The Afterlife Experiments

The Afterlife Experiments is a lucid, well-written, thought–provoking book. The book starts out with a quote from the works of William James, the founding father of American Psychology, a man who actually accepted evolution and believed that our minds had evolved to help us survive! The words quoted state “In order to disprove the law that all crows are black, it is enough to find one white crow.” Presumably, the author has found not one, but five such crows!

Dr. Gary Schwartz, is described as a professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at University of Arizona and is the director of Human Energy Systems Laboratory.

Dr. Schwartz has published more than four hundred research papers in his field in prestigious journals and has more than eleven books to his credit.

Dr. Schwartz and his friend, Dr. Linda Russek, a psychologist who believes her dead father communicates with her, jointly conducted the experiments described in the book.

The author should be congratulated for running well-controlled experiments on Medium-received information and getting the work published.

The last set of experiments described in the book rule out the “Barnum Effect” as an explanation of the high ratings given to the readings by the participants. (“Barnum Effect” attributes the vagueness and generality of statements made by horoscope writers, to people believing that those statements correctly describe their personalities.)

The experiments mainly consist of having well-known “mediums” such as John Edward, George Anderson, Suzane Northrop, Rev. Anne Gehman and a relatively less-known newcomer named Laurie Campbell, to do readings for the same set of people, simply called “sitters”, and have the sitters grade the mediums’ statements on a rating scale as to the applicability and accuracy of the readings. The participants (both the mediums and the sitters) are also attached to EEG and ECG machines and the entire session is also videotaped and audio-taped for good measure!

The author is very aware of all the objections professional skeptics like James Randi and Michael Sherman (mentioned by name in the book) are likely to come up with. He discusses those objections thoroughly in his book, and takes great precautions to make his studies fool-proof by running blind studies and making sure that the identity of the sitters is not made known to any persons other than himself and his trusted partner, except at the last minute.

As they get better at designing fool-proof experiments, Dr. Schwartz makes sure that the mediums do the readings without seeing or hearing the sitters, first. They then continue with the reading after they have heard the sitter’s voice in a brief “hello”. The final set of experiments is conducted such that a “blind” silent sitter is given two readings to score. One is done for him or her by a “blind” medium, and the other reading is one that was done for some other blind and silent sitter. Both the readings are to be scored for personal relevance and accuracy. The results indicate that even with this protocol the sitters pick the reading that was done for them, as relevant, and assign a high score for accuracy to it, while assigning a score of “zero relevance” or close to a reading which was not meant for them. It is this part of the experiment that neatly dismisses the “Barnum Effect” as a plausible answer. Now all we need is replication of this part of the experiment by another reputable University or College.

Dr. Schwartz also relates what he thinks, is a very salient episode, via the transcripts of the sittings. As you read through the Medium’s statements and the Sitter’s yes/no responses, you realize that each of the five Mediums picks-up the violent suicide of one of the sitter’s sons. The words they choose to describe the tragic event differ, but it is clear that they all are referring to the same event. What is more, some of the mediums even ask the sitter directly, whether the person who died the violent death was her son, and whether or not he had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head! A very daring thing to do if someone is just “guessing”, and indeed, Dr. Schwartz and his collaborators are duly impressed.

However, it is not possible to rule out fraud in this particular episode because, the sitter, a Pat Price, was selected to sit, not by Dr. Schwartz, but by someone from HBO who taped the session for Television! When conducting Scientific Experiments, it is best not to involve the Media or any “for profit” organization. Another problem with the Pat Price reading is that the transcripts indicate that Ms. Price does not contradict the Mediums, even when the information given is blatantly incorrect in two instances. One is when the medium tells her that her husband is dead when he is very much alive, and the other when he says she must have had a miscarriage, when she had not had one. If her rating cannot be trusted when it is given out loudly and orally, how can it be trusted when she scores the statements silently, by herself?

Two other problems with the book are, first, Dr. Schwartz starts the book by talking about some code that he sets up with the help of a Mediumistic housewife named Suzy Smith and Dr. Linda Russek. Suzy Smith is supposed to help someone break the code and win a sum of $10,000.00 by divulging the code from “the other side”, after her death! Towards the end of the book, Suzy Smith is reported to have died, but there is no mention of her helping any body to break the code or any invitation to the readers to try to break the code!

The other problem is that the relevance of the massive amount of ECG & EKG data collected during the readings is not at all clear. This author wondered if Dr. Schwartz was referring to a phenomenon similar to evoked potentials, but did not seem like it. Dr. Schwartz talks of “detecting ECG triggered in the medium by the sitter” and vice versa, but does not explain it well enough to understand what he means by it and what exactly the “triggered” ECG has to do with the medium’s ability to convey messages from the sitter’s dead relatives. A “Control group” made up of people who are not Mediums, but who simply sit opposite the sitters and also get attached to ECGs is not mentioned.

Every Skeptic ought to read this book, even if the aim is to dissect every statement and dismiss it by relegating it to one of several categories described as “loose-procedure effect”, “self-deception”, “Barnum & Bailey Effect” or the skeptics favorite F word category…“Fraud”. All in all, a challenging piece of work. Hopefully it will get other scientists involved in experimental work regarding messages from the other side!

The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death by Dr. Gary E Schwartz, Ph.D. with William L. Simon, 1st Ed. March 2002, Pocket Books, New York. ISBN: 0-7434-3658-X