Who Will Watch the Watchers?

This article is adapted from a five-part series of blog posts that began here. It was updated with an addendum on October 17, 2009.


Some skeptics have set themselves up as the gatekeepers of science, the sentinels who will keep out false or invalid information and hypotheses while protecting proper, scientific methodology and conclusions. It may not be a coincidence that the largest skeptical organization in the world was known until recently as CSICOP, which is pronounced psi-cop. The skeptics are the cops on the beat, protecting science (and a gullible public) from charlatans, tricksters, and urban legends.

But of course when a group of people set themselves up as the guardians of truth, an age-old problem emerges. Who will check to make sure that the guardians themselves are truthful and trustworthy? Who will watch the watchers?

In this regard, it's instructive to look at a well-known skeptical analysis of a famous near-death experience. The experience itself was reported by Seattle social worker Kimberly Clark. It involved a migrant farm worker named Maria who, during cardiac arrest at Harborview Medical Center, purportedly left her body and observed various details of the hospital, most notably a running shoe that had been left (inexplicably) on a third floor ledge.

The complete story is told at the Survival Top Forty site, though it is not listed as one of the top forty cases. You can read it here (PDF).

The only detailed rebuttal of the case, as far as I know, was offered by three skeptical researchers, who published an article called "Maria's near-death experience: waiting for the other shoe to drop," in the July/August 1996 edition of Skeptical Inquirer, CSICOP's magazine. The researchers are Hayden Ebbern, Sean Mulligan, and Barry L. Beyerstein. (Unfortunately the article no longer seems to be online.)

Not having visited Seattle and investigated for myself, I would not presume to say what actually happened at the Harborview. What I would like to do is submit the above article to the same kind of "skeptical" critique that it would surely receive had it been written to endorse Kimberly Clark's account. The article is long, and this analysis will be lengthy, as well. It will appear in multiple parts.

Remember, I don't claim to know the facts of the case. My point is to apply the standards used by the skeptical authors to their own claims.

Before we get into the debunking article itself, though, let's read a passage from a different article by Barry Beyerstein that appeared (PDF file) in the Rational Enquirer: The  Skeptics' Newsletter for Western Canada (March 2002). Beyerstein writes,

Along with two of my students, Hayden Ebbern and Sean Mulligan, we examined the Maria case to see if it could support all the weight the near death studies movement places upon it. Sean and Hayden travelled several times to Seattle, where the event took place. They visited the hospital and interviewed the social worker who assisted Maria after her NDE. The social worker was Kimberly Clark who has gone on to prominence in the near-death studies movement and written yet another best-selling NDE book based on supposedly verified facts from the Maria case. Hayden and Sean also attended a meeting of local NDE enthusiasts and engaged them in conversation. They came away with the clear impression that these people were scientifically illiterate and far more interested in bolstering their religious beliefs than they were in getting to the truth of the matter.

Note first the disparaging tone adopted by the author. Near-death studies is a "movement." Kimberly Clark has written "yet another" bestseller about NDEs. People interested in NDEs are "enthusiasts." Moreover, these enthusiasts are "scientifically illiterate" and only interested in their "religious beliefs," not in "the truth."

Note also that it was two students, Ebbern and Mulligan, who got "the clear impression" that the NDE group were scientifically illiterate. It would be interesting to know what sort of scientific background, training, and credentials the students themselves had. It would also be interesting to know their qualifications for determining someone else's scientific literacy and psychological motivations. Were they trained psychologists? 

Finally, note that Beyerstein sets up a clear dichotomy. There are the pro-NDE people, who are scientifically illiterate, highly religious, part of a movement with an agenda, and probably motivated by personal profit (writing bestsellers). Then there are the skeptics, who apparently suffer  from none of these liabilities. They are evidently not part of a movement, have no agenda, and do not want to publish commercially successful books. They have no religious (or anti-religious ) views to promote, and of course it goes without saying that they are scientifically sophisticated and knowledgeable.

Yet where is the evidence for any of these implications? An objective observer, I suspect, would regard the organized skeptical community as very much a "movement" with an agenda. Many skeptics have written and published books, and presumably they hoped for bestseller status even if few have achieved it. Many skeptics display a deep-seated hostility toward religion. (The same issue of the Rational Enquirer that carried Beyerstein's article carries this quote from comedian Richard Jeni on religious warfare: "You're basically killing each other to see who's got the better imaginary friend.") And we have already seen that the Maria case was investigated by "students," whose level of scientific training and knowledge is unknown.

If a parapsychologist said that he'd sent some "students" to visit a CSICOP meeting, and the students came away with "the clear impression" that the CSICOP people were scientifically illiterate and only interested in bolstering their materialist belief system, skeptics would surely cry foul. Then why is it okay when the skeptics themselves use these tactics? 

Now let's turn to the main subject: the Skeptical Inquirer article that attempts to debunk Kimberly Clark's report of Maria's NDE.

The first thing that struck me about this article is that roughly half of its content (excluding footnotes) consists of general comments debunking the whole idea of life after death. The article begins with a Woody Allen quote: "I'm not afraid to die; I just don't want to be there when it happens." This may seem like no more than a humorous aside, but actually it is a key part of the article's general tactic of suggesting that anyone who endorses a nonmaterialistic interpretation of NDEs is motivated by fear of death. Since people will allegedly do anything to rationalize away such a fear, their beliefs about NDEs are inherently untrustworthy.

Right after the Woody Allen quote, the authors say smugly, "Skeptics enter most debates at a disadvantage because they are usually forced to cast doubt on comforting beliefs." Already we see the clear implication that the skeptic is the clearsighted individual "forced" (by whom?) to undermine "comforting beliefs" -- i.e., beliefs that supply reassurance to people enervated by fear of death, but which cannot be supported by any logic or evidence. The authors go on to quote Susan Blackmore, hardly an unbiased source, as saying that "NDEs provide no evidence for life after death, and we can best understand them by looking at neurochemistry, physiology, and psychology." The authors themselves opine, "NDEs are only one example of episodes in which the brain's construction of reality breaks down temporarily."

So it is clear that the authors, whatever claims to objectivity they may like to make, have already dismissed NDEs as evidence for postmortem survival. They entered this controversial area of research with their minds apparently made up in advance. If a promoter of a nonmaterialistic interpretation of NDEs were to start an article by exhibiting such obvious bias, skeptics would undoubtedly object. But I guess it's okay when the skeptics themselves do it.

The authors' review of the case against the afterlife has only just begun. Before they continue, they take time to say, "Virtually every book retelling this now-familiar story [of the NDE] achieves best-seller status and reads substantial rewards for its author." If only this were true, there would be a sure road to riches for all of us struggling scriveners. But of course this statement is mere hyperbole; of the hundreds of titles published about NDEs, only a handful have become bestsellers. Skeptics routinely criticize their opponents for exaggerating. Is it all right for the skeptics to exaggerate?

The authors then cite James Alcock for his views on "why the will to believe so readily overcomes the desire to examine the evidence critically." This, of course, goes back to the overriding motif of the article, which is that fear of death overwhelms any ability to think rationally. Now suppose that an anti-skeptic were to say that the skeptics' fear of the paranormal is so intense that it overrides their ability to think critically or to deal with the evidence in a logical and fair-minded manner. You can just hear the skeptics howl. Again we see the double standard; the skeptics feel free to disparage the motivations and psychology of their opponents, but their opponents are not free to return the favor.

The authors then claim that the founders of the Society for Psychical Research were "disturbed by the implications of modern science for their Christian worldview," a view that hardly accords with the facts. (See Ghost Hunters, by Deborah Blum, for a thorough overview of the Society's founders.) Most of the principal players in the Society were not believing Christians, and the evidence they found did not necessarily support Christian orthodoxy. But this questionable interpretation of their motives allows the authors to continue their theme that parapsychologists and others sympathetic to the idea of an afterlife are motivated by deep-seated fears and religious biases. Notice that the authors seem entirely blind to the obvious riposte that skeptics, like anyone else, are likely to have hidden motivations and biases of their own. Apparently, in the authors' worldview, skeptics are miraculously free of all prejudice, bias, wishful thinking, fear, and other distortions of the critical faculty; they can see the world is it really is, without delusion or error; while the rest of mankind are hopelessly lost in credulousness and gullibility, which are grounded in irrational fears.

In pointing out that more NDEs are being reported today than ever before, the authors say, "This is likely due to vast improvements in emergency medicine, coupled with a worldwide resurgence of religious fundamentalism." What religious fundamentalism has to do with anything is an interesting question. Actually, of course, the content of most NDEs runs counter to the dogma of religious fundamentalism, and many religious fundamentalists accordingly have claimed that NDEs are the work of the devil -- specifically, that the "being of light" encountered by many NDErs is really Satan in disguise. There are some religious fundamentalists who have endorsed the NDE as a legitimate religious/spiritual experience, but there are many others who have not. Why, then, even bring up the matter? Well, because it allows the authors to again hammer home their point that people who take NDEs seriously are driven by religious attitudes (with the unstated inference that anyone with a religious attitude is inherently untrustworthy as an observer or analyst).

For the sake of argument, let's say that this is true. People who have strong religious beliefs cannot be trusted to look at the evidence with any degree of objectivity. If so, then we need to keep in mind that religious belief cuts both ways. The absolute, dogmatic insistence that there is no God, no immortal soul, no afterlife, no higher power, no higher meaning or purpose to the universe is itself a religious attitude, characterized even by some of its own adherents as not just atheism but "anti-theism." Skeptics who adhere to this position, as many (but not all) of them do, are every bit as "religious" as the fundamentalists they disparage. If strong feelings about religion impair one's critical faculty, then the militantly anti-religious skeptics are every bit as impaired as their fundamentalist opponents. Skeptics, blind to their own biases, consistently overlook this obvious point.

"The concept of immortality is, in the final analysis, a metaphysical proposition that can only be accepted or rejected on faith," the authors say. This presumably means that any investigation into the empirical facts that might support life after death is doomed from the outset. Yet the authors undertook such an investigation, and they want us to believe they did so with an open mind. Indeed, at the end of their article, they have the hubris to claim that they were "disappointed" that the case didn't turn out to be as strong as it initially appeared. Anyone who believes the authors were genuinely disappointed by their alleged ability to debunk this case should call me; I have some high-quality swamp land in Florida for sale.

The authors go on to tell us that "a field known as 'near-death studies' has emerged with the thinly veiled agenda of providing a scientific gloss for religious views of an afterlife." This field is contrasted with "anomalistic psychology," which "seeks naturalistic explanations for various seemingly supernatural states of consciousness based on sound psychological and neurophysiological research." So there you have it. On the one hand, there are near-death studies, a quasi-religious movement with a hidden agenda, while on the other hand, there it is anomalistic psychology, based on "sound" research. Imagine if a parapsychologist were to summarize the situation in an equivalent fashion, saying that there is a field known as near-death studies, based on sound research, and another field, anomalistic psychology, which has a "thinly veiled agenda of providing a scientific gloss for philosophical materialism." Skeptics would probably say that this characterization is grossly unfair. Is it any less unfair when they indulge in the same tactics?

Still continuing with their overview of the general issue of life after death, the authors assert, "To accept notions such as survival after death, disembodied spirits, and a host of other parapsychological phenomena, one must also adopt some form of the philosophical doctrine known as 'dualism.' " The only reason for including this philosophical aside seems to be the authors' belief that dualism has been so thoroughly discredited that linking psi phenomena to it will discredit psi - sort of a guilt-by-association tactic. Actually, it is not necessary to endorse dualism in order to believe in psi. There are other options, including the view that everything that exists is ultimately a manifestation of consciousness ("idealism"), or that both consciousness and physical reality are both manifestations of an underlying plane of existence that incorporates aspects of both ("neutral monism"). In any event, whatever philosophical problems may be raised by the idea of psi are irrelevant to an objective appraisal of the evidence. Once again, the authors seem to have allowed their philosophical presuppositions to bias them in advance of even considering the empirical facts.

In an attempt to deal with the verifiable memories that NDErs frequently report during their period of unconsciousness, the authors assert, "During [cardiopulmonary arrest], the brain undergoes several biochemical and physiological changes, but by relying on its limited backup of stored oxygen and metabolic fuels, certain aspects of consciousness can be sustained, albeit in a somewhat degraded fashion. Thus, it is not surprising that there might be some residual memories from the time that one was dying, but not yet clinically dead."

Among the many problems with this explanation is the fact that some NDEs have occurred when the patient was indeed "clinically dead" - showing not only no heart activity, but no brain activity as well. Moreover, the higher-level brain functions are the first ones to shut down in a medical crisis, and yet it is precisely the higher-level functions that would be required in order to construct a coherent narrative out of detailed observations.

Of course, there are also many reports of NDErs who perceived details that cannot be explained by any form of normal sensory perception. Maria's NDE is one such case. Finally, after this long and most irrelevant philosophical overview, which exists only to bias the reader against NDEs, the authors get around to dealing with the Seattle case itself.

"In 1994," the article continues,

Hayden Ebbern and Sean Mulligan traveled to Seattle to visit the sites where the events surrounding Maria's NDE transpired and had several conversations with Kimberly Clark, who first reported the incident. They also attended a meeting of the support group Clark founded for people who have experienced NDE.

This is, I guess, the same group that Beyerstein disparaged in his Rational Enquirer article as "scientifically illiterate." But why should a support group for medical patients who have undergone near-death experiences be evaluated by this standard? If Beyerstein or his students visited a support group for alcoholics or overeaters, would they object that the group members did not show a sophisticated grasp of quantum mechanics and superstring theory?

The authors go on to summarize the case, pointing out that in her NDE Maria, who was suffering a cardiac arrest at the time and had to be resuscitated by an emergency rescue team, saw "chart paper streaming from the machines monitoring her vital signs ... the emergency room driveway ... [and] details such as that the [E.R.] doors opened inward, that the emergency entrance is reached by a one-way road, and that the road had a curve in it." Although Maria's room overlooked the emergency entrance, Clark told the researchers that "Maria could not have seen the driveway area from her window because it is obscured by a canopy over the entrance. And furthermore, Clark asserted, Maria had been restrained by various lines attaching her to the physiological monitors, making it doubtful she could leave her bed to look out the window."

Before we proceed to the central issue of the shoe, let's see how the authors respond to these points. They do so by speculating freely. In the quotes that follow, the underlined emphases are added by me.

Maria could have been familiar with the hospital equipment and procedures. So, like other parts of the typical NDEs, it is quite possible that [her view of the streaming chart paper] was merely a visual memory incorporated into the hallucinatory world that is often formed by a sensory-deprived and oxygen-starved brain.

Now, is there any actual evidence to suggest that Maria, a migrant farm worker, was "familiar with the hospital equipment and procedures"? How many migrant workers who perform stoop labor are familiar with such things? How many people of any non-medical background were familiar with such details back in 1977, when Maria's NDE took place?

Not pausing to consider these obvious objections, the authors proceed to Maria's vision of the emergency entrance.

A bit of reflection upon standard hospital design suggests that Maria reported nothing more than what common sense would dictate. It would strike most people as logical that the doors of a hospital emergency room would open inward as it would be awkward for paramedics to have to negotiate doors that open toward them.

Again, where is the evidence to support the notion that this migrant farm worker had the knowledge and sophistication necessary to reflect "upon standard hospital design"?

Perhaps sensing the weakness of this argument, the authors quickly add,

Maria may have picked up more direct knowledge of the scene than she was aware of, for she had been brought into the hospital through this entrance ... Although it was dark when Maria arrived, the area is well-lighted. Even if she hadn't been fully conscious and able to observe the scene as she was trundled through it (hospital officials would not confirm Maria's level of consciousness upon arrival), it only makes sense to require a one-way traffic in such areas.

Let's remember that Maria was brought in at night, in an ambulance, while suffering a heart attack. She was then hastily unloaded from the ambulance and pushed into the emergency room. She may have been unconscious at the time. She was certainly in acute distress. These are hardly the ideal circumstances under which to reconnoiter the environment.

Again possibly sensing the weakness of the argument, the authors quickly try a different tack.

Giving Clark the benefit of the doubt when she suggests that never once did Maria catch a glimpse of the entrance area beneath her window, it is still not far-fetched to assume that she could have gained some sense of the traffic flow from the sounds of the ambulances coming and going. At night, reflections of vehicle lights can also supply similar clues.

What seems to have been left out of this account is that it is not necessary to give Kimberly Clark "the benefit of the doubt," as the authors are so charitably inclined to do. According to Clark's report, there was a canopy over the entrance area which would have screened this location from Maria's view, even if she had been able to get to the window. The authors mentioned this detail earlier, but seem to have forgotten it already. Or do they think Clark was lying about a canopy? If so, it should have been easy enough for them to find out if the hospital had such a feature in 1977.

So what do we have here? Maria "could have" known about hospital equipment and hospital design, even though her background as a migrant worker makes this rather unlikely. She "could have" observed various details of the emergency room entrance, even though she was brought there in the back of an ambulance and was rushed inside while in acute distress. She "could have" observed some of the same details from her hospital room window, even though she was restricted to her bed and a canopy obscured her view of the lower levels.

Apparently the authors are satisfied that this hodgepodge of explanations has resolved the more mundane aspects of the case. "Most parts of Maria's account are neither unique nor convincing," they conclude. A reader who is skeptical of such ad hoc skeptical rationalizations might not be equally persuaded. In any event, we are still left with the issue of the shoe.

Maria, the authors report,

went on to describe being distracted again, this time by something on a third floor, outside window ledge at the north side of the hospital. Maria said she "thought her way" up to the object and discovered that it was a shoe. She described it as a large tennis shoe that was worn at the small toe and sitting with a shoelace tucked under the heel. Maria then asked Clark to search for the shoe as a way of verifying that her spirit had really been out of her body.

According to her own account, Clark could not see any shoe on the ledge from ground level. But when she went inside and began looking out the windows on the third floor, she eventually saw the tennis shoe -- though she was able to see it only by pressing her face to the glass. From that angle, she could not see the shoelace or the small toe. She was convinced that Maria could have known about the shoe and seen those details only from a perspective outside the window, looking down on the ledge.

How did Ebbern and Mulligan investigate the critical matter of the shoe?

They placed a running shoe of their own at the place Clark described and then went outside the hospital to observe what was visible from ground level. They were astonished at the ease with which they could see and identify the shoe.

Clark's claim that the shoe would have been invisible from ground level outside the hospital is all the more incredible because the investigators' viewpoint was considerably inferior to what Clark's would have been seventeen years earlier. That is because, in 1994, there was new construction under way beneath the window in question and this forced Ebbern and Mulligan to view the shoe from a much greater distance ...

The construction site had been, until 1994, a parking lot and patient recreation area. Thus, back in 1997, many people in this high-traffic area would have had the opportunity to get a better view of a shoe on the ledge than we had.

Moreover, the authors continue,

They easily placed their running shoe on the ledge from inside one of the rooms and it was clearly visible from various points within the room. There was no need whatsoever for anyone to press his or her face against the glass to see the shoe....

Having visited the scene ourselves, we determined that one did not need to be pressed against the glass to see the issue, but we did find that by assuming that position it would have been easy to discern the additional details that so impressed Clark. Looking down from that angle at the shoe we place on the ledge, we had no difficulty seeing the shoe's allegedly hidden outer side.

So we have a clear discrepancy between Clark's account of the shoe and that of the two student investigators. It seems to me that there are two ways of resolving this discrepancy:

1. Clark's account is simply wrong, either because of dishonesty or because she has unwittingly embellished the story over the years. Or ...

2. Ebbern and Mulligan did not put the shoe in exactly the same place where Clark says she found it 17 years earlier.

The authors obviously want us to accept the first option and do not even mention the second one. Yet the second possibility cannot be ruled out. If we skip ahead just a bit in the Skeptical Inquirer article, we find the authors observing in a different context, "As far as we were able to ascertain, Clark never photographed the shoe on the ledge." They also take pains to report that "Clark has not produced notes or recordings from her interviews with Maria."

Now, if Clark did not take any photographs of the shoe in situ, nor did she make any contemporaneous notes or records, then how did the students know where to place the shoe? The article tells us that they put it on the ledge "at the place Clark described." The article does not say that Clark accompanied the students and pointed specifically to where the shoe should be placed. It appears that the students were relying on Clark's verbal description alone.

It should be obvious that the visibility of the shoe, either from the ground or from a window, would vary tremendously depending on exactly where and how it was placed. For instance, if it was right up alongside the wall of the building, perhaps it would not be visible from the ground. Or if it was some distance away from the window, perhaps the telltale details would not be seen even when pressing one's face to the glass.

One detail the authors offer inadvertently lends credence to the thesis that they put their shoe in a  more visible position than the original. When they returned to the hospital "one week after placing the shoe on the ledge, the shoe had been removed, proving that it was also discernible to someone not specifically looking for it."

No doubt it was. But if the original shoe, back in 1977, was equally visible, then why wasn't it removed from the ledge before Kimberly Clark hunted it down? If people could see the shoe from both outside and inside the hospital, and it was easily retrievable, then what was it still doing there when Maria had her NDE?

The bottom line is that we have no reason to assume that the student researchers put the shoe in exactly the same place where it was found 17 years earlier. Without photographic records or detailed notes, and without Kimberly Clark's direct participation in the recreation, they could rely only on guesswork. And yet on the basis of their guesswork, they were willing to call into question Clark's recollection of the entire event.

And they were willing to do more than that. The supposed visibility of the shoe both from the ground and from the window is the key to the authors' explanation of Maria's NDE.

It is not a far-fetched notion to assume that anyone who might have noticed the shoe back in 1977 would have commented on it because of the novelty of its location. Thus, during the three days prior to her NDE, Maria could have overheard such a conversation among any of the doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, or other hospital staff who frequented this busy area....

[Moreover] it is apparent that many people inside as well as outside the hospital would have had the opportunity to notice the now-famous shoe, making it even more likely that Maria could have overheard some mention of it.

At this point, the authors have gone from saying that the shoe could have been seen from the ground or from the window to the rather more sweeping assertion that the shoe could have been a topic of conversation throughout the entire hospital. If so, it is even more peculiar that no one retrieved the shoe when it was first noticed. And it is even more peculiar that at the time when Maria's NDE was first reported to the hospital staff, no one seems to pointed out that the shoe was common knowledge. Wouldn't some alert staffer have said, "What's the big deal? Everybody's seen that shoe. We've been talking about it among ourselves for weeks. It's the most exciting thing to happen to this hospital since I started working here!"

This is, apparently, the sort of conversation that the authors imagine to have been taking place -- and that Maria, recovering from a cardiac arrest and on the verge of suffering another one, took notice of.

But what about the telltale details -- the worn toe, the tucked-in shoelace? Here the authors engage in what appears to be a bit of verbal sleight of hand. (In what follows I must reproduce some text I quoted a moment ago, but in its full context.)

Clark has repeatedly declared that the only way Maria could have known about the worn spots on the shoe and position of the shoelace was if she had been hovering outside the window -- allegedly these details were undetectable from anywhere else. Having visited the scene ourselves, we determined that one did not need to be pressed against the glass to see the shoe, but we did find that by assuming that position it would have been easy to discern the additional details that so impressed Clark. Looking down from that angle at the shoe we placed on the ledge, we had no difficulty seeing the shoe's allegedly hidden outer side.

Thus we believe we have shown that it would not have been as difficult as Clark claims for Maria to have become aware of the shoe prior to her NDE. It would have been visible, both inside and outside the hospital, to numerous people who could have come into contact with her. It also seems likely that some of them might have mentioned it within earshot.

Now, wait a minute. It's one thing to imagine that some hospital workers might talk about a tennis shoe on a third-floor ledge. It's quite another to think that they would talk about the shoe's detailed appearance -- remarking on the worn toe and the position of the shoelace. No matter how boring the life of a hospital orderly might be, I find it hard to believe that these mundane details would provide fodder for conversation around the Mr. Coffee machine. ("And did you see how the shoelace was tucked under the shoe? How about that? A tucked-in shoelace. Wow!")

The authors don't really believe that anyone on the hospital staff talked about the exact position of the shoelace. That's what I meant by verbal sleight of hand. They worked their little digression about the unusual details of the shoe into their larger discussion of the placement of the shoe, conflating the two issues.

There's also another bit of verbal trickery at work here, when the authors tell us, "It also seems likely that some of them might have mentioned it within earshot."

There's a pretty big jump being made. When exactly did this scenario make the transition from being "not a far-fetched notion" (as originally stated) to being "likely"? And just how "likely" is this scenario, anyway?

Actually, the authors themselves don't seem to find it very likely, since, directly after the sentence that ends with the word earshot, they add, "But even if we assume that none of this occurred, there are other considerations that make this less than the airtight case its proponents believe it is."

Here I thought the above scenario was "likely." Now it turns out, apparently, to be so unlikely that the authors have to immediately come up with a whole different set of explanations.

Not surprisingly, these new explanations turn out to have a lot in common with the freewheeling speculation that was used to explain -- or explain away -- Maria's vision of the hospital equipment in action and the emergency room entrance. (In the quotes that follow, I have added all emphases.)

As Clark has not produced notes or recordings from her interviews with Maria, we have no way of knowing what leading questions Maria may have been asked, or what Maria might have "recalled" that did not fit and was dropped from the record...

In talking about her NDE, Maria could have unintentionally filled in inferred details to flesh out the story. Pressed for details by someone in a position of authority, this woman of modest status could easily have succumbed to what psychologists call "demand characteristics" and, quite innocently, filled in more than she knew from direct experience...

Once Maria had reported a shoe sitting on an outside ledge, it would have been plausible to infer it was an old shoe -- otherwise wouldn't the owner had taken the trouble to retrieve it? From this, it is only a small step to assume a worn toe, not unusual in an old shoe. That the shoelace was correctly described by Maria as tucked under the heel may also have been a later addition to a story that, as we have seen, is marked with memory distortions on Clark's part.

Notice that the "memory distortions on Clark's part" exist only if Ebbern and Mulligan placed the shoe in exactly the right location. If they placed it incorrectly -- even if the location was off by just a few inches -- then Clark's story might hold up just fine. Yet on the basis of this dubious recreation 17 years after the fact, they are willing to indict Clark for a hopelessly faulty memory. And having characterized her in this way, they find it easy enough to accuse her of asking leading questions, eliminating certain testimony from the record, and adding key details to the story.

As for the claim that Maria could have simply inferred that the shoe was old and had a worn toe -- well, that Florida swampland I mentioned earlier is still available. But don't hesitate; it's going fast.

How could Clark so thoroughly fail to interrogate Maria or to accurately recollect one of the most dramatic events of her life? The authors suggest an answer. "Kimberly Clark is not a trained investigator," they say.

This, of course, raises the question of whether the researchers in this case, Ebbern and Mulligan, were trained investigators at the time when they took their trip to Seattle. Here is what we are told about the pair at the end of the article:

Hayden Ebbern is an undergraduate in the Department of Psychology and Sean Mulligan is a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University.

Ebbern was an undergraduate?

Are we supposed to believe that an undergraduate -- a college student who has not even earned his degree -- is a "trained investigator"? Are his powers of observation, analysis, and memory automatically assumed to be better than those of an experienced social worker at a major hospital?

At least Mulligan was a graduate student at the time, but does a grad student in the biology department have the skills necessary to evaluate the testimony of witnesses or determine their allegedly hidden motives? Are biology departments teaching interrogation techniques nowadays?

I would suggest that if a parapsychologist sent two students with comparable qualifications to investigate a controversial case, he would be roundly criticized -- especially if the students began casting aspersions on the honesty, intelligence, training, and motives of the people they were sent to interview.

The authors go on to complain that Clark "did not publicly report details of Maria's NDE until seven years after it occurred." This statement is perhaps a bit misleading, since Clark apparently told her colleagues at the hospital about the NDE as soon as she found the shoe. Nurses, doctors, and other hospital employees were reportedly all aware of the incident, which caused a great deal of discussion (and, as we've noted, no mention of any hospital-wide awareness of the shoe prior to Clark's retrieval of it). What the authors presumably mean is that Clark did not report the details in any official journal or anthology until seven years later. And this is true. Clark's report was part of an anthology about NDEs called The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives, edited by Charles Flynn and Bruce Greyson. The book was released in 1984, seven years after the events in question.

Now, I know a little about publishing. Everything takes longer than it should. Finding a publisher for a book can take a year or more, and even after the contract is signed, it can take the publisher another year or two years or even longer to get the book into print. So an interim of seven years is not terribly surprising. It can take a while even for an article to get published in a magazine. For instance, consider the very Skeptical Inquirer article we're discussing. It was researched in 1994 but not published until two years later, in 1996. If a similar delay occurred in the publication timetable of the book containing Clark's essay -- which is not unlikely -- then she actually wrote up her report no more than five years after the event, and quite possibly much earlier.

Furthermore, if a lapse of time calls her account into question, then how do the authors explain the fact that they did not undertake their own investigation of the case until a full ten years after it had been reported? If waiting seven years to discuss the case is problematic, then surely waiting seventeen years after the fact is even more so.

Besides allegedly taking too long to report the case, Clark was found to have a "cavalier attitude." How so?

When Ebbern and Mulligan asked Clark about the current whereabouts of the shoe, Clark replied that she probably had it around somewhere, maybe in her garage, but that it would be too much trouble to look for it. The cavalier attitude toward the most important artifact in the field of near-death studies struck us as odd.

Two responses are possible. First, I'm not aware of any near-death researchers who regard the shoe itself as an especially important "artifact." It is, after all, just a beat-up old shoe. What's important is the story associated with it, not the shoe itself. Second, and more important, there may be another explanation for Kimberly Clark's lack of cooperation with Ebbern and Mulligan. I submit that it is at least possible that Clark, upon meeting the intrepid pair of student investigators, sized them up as militant skeptics, strongly biased against any nonmaterialist interpretation of NDEs, researching a CSICOP hit piece. She may also have noticed that the researchers were contemptuous of her friends in her NDE support group, and were more than willing to cast aspersions on her own memory, intellectual capabilities, honesty, and motives. Under the circumstances, she may not have felt particularly interested in presenting the shoe to Ebbern and Mulligan so they could snicker at it.

The authors finish up by allowing that "perhaps" Clark "now honestly misremembers" the details of the case -- the alternative, of course, being that she dishonestly misremembers or misrepresents the details.

The motivation to defend cherished or self-serving beliefs makes it easy for unintentional embellishments to creep into key accounts as they are retold. In our discussions with her, Clark exhibited obvious emotional commitment to the spiritual interpretation of Maria's story. She has become a minor celebrity because of her involvement with it and is writing yet another, potentially profitable, book on the subject.

Unpacking this passage is almost too easy. I'll leave it to you to count all the ways that the authors cast aspersions on Clark's psychology and motives. Naturally, no skeptic could ever be motivated to "defend cherished or self-serving beliefs," or to have an "emotional commitment" to a point of view, and and no skeptic has ever become "a minor celebrity" or written a "potentially profitable" book. By the way, aren't all books potentially profitable? This is like saying that someone just bought a "potentially salable house." Why would they phrase it like that? What are they trying to imply? Gosh, I wish I knew.

The authors take a moment to disparage Clark's NDE support group, which, they claim, "bills itself as devoted to scientific research into NDEs." If so, it's a pretty unusual support group, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that the group did characterize itself this way. So what, exactly? Even if the members of the group are rank amateurs, they are hardly typical of the leading researchers in the field of near-death studies -- accomplished professionals like Michael Sabom, Melvin Morse, Peter Fenwick, Bruce Greyson, and Pim Van Lommel, who have published their research in peer-reviewed journals. (Skeptical Inquirer, incidentally, is not peer-reviewed.) In any event, Ebbern and Mulligan reportedly

were struck by the revival-meeting atmosphere. The participants exhibited a conspicuous lack of scientific knowledge and low levels of critical thinking skills. They seemed quite unaware of how to mount a proper investigation of such incidents. The appeal throughout was strictly to faith. The few mildly critical questions the visitors raised were decidedly unwelcome.

So a group of people who have experienced NDEs are met by two researchers -- one, a grad student, the other, an undergrad -- who are openly skeptical of the most meaningful, life-changing event of their lives, and the NDErs made the students feel "unwelcome." How welcome do you think Kimberly Clark would feel at a CSICOP meeting?

Perhaps it is cynical of me, but I can't help thinking that Ebbern and Mulligan would regard any gathering of spiritual seekers as having a "revival-meeting atmosphere." (From what I've read of CSICOP events, the description might be better suited for the get-togethers sponsored by that organization.) As for "critical thinking skills," well, we've seen Ebbern's and Mulligan's critical thinking skills on open display in their paper. One might argue that it is Ebbern and Mulligan who seem "quite unaware of how to mount a proper investigation of such incidents." And if the NDErs were appealing "strictly to faith," then why would they show any interest in Kimberly Clark's empirical investigation of Maria's NDE in the first place?

The authors conclude their essay in an effusion of self-congratulation:

We have shown several factual discrepancies [have they? or did they put the shoe in the wrong place?] and plausible ways [plausible? really?] that Maria's supposedly unobtainable knowledge could have been obtained by quite ordinary means. In delving into this incident, we were first disappointed [sure they were], then amused, that such a weak case should have achieved the importance it has been accorded.... Maria's story has shown us the naïveté and a power of wishful thinking in a supposedly scientific area known as "near-death studies." Once again, it is apparent why Demosthenes cautioned, more than 2000 years ago, "Nothing is easier than self deceit, for what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true."

With this rhetorical flourish, which brings us back to the article's original motif of self-deception, the Skeptical Inquirer story comes to a close.

All that's left to examine is how the article has been used in a more recent skeptical assault on NDEs.

In a lengthy article debunking NDEs, Keith Augustine recounts the Maria case and the efforts of Beyerstein, Ebbern, and Mulligan to discredit it. Augustine accurately summarizes the Skeptical Inquirer piece and accepts the authors' conclusions without raising any questions about their methodology or biases. Indeed, he seems unaware of any biases.

"The [Maria] case has taken on the status of something of an urban legend," he writes. I'm not sure what this means; unlike an urban legend, the Maria case is not an anonymous anecdote but a specific story reported in print by one of the participants. This doesn't make it true, but it does raise it above the level of modern folklore about kidney thieves or escaped murderers with a hook for a hand.

Augustine apparently does not notice any of the implausibilities and logical inconsistencies in the skeptical scenarios laid out by Beyerstein et al. Nor does he mention the fact that the two investigators in the case were untrained college students.

A brief item posted by the Cincinnati Skeptics also endorses the SI article's conclusions:

Investigators have closely examined the claims made in the "Maria" case. They have found them to be invalid. It does not support NDE claims.

Again, no mention of the fact that the "investigators" were a graduate student in biology and an undergraduate student majoring in psychology.

In their debunking zeal, the Cincinnati Skeptics make an error of fact, saying that Maria "could have unconsciously heard about the oddly placed shoe or seen it on the ledge from inside the room." No, she could not have seen it on the ledge from inside the room she occupied. Even the SI article doesn't make this claim. The shoe was nowhere near her room.

I'd hoped to look at more uses of the SI article, but several Google searches for the relevant terms didn't turn up any other examples. 

Summing up, I'd like to repeat what I said at the start of this essay. I don't claim to know what happened in Seattle in 1977. I haven't visited the Harborview Medical Center. I don't know how trustworthy Kimberly Clark may be. Two readers posted comments on my blog suggesting, on the basis of her book After the Light, that she may not be a very reliable witness. I haven't read this book, but Bruce Greyson, in a generally favorable review, notes that it "contains plenty of woo-woo experiences." His summary of the contents certainly bears out this statement. Either Clark has a remarkable ability to attract psi phenomena, or she has a vivid imagination.

In any event, my purpose in writing this analysis was simply to subject a skeptical account of an NDE to the same kind of skepticism that the authors themselves advocate. There seems to be a double standard in the world of organized skepticism. A skeptic can freely indulge in speculation, tossing around "could have" and "may have" and "it is possible," without providing any evidence that any such thing actually took place. A skeptic can impugn the motives, honesty, and mental stability of his opponents. A skeptic can rely on the fieldwork of untrained students. A skeptic can spin contradictory scenarios, offering first one "explanation," then another and another, with no attempt to determine if any of these stories is true or even plausible. A skeptic can draw momentous conclusions from the re-creation of an event that took place seventeen years earlier, even though the re-creation is quite possibly flawed.

A skeptic can do all these things and more, but if a parapsychologist were to employ similar tactics, there would be hell to pay. Skeptics routinely nitpick the writings of parapsychologists, looking for any real or imagined error, no matter how trivial, and eagerly pointing out any supposedly unjustified claim or unwarranted logical leap. They don't seem to apply the same rigorous standards to the evaluation of their own writings. These are accepted uncritically, almost as Holy Writ. And psi proponents, all too often, seem willing to accept this double standard.

Maybe it's time to put the shoe on the other foot.


Addendum (October 17, 2009). Just today I discovered that Kimberly Clark Sharp directly addressed the Skeptical Inquirer essay. Her response was precipitated by Keith Augustine's article "Does Paranormal Perception Occur in Near-Death Experiences?", which appeared in the June 2007 (Vol. 25, No. 4) issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. (This material appears to have been incorporated into Augustine's longer piece, "Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences," which is linked above.) Sharp's reply, published in the same issue of the Journal, is called "The Other Shoe Drops."

The article's abstract reads as follows: "Keith Augustine raises questions about my report of a case of veridical out-of-body perception during a near-death experience (NDE). His analysis is based not on my original description of the case but rather on a distorted account in a magazine written by two college students who misrepresented the facts and made unwarranted assumptions to support their beliefs."

As far as I know, Sharp's article is not freely available online. Here are some excerpts:

"I provided the whole detailed account of a woman named Maria who observed a number of scenes during her resuscitation at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle in the first chapter of my book, After the Light (Sharp, 1995). The story has not changed an iota since day one, much less been embellished, even though over the course of time my memory has certainly been affected, as evidenced by the fact that I forgot about a Nike logo on the shoe. This lapse in memory was discovered three years ago when I came across a filmed re-enactment of the event using the actual tennis shoe. In fact, I let a news crew from Philadelphia copy the tape, which was subsequently broadcast throughout the Philadelphia area as part of a local news story. Others have claimed that the shoe never existed, so I am grateful that filmed evidence exists. The film shows me as much younger in very dated clothes, thus belying any suggestion that this was a recently filmed piece."

"Although I had long since forgotten their names, I do remember the time I spent with two young men from a small college in Canada. They introduced themselves to me on the telephone before attending a Seattle IANDS meeting. The boys impressed me as sincere, enthusiastic, and genuinely interested in the subject of near-death experiences (NDEs), especially that of Maria's NDE. They were especially persistent in their desire to visit the facility where Maria had been hospitalized. .... They never mentioned investigating Maria's case, writing an article, involving a third author, or planning to submit an article for publication."

"I took these two lads to Harborview Medical Center myself. I showed them from outside the building approximately where I had found the shoe because I could no longer remember which exact window it was."

"They pushed me so hard for an exact location that I finally pointed to a window fourth over from the corner. Ironically, this location became my 'truth,' but it was a window I chose in order to end the boys' discomforting persistence that I zero in on one specific spot."

" ... the boys wrote that they were unable to locate Maria, or anyone who knew her personally. In fact, they never inquired about her. I am the one who told them that I thought she was deceased, and I could have introduced them to other hospital staff who had met Maria and heard her story, if they had asked."

" ... the boys tried to discredit Maria's memories of her out-of-body experience (OBE), stating that she would have been quite familiar with the equipment monitoring her, and suggesting that her OBE was nothing more than 'a visual memory incorporated into the hallucinatory world that is often formed by a sensory-deprived and oxygen-starved brain' (Ebbern, Mulligan, and Beyerstein, 1996, p. 31, cited in Augustine). They also suggested that she could have picked up details about the emergency room entrance from means not related to her OBE. In fact, I am the one who suggested these skeptical responses to the boys, skeptical responses that I described more fully in After the Light (Sharp, 1995). I was doubting Maria's account because I had not dealt with my own NDE, and I fought hard to come to a reasonable conclusion about how Maria could have observed her resuscitation team. One feature the boys cited as conclusive regarding Maria's OBE was that she described all of the paper on the floor. In fact, that was paper flowing out of the electrocardiogram (EKG) machine onto the floor and kicked under the bed. No one ever educates a cardiac patient to that level of detail. There is absolutely no way that she would have known about the paper. It was not taught, it was not discussed, and it is never shown in television and movies depicting cardiac arrest."

" ... the boys stated that they could see a running shoe of their own at the place I described from the ground level. Of course they could; they were a half block away. When I looked for the shoe from the ground, I was following a sidewalk that hugged the building, completely unable to see something visible on the ledge a few stories above me."

"I am appalled that the boys trespassed in the hospital and actually entered a two-bed patient room and messed around with the window. Despite the fact that they specifically knew they did not have permission and had not even sought permission in the first place, they apparently had no ethical concerns about their behavior. Besides the act of trespassing, the floor they were on houses people just out of the coronary care unit and the intensive care unit, people with infectious diseases, and people who are immune-suppressed. By trespassing in these patients' rooms, they potentially endangered sick people, in addition to violating their privacy. So in other words, the boys asked readers to believe what they wrote in their article despite their having had no problem being dishonest in the first place."

" ... they suggested that Maria could have overheard some mention of the shoe, which would be difficult since she spoke very little English, certainly not the level that would have been required to comprehend the details of a shoe's appearance and location in the building."

" ... the boys said that they had no difficulty seeing the shoe's allegedly hidden outer side. I did have difficulty. Perhaps the boys somehow managed to open the window and stick their heads out."

" ... they wrote that I did not publicly report the details of Maria's NDE until seven years after it occurred. How did they define 'public'? Before that time, I had told anyone who would listen about the shoe; it certainly was not a secret. I had included the story at a nurses' conference at another Seattle hospital and had even spoken about it on a live Seattle television show. Obviously I had 'gone public.'"

" ... they suggested that I subconsciously embellished the details to bolster the case, but less than two years ago I discovered that I had in fact un-embellished the shoe. I came across an old video, mentioned above, of a re-enactment of the shoe story for a television show. The shoe used for the show was the shoe. I was shocked to see a Nike symbol on the ankle. I had not remembered that at all. As I have stated, shortly thereafter, I loaned this tape to a Philadelphia news station, which broadcast for the public to see the so-called 'nonexistent' shoe."

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