I was “directed” to an article in the University of Virginia Magazine (I have no understanding of the relationship to the university… and don’t much care) about Dr. Jim Tucker’s work in the study of reincarnation. Tucker continues the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson, who did a lot of meticulous case studies on reincarnation and near-death experiences.
I have some serious concerns about this whole enterprise. Not because I disbelieve in reincarnation, but because I don’t think that interviewing 2-6 year-old-children is a valid research technique.
The article opens with Ryan, a 4-year-old boy, who would pretend play at being a movie director and told his mother that he dreamed his heart exploded on a set. He described a big white house with a swimming pool and three sons.
Then one day, while paging through a book on Hollywood, the boy pointed to a picture taken during filming of a 1930s movie and said, “That’s George, we did a picture together. And [pointing to another man int he picture] that’s me!”
According to Tucker, while rare, claims like this are not unique.
I’d like to quote something from the article here.
In his latest book, Return to Life, due out this month, Tucker details some of the more compelling American cases he’s researched and outlines his argument that discoveries within quantum mechanics, the mind-bending science of how nature’s smallest particles behave, provide clues to reincarnation’s existence.
At this point, I just have to stop and wonder what Tucker and the university is smoking. Let’s be perfectly clear, quantum mechanics is an exceedingly complex area of modern physics and is vastly important to devices like computers and nuclear power plants. It’s well understood… by some people. And wildly misunderstood by everyone else.
Whenever someone starts suggesting that quantum mechanics explains some weird thing that someone experiences, I just tune out. It’s Deepak Chopra and his ilk all over again. Now, if (and that’s a huge if) someone can explain, using the mathematics and particle theories of quantum mechanics how something like a person’s brain state can be transferred in both time and space and imprinted on another living thing (which in some explanations of reincarnation doesn’t even have a brain yet), then and only then can they be considered credible.
Everything that we are, everything we’ve experienced is encoded in the squishy mass of neurons that is our brain. Damage to that brain can change what we remember, how we act, even how we can control our own bodies. There has never, ever been a single experiment that shows that any portion of what makes us… well… us can exist without the substrate that we run on.
In a sense, we are very similar to computers. Our memory, operating system, software, and the like run on the hardware. Without the hardware, or a very specific and well understood set of conditions, the memory, OS, and software can’t even exist. Things like WiFi can send data, but hardware at each end has to process the data.
Neither Tucker nor Stevenson have proposed and tested a mechanism by which our brains could send a signal to another brain… that doesn’t even exist yet. This is roughly equivalent to me compressing all the data on my hard drive, sending out via WiFi signal, then tearing my computer apart. After a year or so, I build a new computer, then (somehow) manage to catch that WiFi signal and some of that data is still viable and imprints itself on my new hard drive. Does that seem a little hard to swallow?
Tucker says he has 2500+ case studies. So?
My boy pretends he’s a ninja. It doesn’t mean he lived in feudal Japan. The true believers might say, “but your boy saw a show about ninjas”. Well, that’s true. I bought him season 1 and 2 of Ninjago. Now, provide evidence that a single one of those cases wasn’t influenced like my son was by a TV show.
“I was curious about the idea of life after death and whether the scientific method could be used to study it,” Tucker says.
Can he actually describe a valid scientific experiment to study life after death? I don’t think that he can. Let me provide some statistics from the article.
Look closely at these numbers. They are meaningless. There is nothing there. It’s a big stack of made up numbers. That’s all it is. What a waste of effort.
Tucker’s research indicate that the children generally have ‘above average’ IQs. Nearly 20% of the children have a birthmark or deformity that matches the marks of injuries of the person they claimed to be.
Seriously? Twenty whole percent eh? That’s a pretty stunning result. I’ve read some of Stevenson’s claims. IIRC one child had a birthmark on the back of his head that supposedly looked like a gunshot wound.
Again, so what? Can anything in this research explain why 80% of the kids don’t have a similar mark? Or how all of the rest of the kids (and adults) in the world who do have birthmarks don’t have past-life experiences? I have a birthmark on my foot. Does that mean I’m repressing a memory of a past life, because I assure you, I haven’t experienced anything like this before.
But here’s my real problem with Tucker. He’s not a scientist. Let’s look at some of the things he is quoted as saying in this article.
Tucker says his hypothesis is based on more than just wishful thinking.
“It’s much more than a hope,” he says. “Having direct positive evidence for a theory can have value, even if negative evidence against it is not possible.”
You don’t have direct positive evidence. You don’t have a theory either. You have a notion and some anecdotal stories that may or may not have any value at all. This sounds very much like what creationists say.
Tucker has also considered simple childhood fantasy play, but that doesn’t explain how the details children offer can sometimes lead back to a particular individual. “It defies logic that it would just be a coincidence,” he says.
Let’s get this straight. You are taking some stories told by children. Then comparing those stories to all of human history and finding some pieces that are similar. And you consider this to be sufficient evidence that reincarnation exists. Yeesh.
It doesn’t “defy logic” either. It’s called statistical analysis. And my introduction to statistics class was taught by the psychology department, not the math department. Let’s take a 5 year-old child. That means that they were born sometime in 2008 (probably). Now, this child, whose total prior knowledge is known to no one (no one is with their children 100% of the time) says something. Someone, usually a parent, thinks that what the child is odd (my kid says odd stuff all the time) and maybe does some research.
Kid says, “my heart exploded” and seems to pretend to be directing movies. Parent takes child and looks through a picture book of Hollywood. Kid points to picture and says “that’s me”.
I’m really curious if Tucker actually investigate this boy’s claims at all. Just out of curiosity, I looked up Night After Night. Then I did some quick research into the actors. One did die of a heart attack on the set of another movie. He had no children. One did have three children, but he dies of bone cancer.
Despite the otherworldly nature of their stories, almost none of the children exhibit any signs of being particularly enlightened, Tucker says.
And what does that have to do with anything?
“I understand the leap it takes to conclude there is something beyond what we can see and touch,” says Tucker, who served as medical director of the University’s Child and Family Psychiatry Clinic for nearly a decade. “But there is this evidence here that needs to be accounted for, and when we look at these cases carefully, some sort of carry-over of memories often makes the most sense.”
No, it doesn’t. Especially if Tucker hasn’t even bothered to verify that the carry-over memories are even valid.
More and more this sounds like a “buy my book” kind of thing.
Earlier today, Russell Blackford tweeted: “Incident that goes against my prejudices: mere anecdote, which is not data. Incident that confirms my prejudices: powerful, salient example.”
This is exactly what this ‘research’ is. Now, if more data comes in, I may change my mind. If it’s actual evidence and not just stories with zero support. Especially if those stories are wrong.