Michael Shermer is a skeptical of an afterlife, but he might have gone too far when mis-reporting one researchers evidence for near-death experience.
Details matter when if comes to science reporting.
Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko interviews Dr. Michael Shermer, author of The Moral Arc, about morality, and near-death experience science reporting.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, and author of The Moral Arc. During the interview Dr. Shermer discusses how his interpretation of a peer-reviewed near-death experience research paper outraged the researcher:
Alex Tsakiris: In the article you cited [Dr. Pim van Lommel’s] work and you said his research “delivered a blow to the idea that the mind and the brain could be separate.” Do you remember this whole thing?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Yes, of course and he wrote me and said, “I disagree. That is not what [the original] research means…” So we agreed to disagree. That’s how I read it.
Alex Tsakiris: But how can you “agree to disagree?” If you said his methods were wrong or that his conclusions were faulty, but what you did…
Dr. Michael Shermer: It’s not in the methods it’s in the interpretation of what [his research] means…
Alex Tsakiris: … but that’s his research…
Dr. Michael Shermer: … and I am skeptical of some of the methods of how they interpret experiences that people report having.
Alex Tsakiris: …but I think this gets at the issue a lot of people have with the skeptical/atheist community…it feels like there’s this pattern of disinformation/misinformation… when a guy reports research [findings] you can either say, I agree with the research, or I disagree… but you can’t say the research says [something different than what the researcher concluded].”
Additional excerpts from the interview are available below and a complete audio version of the show is available here and on youtube.com/skeptiko.
Read Excerpts From The Interview:
Dr. Shermer cites examples of extreme religious dogma and how certain ideas were reformed to appear concurrent with social issues such as the Civil Rights Movement– [3min.48sec-6min.02sec]
Alex Tsakiris: As a history of science buff, researcher-scholar, you do a great job of connecting these shifts in moral behavior that many of us have experienced through our lifetime: the reduction in sexism or the way we treat people who are gay or lesbian or have a different lifestyle. And I think what you do, and you do a real nice job of this in the book, is show how these kinds of shifts can’t really be traced back to religious breakthroughs. It’s not like somebody discovered some scroll in some cave and then said, “Gee, we should stop enslaving people.” But it really was through science and reason wasn’t it?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Yeah, absolutely. Although I should point out that the Mormon Church had a new revelation from God that polygamy was a bad idea after all right around the time that Utah wanted to become a state in the Union and the federal government said polygamy is illegal. And then they also had another revelation from God that African Americans are not as bad as they thought they were right when their sort of racist doctrines collided with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. And in 1978 God passed down a new ordinance saying, you know actually, African Americans are okay. Normally what religious people do is they just inculcate the expanding moral sphere that everybody else–the rising tide kind of brings along to everybody. And then they cherry pick passages in the Bible that sound more inclusive. So they’ll cite something like Moses saying you should be nice to Egyptians because you were once strangers in a strange land like they are here. But of course that’s tucked away amongst dozens of stories of rape and pillage and destruction, and murder and mayhem that Moses himself ordered his own people to perpetrate upon others. Or they’ll talk about Jesus being more expansive and more liberal, and nicer. And that’s true. He’s better than the Old Testament gods but those passages are themselves tucked away amongst passages that are anything but in the modern, liberal tradition. So it really does come from the invention of rights in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Citing renowned activists who made a profound impact on the collective thinking of their day, Dr. Shermer attributes their convictions to an innate drive toward autonomy as opposed to a higher calling–[9min.19sec-11min.28sec]
Alex Tsakiris: When these same people, you take Martin Luther King, who you referenced in the book. You reference that really we associate that term “The Moral Arc” with Martin Luther King but trace it back even further to theologian and Abolitionist Theodore Parker. Both those guys are saying, hey there is something more that I’m tapping into. It’s not just reason. It’s not just logic. There’s something more. Do we have to take those claims into consideration?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Well, historically they’re interesting, I guess. A lot of Dr. King’s language was very metaphorical. His speeches were so brilliant, so good because he’d wax very poetic using these biblical tropes, and religious phrases and sayings from songs, and previous speeches. He was so good at that. But again none of that really matters. What matters is what are the arguments that were made to persuade people? To change their minds about African Americans and Civil Rights? That’s what we care about. And that’s where I identify the actual rights language: that people should be treated equally under the law. Where does that come from? Or that no person should be a means to an end but are ends in of themselves. That’s Immanuel Kant.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay but where does that come from? I guess in the book you make the case and trace it back to evolution and the behavior of social primates. That’s ultimately where you come down in terms of where it comes from, right?
Dr. Michael Shermer: I do, yes. I say that my moral starting point is the survival and flourishing of sentient beings – individual sentient beings. Not groups; not races; not genders; not nations and states and collectives of any kind, but the individual. The Bill of Rights is designed to protect individuals from being discriminated against as a member of a group. It doesn’t matter what religion you are–race, creed, color, whatever–you’re an individual and by virtue of being human, you have these natural rights. So I’m definitely a natural rights person not a utilitarian.
Dr. Shermer addresses the 2003 article he wrote for Scientific American that disputed Dr. Pim van Lommel’s findings on near-death experiences–[20min.28sec-23min.36sec]
Alex Tsakiris: I sent out the announcement to Skeptiko listeners. The number one question I got back to ask you, and I think it’s relevant to the latest bit of conversation we were just having, they said ask him about the piece he wrote in Scientific American, March 2003, in which you cited a paper from Dr. Pim van Lommel, a near-death-experience researcher who published we should say in one of the top medical journals in the world in 2001. In the article that you wrote, you cited his work and you said that his research delivered a blow to the idea that the mind and the brain could be separate. Do you remember this whole thing?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Yes, of course and he wrote me and said, “I disagree. That is not what my research means…” So we agreed to disagree. That’s how I read it.
Alex Tsakiris: But how can you agree to disagree? If you said his methods were wrong or that his conclusions were faulty.
Dr. Michael Shermer: It’s not in the methods it’s in the interpretation of what it means. And I am skeptical of some of the methods of how they interpret experiences that people report having because there is a little grey area there. There is a little fuzziness or subjectivity in how those reports are interpreted. That part–it’s not that he’s wrong so much as that there’s different ways to interpret what those experiences actually mean.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, maybe inside of that but I think this gets at the issue I think a lot of people have with the skeptical-atheist community. After a while it feels like there’s this pattern of disinformation/misinformation because when a guy reports the research you can either say, I disagree with the research or I disagree with the methods. But you can’t say, oh what that research says is this.
Dr. Michael Shermer: Yes you can. Of course you can. The whole point of the discussion section at the end of a paper, that’s where the boldness of the researcher and the counter-arguments of the critics, that’s where all the action is. That’s where it comes. How do you interpret the data? What kind of model are you using? So for example, Oliver Sacks has written several critical pieces of that very research. That, and other pieces of research saying no, it does not mean what these guys think it means. I think it means the following… And he makes the case that, if you read any of his books, the experiences that these people have are clearly tied to neurochemical imbalances, damages to the brain, strokes and tumors. Stuff like that. And that if you knock out a part of the brain, the temporal lobe, the function part that was there is gone. Well, where’d it go? Like with a split-brain patient, there should be now two sources of consciousness, not one. Does that mean there’s two conscious brains floating around somewhere in the ether somewhere?
With the accumulated research (similar to van Lommel’s) that suggests consciousness precedes the brain and is the fundamental component of the universe, Dr. Shermer refutes the idea this can be measured by science with no tangible evidence to support it–[29min.56.sec-32min.29sec]
Alex Tsakiris: Many researchers as well as philosophers have suggested that maybe in some way consciousness is fundamental. A lot of folks in the atheist community are into a very secular version of Buddhism and meditation. Sam Harris of course, is. The basic thought philosophy behind that is purely that: that consciousness is fundamental. Conscsiousness is the source and that the matter that we’re measuring as scientists is looking in the wrong end of the telescope because it originates with consciousness.
Dr. Michael Shermer: For your listeners I should point out that most neuroscientists do not agree with that. You can find some. You cited UCLA and other places. Yes, okay. That’s fine. But [there’s] Christof Koch at the Allen Institute, formerly at Caltech. Sam Harris does not agree with Deepak in that argument that consciousness is the fundamental property of the universe. He does not think that. Even though he–where he goes with his own theories on consciousness and meditation, and spirituality are quite different than most atheists. He’s still not in that camp. He’s not in the Deepak Chopra camp. He definitely disagrees with that. So that brings us back to where you start with a worldview: if you start with consciousness is fundamental to the universe you’re going to end up somewhere different than if you start off with saying consciousness is a just product of brains.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Or you can just start with the data and just try and sift through the data and see where it falls.
Dr. Michael Shermer: I’m not sure you can do that. I’m not sure that the data indicate for sure, one way or the other. Although I make the case in another column in Scientific American–I think I call it “Aunt Millie’s Mind” because I asked Deepak one time at one of his conferences, where does Aunt Millie’s mind go when her brain dies of Alzheimer’s? We know that the neurons die one by one and as they go, her mind guess Her memory goes. Her personality shrinks and disappears and pretty soon, she’s just gone. Well, where did it go? If it exists separate from brains, why does it tie to the brain neuron by neuron, and where is it? Now Deepak’s answer was, “Well Aunt Millie’s mind returned to where it began,” [or] the cosmic consciousness. I forget the phrase that he used but it was something like what you’re talking about. Well, how would you test that? You can assert it. You can make an assertion that’s where it goes but how do we know?
Alex offers a noteworthy addendum to his interview with Dr. Shermer that points to a gaping hole in his evaluation of near-death research–[37min.55sec-42min-50sec]:
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Dr. Shermer for joining me today on Skeptiko. I have one question to tee-up from this interview: I could actually have a long, long list of questions including one about Dr. Shermer’s casual dismissal of all experiences that might ever be discovered that are paranormal as being incorporated into our natural world view once we have a way of measuring and explaining them. Boy, talk about the promissory note of materialism and the idea that we should have faith that Dr. Shermer’s science-as-we-know-it will figure everything out if we just give them enough time. But I’m not going to focus on that question or any of my other ones because I want to focus on one question — a big, complicated question to tee-up from this interview and it centers around this very troubling situation with the article he wrote in Scientific American. The article was titled “Demon-Haunted Brain.” It was published in the March 2003 issue of Scientific American. In it Dr. Shermer reported on this research by renowned near-death-experience researcher Dr. Pim van Lommel who is a cardiologist in the Netherlands; who studied this phenomena extensively for many, many years with a number of patients across a number of hospitals and came to the conclusion that a conventional explanations for near death experiences was not possible.
To this, Dr. Shermer wrote his article and said that van Lommel’s research delivered a blow to the idea that mind and brain could be separate. Now, the question is, do you think this crosses the line in terms of science journalism? Or do you think, as Dr. Shermer positioned it in this interview, that it’s just the discussion session? It’s just his analysis of it. I have to jump in here and offer up my opinion because I think it goes way over the line. It would be like me saying that Dr. Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, delivers a blow against the idea that religion hasn’t played a role in defining our moral character as a country because he cites religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King as being influential in defining our morals. Of course, it’s true. He does cite Dr. Martin Luther King, but his conclusion of course is exactly the opposite. It’s that Dr. King’s religiosity isn’t what’s important. And instead it’s his ideas, reason, thinking, logic that’s important. Well the question is, do I have an obligation to point out that even though I’m using evidence from his book, the opinion I’m drawing is exactly the opposite? Well this isn’t how I [look] at the situation in 2003 with Dr. van Lommel. Dr. van Lommel’s conclusion after all of his research, after compiling all of this data, and presenting this data in a peer-reviewed journal was the opposite of what Dr. Shermer reported on.
So I think there’s some room for maybe some disagreement on this. A reporter does have a right to analyze and offer opinions. But I do think there’s a certain obligation to make it clear when their opinions vary that sharply from the findings of scientific research, particularly in this case where you have a peer-reviewed, very tightly presented bit of research. So I think it’s noteworthy that he still can’t back down from that. He can’t see any problem with that. And in spite of the fact that scores of research has been published since then, corroborating exactly what Dr. van Lommel concluded, he’s still holding to this position. But we might even ask the larger question, and I think this is the gaping hole in the atheist-skeptical view of the world: why the heck does Dr. Shermer care so much about near-death experience anyway? His strongest points are his points against religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism. He somehow, as has atheism in general and skeptics in general, created this strange brew of science and religion that has evolved into their own crazy creed that no one could really take seriously. After all, who really believes they’re a biological robot leading a meaningless life in a meaningless universe?
Michael, only the most desperate church haters can swallow that stuff. Oops, there I go after my olive branch offering at the beginning of this episode towards the atheists and their valid points about religious orthodoxy. I’m pulling that olive branch back and beating him over the head with it a little bit. But in this case, I think it’s warranted. What do you think? Tell me.
Photo by D Wallis
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