NDE Rhetoric, Debunking the Debunkers?
by Jody

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Experience description: 

Skeptics vs. Cynics 
Cynic Detection
    Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof



Intellectually, rhetorical debate reminds me of verbal fencing.  In my law practice, I called the rhetoric of law 'swords-play,' with the ultimate goal to persuade the fact-finders that your case is better than the opponent's case.  One quickly learns in law, that one impassioned speech against the bad guy one day, will be the speech used against you the next day with a different client.  In the end, there really doesn't seem to be any clear right or wrongs ' only a series of sword moves.  Essentially, for every accusation or argument, there is also a defense or counterargument. As with law, so goes the rhetoric of near death experience (NDE).  On one hand you have those who consider the experience as real (usually the experiencer), and on the other hand you have the nay-Sayers (the non-experiencers) who consider the experience nothing more than brain-chemistry.  In the middle of the road, are those who seek truth ' the true skeptics. 

In order to understand the rhetoric of NDE, one needs to understand the role of the critics and the common arguments for and against NDE.  These include looking at cynic debates, what constitutes evidence, anecdotal evidence, and scientific proof.

Skeptics vs. Cynics: 

The usage of the word 'skeptic' has actually become a term of art, and the corresponding opposite is the word 'cynic.'  The dictionary defines a 'skeptic' as one who, 'habitually questions assertions or generally accepted conclusions.' [1] Contrastingly, the word 'cynic' is 'one who believes all men are motivated by selfishness.'[2]  Inherent in these two words, are preconceived biases regarding methods of inquiry, implied pre-existing belief patterns, and can even go so far as having personality traits associated with each designation. 

An example from the website of The Skeptics Society:

'What does it mean to be a skeptic?  Some people believe that skepticism is rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse 'skeptic' with 'cynic' and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo.  This is wrong.  Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims.  It is the application of reason to any and all ideas ' no sacred cows allowed.  In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.'[3]

A skeptic is a truth-seeker who Socratic ally seeks truth by questioning assertions and beliefs.  By the very definition, a skeptic is open-minded and a curious individual.  On the other hand, a cynic projects that which they believe.  Not only is the method of inquiry biased, but any answer (no matter how well reasoned) is unacceptable if it does not correspond to any subjective pre-existing belief of the cynic.  Cynics are the ones motivated by their own inability to explore the world outside their subjective boundaries, resulting in dogmatic or closed-minded approaches to the argument.  The net effect of a skeptic is to establish truth no matter if it goes against established principles, while the net effect of a cynic is to hide the truth to maintain status quo.  Therefore, it is crucial for both sides to recognize the thinking patterns so that we, humans, can evolve to discover our rightful place in the universe. 

Cynic Detection

You can spot a cynic by the words they utter.  They will describe NDErs or the NDE phenomena in terms of 'delusional, irrational, gullible, charlatans, superstitious, wishful-thinking, primitive and child-like thinking.' [4] To that I would add techniques used in the Lancet commentary such as implying that the whole experience was imagined or that the experiencer was fancifully filling in the gaps.[5]  What better way to discredit an NDEr than to assume they are lying about their experience or convince others that the NDEr is of unsound of mind?  The arguments of a cynic are designed to put one side at a power disadvantage over the other side.  The net effect is to inflame, discount, or shut-down debate from the other side rather than trying to get a truth-finding dialog going between the two sides.  However, look closer at what a false memory really is and the intellectual dishonesty of the writer is appalling.  Yet hundreds of professionals who read the article, automatically agree with the commentary because they don't understand the NDE phenomena. 

A wonderful quote that epitomizes the cynic mindset is by scientist-author Arthur C. Clarke, 'When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.  When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.'[6]

A cynic will frame arguments using certain styles of debate.   These tactics include ignoring facts, inventing false explanations, raising the bar when their criteria for evidence is met, using double standards, character assassinations, grossly exaggerating and distorting trivial mistakes, or dismissing all evidence by classifying it as anecdotal, unreplicable, or uncontrolled.[7] 

IGNORED FACTS:  Whenever there are some glaring facts that don't fit into a preconceived world view, these facts are conveniently ignored.  The most ignored facts that NDE cynics gloss over are those that occur in the out-of-body phase of the NDE.  There is no way possible that brain chemistry can be argued when a person is verifiably DEAD, yet can tell everyone later what was said or happening down the hall, away from sight and earshot, during the time of resuscitation efforts.  Rather than try to incorporate this unexplainable information into a new theory, these facts are merely ignored.  In actuality a separation of consciousness from the body is a much more plausible explanation of facts to account for what is being reported by NDErs.

DOUBLE STANDARDS:  The double standard arguments are actually a form of ignoring the facts.  Using double standards is when evidence exists that supports both sides of an argument, but only one set of facts is reported.  For instance, in the Lancet Commentary, they were quick to point out and lengthy to elaborate that after two years there were 4 patients who changed their mind and reported having an NDE.[8]  This argument supports one of the main tenets espoused by the article, that of false memories.  The author goes out of his way to statistically analyze why this is significant and how statistically if hypothesized to a natural conclusion, this would be 10% of the people who made the experience up. 

The Lancet commentary would have been guilty of double standards, had it not been for the tiny acknowledgment that there were also 6 patients who had initially had an NDE, but after 2 years, were classified as not having an NDE.[9]  This small statement was a supporting argument for a design flaw in the experiment or people forgetting the NDE experience.  Again, what is seen is the author designing the explanations to fit into a pre-supposed belief system that NDEs are not real, and therefore they must be illusionary. 

The argument would have been more intellectually honest had the author initially pointed out that there was evidence on both sides, that after 2-years, participants in the study may have changed their minds about reporting whether they experienced an NDE or not.  There are many reasons, other than memory loss, that can cause this phenomena.  I, personally, would be interested to know how much of the change in reporting was due to social pressure ' an explanation totally avoided in the commentary.

FALSE EXPLANATIONS:  Inventing false explanations can best be seen by Susan Blackmore, who is cited in the Lancet commentary as citing alternative explanations such as 'information available at the time, prior knowledge, fantasy or dreams, lucky guesses, information from the remaining senses, selective memory for correct details, incorporation of details learned between the NDE and giving an account of it, and the tendency to tell a good story.'[10]  While some of these explanations may be true for some of the reports, they certainly are not true for all accounts.  These explanations become diversions to the truth and ultimately lead to dead ends.  When each of these possible explanations are followed to their natural conclusion, there will still be unexplained NDE phenomena remaining that cannot be explained by using these false explanations.  It is a waste of time for seekers, but is a convenient and easy way to maintain status quo. 

RAISING THE STANDARD OF PROOF:  Raising the bar is actually a form of one-upmanship.  The cynic gets used to a certain line of questioning that few people are prepared to answer.  Then when confronted with the requested proof, the cynic will change the standard of proof.  The usual tactic will be to ask for the proof to be repeatable in a laboratory, or for something other than anecdotal accounts.  There will always be something else, so that the standard of proof can never be met.  Failing that, the cynic will engage in character attacks or the standard fall-back arguments of memory failure or lying on the part of the experiencer.

We have been talking about what constitutes tactical arguments used by cynics.  The next section discusses what constitutes acceptable forms of evidence.  This includes anecdotal and scientific proof, and what types of evidence are reliable, and what they might reliably prove.

EVIDENCE:  In a court of law, there are rules that allow people to testify (give their oral narratives) to the truth of the matter.  Certain rules of evidence are designed to maximize credibility of the statements from eyewitness accounts (anecdotal evidence). Furthermore evidence must be both, relevant and reliable.  Relevant evidence is that which (1) has a tendency to prove or disprove a fact and (2) the fact must have some consequence when viewed in the context of other facts and the subject matter.[11] 

Therefore, much of Susan Blackmore's arguments against NDE would fail the relevancy test.  When viewed in the context of the near death experience, the explanations lack probative value because false explanations do not tend to prove or disprove NDE since they only apply to a few of the NDE accounts.  Moreover, even if false explanations were allowed as evidence, they could still be excluded because false explanations tend to cloud the real issues; and ultimately, they are a waste of time since no single explanation or group of explanations that she gives results in a total explanation for all NDEs.[12]

RELIABILITY:  Reliability of testimony increases when people are of sound mind, not a young child, and that the person is a material witness with first-hand knowledge of what they speak.[13] 

Hearsay is generally not allowed in court.  Hearsay is usually unreliable since a person is testifying what they heard another person say.  However, even hearsay can be reliable in court.  Some of the exceptions that apply to NDE are called present sense impressions and excited utterances.[14] The rationale of the rule is that the 'element of spontaneity reduces the chance of misrepresentation to an acceptable level.'[15]  Even more reliable is evidence obtained while a person is under the stress of the excitement caused by the event or condition, with the key being the spontaneity of the statements.[16]  Usually, the court looks at the proximity of time between the statements and the event.  The other factor is that the event is sufficiently startling to provoke an immediate shocked statement.

ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE:  Additional indicators of reliability of anecdotal evidence is 1) the number of eyewitnesses, 2) the consistency of the observations and claims, 3) the credibility of the witnesses, 4) the clarity of and proximity of the observations, 5) the state of mind of the witnesses, and 6) what does the experiencer or the cynic stand to gain from the experience.[17]  While a single NDE may not be proof of the phenomena itself, there are hundreds of NDE accounts.  Many times they share certain observations and claims.  Moreover, it might be easy to discount one or several people as being mentally unstable, but it becomes less believable when a person wants to claim that all of these people are guilty of false memories or other memory disorders.  Experiencers have a wide cross-section of people to poll from.  They come from all walks of life, ages, ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic status, and countries.  There is no discounting the reliability of that much evidence as the result of being mistaken, lying, false memories, or hallucinations.  Few NDErs have anything to gain by telling their story.  Most 'skeptics' have books and reputations to defend.  The big question is what does NDE evidence mean and what causes this phenomena?

Other valid observations about anecdotal evidence is that it is mostly reliable in regards to every day things.[18]  Over 90 percent of what we hear from others is accurate when dealing with life.[19]  We talk to others about what they had for lunch, what is playing at the movies, or what happened on the way to work.  While some of this might be small talk, for the most part an anecdotal account, it is not deemed a false memory or hallucination. If anecdotal evidence were inherently unreliable, we would typically not believe a word anyone tells us. 

The memory arguments cited as proof to make anecdotal evidence unreliable are weak and inapplicable.[20]  Part of this is the reality of how the brain works on a day to day basis and the other part is how the brain works when something out of the ordinary happens.  For instance, most people don't remember every detail of life but only that which is important to remember.  However, what is remembered, generally is accurate and can be verified.  Happenings that are outside normal daily routines, tend to be remembered.  Depending on the impact the happening had on the person, the memory can be ingrained into the memory with vivid recall even years later.  This is the category that the NDE generally falls under.  A memory that significantly affects a person the rest of their lives.  Even Dr. van Lommel was astounded to find the high level of recall in the NDE accounts after 8 years.[21]

SCIENTIFIC PROOF:  Another common argument is that there is nothing scientifically proven about NDEs.  There are many definitional parts to this argument.  For instance, on must define what evidence is sufficient, to whom, and what constitutes scientific evidence.  Proof, according to the cynic, is that evidence which is part of a controlled laboratory setting and/or can be replicated by laboratory means.  The proof threshold for an NDEr is very low, because most consider their experience extremely real and many don't need outside applause to prove the reality of what they experienced.

One of the more difficult things about studying NDEs is that of getting subjects for a prospective study.  Dealing with people at the moment of death is not a planned, controlled experiment in most instances.  Only on rare occasions is it even ethical to do this type of research with a hands-on approach.  The Dutch study was able to utilize cardiac arrest patients who were resuscitated.  There has also been talk of studying those who are scheduled to die such as people with heart arrhythmias.

Consider that just because a person can't scientifically prove something does not mean that it is false or nonexistent.[22]  For instance, science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God or life after death.  Our day to day routine does not depend on scientific proof, but rather common sense and direct observation.[23]  So, although the scientific method may be good for many forms of proof, it isn't the only way to define reality.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof:  As a subset of scientific evidence, I frequently hear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Although I have heard that having an NDE is an extraordinary claim, I haven't heard what would constitute extraordinary evidence.  What constitutes extraordinary claims to one person may not be the same for another person.  What is extraordinary becomes a subjective term and open to interpretation. 

Moreover, depending on the circumstances, the extraordinary proof can also have certain definitional or physical limitations of detection.  For instance, extraordinary phenomena could exist without leaving behind the evidence; the tools to detect the evidence have not yet been developed yet; and sometimes such as in UFO studies, that evidence exists but scientists disagree on what the extraordinary evidence is or means.  It is important to remember that just because something hasn't been scientifically proven, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.  Many times, it is just a matter of developing technology to be sensitive enough to sense germs, viruses, other galaxies, microwaves, electromagnetic fields, or gravity.  There are many things that did not exist at various times in mans' existence, yet they still existed.  

Therefore, it is more accurate to state, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to convince skeptics, but not necessarily to exist in objective reality.'[24]

UNEXPLAINABLE DOES NOT MEAN IMPOSSIBLE TO EXPLAIN:  One of my favorite arguments is that unexplainable does not mean inexplicable.  Michael Shermer, author of Skeptic Magazine, talks about this in his book, 'Why People Believe Weird Things.'  As Winston Wu points out, there are some corollary arguments to Shermer's statements: 

             1)      Just because something happens that they think isn't possible, doesn't mean

                       that it didn't happen.  To do so would be to deny reality.

 2)      Just because something happens that they think isn't possible doesn't mean

          that it MUST be due to misperception, fraud, or hallucination.

 3)      Just because a natural explanation hasn't been found for something

         unexplainable doesn't mean that only a natural explanation could exist.

 4)      If a natural explanation doesn't explain all the facts, that doesn't mean that a 

          cynic should insist on it anyway just to protect a belief system.[25]


One of the hallmarks of a good media article would be one that is balanced in presenting the truth.  A good skeptic article is a welcome change from much of what is presented to the public.  So many times, the cynics are given top media billing because they represent the status quo.  I would ask those who read this to consider that cynics are not helping to advance the understanding of NDE or consciousness.  It makes a lot more sense to define what evidence one has, present it honestly and without bias, and then if the NDE phenomena can't be understood in today's paradigm, say so.  I would submit that more skeptic credibility exists by coming up with relevant possibilities to open the dialog on the nature of consciousness than to continue remaining closed to the universal possibilities.  

For those looking for more information on debating NDE rhetoric, I would highly recommend reading the more in-depth writing, as it expands upon these concepts and has some excellent examples and also cites to many scientific, controlled, and repeatable, studies of paranormal phenomena.  Winston Wu's article, Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena, http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/Contents.htm

[1] The American Heritage Dictionary, 24th Printing, Dell Publishing Co (1976), p.653

[2] Id. at 180.

[3] http://www.skeptic.com/faqs.html cited in Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena, by Winston Wu, 10/7/2001, http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/Contents.htm.

[4]Id. at 4-5.

[5] The Lancet, Vol 358, p. 2010, December 15, 2001, Commentary by Christopher French. 

[6] Winston Wu, Id. at 14.

[7]Id. at 4-5.

[8] The Lancet Commentary, Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Susan Blackmore, cited in The Lancet Commentary, Id

[11] ER 401, p 195, Courtroom Handbook on Washington Evidence, 2001, Karl B. Tegland, West Group (2000).

[12] Id., ER 403, p 210.

[13]Id., CrR 6.12, pp 165-66.

[14] Id., ER 803(a)(1),(2), p 360.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Winston Wu, Id. at 19.

[18]Id. at 18.

[19]Id. at 19.


[21] Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands, Pim van Lommel, et. al., p. 2042, The Lancet, Vol 358, December 15, 2001

[22] Winston Wu, Id. at 26.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 9.

[25] Id. at 28.


Copyright1999 by Dr. Jeff and Jody Long

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