Well, by skeptics actually, but the effect is much the same*…
Having the misfortune to watch GMTV this morning, I spotted what turned out to be this load of old bollocks, recycled for a UK audience – no doubt because the UK edition of the book they’re hawking was published today (August 3). It relates the story of a young boy who is claimed to have had a past life as a Second World War fighter pilot. This sort of thing (i.e. ‘evidence’ of reincarnated minors) is usually the result of a form of facilitated communication – concerned parents and/or psychologists or social workers who over-interpret a child’s statements and together create an entirely false reality – sometimes to explain some behavioural problem, sometimes just because they want their child to be somehow special.
It’s rather like Cold Reading as used (sometimes cynically, sometimes unknowingly) by ‘psychics’ – you start with something vague and general and whittle it down into a specific, plausible story that could just about fit the facts. This case is no different – as a poster on the JREF forum pointed out several years ago now – the kid had a) very basic awareness of WW2 planes (which many toddlers and journalists have) and b) frightening nightmares about dying in an aeroplane. Everything else, culminating in his ID as a specific individual – Lieutenant (JG) James M. Huston, US Navy – came from his facilitators. And even that information is all public domain stuff – no new historical revelation was made that could have helped validate the claim.
As for the much-vaunted drawings – do we see anything beyond typical toddler-level drawing skills, or a hint of the fighter-pilot knowledge that Gross and the others insist is there? No. We see scrawls – attempts at aeroplanes advanced for his age perhaps, but showing no real detail that might show familiarity with flying the things. And we see tanks – there weren’t many of those involved in Pacific dogfights. All of this ignored to focus on one vague but simple concept – the original dream involving death, fire, and a plane – which can then have the facts forced to fit it later on. The get-out that ‘he was only young’ doesn’t wash – either he’s privy to special knowledge over and above that available to a toddler, or he isn’t.
It’s interesting to note that in the GMTV interview, the boy is emphatic about no longer having the nightmares, and in fact, being unable to remember them. Either reincarnation curses the very young with traumatic memories of their own deaths, only to then take them away, or the nightmares were simply an anxious phase in the boy’s early development, since got over (perhaps even via this ‘unconventional’ therapy, but I doubt it).
Thanks to the international lag in the publishing and publicity of the book over here, some fellow sceptics have already blown the story out of the water. Amazingly, despite claims that the kid had no exposure to aviation or military history before his dreams, it seems that the kid was actually taken to an air museum well beforehand – as mentioned above the excellent Skeptico has a whole blog post about this which, actually, makes my own rather redundant – as it covers pretty much every angle. Even those historical details that have made it through the facilitation process and should therefore be watertight – dependent upon good research – don’t all hold up.
Take the type of fighter flown by Huston – JREFer ‘Gumboot’ has (amongst other things) pointed out that the original claim was for the distinctive gull-winged Corsair fighter – only when the father read that Huston was not flying that type at the time when he died did it change to the radically different Wildcat. The book’s authors address this, pointing out that James Huston’s sister sent them a photograph of him in front of a Corsair – he did fly them at one point. But note that they are modifying the claim – which was specifically that James had died in a Corsair. Whether he flew one at some point (actually pretty likely) is neither here nor there. He wasn’t flying them from the carrier identified by the facilitators, and he didn’t die in one.
Skeptico also details what I’m calling the ‘facilitators’ involved – from the doting father who reinforces what would otherwise be healthy roleplay by buying toys and books, to the published reincarnation proponent who brings the sort of leading questions that can be fitted after the fact to tidbits of historical research. It was only when the child was taken to a therapist that ‘evidence’ of his dreams being related to a past life first emerged, and then snowballed. The same thing has happened many times before, including in the much more serious creation of false memories of sexual abuse. The very young child aspect we have seen recently in the Cold Reading of babies by arch-scumbag and million-dollar challenge loser Derek Ogilvie – his victims were too young to talk at all, yet by focussing on the parents he could convince them that he was reading their child. The same might apply here – the hopes, fears and thoughts of James parents driving the narrative just as much as his own half-formed expressions. For example – the claim that James said his fighter was brought down by a ‘direct hit to the engine’. A toddler would not – could not – have articulated that phrase as written. An alternative explanation is that he was asked by a facilitator how or where the plane was hit, and he gestured vaguely at the front part of his drawing, or of a toy. One follow-up question of ‘was it the engine?’, and a child’s imagination or conception of air-combat (head-on attacks being relatively rare in reality) suddenly becomes an uncanny past-life memory of his own death.
One thing I thought it worth expanding upon is what amounts to the usual schtick in selling paranormal cases to the world-weary punter – the idea that hardcore sceptics have been swayed by James’ story – in this case they’ve not looked further than one of their fellow co-authors, who despite claiming to be a ‘rationalist secular skeptic‘, is iobviously not familiar with the relevant literature and has developed a ‘blindspot’ for this case. This can happen to any of us, particularly if we become emotionally invested in a story – but his disbelief about other fanciful ideas does not validate this one. For example;
“I’ve heard people say, oh, he must have been coached, or influenced by watching TV. But this was a child in his diapers, still sucking on a bottle. How could he be coached to know the flight characteristics of World War II era fighter planes? How could he know the names of the ships and the sailors who had taken part in a certain battle at a certain time?”
Gross (a fiction author and automotive writer) clearly doesn’t understand how this works – it’s not that the child himself is expounding upon such complex topics – the original statement could be as simple as ‘Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out’ (one of James’ actual comments). The facilitator then shows the child a picture of a certain aeroplane (as we know the father actually did), and the child nods or otherwise indicates agreement or disagreement. Then (say) a picture of a particular pilot. Again, agreement. The facilitator, without lying (or necessarily even intending to deceive) can then legitimately claim that a toddler knows about a specific incident in history. The exact method of arriving at a given final claim won’t be accessible to the rest of us unless the facilitator makes logs of each session or the father writes meticulous diary notes. Even then, what James actually said on a given occassion, and how that might otherwise have been interpreted by someone not invested in a pre-determined outcome (in this case making a child appear to be a reincarnated fighter jock). Then there’s this ‘evidence';
“There were other odd things — when she sent James Leininger a drawing that her mother made of James Huston — the child asked where was the other picture? The other picture — buried up in the attic for sixty years — was a drawing of Ann. Her mother had made two drawings when they were children. How could James Leininger have known that? Ann was stunned. No one knew about that other picture. Except her dead brother.”
So like Cold Reading, it’s not even funny. The kid says something like ‘where’s the other picture?’ – he could have been referring to almost anything. The sister, filling the role of the sitter in my psychic analogy, seeks the meaning of this, discounts all other interpretations, and goes straight for the least likely – that the child somehow knows about a hidden second drawing of the sister. She supplies the meaning. If she had asked ‘what picture?’ and the child had said ‘you’, that would be more like it. Or if she had taken him to the house and he had made a beeline for the attic. Or any number of confirmatory things beyond blind faith that when he says ‘other picture’, he means what she imagines he means.
Reading Gross’s heartfelt testimony, it’s also apparent in his use of the words ‘cynical’ and ‘nay-sayer’ that he takes the word ‘skeptic’ to mean closed-minded, just as the believers do. This one exception has slipped through his scoff-net, therefore he stands by it. That’s not what scepticism is (read ‘should be’ – I’m as guilty of it as any!). The idea is to form a provisional conclusion based upon the available evidence and the nature of the claim – to keep that open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out. Gross continues to disbelieve reincarnation despite having “no reasonable explanation for James Leininger/Huston”. If this is true, how is he a sceptic? If I had come to the same conclusion, I would no longer be sceptical about reincarnation – I would (provisionally) be convinced of its veracity. Or at least have a burning desire to try to confirm or debunk that conviction – what issue could be more important than life after death, if we had anything like evidence that it might be true?
The saddest part of all this for me is that relatives and colleagues of the dead pilot have been taken in along with everyone else. It’s easy to see why people in their 80s would on some level want to believe that their long-dead loved-one had a fresh start in a new body – and that they might live to experience the same thing. So they buy into the same fantasy as thousands of others, because it brings quick-fix comfort and hope. Isn’t it enough to simply pay our respects to the dead? To grow up and live our lives with some of them as role models? To keep fiction in the ‘fiction’ isle?
*With apologies to Blackadder II.