Thursday, 28 April 2016

Pseudoscience or "The New Science Of Afterlife Research." A Response to Stafford Betty.

This is a response to an article published by the Huffington post, April 27th, 2016, entitled "The New Science of Afterlife Research and Its Benefits to Society" by Professor of religious studies, Stafford Betty. In the article Betty heralds new research into the afterlife and the benefits it poses to humanity. Let's look at Stafford's argument and some of the latest breakthroughs in one of the areas he mentions.

Before moving forward, it's interesting to note that despite this article claiming to be about "new science" it was published in the Huff Po's religion section. Also, Betty is, as noted above a professor of religion not of any scientific discipline. Stafford's quotes in bold.
"One of the most revolutionary ideas ever conceived is that we are more than our bodies and that our true home lies beyond our physical planet... But the idea has an entirely different face today. Evidence for it is not based on traditional religious teaching, but on secular research into the mysterious depths of human consciousness."
There is secular research into this topic, as we'll tackle below, but that research hasn't provided any evidence supportive of any kind of afterlife. The best we can say these studies have provided is interesting data.
" Researchers as diverse as physicians studying the near-death experience and engineers setting up electronic equipment through which the deceased can communicate are the new high priests telling us about what to expect when we die." 

Near death experience research is notoriously difficult to apply controls to, sample sizes are typical very small and thus far researchers have failed to dismiss the fact that NDE can arise from naturalistic causes such as tunnel like structures resulting from the effects of prolonged oxygen deprivation on the eyes and brain. While I dismiss the claim it has provided evidence of the afterlife, I will accept that much NDE research is well conducted and therefore, it's probably unfair to outright dismiss it as pseudo-science. That's in stark contrast to the second line of evidence Betty cites, ITC. Is he serious here? Has he actually seen the quality of ITC research? It's laughable and easily dismissed and debunked. If Steve Huff is a legitimate researcher then I high;y recommend he checks out Tom and Jerry's important work in Fluid Dynamics!

Let's take a look at Huff's new "research" which Betty would likely see as evidence. His latest trick is to play the phenomes he snatches for scanning radio channels backwards, and claims that because they still form words this is evidence of spirit interference. 

Phenomic reversal is a well-understood phenomenon and it's not surprising that it creates sounds still subject to the effects of  audio pareidolia. Also, Huff clearly hasn't heard of the similar phenomena of backmasking, or he has and this is simply another way of pulling the wool over his follower's eyes.

Whatever, at least I can legitimately say Steve Huff is backwards now.

Of course, Betty doesn't cite Huff specifically, but I can't refute the actual work he cites, as he doesn't cite anything at all.... well he does cite one thing.... it's a doozy.and refutes almost everything he goes on to say... as you'll soon see. 

I've some bad ne
ws for Stafford, the new science he very quickly passes over in the article is nothing but pseudoscience and of as much worth as the spiritualist methods developed in the early 20th Century to investigating the spirit world. Zero.

In his conclusion Betty boldly states about these methods:
"Authentic channels through which the “dead” speak are the closest thing to the voice of God that our planet has."
And who authenticated these? Betty himself and believers in such channels? Science isn't self-authenticating. It's clear from this statement alone that Betty isn't really all that interested in science, it's a means to an end to disguise belief as knowledge. Truth in science isn't found as easily as stating something is so.

Betty continues:
"Missing, happily, are those primitive theologies of eternal damnation for some and divinely favored fates for others."

Really? ITC proponents frequently recourse to Christian mythology with messages from heaven and hell and demons and the like, and NDE cohorts frequently describe meeting theological figures such as Yahweh, Allah, and Jesus (all according to their own cultural influence of course)! Let's say that modern after-life research does forgo aspects like heaven and hell, so what? The whole idea of an afterlife is based on ancient theological concepts, you don't get to claim modernity because of the lack of a moralistic sorting system! Especially when believers will insert their own theological foundation when they process this research anyway. In Fact, we'll read Stafford do this himself in a moment.

Let's look at some of the benefits Betty claims Afterlife research brings, then I'll address the unwritten benefit I think he enjoys from this:

"We would see why it is rational to give play to the near universal instinct to pray, and through prayer help alleviate loneliness and despair in the face of personal tragedy."
After praising afterlife research for removing the old tenants of religion, Betty immediately reinserts one! After all, what is the point of praying if there is no deity to pray to? Also, that instinct to pray is often borne out of desperation and an inability or unwillingness to tackle problems we face. Praying solves nothing. In fact, one of the only studies into the effectiveness of intersectional prayer, conducted by the Templeton Foundation seemed to show that praying was detrimental to terminally ill patients life span!

"We would find strong support for the conviction that good actions meet with a happy destiny and selfish or criminal actions with the opposite. This “law of karma” has through the centuries provided the glue that helps societies stay more or less law-abiding, and it is affirmed over and over by spirit sources....The growing perception of a link between loving service to one’s neighbor and a happy outcome following death would gradually change society for the better."
Wait.... what? So after re-inserting a deity to the afterlife research Betty now sticks a reward system and implications of heaven and hell back in the mix! The hypocrisy of this absolutely staggers me, but I thank him for categorically nailing my earlier point for me. How about this revolutionary concept: perhaps we should partake in good actions and avoid the selfish and criminal because these things tend to negatively affect others? Perhaps, without notions of an afterlife, we could look at all of our lives as short and shared, and realise that is the fundamental reason to alleviate the suffering of others?

As for change "society for the better" let's look how the idea of a reward in heaven is bettering society right now.... actually... let's not you get the point.

"A deepening, widening belief in a plausible, attractive afterlife would discourage rampant greed and encourage a spirituality of compassion....  the enormous contrast between the wealthy and the impoverished of the world would be attenuated."

Yes, I totally agree with this, and just to emphasise the point here's an image of the previous head of the largest afterlife promoting organisation the world has ever seen sat on a golden throne and two of his followers...

Great attenuation going on there. Just great.

Sarcasm aside, many of Betty's arguments focus on the idea that society would benefit from more people accepting the existence of an afterlife, but common knowledge simply doesn't bear this out. Society wasn't generally better when ideas of the afterlife were more prevalent, nor are women and gay people treated any better in areas of the world where this is currently  the case, as he suggests.

"Fundamentalist religion would lose much of its appeal as the more spacious, inclusive worldviews opened up by this research replaced the divisive ideologies of bad religion. Resort to war based on these ideologies would wane, and world peace become more achievable."
Betty would argue this is the result of the particular religious systems in place at those times and in those locations, but those accepting the existence of the afterlife as a result of this research will stamp their own personal beliefs atop of the template he suggests it provides.

This isn't an argument to ignore evidence,  of course, that's not an issue we have at the moment, there is no evidence.

There's an even more outmoded theological concept to be trotted out though:
"Certain forms of mental illness would be properly diagnosed as having a spiritual etiology and would be appropriately treated. This treatment would bring relief to thousands of patients locked up in mental hospitals and to their families."
"Spiritual etiology" Betty isn't seriously talking about possession as a possible explanation for some mental illness here is he? This highlights a huge problem with  Betty's approach: he isn't waxing lyrical about a new paradigm at all: he is advocating the return to primitive beliefs and superstitions, but this time supported by what he believes is science.  That's his hidden benefit if a supposed branch of science supports his religious worldview, perhaps that worldview can be considered more than a throwback to less enlightened times. He as much as states so here:

"It would attract materialist-oriented scientists to a worldview devoid of supernatural absurdities and replace them with one governed by natural law—a natural law encompassing not only our physical world but our environment on the other side of death as well. Perhaps a new science of astral matter, already begun, would ripen."
Betty wants a scientifically supported religion but fails to realise that the concepts are mutually exclusive. The supernatural isn't an aspect of the natural world and most likely never will be. Details of the afterlife are outside what we view as the natural world because they simply can't be known.

As for this science of astral matter he's talking about, of course, he doesn't cite any references for this science, and I can't find any actual research on the matter. In fact, I can only assume that Betty has mistaken research in "astral matter science" as meaning astral as in the astral plane when what it actually means is matter created in supernovae and stellar events! Work on the kind of astral matter Betty eludes to is simply speculation and nothing more. Drawing any kind of conclusion about the astral plane requires more than just dumping materialism, it requires the presupposition that the damn thing exists in the first place without a smidgen of empirical evidence!

This isn't science, new or old. One can't apply the scientific method to speculation alone.

One of Betty's greatest problems is, I don't think he actually knows what science is. I find the idea of him describing researchers as "...the new high priests..." utterly terrifying. Science isn't religion, nor should it ever be, the scientific method finds it's main strength in the rejection of dogmatism, the sustaining force of religion. High priests were unquestionable, they had a direct line to whatever deity they claimed to serve, scientists are never beyond critique and never should be.

Betty concludes:
"Many of us hunger for a reliable revelation telling us that life here and now is meaningful and good, that each of us has an important part to play in its proper unfolding, that we are accountable for all we do, and that the spirit-denying materialism all around us is a mistake."

Just because you hunger for something doesn't mean you can fudge the truth, ignore evidence and pretend that data supports your wishes. Betty seems to think that without belief in the afterlife one must adopt some nihilistic worldview, This is utter nonsense. One can even find an close paradigm spirituality in a life without life after death. Consider this marvellous quote from physicist Lawerence Kraus for example, which perfectly sums up the wonder of life itself.

To me that's a more inspiring message that could ever be delivered by Steve Huff or a hundred years of NDE research. It gives us meaning in the here and now.

And if you think I've been a bit harsh to Betty and think that he isn't using supposed scientific research to legitimise his own theology, take a look at the only source he cites. His own most unfortunately titled, work: