Pseudoscience in the Media

 My good friend Sarah showed me a clip of the celebrity physician Dr. Oz discuss a near death experience (NDE) with some 'experts' and a patient who claimed to have had one. I'll briefly summarize the clip and address some major concerns I had with it.

    Dr. Oz brings on a lady who was hit by a truck while riding 
her bike and claimed to have a near death experience. Before that, Dr. Oz talks to a grief consoler who doesn’t say anything of value in my opinion. He mentions how people often see their mother before they die, but doesn’t bring up any statistics or research studies. Then an emotional video plays about the accident the lady had and she then comes on to speak. Basically, after she was hit by the truck, she saw a light and experienced some euphoria despite how badly damaged she was. Then they have a physician who is a near death experience expert and talk to him. 

Let's disregard the clear appeal to emotion from this and just get to the facts. The NDE expert first discusses how improbable it is that people have memories despite being so injured. However, he doesn’t mention how these memories might not be from the actual event, but could be formed afterward. Dr. Oz does actually start to explain what physiologically may happen during an NDE which actually isn’t too bad. The problem is that he doesn’t go into details of an opposing side of NDE. Sam Harris does a great job explaining the other side here after a neurosurgeon claimed his NDE was ‘Proof of Heaven’. 

Basically, the brain releases a spike of the neurotransmitter DMT when it is damaged which causes some pretty trippy psychological effects. This could account for all the types of hallucinogenic effects in the brain, yet it is never mentioned here. Even if we had NO idea of why people would have these sorts of NDE’s it doesn’t prove there is consciousness outside the brain, it just suggests we still have a lot to learn about how the brain works. The NDE expert then mentions how he has studied thousands of patients and has seen similar things to the lady on the show. This again doesn’t prove in any way that there is consciousness outside the brain. The expert tries to prove how DNE’s are medically inexplicable with how blind people have visual NDE’s. I was surprised to see there actually was a journal article written by him on this subject. However, it was written in little known “Journal of Near Death Studies”and had all sorts of issues.  

During the show, they made it seem like they interviewed these blind participants who 'saw' right after their NDE right after it happened. However, in the study they searched for blind 
people who said they had a NDE. Beyond that, they only recorded data from those who "had appropriate qualifications for our study" That’s right, they only collected data from those who confirmed their hypothesis. That is why this was published in “Journal of Near Death Studies” instead of Science. 
This study looked for people who confirmed their hypothesis and found them. Impressive. Again, my issue is even if this study was designed better it doesn’t say anything about supernatural. The journal article even admits that some of the blind participants admitted they did not know what the researcher meant by ‘seeing.’ How can we be sure that the blind who reported seeing just described what they might think seeing could be. Perhaps these blind people had DMT in their brain and allowed to feel like they were seeing. Blind people do have dreams and a brain injury could just alter them during their NDE. Perhaps those who they picked to respond were lead to believe they had some out of body experience due to cognitive bias. The important issue here is that just because we don't understand everything about the brain; it does not mean there is not a scientific answer for it. To say because we don’t understand something and that must mean it is unexplainable is simply willful ignorance. 

The overlying problem with all this isn’t that this episode of Dr. Oz didn’t really explain NDE’s in detail. It is that pseudoscience in the media has terrible implications. People watch these doctors say things on television and believe them simply because they are authority figures. The scientific method is never mentioned. Publishing in a good scientific journal is hard! These reviewers are really tough, I know from experience. When I submit an article for publication in a high quality science journal, I wish I could just say “hey trust me because I’m getting a PhD” or “I only recorded data from those who confirmed our hypothesis” and still get published, but that’s just not how it works. The scientific method is not understood well and having it bastardized in the media doesn’t help. Americans already do not have very good science literacyand having pseudoscience only causes further problems. We need more television shows and other media which explain the actual method of science and not just the sexy results.