich painted Alexander as a medical professional of dubious reputation (on the basis of several malpractice suits) who was more than a bit ‘creative’ when it came to the facts of his case.
In my original story about the Esquire exposé I urged some caution in taking it all at face value, and in a follow-up piece noted one example of how Dittrich himself seems to have a been a bit ‘creative’ (or at least selective) in quoting the Dalai Lama about Alexander’s case. But NDE researcher Robert Mays has gone one step further and put a blowtorch to a number of the claims in the Esquire article (PDF), and discovered that it seems to have distorted the facts of the case. Along with the out-of-context Dalai Lama statements that I covered, Mays gives statements from a number of those involved that corroborate facts which Dittrich claims were fictions by Alexander. Perhaps the most important of which is a statement by Dr. Laura Potter, who was used by Dittrich as the hammer to drive the final nail into the coffin of Eben Alexander’s credibility. Dittrich’s article squashes Alexander’s claim that he was essentially without a mind during his illness in the following words: “I ask Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious. ‘Yes’, she says. ‘Conscious but delirious’.” But Mays says that Potter was in fact alarmed by the way her remarks were twisted, with the doctor making the following statement via email:
I am saddened by and gravely disappointed by the article recently published in Esquire. The content attributed to me is both out of context and does not accurately portray the events around Dr. Eben Alexander’s hospitalization. I felt my side of the story was misrepresented by the reporter. I believe Dr. Alexander has made every attempt to be factual in his accounting of events.
In the 15-page article, Robert Mays makes clear his dismay at what appears to be a long list of serious errors and/or misrepresentations made by Dittrich and Esquire, and further aggrieved by the fact that Esquire made a point of asking online readers to pay $1.99 because “great journalism isn’t free”. Mays concludes:
Dittrich’s article was irresponsible because of the impact — the real harm — the resulting distortions have caused. I am sure Luke Dittrich and his editors felt completely justified, based on what they felt was a solid case against Eben Alexander. They probably also considered the negative effect that Dittrich’s article and its conclusions would have on Alexander and others, and similarly felt justified. In their minds, Eben Alexander is a complete fraud and deserves to be exposed as such.
But did Luke Dittrich and his editors exercise sufficient care in building their case? In my opinion they did not: the facts presented in the article were distorted or completely wrong and the conclusions are totally unwarranted. And the result has been devastating to those people who know the facts and how utterly wrong they were portrayed in the article. They include all of the people I mentioned two paragraphs above, especially Dr. Laura Potter whose statements were misrepresented and distorted by Luke Dittrich to establish the central fact of his case. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be quite dismayed that his warm, supportive statements to Eben Alexander have been so cleverly distorted into the exact opposite of his meaning.
But the person most harmed is Dr. Eben Alexander, whose reputation has been severely damaged on the basis of Dittrich’s erroneous, distorted judgments. From now on, many people will associate Eben Alexander with altering records, embellishment, fabrication and delusion.
Mays goes on to note the irony that Dittrich used the malpractice suits against Alexander to sow seeds of doubt about the surgeon’s character in his readers’ minds, and yet “Mr. Dittrich’s actions in investigating and writing the article and Esquire’s unabashed endorsement of it rise to the level of malpractice” themselves.