Q: Please refer to Scientific Proof of Reincarnation by Dr. Ian Stevenson's Life Work. I have also heard of other stories like this. Should people believe these stories are facts and not concocted stories?
A: I am familiar with the book you speak of. The title of the book is “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.” The title even makes it clear that this is not a scientific study in the sense of a proof that reincarnation is scientifically true, hence the word “Suggestive” in the title. Some people assume that this book with the evidence presented cannot be contradicted and now reincarnation is fact. The word “scientific” is often used loosely and sometimes inappropriately. Generally the word “scientific” when paired with words such as “proof” intimates that the idea being spoken of has moved from theory into the realm of fact. This implies that the research can and has been duplicated by many others and the conclusions arrived at are now taken for granted.
There are many significant problems with trying to affirm that these cases are able to scientifically or in any other way prove reincarnation. The nature of the research in this book and the supposed findings:
1) has to do with memory which is highly malleable
2) assumes reports from individuals and children can be taken as factual
3) evidence to the contrary that is reported in the study itself is not taken seriously but explained in such a way as negate it
4) the possibility of information being gathered in other ways is not given due diligence and serious consideration
5) includes reports of verification based upon the researcher’s or a child’s personal interpretation
6) the process of interviewing and researching the claims is not transparent—without which data cannot be evaluated by readers as valid
Let me take the case of Prakash, the first of seven cases presented from India.
A boy named Nirmal died of small pox at ten years old. Stevenson reports that twice Nirmal said to his mother that she was not his mother and that he would go to his mother (p.20). He pointed when he said this in the direction of Mathura. This is presented as evidence that he would be reincarnated as a person who lived in that direction. That these words are meaning that he was saying he would be reincarnated as a person living in that direction was the interpretation given by the author. Though this is what he may have intended to say and this may be the possible meaning of his words, this is not what he said. It is the interpretation of what he said as reported by his mother and accepted by the researcher.
Another boy is born about a year later in a town about six miles away. At age four and a half he is said to have woken up in the night and run into the street. When stopped, he would say he belonged in the town of Kosi Kalan (where Nirlam had lived). This happened several times. He pleaded to be taken to this town. He was taken to the shop of the father of Nirlam and did not recognize it. It is not reported at all how it was that they came to this shop, nor is it reported how the boy may have found his way to this particular place. The research method lacks explanation of a careful interview process, lacks an explanation of the interpreter’s role in the process, and lacks any explanation of verification and testing of the answers given. That he did not recognize the shop was passed over as being inconsequential. Here we have an example of negative evidence being disregarded (when he did not recognize the shop). The doubts and negations such as this are passed over, forgotten or perhaps not even reported.
The family of Nirmal learns that the boy Prakash has visited them and supposedly the reason why he visited. This means the suggestion of a connected reincarnation between these two boys already exists before the next meeting and visit. This means that all the evidence is under the realm of prior suggestion for the family of Nirmal, the neighbors, and the report of his visit is now no longer objective and neutral. Now there is the typical "halo effect" and the anticipation and excitement of the interviews have entered into the process. It is definitely not a neutral or objective setting.
The father of Nirmal then meets the boy Prakash in a nearby town. It is stated that Prakash recognized Nirmal’s father as his own father. It also says that he only partially recognizes one of the sisters. Again, this negative evidence is not seriously considered. No explanation of how many errors would disprove the assumed reincarnation link is given. No explanation of how many demanded positive recognitions, verifications, etc. are needed are ever reasoned or presented. If someone recognizes 60 people and calls them by their name, is this sufficient? How about 16 people? How about 6? What if the interviewed person misnames 20% of the people?
Reports of recognitions of certain rooms and people are presented as evidence. The problems with this is that “recognition” is an interpretative thing, not a fact. It would be one thing if there was a line-up of ten people and he is asked which one is the uncle, or which one is the neighbor. This would provide the opportunity to validate that there may be something of a statistically high and reasonable level to verify that he may have a memory of an individual he has not met. To simply report that a boy said he recognizes someone is not a scientific piece of data. There is no ability to verify when someone says they recognize a person or a place. We are not told if there was a suggestion presented in this process, or if the placing of the father into his presence was done with ceremony or a sense of expectation, or if there was a leading question presented by the interviewer or interpreter. We are not told if there was a family resemblance that would allow him to recognize a person as belonging to this family. There is no negative testing involved that would place this type of information into a testable venue. For example it is said that Prakash recognized the room where Nirmal slept. We can assume that recognition of a bedroom is not hard (versus the kitchen for example), nor would the recognition of a child’s bedroom be difficult. We are not told if there were signs of this room being special, if there were signs of this room being slept in by other children, if there were memorabilia—all the information that would allow us to begin to test if this reporting of recognition is real or weighty, an obvious piece of information which is useless, fabricated, confused, etc.,--all of this is completely missing. On the visits of Stevenson to the village of Nirmal, large crowds had gathered and the whole case was obviously a matter of public knowledge. He then says of this that anyone who knew that this was a hoax could have come forward to tell of their suspicions. This demonstrates the naivete of the researcher to the social constraints and nature of this situation. People are generally not eager to report their neighbors as liars, particularly when this is bringing quite interested attention to a town. The belief in reincarnation is a generally an accepted idea in the area. If there were information to contradict or put in question the idea, it is naïve to assume that this information would just come forward. There are actually many reasons people would want this account to be true. They were believers already in reincarnation, their town was getting notoriety, there was a sense of prestige from the visits of a researcher from another country, etc. This would actually create a strong social reason to support the ideas being looked into. Who would want to go against the social excitement and the accepted idea of the village and report fraud or unfavorable evidence?
The only evidence of any weight presented are the claimed spontaneous naming of certain persons. Some of the evidence is more like social averaging. Prakash is said to have recalled that he had two undershirts when he was Nirmal. Having two undershirts is most likely a normal thing for a boy in the town. There is no presented research that says at that time (1961) boys in this town usually had 6 undershirts or 90% of boys in that area had 2 undershirts. The weight of this kind of evidence is unable to be evaluated without this kind of research and presentation. If Prakash said he remembered drinking water form a cup--this would not prove anything as every boy drinks water form a cup. These kind of statements must undergo a test to see if this information is not usual or normal and if what is being claimed is atypical. It is somewhat like naming the economic status of a family or the typical possessions of a person at the time and place. Another similar piece of evidence like this was to explain what the house was made of (brick). Without determining how many houses in the town are made of brick, this sort of evidence is meaningless. Are all the houses made of brick? Are 80% of all the houses made of brick? Are only 1 in 20 homes made of brick? Did this memory happen prior to his arrival at the town? Was the town filled with brick makers?
One of the evidences presented is the hesitation at the entrance to the family house. Is this really evidence? This is interpreted as corresponding to the altering of the entrance since the death of Nirmal. It would be one thing for him to say, “This entrance has been altered…,it used to be….” A hesitation is merely suggestive of something, certainly not evidence. The meaning of the hesitation is added by the interpreter and fed into the storyline of the visit of Prakash to the town. Similar to this, Prakash points to a corner of the roof where the latrine is and says this is where the latrine was when he was Nirmal. This would not be difficult to deduce at all. The usual place for a latrine is not hard to surmise. The actual presence of a latrine is not hard to identify at all: smell, typical location, possible outflow tube, etc. Almost any Indian boy could walk into the house and point out the latrine. This is not evidence of reincarnation.
The evidence presented includes the recognition or naming of about twelve people, and the recognition of places and recalling of some general locations and facts. There is no verifiable testing of his ability to know certain things about the family, there are no blind tests, there is an ignoring of information that is not quite right, and there is no report of information that was incorrect or conjectures that did not match.
The process of the interview is not displayed for us to examine. If someone asks “Is this the bed where Nirmal slept?” this could easily be a leading question, especially if there are only one or two bedrooms for children in the house. Questioning done through a translator makes it even more difficult and opens the process up to more problems. The ease of passing basic information, the ease of gaining such basic information makes the idea that this is proof highly questionable. In the space of several minutes through a person who knows the family or is in the family, the entire corpus of this evidence could have been easily passed. That this was done is a possibility. This kind of thing has been done before. This does not mean that this study is proven wrong. It does mean that this study does not meet the demands of proof in any reasonable way.
Memory is malleable. How people remember, what people remember, as well as the changes in memory, all make this a quite unscientific method for gaining what we would call facts. The process and record of the questioning is not giving to us. The nature of the interpreter’s reporting is not given to us.
Let us also say that the presentation of 20 people with memories of reincarnation is hardly proof of a worldwide phenomenon! Is it equal evidence if we find 20 people who have no recollection of reincarnation? -- say 20 people who searched their memories and found no evidence of reincarnation?
It seems to me that the most this book can do is to present a minor suggestion that there is some possible evidence that reincarnation may be true. I hesitate to even say this because the procedure was so poorly done. Yet even the author agrees that this is merely a “Suggestion” (this is not only the title of the book but this word is used in the title of each chapter as well.
It is my opinion that the suggestion has little to back it up.