Friday, August 30, 2013

Disproof of Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven

Introduction

For those who don’t know, Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who claimed the following. He was in a coma induced by bacterial meningitis that left him with an all-but-destroyed brain. As such, while in this coma he was incapable of hallucinating or dreaming what he experienced: a trip to heaven. Eben Alexander also had some memories of surrounding events while he was in his coma.

He wrote about his experiences in his book, Proof of Heaven, published October 2012. Some months later, it had sold well over a million copies and had been a #1 New York Times best seller. In case anybody’s worried about his income not being heavenly enough, he also sells a $59 webinar series called “Discover Your Own Proof of Heaven.” Eben Alexander’s website lifebeyonddeath.net describes it like this:

Now fully recovered [from his coma] and determined to share his experience with the world, Dr. Alexander offers this four-part online course, the first of its kind.

He has partnered with brainwave entrainment pioneers Sacred Acoustics to create an unprecedented program to guide you to a blissful brain state where you can seek out your own connection to source. Each session includes a live talk from Dr. Alexander on the insights he gained through his NDE, meditation instructions from Karen Newell, co-founder of Sacred Acoustics, and an exclusive download of a Sacred Acoustics audio meditation designed in collaboration with Dr. Alexander and enhanced by acoustic brainwave entrainment technology.

It should come has no surprise that skeptics wish to debunk Eben Alexander’s claims about his experiences as e.g. hallucinatory. But the real explanation is the ugly word that even skeptics are reluctant to accuse a fellow man of science.

Fraud.

Background from The Esquire Article

The August 2013 issue of Esquire published its findings of an investigation that took months in an article called “The Prophet.” I’ll be citing page numbers from the paper-version of the magazine which begins on p. 88. Should anybody wish to read the online version, it is (as of this writing) available for $1.99, and in my opinion a couple bucks is well worth the price of admission.

According to the Esquire article, Eben Alexander was a man plagued with lawsuits and terminations of surgical privileges. One lawsuit involved Alexander allegedly “not informing the woman that permanent facial paralysis might result from the operation,” which, unfortunately, it did. When inquiring about the two-page consent form the woman signed, Alexander could find only the first page.

And that page, as the lawyer noted, had multiple punch holes and fray marks, indicating that it had been filed in [the patient’s] chart, extracted from the file, and later refilled.” Further, he said, additional documents had also gone missing, including a letter that the patient’s primary neurosurgeon had sent to Alexander, notifying him of her postoperative facial paralysis. The woman’s attorney argued that “it is reasonable to infer that this pattern of disappearance of probative evidence was not coincidental, but was in fact deliberate.” The attorney was arguing, in other words, that when Alexander found things that didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell, he changed them, or made them disappear altogether.

Sometime later, Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston terminated his surgical privileges by virtue of firing him. Was the lawsuit a factor? Maybe, but another possible factor was a novel his friend Michael Palmer wrote called The Patient. Folks at Brigham who read it soon realized that the protagonist was a stand-in for Alexander (though the protagonist was female) and “the vile, venal chief of neurosurgery, the fictional Carl Gilbride, was supposed to be the Brigham’s real-life chair of neurosurgery, Eben Alexander’s boss” (pp. 93-94) whom Eben Alexander did not get along with.

He later became a surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center, but in August 2003 the hospital suspended Alexander’s surgical privileges “on the basis or allegation of improper performance of surgery” (p. 94). One example: “a bit of plastic was left behind in a woman’s neck” which resulted in another lawsuit for poor Alexander. He later resigned from his hospital and moved to Virginia, where he worked at Lynchburg General Hospital.

The lawsuits didn’t end there. Eben Alexander accidentally fused the wrong vertebrae during surgery on a tobacco farmer’s back. By July 12, 2007 he saw his mistake and had his first follow-up with the tobacco farmer, but he didn’t tell him. Instead he edited his operative report of the surgery to make it look like he hadn’t done anything wrong (p. 95). It’s unclear when the hospital found out about Alexander’s mistake, but Alexander confessed to the patient about his mistake and the hospital terminated Eben Alexander’s surgical privileges. The event caused the tobacco farmer to file a $3 million lawsuit. By the time the patient filed the lawsuit, Alexander found another job. While the boss at his new job described Alexander as brilliant, he also said that “Neurosurgery requires the ability to intensely concentrate on one thing for a long period of time” and that this was “not Eben’s MO.”

With a $3 million lawsuit pending, Alexander could really use a lot of cash, and when the lawsuit was in its preliminary stages, Eben Alexander went into the aforementioned coma. After he came out of it, he would claim he had visited heaven, and would write a book called Proof of Heaven. By the time his pending lawsuits are resolved, Alexander “will have settled five malpractice cases in the last ten years” (p. 95). In case you’re wondering whether that’s a lot, Esquire reports that “Only one other Virginia-licensed neurosurgeon has settled as many cases in that time period, and none have settled more” (p. 95).

If I were Eben Alexander, I’d consider obtaining another source of income before my license got revoked, preferably one with a lot of money to help me with that huge pending lawsuit. Guess it’s awfully lucky for this neurosurgeon that he had this very profitable experience of visiting heaven as the $3 million lawsuit was hovering over him, huh? Not only did he make scads of money from the experience via the #1 New York Times bestselling book, he also sells other stuff pertaining to his experience, including the “Discover Your Own Proof of Heaven” webinar series and something he calls “meditative acoustics.” According to his website, he also co-founded an organization called “Eternea” where, if you’re willing to shell out $1,200 a year or more, you can qualify for a membership status called “archangel.” The organization also has something it calls the “Blue Butterfly Society” which according to their website comprises of “high net worth individuals” and “celebrities, top athletes, as well as prominent corporate and political leaders from around the world.” Governors are for “top benefactors.” How “top” is a top benefactor? The web page I saw didn’t say, but an old web page that no longer exists on the website did; it said that membership dues begin at $10,000 per year, and lifetime membership is offered to anyone who makes a major lump sum gift of $25,000 or more. (Guess what Scientology, you might have some competition!) And with Eben Alexander having committed serious offenses of deception (his attempted cover-ups in the malpractice lawsuits) when the deceptions suited him financially, how could anybody not find this man credible and trustworthy?

Proof of Heaven?

Eben Alexander’s background as depicted by Esquire (and my own bit of web research) is already enough to warrant at least the suspicion of fraud, but there’s more. First, I’ll start with something relatively minor. Alexander reports that during his coma it been raining for six consecutive days that just before he awakened from his coma, the rain stopped and there was a “perfect rainbow.” One problem: the meteorological data don’t support his story of the six consecutive days of rain (though there were three days of rain during the coma), and there could not have been a rainbow on the day he awoke from the coma (p. 125).

Maybe that’s a mild fabrication, but the big one is the cause of the coma. Alexander’s medical records of the coma are confidential, and Alexander hasn’t made them public, but one of the doctors treating him when the EMTs brought Alexander in November 10, 2008 (the start of Alexander’s coma) had to put him in a chemically induced coma, whereas Alexander claims his coma was caused by bacterial meningitis. Alexander doesn’t mention the chemically induced cause of the coma in his book Proof of Heaven. Was Alexander left with an “all-but-destroyed brain” during his coma like he claimed, thus unable to experience hallucinatory experiences? Nope; during the first few days of the coma he was conscious in the sense that he could have conscious experiences (hallucinatory or otherwise). In the words of the doctor, he was “Conscious but delirious” (p. 126). Add this on top of his history of deceitfully altering the historical facts to suit him in the case of his medical malpractices, when all the evidence is considered, Eben Alexander is probably a fraud.

Lessons to Learn

The incident has lessons to teach for both skeptics and religious believers. What lesson might this teach skeptics? Take a look at Scientific American’s response to Eben Alexander in April 2013. If you read carefully, you’ll see that it doesn’t really refute Eben Alexander’s claims. To be sure, it mentions various cases of hallucinatory experiences, such as parkinsonian postencephalitic patients and migraine headaches. But none of these apply to a case where a person reports vivid at-length dream-like experiences when the physical brain is incapable of producing such experiences (and memories thereof) due to the sort of coma Eben Alexander allegedly had. Someone in the article suggests that maybe the near death experience occurred “as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function.” But that doesn’t quite work because Alexander allegedly had memories of surrounding events that occurred while he was in his coma.

To the unbiased observer who is agnostic about Alexander’s claims, this article would have had all the appearance of blowing smoke in our eyes. If one doesn’t yet have the refutation for some position, the intellectually honest thing to do is to admit we don’t have the refutation yet and do some investigation (which in this case took several months). But that isn’t quite what happened with Scientific American here. From one vantage point that’s understandable; wouldn’t even a temporary silence regarding what’s wrong with Alexander’s claims look bad for us skeptics? So why wait for a thorough investigation to unravel the real truth?

Here’s one unfortunate fact of life that skeptics and everyone else has to face: just because a belief is wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean we will have the immediate means to show that it is false. I understand it would look pretty bad if someone claims to have scientific evidence for a claim like Eben Alexander’s and us skeptics were stunned to silence, admitting we don’t yet know of a refutation. So the temptation then comes to say something, even if it’s B.S., just to avoid the sort of silence that might lead one to believe the false claim is actually true. Is that what happened here? Yes, but maybe not intentionally. It’s quite possible that the author sincerely believed that what he said had something to do with Eben Alexander’s hallucinatory experiences, but at the very least he gave a false impression of refuting Alexander’s claims when the real refutation had yet to arrive.

I also hope the case of Eben Alexander serves as a lesson for religious believers. If even a neurosurgeon with what seemed to be very strong evidence for a visit to heaven (while in a coma in which he allegedly couldn’t have any conscious experiences, a brilliant neurosurgeon who worked at one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals experienced a trip to heaven etc.) can be phony, we should also have a great deal of skepticism about supposed trips to heaven (or hell) for pretty much anybody else. Granted, the reason for other people’s phony experiences might not always be fraud, but we should still be skeptical. I think even religious believers are capable of, to at least degree, embracing the virtue of reasonable skepticism.

Fortunately, there are religious believers like that, e.g. this theist who reviewed Eben Alexander’s book who engaged in some healthy, critical thinking. A bit of digging (reading the comments associated with the review) suggests that the reviewer appears to be a theologically liberal Christian who is agnostic about the afterlife. Even though the reviewer wasn’t aware that the cause of the coma was not as Eben Alexander claimed, the reviewer was still astute enough to observe that Alexander’s “medical practice was going down the toilet and he needed to make some easy money.” Christians and other religious believers could learn a lot from this person.