when pseudoskepticism meets religious snake oil
Skeptico might sound like a skeptical blog, but as demonstrated by its approach to a profile of Dr. Eben Alexander, it's anything but.
Starting a skeptical blog is exactly like starting any other blog. No committee requests to review your posts and approve the skeptical label, no regular audits of your content are held by JREF, or any other skeptical group, and the only third party classification of skepticism you’ll get would come from DMOZ, which would select a category to post a link to your blog so web crawlers for major search engines can quickly and easily index it. But at the same time, when you find blogs that use the s-word in their titles and tags, there’s a certain kind of content you expect from the posts and podcasts. You’ll be looking for references to scientific works, critical takes on personal testimony and anecdotal evidence, and a distinct lack of conspiracy theories. Just imagine your surprise when a blog called Skeptico rushes to defend a doctor who claimed to have proof of a picturesque afterlife after a bout with meningitus from the “liberal atheist media” following a less than flattering expose of him and his troubled background in Esquire. Seems odd, right?
Yes, to be fair, the article seemed very clear about where it was going even before it started to officially challenge Dr. Eben Alexander’s story, which while very typical among those who went through near death experiences, was very much the kind of agenda-first journalism I decried a few weeks ago. But that said, while the Tinder story blatantly ignored science that sabotaged a point it wanted to make and its writer employed all manner of semantic games to wave it away, the tale about Alexander is unflattering, but factual. He had the training and skills to be a really great surgeon, but he made mistakes and tried to cover his tracks when caught by patients who were harmed by his inattention to detail. It’s very unlikely, at least to me, that he spun his tale of seeing the afterlife out of whole cloth, but it does seem likely he fine-tuned it to make sure it will fly off the shelves and get him maximum exposure. These are not tricks unknown to the market for books and public appearances by those claiming firsthand accounts of the afterlife.
And if we turn to Skeptico for a look under the name, we’ll find not so much a skeptical blog that looks into near death experiences as much as we will ardent supporters of these stories whose goal isn’t so much to find a scientific explanation for visions during NDEs, but to come up with a scientific word salad to support the idea of the afterlife. They are not skeptics but believers with an axe to grind against atheists and skeptical scientists and their entire proof of malfeasance in the story ran by Esquire is a conspiracy theory that the writer is carrying out orders from a dark cabal of atheists, liberals, and doctors threatened by Alexander’s story and desperate to take an accomplished neurosurgeon down a few notches. Throughout the transcript we never do learn exactly what was being lied about or evidence that quotes were being misappropriated, we are simply assured that it happened because, well, Mrs. Alexander says so. And if you keep looking around the site, you’ll find a dozen more hypercritical posts about Dr. Alexander’s skeptics.
Look, I get it. Airtight evidence of an afterlife, even a religiously ambiguous one, would make all the injustices, problems, and suffering of our existence much easier to bear. Knowing that your death would reunite you with lost loved ones and favorite pets would make a terminal diagnosis feel like a bit less of a burden. Humans, understanding their own mortality, have been picturing some sort of life after death since the first shamans and cave paintings, desperately hoping that this is not all there is to existence. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have NDEs that are so thoroughly researched and inexplicable that we can cite them in peer reviewed literature and replicate them. If we did, religious snake oil salesmen wouldn’t be chasing people who suffered one to write stories about visiting the other side and speaking authoritatively about what we will encounter once we shed our mortal coil to an audience desperately eager for reassurance. The people who run and frequent Skeptico are part experiencers, part anxious believers, and in part victims of a lucrative market for the ultimate reassuring story. But they’re not skeptics.