From Abracadabra to Zombies
by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton (2005)
Mary Roach's Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife begins with a tale about an exotic trip to India in search of the scientific evidence for reincarnation. Twelve chapters later the author arrives at the University of Virginia hoping to get a glimpse of a man purposely shocked to death as part of an experiment on out-of-body experiences. This is a book about what scientists are doing and have done in their attempt to find evidence that when we die we don't just turn to mush. It's also a book aimed at the mass market, so there is no mention of statistics even when writing about the work of Gary Schwartz. The book is neither a panegyric nor a debunking text. It's more like a playful romp. It was probably not necessary for her to make as many field trips as she did, but the live interviews make the book colorful and allow her to show off her brilliance as a glib journalist. It also makes the book seem informal, as does the lack of an index. More informal means more attractive to the general reader. Yet, the book has plenty to offer the professional debunker. Roach may be open-minded, but she doesn't let her brains fall out.
The first chapter should convince most readers who care about writing that this woman can write. I wasn't far into the first chapter before I was talking to myself about how I wish I could write like her. If she keeps this up for the rest of the book, I thought, I may become so intimidated that I'll never put a finger to the keyboard again.
When I first heard of the book I was upset because I am working on a similar book. After reading it, I realize that this is not a book I could have written because I'd have to be much more critical of the work of the scientists she tackles and I'd have to fake too many things to pull it off. I'd have to pretend to care about collecting anecdotes from people about children who talk about past lives. I'd have to pretend to take seriously people who lead trips to a Sierra summit to try to tape-record the spirits of those who died in the Donner party. I'd have to pretend to take seriously grown men and women who operate or attend a school for mediums. I'd have to pretend that the psychiatrist in the white coat is a normal chap as he hopes a near-dead person will have an out-of-body experience in the hospital and peer down at a picture on his laptop. I'd have to pretend that Gary Schwartz and Allison DuBois are making contributions to science rather than to entertainment.
Speaking of DuBois, I would refer Roach to Ian Rowland's book on cold reading and my article on subjective validation. She was quite baffled after DuBois ran through a laundry list of misses regarding Roach's deceased parents before throwing out something that resonated. "I'm showing a metal hourglass, that you turn over. Does your brother have one?" Roach's brother collects hourglasses. "I was impressed, " writes Roach, "not only by its accuracy, but by its specificity and obscurity and by the sudden assured declarativeness with which DuBois said it. It's hard to dismiss it" (167-168). It would be hard to dismiss it unless you were well versed in cold reading and subjective validation. The one thing most people don't get about cold reading is that the focus should be on the subject, not on the medium. The medium just throws out the token. The subject has to make sense of the token for it to resonate. There are many tokens that Roach would be able to connect to her brother in some meaningful way, especially when you consider that the token may be taken literally or figuratively. Many people own or have owned hourglasses or have some connection to an hourglass, and they are often fixed in some sort of metal frame. (My golfing group awards an annual "best play on the 16th hole" and the prize is an hourglass the winner gets to keep until the following year's tournament.) Anything having to do with time might count. Anything in the shape of an hourglass, especially if it's made of metal would count. Anything with glass and metal might be stretched to count. (Time can be connected to just about anything.) The hourglass token might have been a lucky guess, an item she overheard Roach mention, or a what Ian Rowland calls a push statement: one you expect the client to reject at first but given time he or she might be able to find something from the past or present to connect it to. In any case, because her brother collects them, DuBois got a bonus psychic bounce from this token. Roach didn't forget all the misses DuBois made, but the misses recede into the background and all the attention is paid to the one token she was able to find in some way meaningful to her.
What I find interesting about cold reading and tokens like "metal hourglass" is what we might call the smokescreen effect, a kind of misdirection. Once the subject finds something to connect the token to, all the attention reverts to the medium: how did she come up with that? Our attention should be on the subject and not only on how she has found a connection but on how many possible connections she might have made if some other token had been thrown out, like "red hat" or "scar on the left knee." Attention is also diverted from the question regarding alleged spirit communication. Your parents are dead and to give you a sign they say metal hourglass to the medium. How plausible is that? The smokescreen effect, the power of belief—the ability to rationalize just about anything to make things fit what you want to believe—and the fact that there is no way to prove you are making this stuff up makes the medium racket the nearly perfect con or self-con.
Speaking of Schwartz, I did have a Eureka! moment when I read Roach's description of his arrival to pick her up at her hotel:
I did not know whether to be looking for a man in a tweed jacket or a man in drawstring trousers or—help me—a man in both. Schwartz further muddied the waters by showing up in a double-breasted suit, with a white Jaguar parked in the lot.
I wonder if the Great Persuader made direct eye contact while reminding her of his Phi Beta Kappa key and Harvard degree, and did she feel a sudden urge to clutch her purse more tightly?
Only someone who has not spent years investigating the claims of the likes of Gary Schwartz could take seriously some of the things Roach investigates. She can talk about the dangers of being too skeptical or dogmatic and of the virtue of having an open mind because, if she is being honest and I have no reason to believe she isn't, she hasn't studied this stuff ad nauseam. In fact, the way she writes about some of her adventures, the reader can tell she isn't buying it for a minute. For example, her description of her time in England, where she enrolled in a school to learn how to be a medium, is clearly from the viewpoint of one who knows nothing very valuable is going to be learned here. The only lesson she learns at the school is that "psychics and mediums prosper not because they're intentionally fraudulent, but because their subjects are uncritical" (178). I don't think she needed to go to England to discover that little gem.
Nor did she need to go to England to visit Vic Tandy to find out about his discovery and theory regarding infrasound and hauntings. The whole story has been published and is available on the Internet. Even so, I especially liked that chapter because she begins it with a reference to an old familiar from my dissertation days when I was immersed in 17th century English philosophy: Fulke Greville. The name is like a madeleine to me and instantly brings to mind Harbottle Grimstone, Kenelm Digby, Humphry Henchman, William Chillingworth, and Edward Stillingfleet! But I digress.
On her field trip to India, she accompanied an Indian philosopher to various villages in the countryside as he collected anecdotes in his quest for scientific evidence of reincarnation. Even though she recognizes that "anecdotes are interesting, occasionally riveting, but never are they proof," she begins her journey with a guy who does nothing but collect anecdotes. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, who led Roach to Kirti S. Rawat, has devoted his later years to collecting anecdotes of reincarnation, especially stories of children who remember past lives. Another writer, Tom Shroder, made a much more extensive field trip with Stevenson himself a few years ago and lived to tell the tale in Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives (Simon and Schuster 1999). Shroder spent a year following Stevenson around and came away a believer. Roach spent a week with Rawat and wondered: "is he investigating reincarnation, or merely hunting for evidence in its favor? How can he remain unbiased?" (48). Shroder should have asked the same questions of Stevenson. Also, cases that don't pan out, like the one Roach observed, aren't counted as evidence against the reincarnation hypothesis. What kind of science has no possible piece of data that could count against it?
There are other reincarnation scientists that Roach ignores, perhaps for good reason. But she does not consider the past-life regression work of Dr. Brian Weiss or Hans TenDam. Maybe it's just as well, but I think it would have been quite amusing to hear where Roach's imagination would have taken her while on the couch.
Roach admits up front that philosophy is not her strong suit. "I'm not interested in philosophical debates on the soul (probably because I can't understand them)" (14). Fluid, colorful, articulate, funny, clever writing is her strong suit, even if she does have a thing for scatological anecdotes. The book takes us on her quest to examine what scientists have discovered in their quest to find evidence for life after death. But she doesn't tackle the philosophical questions regarding such things as the conceptual issues involved in positing a disembodied consciousness versus consciousness as a non-mysterious manifestation of brain states. Her philosophical prowess is evidenced in her Last Words (clever, eh?): "I believe in the possibility of something more" and her last words: "I believe in ghosts." (Not so clever, eh?) By the end of her book she is referring to herself as "yours truly" and comments that after reading her book the reader might consider her a friend or at least "someone that you know" and might be wondering what she believes. This reader's reaction to her last words was a shrug and a "Who cares, Mary, whether you believe in ghosts or worship plastic dog poo?" You wrote a very entertaining and interesting book, and you wrote it in style. That's enough for me. Roach writes: "I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science" (294). Spoken like a true philosopher.
Despite her disdain for philosophy, the second chapter is about ensoulment. Interestingly, she discusses this issue of when the soul enters the body without so much as a mention of Darwin. The third chapter should delight those who saw the movie 21 grams and have ever since been asking themselves: is it true that the soul weighs 21 grams? Dr. Duncan Macdougall did try to weigh the soul by putting a dying person on a scale and observing any changes in weight. He got one case where there was a change of 3/4 of an ounce (21 grams). He claimed to have replicated the event five times, but nobody else has ever replicated the experiment. Even if they did, how could anyone be sure that the difference in weight was due to the soul leaving the body? They can't and this fact demonstrates one of the major philosophical problems with soul science. The researchers have no idea whether the soul exists or what it is like or how it works. For most scientists, such obstacles are fatal to research. How can you devise an experiment around so much uncertainty? You arbitrarily remove the uncertainty by declaring something is true even though you have no idea if it is true, such as, a body will lose weight at death if there is a soul. That's your hypothesis. So, if you find evidence of loss of weight, you declare you've found evidence for the existence of the soul. Or, you claim that if some machine responds in a particular way while in a room far from another room where somebody is claiming to do astral projection, then you have proof of astral projection. But you have no idea what is supposedly going on in this alleged astral projection. You have no way of knowing what, if any, effect a projected spirit will have on anything in the universe. Yet, this is your hypothesis and if things work out, then your hypothesis is confirmed. This is called begging the question. It's a logical fallacy; you can look it up.
One of the more hilarious chapters is the one on ectoplasm. Even if you are familiar with the history of this stuff, this chapter will provide you with some rich details and a very sober explanation for what was probably going on.
Another chapter recreates Susan Blackmore's trip to Michael Persinger's lab to have her temporal lobes stimulated by magnetic fields. The point? To recreate the mystical experience or alien abduction experience or the experience of a haunting presence or some such thing. Blackmore reported a variety of strange sensations; Roach heard a siren. Persinger's explanation for the effects he gets in some, but not all, subjects, has to do with a reduction of melatonin caused by the electromagnetic stimulation. Melatonin is an anti-convulsive and the less you have of it in your right temporal lobe, the more prone you are to "tiny epileptic-esque microseizures and the subtle hallucinations these seizures can cause" (218). Roach discovers that Persinger is not a skeptic and thinks that there is "actual information in the environment" that the normal brain can't pick up but that some people become enabled by electromagnetic stimulation (221). If Persinger thinks so then for Roach that's as plausible an explanation as that some folks are just hallucinating. I'll only comment that a philosopher would have hung around that notion a bit longer and examined it from a variety of angles to see if it really is as plausible as it sounds to Dr. Persinger. What is the nature of this information? How do you know it's not disinformation or misinformation? Where does it originate? How many layers of information might there be? Do they have different auras? If two people have different hallucinations maybe they're tapping into different layers of information or maybe they're just hallucinating differently. Why is Roach willing to apply Occam's razor in other instances but not this one?
There are also chapters on EVP and on attempts to get a picture of the soul (including Kirlian photography). But my favorite chapter is the one where she travels to a place called Mocksville, North Carolina, to investigate a ghost story from the 1920s. (The basic data of this story is available on the Internet. See episode C.) The story involves two wills, one allegedly discovered with the aid of a ghost. Roach brought in a document expert to evaluate the two wills, which were still intact in the courthouse basement. He quickly determines that the two wills weren't written by the same person and that the one the ghost helped recover was probably a forgery. You won't find a better ghost story for this Halloween season.
October 18, 2005
Robert T. Carroll