Ian Stevenson’s documentation of the afterlife

November 11, 2017 • 1:00 pm

For a long time I’ve heard about—and read about—psychiatrist Ian Stevenson‘s work on the afterlife, in particular his documentation of past-life experiences. For forty years, Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, tracked down cases in which people (usually children) seemed to remember very specific and accurate things about dead individuals, sometimes far away, that, he said, had no explanation other than the transmigration of those experiences between bodies. In other words, something about those memories lived on after death, and moved into the brains of others. That’s reincarnation.

Malgorzata called my attention to a 2013 post by Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering called “Ian Stephenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are we ‘skeptics’ really just cynics?” Bering, a science writer who specializes in evolutionary psychology, is Associate Professor at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He also seems to have somewhat of a weakness for the numinous, as evidenced by his Sci Am article on his mother’s “terminal lucidity” when she was supposed to be completely insensate while dying.

Stevenson collected 3,000 episodes of past-life remembering, usually in children—often poor Asian children remembering experiences of members of higher castes or socioeconomic groups. The work was published in his two-volume, 2300-page magnum opus, Reincarnation and Biology, recounting children with birthmarks and scars that could be attributed to experiences in their past “lives”.

And indeed, if you read accounts like the one below, produced by Stevenson and recounted by Bering, you get a creepy feeling that maybe something’s going on we don’t understand:

In Sri Lanka, a toddler one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of an obscure town (“Kataragama”) that the girl had never been to. The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her “dumb” (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named “Herath” who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground. Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground. The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t “Herath”—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out. The two families never met, nor did they have any friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances in common, so if you take it all at face value, the details couldn’t have been acquired in any obvious way.

This Sri Lankan case is one of Stevenson’s approximately 3000 such “past life” case reports from all over the world, and these accounts are in an entirely different kind of parapsychological ballpark than tales featuring a middle-aged divorcée in a tie-dyed tunic who claims to be the reincarnation of Pocahantas. More often than not, Stevenson could identify an actual figure that once lived based solely on the statements given by the child.

Bering also lauds Steven’s supposedly rigorous attempts to overcome any confirmation bias:

Some cases were much stronger than others, but I must say, when you actually read them firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means. Much of this is due to Stevenson’s own exhaustive efforts to disconfirm the paranormal account. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote. “If adversaries fire at us, let them use ammunition that we have given them.” And if truth be told, he excelled at debunking the debunkers.

In the end, Bering (remember, this is in Scientific American), doesn’t fully accept that there’s this kind of reincarnation, but doesn’t dismiss it, either:

I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is.

. . . “The mind is what the brain does,” I wrote in The Belief Instinct. “It’s more a verb than it is a noun. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead too?” Perhaps it’s not so obvious at all. I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open. Well, a tad, anyway.

And one reason he doesn’t dismiss it is because, asserted Bering (remember, this is 2013), scientists supposedly rejected Stevenson’s data out of hand because it didn’t jibe with their materialist perspective, so they never fully examined Stevenson’s claims. Bering add this (my emphasis):

I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? “The wish not to believe,” Stevenson once said, “can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.”

In fact, scientists did take Stevenson’s data seriously, well before 2013, but, upon examining them, found them to be a tissue full of gaping holes. It doesn’t take much sleuthing on the Internet to show the number of people who found these holes and debunked Stevenson’s claims, starting with the Wikipedia section on the reception of Stevenson’s claims. Stevenson was credulous, sloppy, overly reliant on hearsay, and hardly the tough-nosed skeptic Bering makes him out to be. Note that this bit, taken from Wikipedia, recounts debunking attempts before Bering wrote in 2013 that scientists hadn’t taken Stevenson’s claims seriously. I’ve put in bold one of the more serious issues:

Robert Baker wrote that many of the alleged past-life experiences investigated by Stevenson and other parapsychologists can be explained in terms of known psychological factors. Baker attributed the recalling of past lives to a mixture of cryptomnesia and confabulation.

Ian Wilson argued that a large number of Stevenson’s cases consisted of poor children remembering wealthy lives or belonging to a higher caste. He speculated that such cases may represent a scheme to obtain money from the family of the alleged former incarnation.

The philosopher C. T. K. Chari of Madras Christian College in Chennai, a specialist in parapsychology, argued that Stevenson was naive and that the case studies were undermined by his lack of local knowledge. Chari wrote that many of the cases had come from societies, such as that of India, where people believed in reincarnation, and that the stories were simply cultural artifacts; he argued that, for children in many Asian countries, the recall of a past life is the equivalent of an imaginary playmate. The philosopher Keith Augustine made a similar argument. Stevenson responded that it was precisely those societies that listened to children’s claims about past lives, which in Europe or North America would normally be dismissed without investigation.  To address the cultural concern, he wrote European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (2003), which presented forty cases he had examined in Europe.

The philosopher Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’Encyclopedia of Philosophy, became Stevenson’s chief critic. From 1986 onwards, he devoted several articles to Stevenson’s work, and discussed Stevenson in his Reincarnation: A Critical Examination(1996). He argued that Stevenson’s views were “absurd nonsense” and that when examined in detail his case studies had “big holes” and “do not even begin to add up to a significant counterweight to the initial presumption against reincarnation.” Stevenson, Edwards wrote, “evidently lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land.”

Champe Ransom, whom Stevenson hired as an assistant in the 1970s, wrote an unpublished report about Stevenson’s work, which Edwards cites in his Immortality (1992) and Reincarnation (1996). According to Ransom, Edwards wrote, Stevenson asked the children leading questions, filled in gaps in the narrative, did not spend enough time interviewing them, and left too long a period between the claimed recall and the interview; it was often years after the first mention of a recall that Stevenson learned about it. In only eleven of the 1,111 cases Ransom looked at had there been no contact between the families of the deceased and of the child before the interview; in addition, according to Ransom, seven of those eleven cases were seriously flawed. He also wrote that there were problems with the way Stevenson presented the cases, in that he would report his witnesses’ conclusions, rather than the data upon which the conclusions rested. Weaknesses in cases would be reported in a separate part of his books, rather than during the discussion of the cases themselves. Ransom concluded that it all amounted to anecdotal evidence of the weakest kind.

In Death and Personal Survival (1992), Almeder holds that Ransom was false in stating that there were only 11 cases with no prior contact between the two families concerned.. According to Almeder there were 23 such cases.

Even if there were 23 cases in which the families had no prior contact, that means that there was prior contact in 98% of these cases.  A scrupulous scientist would have at the outset eliminated cases where contact could have contaminated the “reincarnation”, leaving at most a sample of 23 rather than 1,111.

For more problema with Stevenson’s methods and conclusions, see the articles in the Skeptic’s Dictionary and SkepticReport,

What bothers me are two things: that this credulous account of Stevenson’s work was published in Scientific American, with no mention of any criticisms of Stevenson, and Bering’s false claim that scientists weren’t taking Stevenson’s data seriously, weren’t debating them, and weren’t even looking at them. That wasn’t true, even when Bering wrote his article four years ago.

Now we can’t simply say that Stevenson is wrong because we haven’t yet had evidence of reincarnation, and so it can’t occur. Some of his more intriguing cases should have been—and apparently were—examined by others, and refuted.  The prior probability of Stevenson being right was low, and now seems even lower, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Bering’s piece.  People love this stuff, of course, because it confirms their wish that something of us lives on after death, but we have to guard against this kind of confirmation bias. As Richard Feynman said about doing science, “. . . . you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Despite Bering’s dubious claim that Stevenson was a hard-nosed skeptic, Stevenson apparently fooled himself and Bering as well.