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Letters to the Editor

Lewis Jones

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.3, September 1994

There was one remarkable omission from “The Diary of a No-Body” (SB, June 1994). Lewis Jones made absolutely no mention of dreams and dreaming. Yet no one seems to have offered any reason why we should not say that those who have near-death or out-of-body experiences (NDEs or OBEs) are having dreams of a sort.

So if anyone wants to say that some patients with such experiences somehow did actually make trips out of their bodies and did not merely dream that they did, then we need to be told not only why something more than a dream was involved but also what that something was that supposedly made a trip out of its body.

The only reason for holding that something more than a normal dream has sometimes been involved which has ever been offered to me is the claim that sometimes patients who had OBEs have subsequently produced, about places supposedly visited while out of the body, information that was not accessible to them from the positions in which their bodies were at the time of their OBEs.

If the truth of such claims could be established, then that certainly would constitute evidence of paranormal extrasensory perception (ESP); but of ESP by the patients of the OBEs lying in their beds and to all appearance asleep. Since the immaterial something hypothesized as the supposed out of the body tripper could have no sense organs, any information it obtained would have to be obtained by ESP. It would, therefore, be a gross offense against Ockhamist principles of postulational economy in addition to attempt to hypothesize an immaterial out of the body tripper. “Attempt” is the key word here, for it is very far from certain that such an attempt can succeed. See, for instance, Part V of Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Parapsychology, ed. by Antony Flew (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1987).

Yours Faithfully,
Antony Flew

To the Editor: Bob Dietz (SB, June 1994) objects to Carl Sagan’s assertion (following the work of Tom Gilovich) that the “hot hand” in basketball does not really exist. Dietz urges that you “keep this stuff out of SB unless you have someone in-house who has some semi-sophisticated sports knowledge.”

I suggest that Dietz refrain from such comments unless he has some "semi-sophisticated” statistics knowledge. The hot hand is a relatively simple example of the kind of phenomena that CSICOP watches regularly. There is no objective evidence for a hot hand in basketball either at the professional level or at the college level, despite several observational studies and some designed experiments. (See How We Know What Isn't So, by Tom Gilovich, [Free Press, 1991].

The natural null hypothesis in this case is that there is no special magical effect of making several baskets in a row. That is, a player’s chance of making the subsequent field goal is a probability that reflects his overall abilities and changes little during a game-or even across several games. Apparent runs of successes and failures are the naturally occurring runs of a random binomial event (a coin flip with an unbalanced coin) with that success probability. Those who assert, as Dietz does, that there is a hot hand in basketball have the onus of proof on them. Simply asserting that the hot hand exists because you believe in it is no different from asserting that astrology predicts the future or that UFOs exist. The fact that a supposed phenomenon is widely believed to exist is hardly objective evidence of its existence.

Gilovich explains how people can come naturally to believe in a hot hand when what they see is only a random binomial process. I discuss the hot hand in my statistics classes and never fail to find students who are as certain as Dietz that I must be wrong. The illusion is so compelling that, even when we know that what we are seeing is random, it is hard not to find a pattern. SB should be commended for bringing this phenomenon (and Gilovich’s book) to wider attention.

Paul F. Velleman
Dept. of Economic and Social Statistics
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Dear Editor: It is articles like Lewis Jones’s “The Diary of a No-Body", that unfortunately give skepticism a bad name. His simplistic discussion of “Near Death” and “Out of Body” experiences, which limited itself to a false dichotomy of either soul/astral body on the one side or fantasy/urban myth on the other, showed a surprising ignorance of Susan Blackmore’s third approach, as discussed in her Fall 1991 article in the Skeptical Inquirer.

Blackmore searches for an alternative (in the structure of the brain and the workings of consciousness) to the “certain afterlife/separate soul” theory of these phenomena, without disregarding either their existence or the effect they have had on numerous lives. It is a fact that many people have had spontaneous, life-changing NDEs and OBEs, regardless of the literal accuracy of their philosophic comprehension of these events.

One may discount (as I do) the existence of a “personal savior god,” or an afterlife, or a separate “spirit-soul,” without disregarding the actual experiences of a large and growing group of people. OBEs and NDEs are phenomena to be studied and understood, not dismissed out of hand through the convenient and somewhat condescending limitations of simplistic false dichotomy.

Whether or not there is something that actually leaves the body, something experiential is happening that, at the very least, has convinced a sizable collection of individuals that this is the case. Blackmore and others feel that this is a worthwhile and potentially valuable area of study.

It is sometimes true that between any two choices, the third may be most promising.

Michael Steinberg
Berkeley, Calif.

Lewis Jones responds: My article was not about experiences: it was about claims that something physical can literally leave the human body and roam the world, seeing and remembering. (At the London Institute of Psychiatry, they are trying to track down some entity that wanders up to the ceiling and makes observations.) The decision to forget about the claims and simply study “experiences” is a familiar fallback position in the world of the paranormal. I know there are those who consider this “a worthwhile and potentially valuable area of study.” I don’t, since nothing follows from it.

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.