$5m grant to probe nonsense

The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
– H. L. Mencken.

I see The Templeton Foundation is at it again – throwing good money after bad. This time, giving five million dollars away to find out if there is life after death. (More specifically, is immortality real?) Oh, right.

As Roy Stemman says on his blog:

“So I am overjoyed to report that the wonderfully philanthropic John Templeton Foundation has given a grant of $5 million (£3.19m) to enable an American professor, John Martin Fischer, to set up the Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).”

Research into life after death has been going on for something like a hundred and fifty years, by some very big names in the field (including highly qualified scientists) with absolutely nothing to show for it. Think about it for a moment: what, exactly, has parapsychology contributed to scientific knowledge in all that time?

Bugger all, actually.

If (real) science had had the same level of success as pseudoscience, then we would not be enjoying things like electricity, a clean water supply, medicine, the internet, etc. All of those things and more are real (and if you want to deny it, then leave a comment on this blog, thanks to  the internet, with the benefit of your computer that was developed thanks to the continual efforts of science over a long period of time). Whichever way you look at it, science delivers, pseudoscience does not.

Now, however, five million dollars is about to be wasted over the next three years on what seems to be more of a philosophical junket than anything approaching a scientific investigation. As you can find out here, the money awarded to philosopher John Martin Fischer will pay for research projects (no details specified), a couple of conferences, a website… and Professor Fischer also has a guaranteed book deal thrown in. I have no psychic powers myself – just like everyone else – but my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that the good Professor is a shoo-in for the Templeton Prize in the not so distant future.

“We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions,” Fischer said. “Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.”

Well, that’s vague enough. But that research has already been done, and all of the properly conducted research that has been done to date suggests that near-death experiences are, in fact, biologically induced, with no need to introduce supernatural explanations. There is no need to “find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked.”  It’s already been done to death (as it were).

(Picture credit: xkcd.)

My own (non-psychic) prediction is this:

  1. The afterlife – and specifically immortality – will not be proven by any standard acceptable to science.
  2. The professor will produce a popular book about the project that will get rave reviews from Roy Stemman and other believers in an afterlife.
  3. After the project is complete, the professor will be a candidate for the Templeton Prize (but not a Nobel Prize).
  4. At the end of this project there will still be organisations out there trying to bring a better quality of life to people who are dying because of the lack of basic resources, and who could actually do some practical good with the five million that is about to be wasted chasing a chimera.

From my own perspective I would be overjoyed if a wealthy organisation could donate five million dollars to save lives in this world. There is no testable, confirmable evidence that there is another life after the one that we already have, and this project is unlikely to be any more successful than any research into the supernatural that has been produced in the last century and a half.

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