Someone recently challenged my assertion that out-of-body (OOB) experiences would be trivially easy to prove. “Just write a word on a piece of paper, place it on a shelf high up such that the OOB subject could only see it from above. If they can read it during an OOB experience, bingo! No fancy apparatus, no laboratories, no control groups required. What could be easier? “I don’t care,” was the response, “I’ve experienced out-of-body episodes and that’s all I need.” You’re claiming to have annulled the laws of physics and you dont care???


I pretend not to know how I got onto woo mailing lists and Facebook groups that discuss, inter alia: OOB and near-death experiences; “enlightenment” achieved via Jesus, Buddha or Krishna; “sympathetic” water; ley lines, dowsing, “energy” centers and the like; power-lines-cause-cancer…not to mention the common-or-garden varieties of anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, chemtrail nutters, extraterrestrial conspiratorialists and Einstein-was-wrong-and-here’s-why (always in UPPER CASE for some reason)…

I do know, of course, how I ended up as a magnet for weirdos of many stripes. In moments of weakness or curiosity (see below) I subscribed to their channels or otherwise made myself known to them. Trouble is, I can’t just lurk. I respond, jumping into the fire. “Haven’t you considered a more prosaic explanation?” I ask. “Do you realize that if what you believe is true, you’d be overturning the last few hundred years of scientific progress?” I ask, trying to sound reasonable. “How do you know you’re enlightened?” “What actual evidence do you have for life after death?” “You really think it makes more sense to believe one maverick doctor/scientist/engineer rather than the other 99.9%?”

Here are my three underlying questions about woo:

(1) Why not invoke Occams Razor?

Simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones. For instance:

Near death experience: Proof of heaven…or oxygen deficiency?
Mysterious light in sky: Flying saucer…or Venus?
2014-2018 five hottest years ever recorded: Coincidence…or global warming?
GMOs: Threat to health…or Whole Foods marketing scam?
Cold fusion: Breakthrough energy source…or bad science?
Homeopathy: Medical miracle…or quackery?
Mysterious barrels on a plane: Poisoning the skies…or water ballast for testing?
Teresa of Avila: Mystical communion with God…or epilepsy?

1994 photo of prototype Boeing 777 in flight-testing mode. Nearly 50 water-filled 55-gallon aluminum barrels were used for center-of-gravity testing. (Boeing, fair use)

(2) What happened to curiosity?

Virtually all the crazy theories winging their way around the internet today call for a suspension of that most-human of attributes: curiosity. Take someone who senses they’ve achieved some “higher state of consciousness” for instance. Wonderful! Good for you! Now ask yourself, “Why do I believe this?” “How does a three-pound lump of jellied neurons come to believe it’s enlightened?”

Or anti-vaxxers: “Why do I believe in a fraudulent study by an unscrupulous British gastroenterologist (until he was struck off the UK medical register for ‘unethical behavior, misconduct and dishonesty’) rather than the conventional, hard-won knowledge of virtually all other medical professionals?” (If you are one, please note the fatal experience of under-vaccinated kids in Madagascar.)

Or chemtrail proponents. Ask yourself, “What is it in my psychological make-up that makes me believe there’s a conspiracy shared by some 40,000 airline pilots and air traffic controllers, most of whom presumably have families on the ground that they’re knowingly poisoning?”

(3) Is this not enough?

Many years ago, in the prime of his stardom, Mel Gibson was asked on a TV show if he believed in life after death (he comes from an ultra-Catholic background). “I can’t believe this is all there is,” he responded. Now this is a guy who had money, fame, chicks coming out of his ears; who could look around and see the incredible majesty of this world with all its glorious varieties of stuff (animate and inanimate), who could look up at night and see a dazzlement of stars—and that wasn’t enough for him?! He expects even more? WTF?

Reminds me of an interview with a religious nut, I forget who, referring in passing to “mere matter” as opposed to the higher-order “spiritual world.” The scientist he was debating shot back: “Mere matter? There’s nothing ‘mere’ about matter!” And proceeded to enumerate the insanely wonderfulness of matter: that it’s here in the first place—move Plank’s Constant a decimal place and there goes matter; that anything beyond the three lightest elements were forged in the hearts of stars; that our planet originated from this stardust and somehow found itself in the Goldilocks zone—not too hot, not too cold—for liquid water to exist at the surface; and on that surface, life (Life!!!) stumbled into existence and—four billion years later—came to know itself. That’s mere matter for you!


Of course, conventional science doesn’t always get it right: blood-letting, thalidomide, margarine, lobotomies (to treat epilepsy), eight-glasses-of-water-a-day, the uselessness of placebos, opioids as the all-purpose fix for pain, bacteria inside a Martian meteorite, MTBE, phen-pen for obesity, and on and on. But the nature of science—unlike faith—is that it’s self-correcting. The golden road to tenure is to make your fellow researchers wrong. Again, unlike faith.

Martian meteorite ALH 84001 in the Smithsonian (Jstuby, GNU Free Documentation)

Like I say, whatever happened to curiosity? Let alone skepticism. And leaving aside your own minority-beliefs, you anti-vaxxers, anti-flouridationists, climate change deniers, women-should-be-subservient literalists: what about your kids? It’s their health and well being we’re talking about. For God’s sake, ask yourselves: why do I believe bullshit when almost all professionals in the field think it’s just plain wrong?