Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Have Scientists REALLY Confirmed Life After Death Exists Or Has The Sun Created A New Level Of Hyperbole?

"LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL: Scientists ‘confirm’ life after death exists with ground-breaking study" declares a breathless headline in Sunday's Sun newspaper. The story, unlike the paper's usual paranormal churn, doesn't reside in the paper's "weird" section, it sits proudly in the news proper section, although how much of an honour that is in this publication is questionable.

The first alarm bell that should sound upon reading the article is that the word "confirmed" appears in inverted commas. Did scientists confirm this or not? It turns out, reading further on in the article reveals that the words "life after death" should very probably also be in inverted commas, much like the approach the Telegraph took when reporting this story, way back in October 2014 (yep it's the same study from Southhampton). No-one ever said the broadsheets were above sensationalism, at least they use punctuation in a suitably weasely way.

So clearly when the Sun says "A new study shows people continue experiencing awareness for up to three minutes after death.what the reporter must actually mean is a study that's new to them, as this study, by Dr Sam Parnia and Southampton University was published in Resuscitation: The Journal of The European Resuscitation Council back in their December 2014 volume!

The article begins with what I believe passes for philosophy and deep thought in the Murdoch press:
"DEATH is an inevitable consequence of life, but scientists believe they may have found some light at the end of the tunnel. Life after death has been “confirmed” by experts who say consciousness continues even once a person’s heart has stopped beating."
So far so good, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn't the kind of "life after death" you may have been expecting.
"In a study of more than 2,000 people, British scientists confirmed that thought persists after death, and simultaneously uncovered convincing evidence of an out-of-body experience for a patient declared dead by medics. Scientists had believed the brain ceased all activity 30 seconds after the heart stopped pumping blood around the body, and that awareness stopped at the same time.But research from the University of Southampton suggests otherwise.A new study shows people continue experiencing awareness for up to three minutes after death."
Three minutes that's hardly skipping through the clouds with Aunt Mildred as that headline may have led you to believe, nor is this a newly discovered phenomena. All that has changed is the length of time consciousness has been found continued after the heart stopped beating, if the study is correct. This also highlights a common failing in reports about "death", there are different standards of death. What the study is referring to is the heart stopping and the cessation of respiration, clinical death.  This isn't death as such. The success of modern resuscitation methods has necessitated the introduction of the concept of "brain death" when the brain stem dies and there is no further hope of resuscitation.

Obviously, it isn't this form of death which these patients experienced. Had it been, I suspect that Dr Parnia and his colleagues may have had some trouble surveying them about their cognitive experiences whilst their heart had stopped. Here's the critical flaw in reporting of the significance of this study: none of these patients died. This isn't a study of consciousness after "death" or extrapolated further "life after death". It's a study of consciousness during heart failure. You may well think that it's superfluous for me to point out this blatantly obvious flaw, which really should go without saying. To that I respond, the Sun ran with this story a stock image (below) of a body with a bloody toe-tag on it! I don't think the reporter who wrote this considered this distinction at all when they lazily picked images to fit in the text!

Laughably the Sun then quote Dr Sam Parnia, the head researcher on the study, who gives a definition of "death" which completely discredits all of the Sun's hyperbole thus far:
“Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs and brain to cease functioning.If attempts are made to reverse this process, it is referred to as ‘cardiac arrest’; however, if these attempts do not succeed it is called ‘death’.”
So Parnia believes that "clinical death" is a somewhat moot term, that's arguable, but it's clear by that standard he cannot consider any of the patients surveyed to have actually experienced death!

Let me further put the boot into this article, the study doesn't mention clinical death once. Patients are described as cardiac arrest sufferers. The addition of ideas of "death" have clearly been added to the press coverage for purposes of sensationalism. Now, it's perhaps unfair to ascribe this to the Sun, as it's clearly an aspect of the earlier Telegraph report. What worries me is that no one has corrected the press with regards to this blatant inaccuracy, or someone has and the press have completely ignored their words of caution. I can only speculate on that, but what I'm sure of is no one from the Sun bothered to check the paper they were reporting on, and they have no urge to allow their readers to do the same as they don't actually link to the paper in the story. Clicking the link highlighted by the word study takes the reader to a laughable page of all the "research" the Sun has reported on (left).

At best the only finding we can extrapolate from the original study, and that's if we consider it methodologically sound, is that consciousness may survive for a short time after the heart ceases, perhaps longer than initially suspected. Even this finding of the possible extended duration of consciousness is perhaps not surprising, we may well be discovering this now as a result of modern resuscitation methods are bringing patients "back" from clinical deaths after longer periods.

Ah but wait... there is something extraordinary left to be explored here, remember this tease from earlier in the article?
"...(the study) simultaneously uncovered convincing evidence of an out-of-body experience for a patient declared dead by medics...."
To be clear this is an abnormality of one patient in 2000, in terms of the study there is nothing statistically significant here. Also, I don't see any reason to suspect that this was an out-of-body experience or to suggest it as evidence of mind/body duality. Here's how Parnia describes the patient's experience:

“This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating. In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat.This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.”
Parnia should know better, what he is describing here is pure anecdote. He only has testimonies of the patient and those involved in the resuciation that the events were similar, also we are given no indication of how similar. I'm pretty sure I could roughly describe what's going on in an emergency room, how specific was the patient. Secondly, maybe he could hear what was going on around him, we've established that he may have had consciousness, is it that much of a stretch to imagine he had auditory input too? Am I missing something, and if I am, please point it out to me, why does any of this suggest an out of body experience?

Perhaps unsurprisingly there's no mention of this particular patient in the abstract, methodology, results or conclusion of Parnia's paper. It may lie somewhere in the main body of text unavailable to me as it's behind a paywall, but one should expect if it had the significance Parnia ascribes to it, one would find it in these sections.

It makes me rather sad to see a legitimate study, though I suspect quite flawed, reported in such a sensationalist way. Especially considering it seems the head researcher has been happy to indulge such sensationalism. There's an interesting and important hypothesis lurking in this paper, and it may well yield findings and further studies to match. It's a shame that a public becoming more open to scientific reporting is unlikely to ever be exposed to these things.