Response to Dieguez, S.

NDE experiment: ethical concerns. Skeptical Inquirer, 33 (5), 44-8

Dieguez argues that experiments in which targets are placed above emergency hospital beds to see whether people having NDEs can see them are unethical. He argues, among other things, that the experiment really begins before the patient even becomes ill, so they cannot give informed consent.

There are responses by Chris French and myself. Here is mine.

I stand by my comment that “If Parnia does the experiments properly, and his patients really can see those images, then I will change my mind about the paranormal. I don’t think it’s going to happen but I do think it’s worth him making the attempt.”

Dieguez claims (without giving evidence) that the targets are not kept blind or randomized properly. If he’s right the experiments are worthless but let us suppose they are done properly. Anecdotal reports of veridical NDEs may be “unconvincing” to Dieguez but they convince many people. So if experiments can show that paranormal claims are unverifiable (which I expect they will) and can also explain why people have these experiences even if nothing leaves the body, then this would greatly improve people’s understanding of death and dying. Alternatively if experiments show that people really do see hidden targets (which I do not expect but could conceivably happen) then this would mean a dramatic challenge to most of science. The comparison with the Intelligent Design debate is false. ID proponents do not propose viable experiments that could potentially provide such a challenge.

As for ethics – yes, Dieguez is “overreacting a little bit”. The targets cannot harm patients (unless you believe in the paranormal). The critical point is when the doctor asks whether they would like to talk about  their experiences. As long as they are given the chance to talk (as many like to do), or to decline to say anything at all then I see no serious ethical problem.

I want these experiments to be done. All those millions of people out there who proclaim they “know” they have a spirit that will survive death, and “know” that consciousness has powers beyond the body deserve to have their claims tested.