NPR's Walk on the Weird Side: The 'Science' of Reincarnation

No, NPR didn't accidentally air the paranormal-themed radio show Coast to Coast AM with George Noory (heir to Art Bell's show) on Sunday morning. Instead, it was a credulous interview of psychiatrist Jim Tucker by NPR host Rachel Martin about the supposed science of reincarnation.

And given NPR's classification of the piece as a science piece, their vaunted Science Desk dutifully tweeted "Searching for Science Behind Reincarnation."

Many NPR journalists and devoted NPR listeners make no secret of their contempt for orthodox Christian views (if not contempt for the adherents themselves) held for many centuries. The hostility they exhibit toward skeptics of man-induced global warming pales in comparison to that they show toward proponents of God's involvement in the appearance of mankind. When it comes to the belief in reincarnation, though, NPR treats seriously the notion that there is a scientific basis to it.

Incidentally, both the story description of the piece on npr.org and Martin herself mention additional anecdotes not actually included in the on-air piece. The description also inaccurately identifies Jim Tucker as a psychologist, even though he is a psychiatrist. Lastly, Martin said that Tucker joined her from the "Virginia Foundation," an apparently non-existent entity (unless it exists in an alternate dimension!) unmentioned by Tucker's own website, the University of Virginia biography of Tucker, and other news organizations.

It will be fun to see if NPR corrects or retracts the piece. While they are eager to make such esoteric corrections as river otters versus sea otters, they refuse to make any corrections for a series making unfounded slanderous accusations--even though it was debunked by NPR's own ombudsman. Another piece they refuse to correct is a political hit piece filled with half-truths by their Dallas correspondent Wade Goodwyn, whose job right before popping up on NPR airwaves was that of an Alinskyite community organizer.

Excerpts from the January 5, 2014 Weekend Edition Sunday interview of scientific reincarnationism advocate Jim Tucker by a credulous NPR host Rachel Martin (emphasis mine):

RACHEL MARTIN: We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a controversial theory about living and dying and living again: reincarnation. It's long been a central tenet of certain spiritual traditions but it's not an experience that's been rigorously tested by many scientists. Enter Jim Tucker. He's a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia and he is doing exactly that - testing claims of reincarnation, especially those made by children. Dr. Tucker joins us from the Virginia Foundation to talk about the science behind this phenomenon. Thanks so much for being with us.

JIM TUCKER: Thanks very much for having me.

RACHEL MARTIN: When did you first begin to get interested in this, in the idea of reincarnation as a ripe subject for scientific inquiry?

JIM TUCKER: Well, I got interested in it in the late '90s, but this work has actually been going on at the University of Virginia for 50 years. Over the decades, we've now study our 2,500 cases of children who report memories of past lives. And what we try to do is to determine exactly what they have said and what's happened and then see if it matches the life of somebody who lived and died before. Once I got involved, I began to focus on American cases. I have explained in this new book that I have out, and really some of the American ones are quite compelling.

RACHEL MARTIN: Let's talk about a few of those. You mentioned your recent book. It's called "Return to Life." And you chronicle the stories of many children, including one that got a lot of national attention. It was the story of James Leininger. He was a boy who remembered being a World War II fighter pilot. Can you walk us through that case?

[…]

RACHEL MARTIN: And how old was James when he was making these claims?

JIM TUCKER: Well, it started when he was two - and a very young two.

RACHEL MARTIN:That's amazing.

[…]

RACHEL MARTIN: So, break down the science for me, because there will be a lot of people who hear this who think there's just no way.

JIM TUCKER: Well, I think it's very difficult to just map these cases onto materialist understanding of reality. I mean, if physical matter, if the physical world is all there is, then I don't know how you can accept these cases and believe in them. But I think there are good reasons to think that consciousness could be considered a separate entity from physical reality. And in fact, some leading scientists in the past, like Max Planck, who's the father of quantum theory, said that he viewed consciousness as fundamental and that matter was derived from it. So, in that case, it would mean that consciousness would not necessarily be dependent on a physical brain in order to survive and could continue after the physical brain and after the body dies. In these cases, it seems, at least on the face of it, that a consciousness has then become attached to a new brain and has shown up as past life memories.

RACHEL MARTIN: This may be a dumb question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: so, does that mean, does a consciousness need to inhabit a body?

JIM TUCKER: Well, we don't know, of course. But in a case like James Leininger, I mean, there was 50 years between lives. Now, who's to say he didn't inhabit another body in the meantime. But my guess would be no. Now, in this world, it may need to be in a physical body in order to be expressed but it may well be that our brains are conduits for consciousness but it is actually being created somewhere else.

RACHEL MARTIN: So, what are you trying to reveal or prove? What to you would constitute an important scientific development in this field?

JIM TUCKER: Well, I don't know that I'm necessarily trying to prove anything, but I'm trying to sort of find out for myself what seems to be going on here. And I think these cases contribute to the body of evidence that consciousness, at least in certain circumstances, can survive the death of the body, that life after death isn't necessarily just a fantasy or something to be considered on faith, but that it can also be approached in an analytic way and the idea can be judged on its merits.

RACHEL MARTIN: You were clearly interested in this for a long time and it's what motivates your work, but I wonder, as you have evaluated so many cases over the years, how has that informed your own understanding of an afterlife and what happens when we die? Has that changed at all for you?

JIM TUCKER: Well, I've certainly become more persuaded that there is more than just a physical reality. I do think it's quite likely that, if we do survive, that there's not just one experience that everyone has, that the afterlife may be as varied as life in this world.

RACHEL MARTIN: That's Jim Tucker. He's a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and the author of "Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past Lives." Thank you so much for talking with us.