A week or so ago, there was an article form Newsweek about Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who is hawking a book claiming proof of heaven in his near death experience. Today, a similar story showed up on ABC news, as they are promoting an interview with him on Nightline.
There are so many fallacies in this reporting it’s almost difficult to know where to begin, but I’ll try.
First: despite his own and media claims to the contrary, this man is a doctor, not a scientist. The two are very different skill sets, requiring very different kinds of reasoning. Medicine is essentially a trade. Admittedly a complicated one, but a trade nonetheless. It requires matching symptoms to likely diseases, or in his case to the proper surgical interventions. It requires tremendous knowledge, but nothing in the way of scientific thinking. A doctor can be perfectly successful at his or her trade without the slightest hint of a scientific mindset.
Second, his implication (and the media’s) is that, because he is a scientist (which he is not), his near death experience somehow should count as more real than someone else’s. Even if he were a scientist, and used to analyzing evidence and looking for the most parsimonious explanation, he is not immune from the hallucinations that a brain is well known to be capable of producing, nor from the process of confabulation, wherein the brain fills in memory gaps with fabricated events. Saying he is a scientist, ergo heaven is real, makes an argument from authority that has no merit.
Third, Dr. Alexander admits that he is a Christian. Is it really surprising that he should have a near death experience that conforms to what he likely expected a near death experience should be like? Find me a person raised completely outside the Christian worldview, who nonetheless has a near death experience with all the Christian trappings, and then perhaps we can find the experience more convincing.
Obviously the media can report on whatever fluff it wants, but what catches the attention about Dr. Alexander is the whole “Harvard-trained neuroscientist has proof of heaven” angle. Scientist? No. Proof of heaven? No. Harvard-trained? Irrelevant (recall that it was a “Harvard-trained scientist” who opened fire on her colleagues. All Harvard training gives you license to say is that you trained at Harvard).
Americans are in general scientifically illiterate, and thus as a group poor at understanding what constitutes good evidence for something. The breathless coverage of Dr. Alexander’s yarn is, ironically, evidence of that.