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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Junk Logic of a “Junk Science” Accusation

Regular readers of this blog may know that I sometimes criticize some scientists for various things such as herd thinking, being too infatuated with heavy hardware projects, jumping the gun in interpreting preliminary results, having too much hubris in regard to the level of their understanding, engaging in dubious speculations or overselling such speculations, or being too narrow-minded in excluding various unexplained phenomena. But these minor sins are no doubt outweighed by the virtues of the typical scientist. Let me make clear that all in all, I think almost all scientists are fine people who do excellent work.

This is why I don't like to see a group of scientists get smeared by a dubious hatchet job. One such lamentable putdown we see today is when global warming deniers claim that scientists are faking their results in order to get more grant money from the government. This story has little plausibility. With a world of exciting things to research, with 1001 potential possibilities for research, why would someone need to fake something to come up with a compelling research grant proposal?

While mentioning dubious smear jobs against a group of scientists, I should also mention yesterday's blog post on the site realclearscience.com, one which featured an attack against a large distinguished team of scientists and doctors. The post in question listed the AWARE study of near-death experiences on a list of “The Biggest Junk Science of 2014.” Now the term “junk science” is an incendiary term. As the hillbilly expression goes, “them's fightin' words.” By accusing this study of “junk science,” realclearscience.com is impugning the reputations of every single author of this study.

How many authors were there? Let me list them. They were Sam Parnia, Ken Spearpoint, Gabriele de Vos, Peter Fenwick, Diana Goldberg, Jie Yang, Jiawen Zhu, Katie Baker, Hayley Killingback, Paula McLean, Melanie Wood, A. Maziar Zafari, Neal Dickert, Roland Beisteiner, Fritz Sterz, Michael Berger, Celia Warlow, Siobhan Bullock,Salli Lovett, Russell Metcalfe Smith McPara, Sandra Marti-Navarette, Pam Cushing, Paul Wills, Kayla Harris, Jenny Sutton, Anthony Walmsley, Charles D. Deakin, Paul Little, Mark Farber, Bruce Greyson, and Elinor R. Schoenfeld. This is a very distinguished group of scientists, medical doctors, and PhD's which hail from leading institutions such as Emory University Medical School, the University of Virginia, and Stony Brook Medical Center. So charging a lineup such as this of doing “junk science” is quite an amazing charge. Does realclearscience.com have any evidence or reasoning to back this charge up?

No, they don't. But realclearscience.com has made up some stuff. Referring to the AWARE study, their post states the following:

The researchers behind the study interviewed 140 survivors of cardiac arrest, and apparently one of those people reported memories of events during the cardiac arrest while they were unconscious. The researchers considered this lone instance strong evidence for a near-death experience in which the conscious mind or spirit separates from the body.

There are two misrepresentations here. First, the authors of the AWARE study did not at all claim that any of their findings are “strong evidence for a near-death experience in which the conscious mind or spirit separates from the body.Some of their findings may actually be such evidence, but the authors have not at all drawn any such conclusion. They've made no conclusion at all about whether the mind or spirit ever does separate from the body. Secondly, rather than the researchers finding only one near-death experience, a single “lone instance” out of 140, they reported that 9% of the 140 reported near-death experiences. For example, besides a case of a 57-year-old person who reported floating out of his body and witnessing doctor's attempts to revive him (with details that were corroborated), the study reported a case of a person who reported a very vivid “trip to heaven” kind of near-death experience.

So realclearscience.com misrepresents the facts. Now what do they say to back up their claims of “junk science”? They complain that the interviews with the people who had the near-death experiences were conducted “days, weeks, or even months” after the cardiac interest, and claim that therefore the memories were likely “heavily altered.”

This is junk reasoning. Almost all testimony made in our legal  system is made “days, weeks, or even months” after the reported event. We rely on such reports so much that we send people to jail for life if a particular report identifies someone as a murderer. There is no reason to think that testimony of cardiac arrest experiences made “days, weeks, or even months” after an event will be any more “heavily altered” than any other testimony made of a past occurrence. If we followed the implications of this reasoning – that testimony made a while after an event cannot be relied on – then we would have to free most of the murderers now in prison, who are there typically because of eyewitness testimony made recalling events that occurred months earlier.

The strongest part of the AWARE study was the testimony of a 57 year-old man who reported floating out of his body during a cardiac arrest, and observing medical persons trying to revive him. The study reports the case as follows:

A 57 year old man described the perception of observing events from the top corner of the room and continued to experience a sensation of looking down from above. He accurately described people, sounds, and activities from his resuscitation (Table 2 provides quotes from this interview). His medical records corroborated his accounts and specifically supported his descriptions and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED)

The post at realclearscience.com tries to support their charge that this is junk science by quoting a neuroscientist who makes the following farfetched claim:

We need to consider what the odds are that one of the 140 people would have a memory (almost certainly contaminated, as no procedure was in place to prevent contamination) that matched events during cardiac arrest in some arbitrary details. This certainly sound [sic] consistent with random background noise in the data, and is therefore not evidence of anything.

You need only read the AWARE paper to see that this insinuation of “random coincidental agreement” is  implausible. The 57-year-old reported that while floating above his body he saw a chunky fellow (with a bald head, a blue hat, and blue scrubs) working on reviving him, a nurse saying “dial 444 cardiac arrest,” a nurse pumping on his chest, his blood pressure being taken, and his blood gases and blood sugar levels being taken. So I can answer the “what are the odds” question raised by the neuroscientist.

The odds of anyone having a memory of his experiences during the middle of a cardiac arrest are very low, because people lose consciousness during a cardiac arrest. Given a million people suffering a cardiac arrest, we might expect that only a very few of them (or perhaps none of them) would have any memory of having lived through the experience. Assuming that some of these hallucinated, we would not expect that any (or more than one or two) of this small number would make a report of having floated out of their body (as there are a 1001 possible hallucinations one can have, almost all not involving floating out of the body). And we certainly would not expect that even 1 in a million would give an account of floating out of his body, with the results being verified. The case is therefore very strong evidence of something important, and cannot with any credibility be portrayed as “random background noise in the data” that is “not evidence of anything.” As for the neurologist's comments trying to raise a suspicion about “contamination” (without supplying any supporting facts), it's the same shady trick used by the O.J. Simpson lawyers.

Does realclearscience.com give any other reasoning to back up its incendiary charge that a major scientific study is “junk science​?” No, it doesn't. Their attack is therefore a dud. It's kind of like when some gunman pulls out a gun and fires it at someone without killing him, because the gunman forgot to load the gun. Such an event shows great hostility and clumsiness, but doesn't have any force. 

Will you one day view your body like this?