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A critical look at an academic near-death experience book by Dr. Ben Mitchell-Yellin and Dr. John Martin Fischer. 

photo by: Iwan Gabovitch

It’s hard to be surprised by the lengths some academics will go to trash near-death experience research, but the recent non-research-research of today’s guest surprised even me. But the real story may be that Dr. John Martin Fischer and Dr. Ben Mitchell-Yellin managed to wrangle more than $4 million dollars from the very “spiritual friendly” John Templeton Foundation to promote this “secular” hit piece of a book titled Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife:

Alex Tsakiris: I’m challenging you on a couple of those [arguments]… there isn’t a single, credible near-death experience researcher I can think of that’s come to the conclusion that you do. It always amazes me. I mean, who are you going to cite? Dr. Greyson doesn’t believe that. Pim van Lommel doesn’t believe that. Sam Parnia doesn’t believe that. Janice Holden doesn’t believe that. Dr. Jeffrey Long doesn’t believe that … you could go down the list. There isn’t a single, credible near-death experience researcher — and there are hundreds of peer reviewed scientific journal articles on this — where they’ve concluded the same thing that you’ve concluded. They’ve all concluded that near-death experiences seem to suggest that consciousness survives bodily death in a way that we don’t understand.

Dr. Ben MitchellYellin: That’s not actually what we conclude. I just want to make it clear I don’t think that we agree with all of the people you listed. For example, we don’t have the same position as Pim van Lommel because he doesn’t think that they’re consistent. As far as I understand his position, he thinks that near-death experience suggests that we should give up the physicalist view.

Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. So I guess I’m saying on what basis do you go against all of this published data by all of the top near-death experience researchers who suggest otherwise?

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Read Excerpts From Interview:

skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3Alex Tsakiris: What [Dr. Mitchell-Yellin] was getting pulled into is a much more interesting story… So why is this important? Well, it turns out that the funding for this research–and I’m using air quotes there because these people didn’t really do any original research other than reviewing the literature and criticizing near-death experience scientists who had done actual research. That plays out clearly in the interview. He doesn’t have any response to that. But I digress again because the way they did the book was they received a grant of $5 million from the Templeton Foundation (NOTE/CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: The Immortality Project was a 3-year, $5M interdisciplinary grant sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and was led by the book’s author John Fischer. The $5 million was used to fund a total of 34 related research projects). There’s a whole bunch of interesting stuff to pull apart there. First, $5 million in a lot of circles isn’t a lot of money. But in terms of funding philosophy, it’s a huge grant. [It’s also huge] in terms of funding near-death experience science. [In a couple of weeks] you’re going to hear an interview I did with Dr. Jeffrey Long who’s a radiation oncologist and author of a best-selling book, and soon-to-be second New York Times best-selling book on near-death experience science. He’s one of the leading researchers in that field. In his entire career of near-death science research, I know he’s never received $5 million in grant money or public funding or even donations. So it’s a huge amount of money. The other interesting thing about it is where it comes from: The Templeton Foundation.

If you’re not familiar with Sir John Templeton you can search no further than our friend, Dr. Jerry Coyne. Remember him? He’s this over-the-top, outspoken atheist who appeared on Skeptiko and totally flubbed the history of biogeography, something he’s supposed to be an “expert” on. We did this show on Darwin versus Alfred Russel Wallace and Coyne comes on Skeptiko and says, “Wallace didn’t use biogeography as evidence of evolution. I mean never.” That’s an exact quote from what he said on Skeptiko. And of course that’s just–I can’t even tell you how wrong that is. Well, I did tell you I guess because I did a show with Professor Michael Flannery who is an Alfred Russel Wallace expert and he points out that Wallace was considered the father of biogeography. But I digress again. It’s a useful digression because it shows how Coyne, who generates a lot of attention for himself…. wrote a blog post about this book… Jerry writes on his ‘Why Evolution is True’ website, “Templeton Gives a Philosopher $5 million to Study the After Life.” here’s how it starts: “With its deep pockets and agenda to conflate science and religion, the John Templeton Foundation is a corrupting influence on science. Then he goes onto say how the Templeton Foundation is a fraud, and how they’re really trying to pursue a religious agenda but they’ve covertly hid it as a big questions of science thing, rather than a religion thing. And then Coyne says, “the problem of course is that there is no human purpose beyond the purpose we give our individual lives. The notion that there is some bigger purpose out there comes purely from religion. There is no such purpose.” He emphasizes. This is standard atheistic metaphysics that we’ve become used to. It’s disguised as science and wrapped around this guy who claims to be an expert in Darwin and we all know Darwin’s right and all the rest of that. But of course there’s no way to test his hypothesis. Again, I digress because the real point of all of this is Coyne is criticizing a book that actually subverts near-death experience science. As you’ll hear in this interview, these guys, John Martin Fisher who is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California Riverside, and his co-author, Ben, who you’re going to hear, never had any intention of really investigating near-death experience science. If there’s a more clear example of an agenda-driven near-death experience book, I don’t know where you’d find it. So, Sir John Templeton is surely rolling over in his grave at the idea that his foundation, his well-funded foundation, has somehow been co-opted by this atheistic philosophy, and has given $5 million to these guys to write a hit piece on near-death experience science.

[easy-tweet tweet=”the real story is how this NDE book and fake research ever came to be”]

Alex Tsakiris: They did separate studies and I think it’s been replicated a third time–a prospective study where you go into a cardiac arrest ward; you wait until somebody unfortunately has a heart attack and is resuscitated. Then you go in and you ask them a series of questions about their resuscitation and their ability to recall details of it. Now, you probably know this, I didn’t read this specifically in the book, but in a modern hospital today it isn’t quite like it’s portrayed in the movies. You don’t flatline and then there’s paddles on you five seconds later. It takes at least a minute, usually about two minutes for this to happen. According to some of the best resuscitation experts in the world, like Dr. Sam Parnia who’s renowned for that. So within that span between one and two minutes we know with all of our current neurophysiology that the brain is no longer generating any electrical signal. The pay off in this study is can people who’ve had a near-death experience, would they be more accurate in recounting the resuscitation events than the control group or somebody who said, I remember dying and here I am today but I don’t remember anything in between. And in both of these studies, the results were significantly in favor of the idea that people who have a near-death experience really are able to remember the resuscitation event. So we can talk about that particular account but I guess I’d like to hear your thoughts on the research that’s been done to answer that question of when do these near-death experiences really occur?

Dr. Ben Mitchell-Yellin: I know about Parnia’s Aware studies and some of the results that they’ve gotten out of that. I believe they’re trying to continue those studies. I hope that they do. I think they have a nice experimental design. You’re right, there’s some interesting results. I think what I’ve read of Pania’s published work, he tends to be pretty careful about this, reporting these observations are one thing and then drawing conclusions about the nature of consciousness is a second [issue].


Alex Tsakiris: I’m challenging you on a couple of those [arguments]. If we bring it down to it is about near-death experience and it is about survival of consciousness, there isn’t a single, credible near-death experience researcher I can think of that’s come to the conclusion that you do. It always amazes me. I mean, who are you going to cite? Dr. Greyson doesn’t believe that. Pim van Lommel doesn’t believe that. Sam Parnia doesn’t believe that. Janice Holden doesn’t believe that. Dr. Jeffrey Long doesn’t believe that … you could go down the list. There isn’t a single, credible near-death experience researcher who’s published hundreds of peer reviewed scientific journal articles on this, where they’ve concluded the same thing that you’ve concluded. They’ve all concluded that near-death experiences seem to suggest that consciousness survives bodily death in a way that we don’t understand.

Dr. Ben MitchellYellin: That’s not actually what we conclude. I just want to make it clear I don’t think that we agree with all of the people you listed. For example, we don’t have the same position as Pim van Lommel because he doesn’t think that they’re consistent. As far as I understand his position, he thinks that near-death experience suggests that we should give up the physicalist view.

Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. So I guess I’m saying on what basis do you go against all of this published data by all of the top near-death experience researchers that suggest otherwise?

Dr. Ben MitchellYellin: Well, the first thing to say is look, nobody else has come to the same conclusion as you and I guess the first thing I’d want to say is that’s the main reason we wanted to write the book.

Alex Tsakiris: But you don’t have any research to back-up what you’re saying.

Dr. Ben MitchellYellin: Well, again, it depends on what kind of research you’re talking about. We did not go out and gather the data instead we looked at the arguments that other people have made on the basis of the data. This is what I was trying to say earlier.


Alex Tsakiris: If you’re doing critical analysis of research I see a couple of tried and true ways that you can move forward to overturn it. You could say there’s some kind of methodological error. Or you could say it’s a one-time thing and there’s no possibility of replicating it. Or you could say there was fraud and they didn’t do what they said. But beyond that I don’t know how you can argue against the research without it addressing the key points of the research. So you said, we don’t agree with Pim van Lommel. On what basis do you not agree with a 20-year study done with thousands of cardiac arrest patients over 20 different hospitals. What part of that are you pulling apart? How do you break that down? That’s a good one because you’ve written on that.

Dr. Ben Mitchell-Yellin: That’s a very nice question and I think that Pim van Lommel [and] our disagreements with [him] are probably a good way to illustrate. So you gave three ways of disagreeing with a scientific study. I want to add a fourth way, which is what I’ve been repeatedly trying to harp on. We’re not trying to say that people are committing fraud or falsifying data or anything like that. We’re not trying to say that at all. What we are interested in is whether or not the implications about the nature of consciousness, or about the mind-body problem that people are drawing on the basis of this data, are the correct implications to draw. And that’s a very different thing than any of the three criticisms that you talked about. We’re not trying to criticize [the research] in any of those three ways instead we’re trying to look at a fourth [component], which are what the, for lack of a better term, metaphysical implications people are drawing from this data and are they the correct implications? What are their arguments for their metaphysical conclusions and are these arguments good? So let me give you an example of a critique of an argument that Pim van Lommel gives: in a number of places van Lommel considers the possibility that there might be physical explanations of near-death experiences. And he considers various physical factors, for example, lack of oxygen, or a release of chemicals by the brain…


Alex Tsakiris: You’re essentially making a medical argument against a very highly respected cardiologist. I think he’s been giving you the short form of exactly what we’ve been talking about. That is, if you look at hypoxia and the conditions associated with that, and then you match it with this broad collection of near-death experiences, he says it just doesn’t match in a number of ways. I think other near-death experience researchers have come to the exact same conclusion. If you want to advance that, you’re not going to get very far because dozens and dozens of researchers have incorporated that in. So the follow-up work to van Lommel, and these are studies that have been done. Again, I’d refer you to the Handbook of Near Death Experiences published by Dr. Janice Holden and Bruce Greyson. One of the things they did was measure oxygen in the blood of people who had cardiac arrest. Now they have a data point to tie to this idea of hypoxia and they didn’t find the correlation that you’d expect. Again, it’s one thing to philosophically argue against that argument but it’s really a medical position. Did they measure the oxygen content of the blood in an effective way to make van Lommel’s conclusion? And I just don’t see any evidence to the contrary and I think any evidence would have to be along those lines.

Dr. Ben MitchellYellin: So once again I want to point out that there’s a difference between saying there’s no data and again, I was trying to make clear that we’re not trying to refute anybody’s data collection, or say that there’s some data missing that should’ve been there, or make up data or anything like that. We’re not doing that. But what we’re trying to say is suppose you have a really great data set, whatever that happens to be, there’s still a further question as to how you should treat these physical factors when you’re considering how to explain the phenomena. And in the published pieces I’ve seen of van Lommel’s where he considers physical factors, he considers them one by one. But he never considers the possibility, or at least he doesn’t explicitly consider it in the published work that I’ve seen, the possibility that some of them could be present in some cases, others could be present in other cases and yet they could explain what’s going on in some cases and not in others. Or they could work together to explain what happens in various cases. It’s just not the sort of explanatory procedure that he’s engaged in. But it seems like a very common sense explanatory procedure that we used all of the time. There seems no reason not to consider the possibility of multi-factor physical explanations of this stuff.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, we’ll move on but I just have to add and I’ll let you respond to it. Again, my problem with that is you’re talking about a medical decision or a medical analysis of that. So these are factors in this case but they’re medical factors that a physician or cardiologist would say, these factors would go together to cause these particular, observable characteristics that we see. I think that’s what van Lommel is saying.


Alex Tsakiris: In Chapter 6, and this one I do have to say kind of ticked me off. You said, “we should be skeptical of those that ask us to dip into our wallet regarding NDE accounts among the blind.”

Dr. Ben MitchellYellin: Wait, I think there’s a little confusion because that would sound quite offensive if we had said that.

Alex Tsakrirs: I can pull it up. I’ll pull it up right now if you think it’s different.

Dr. Ben Mitchell-Yellin: What we were talking about, we start the chapter by [discussing] there are instances where we do want to be skeptical of what someone is saying. For example, if they are asking for money for something, that might be a time when you would want to make sure that you’re on board with what their asking. You would adopt a skeptical stance [or] maybe you would end up giving them money. Maybe not. But we were not suggesting that people who are talking about NDE reports and the blind are asking us to dip into our wallets. It was two separate issues although they came in pages that were close by each other in the chapter. So again, we’re not talking about people who are talking about–for example, Dr. Jeffrey Long, talking about accounts of NDEs among the blind, that they are asking us to dip into or wallets. That’s not what we were saying. What we were saying is, when somebody asks you to dip into your wallet or give them money for something you should be sure of their intentions before you do so.

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