Skeptical philosopher Leonard Angel argues that Stevenson and other researchers "have not even tried to prove that there is something to be explained" in the cases of reincarnation they have studied.168 "One must try to determine whether the kind of correspondence found between a living person's verbal memory claims and the facts about a supposedly reincarnated deceased person defy expectations of chance. If they do, there's something to explain. But if they don't, then there's nothing to explain.' Angel wants to see an "controlled experimental work" designed to rule out what he calls the "subjective illusion of importance."
Angel illustrates the subjective illusion of importance by noting that he found no fewer than 21 facts about Stevenson's life mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times. that's true for both him and Stevenson: They were both born in Montreal, both attended McGill as college students, both married twice, and so on. Angel's "controlled experimental work" in mind would contrast the results of this type of comparison with the results of comparisons of a subject's statements and the deceased person identified as his predecessor. One would have shown that there was only one thing to explain if the blind judges described the old group's correspondences as "at least as good as" the correspondences of the latter group and whether the judges tended to "ask for special explanations of correspondences" in the latter group more often than in the previous group.
Angel's subjective illusion of meaning is similar to Michael Shermer's patternicity: 'the tendency to find meaningful patterns in significant, random noise.'
This is a real psychological phenomenon, and Angel is right to demand that it be discarded. However, it does not appear to find that a case subject's statements should be regarded as a whole, together with any error, and not isolated from each other. Antonia Mills attempted to assign probabilities to several statements made by an Indian child, Ajendra Singh Chauhan, but resigned from the task when she realized that she needed to estimate not only the probability of individual statements, but all of them in combination.
In addition, a child's physical behaviors and characteristics should be taken into account. The entire constellation of evidence must show a good fit for a case to be considered resolved. In a re-incarnation and biology review, Angel spends a lot of time discussing problems he has identified with Stevenson's many tables, but does not stop to consider any of the 225 cases in the book as a whole. Rather, he accuses Stevenson of "backward reasoning" in all his cases, because he admits to having reasoned the birthmarks backwards in some cases.
Shermer's observation that one is sure to find a correspondence somewhere if a large enough sample is examined loses the mark altogether: In the investigation of Stevenson and his colleagues, the sample has already been reduced to a person on the basis of statements and behaviors before correspondences between wounds and birthmarks are evaluated. Shermer states that "one does not need to read deeply in the literature to see [the previous person's identification process] as a classic case of patternicity," but therein lies the problem for critics: One cannot properly evaluate the data in the reincarnation case unless one reads beyond a superficial level and takes all the facts into consideration. Patternicity seems to Shermer precisely because he has not read deeply. In general, skeptical charges against Stevenson fail not because they are unfounded, but because they are exaggerated and over-widespread and do not take into account the full range of their research methods and findings.
The first sustained critique of Stevenson's methods was made in a private evaluation prepared for him by a research assistant, Champe Ransom, in the early 1970s. Now an abbreviated version of the ransom report has been published, as has been called in skeptical circles, and we can see what it says.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Ransom's comments are limited to a reading of the first edition of Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, so they are more correctly critical of Stevenson's writing than his field technique. For example, 'case reports are often missing in the details of when statements were made (from a subject or witness) and in what context and to whom.' Other points trigger hypotheses, for example, "Main questions may have been used". Ransom raises some serious concerns, including subtle memory distortions over time, the need to work through interpreters and problems to spend only brief periods with witnesses. However, these issues would have more weight if they were those Stevenson had not previously considered, however, he acknowledged and addressed these and many other possible pitfalls in the initial chapter of Twenty Cases, long before Ransom got their attention.
The strength of Ransom's charges is also reduced by his generality. It would have been more useful if he had quoted places in the book where the deficiencies were evident. In this, Rogo does a better job than Ransom. Based on four additional volumes of case reports Stevenson had published in 1983, Rogo focuses on four cases in which he has detected problems. The first of these is the case of Mounzer Hasdar. In investigating this case, Stevenson first outlined the location of a birthmark on the right side of the subject's abdomen. When he subsequently interviewed the mother of the previous person, he asked him where he had been shot, and she pointed to the right side of his abdomen. Stevenson then showed him his sketch, and the woman said the wound was in the marked place. This tells Rogo that Stevenson sometimes directs his witnesses, because he did not ask the woman to sketch the place where the bullet had entered his son's body before showing him his sketch.
The second case criticized by Rogo is the case of Mallika Aroumougam of Twenty Cases. Rogo acknowledges that this case indicates that Stevenson "sometimes deletes important information when writing his reports" because Stevenson does not mention that the subject's father and grandfather publicly refuted an interpretation of reincarnation of the case, or who used an informant (the previous person's brother-in-law) as an interpreter to interview another informant (the subject's father) without saying clearly that he had done so.189 Stevenson admitted that the investigation and reports could have been better handled. , but noted that neither the father nor the grandfather witnessed any of Mallika's statements or behaviors, so his opinions were irrelevant in judging the facts of the case.
Rogo's other complaints, referring to the cases of Imad Elawar and Uttara Huddar (Sharada) are equally insignificant and Rogo admits that his criticisms are "very trivial." Another of Stevenson's early critics, Ian Wilson raises the question of whether Stevenson might have been deceived by his subjects and informants. He points out that Stevenson is sensitive to this possibility, but believes it has been too quick to fire dissident witnesses. However, dissenting witnesses appear in very few of Stevenson's cases, and Wilson is forced to conclude that there are "a considerable number of his cases in which such an interpretation cannot be justified."
More recently, Angel has harshly criticized Stevenson for his handling of the Imad Elawar case. This case was not resolved when Stevenson caught up with him, but Imad's parents, in an effort to make sense of what he was saying, had hung up their statements together in a way that turned out to be wrong. What should be a strength of the case - the written record made before verification - is problematic for Angel, who believes Stevenson selected what information to prove and which ones not. However, in a careful reassessment of Imad's early statements, Julio Barros shows that the things Imad said before Stevenson began his investigation are sufficient to identify the previous person and supports Stevenson's interpretation of The Angel case.
According to the American skeptic Keith Augustine, "the fact that the vast majority of Stevenson's cases come from countries where a religious belief in reincarnation is strong, and rarely elsewhere, seems to indicate that cultural conditioning (rather than reincarnation) generates claims of spontaneous memories of past life." This common conclusion reveals how superficial a known most critics have with case data. There are fewer cases of strong reincarnation reported from Western countries than Asian countries, but it would be a mistake to call Western cases rare. Muller, Stevenson and Tucker have reported resolved Western cases. Moreover, in the West, cases do not occur only between subcultures with a belief in reincarnation, as is sometimes alleged.
A more sophisticated version of the cultural conditioning argument holds that because certain characteristics of cases, such as gender change, are correlated with beliefs in a given culture, cases must be the product of cultural demands. However, a more detailed inspection of the data finds this idea wanting it as well. The Druze believe that one is reborn immediately after death, in the body of a child born at that time, but although the average length of the intermediate in the resolved Druze cases is shorter than most other cultures - six to eight months long - it is not immediate. No cases of immediate reincarnation among the Druze have been reported. The drastic response to this uncomfortable situation is to claim that there must have been short lives that were not remembered. Druze harmonize their beliefs to their cases, not their cases to their beliefs.
In a survey conducted in northern India, Satwant Pasricha and David Barker found that case information rarely traveled far and therefore could not serve as a model for other cases. Many cases had unique characteristics that could not be explained about the diffusion hypothesis, in any case. In a separate study, Pasricha found that Indians who were unfamiliar with cases had expectations about the characteristics of cases that differ from those of real cases.
Stevenson proposed a different way of understanding why case characteristics sometimes reflect cultural ideals. If the mind survives death, it would be natural for the beliefs and expectations held in life to be brought to death. A person who died believing he couldn't change sex in his next life could avoid doing so. The same principle could explain certain other patterns, such as the tendency for cases to occur on familiar lines much more frequently in tribal cultures than elsewhere.
Social construction has to do with how witnesses interpret the characteristics of the case according to their beliefs. There is no doubt that this happens at times, as Stevenson showed in a number of cases that demonstrate delirium and self-deception. Antonia Mills has set another example. A 30-month-old boy from India, Sakte Lal, misuttered some crucial names when he first spoke them. He said he had been named Avari instead of Itwari, that Avari had been killed by Vishnu instead of Kishnu, and that he was from Amalpur instead of Jamalpur. His misconceptions might have been a baby talk, but a less charitable view would be that the social construction of his case began with a reinterpretation of the names to make them fit into a locally known murder.
Social construction may also appear in later stages of a case, especially at the point where the identity of a child's past life is verified in a meeting with the family of the previous person. Mills demonstrates this in an analysis of a series of video-recorded reconnaissance tests with Satke Lal. Although the child made some spontaneous recognitions on the tape, he was more often wrong or led to the correct response by viewers. Despite obvious training, he was judged to have passed the tests, and his identity from past life was considered confirmed. Mills comments on the emotional involvement of everyone involved and says that Sakte Lal was constantly approached as if it were the reincarnation of the previous putative person, reinforcing identification.
Ian Wilson has suggested that children who talk about living in better socioeconomic circumstances in their current lives may be imagining better lives for themselves or "poor families may have tied up to pass on to their offspring as reincarnations of dead offspring of the rich," but this makes little sense in cultural terms. Most cases with large disparities between lives are found in India and Sri Lanka, where according to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation, an earlier life in better circumstances would imply a karmic degradation of today's life. It seems unlikely that children will gain much benefit from such a claim, let alone be encouraged by their parents.
Cryptomnesia and paramnesia
American psychologist David Lester sees cryptomnesia as a possible explanation for the memory of past life, but elsewhere he acknowledges that "when the two families are broadly separated and not known to each other, this seems unlikely." Another reason why cryptomnesia seems unlikely with cases of spontaneous reincarnation is that most subjects are young children, who have normally remained close to home and have not had exposure to "normal" sources of information about the people they claim to have been.
However, Stevenson regularly regarded cryptomnesia as a possibility and sought obvious links, not at first, between current and former families. Sometimes he discovered that there had been contacts, even when the two families refused to know each other, and they were certainly not well acquainted. But could these casual contacts—perhaps a conversation heard—have provided enough information for a child to develop detailed and accurate memories of a deceased person's life? Stevenson doubted they could have. In addition, he noted, some children demonstrated knowledge of intimate family affairs, or even knew where the "buried treasure" had been hidden. In addition, as always, it was necessary to explain not only a child's statements about the previous life, but also any behavioral or physical signs that matched the previous person. In the end, it did not seem to Stevenson that cryptomnesia was a factor in any of his reincarnation cases, although it clearly played a role in hypnotic regressions and other areas of parapsychology.
This was not the case with other memory disturbances, such as paramnesia, a term that is often freely used to indicate any distortion and inaccuracy in memory. Stevenson considered paramnesia to be of great potential importance. He wrote, "If I were to train a critic of these cases, I should advise him to focus on any evidence he may find of the unrefiability of the reporters' memories." Many critics have done this, but with references to the accusations of Ransom, Rogo or another critic, such as the Indian philosopher CTK Chari, instead of Stevenson.
Stevenson showed that memory distortions can occur with both the subjects of the case and the adult witnesses of what a child has said. Imad Elawar appears to have partially merged the memory of the truck accident that caused the death of his former person's cousin and friend with that of a bus accident involving the previous one himself. Swarnlata Mishra initially confused two past lives he remembered and only gradually became different in his mind. Rakesh Gaur, too, mistook memories of two houses in which the former lived and made other mistakes.
Adult witnesses may also have flawed memories, which is one of the reasons Stevenson interviewed so many first-hand witnesses of a case he could find and repeatedly returned to them for periods of years in order to check consistency. He carefully reported and evaluated all inconsistencies. Although he recognized the possibility of social construction in some cases, he considered it an inadequate explanation for his strongest cases. It was in the hope that faulty memory and social construction could be ruled out in cases where children's statements were recorded in writing before they were verified. A study comparing cases with and without such written records found that more statements were recorded, however, the percentage of correct statements was equally high, in cases with previous written records as in cases without them. In another study, Stevenson and Keil compared Stevenson-investigated cases with the same cases reinvestigated twenty years later by Keil, and found that there had been very little change in witness memories.