Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Neurosurgeon Who Went to Heaven Didn't Go to Heaven

Remember that neurosurgeon who said he saw heaven? Eben Alexander. There was a book along with heavy promotion; he was hard to miss.

It looks like the verifiable parts of the story do not match reality. For one thing, he was not in a coma because of meningitis - he was put into a coma medically, which is done in severe cases to prevent further damage. This is accomplished through whopping doses of consciousness-altering drugs, which - guess what? - can cause hallucinations. So right away there are problems with the most basic details of his story, as revealed by asking his own physicians the most basic of questions. And as the late Hitch said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Not creative accounting with facts.

(As an aside, for those people receptive to Alexander's claims: if a Muslim neurosurgeon woke up from a coma with reports of black-eyed virgins and Allah on horseback, why not believe those too? And if Alexander were still a practicing neurosurgeon and said he was going to "shut down your cortex" and send you Heaven during an operation because the mind can operate independently from the brain - would that be the guy you picked for your operation? Why aren't people lining up to get operated on by this guy today? Why isn't Alexander out campaigning for major changes in the practice of neurosurgery? It's almost like they don't really believe what they're saying.)

The best explanation is not that Alexander visited Heaven, but it may not be found in his sedatives either. In fact the best explanation is that his meningitis gave him an excuse for an epiphany - for leaving a life that he couldn't admit had gone wrong.

The Atlantic Wire summary implies that his qualifications as a neurosurgeon are suspect, which needs to be called out - if they're getting that from Dittrich's Esquire piece, then they're wrong. Based on Dittrich's article, Alexander is a trained neurosurgeon who completed his residency and worked as a neurosurgeon in good standing. But he appears to have been a bad neurosurgeon, and because of this had stopped operating - been told to stop - prior to his meningitis. This, after being given the boot from previous hospitals.

And that's relevant to what he then did. Strange things happen to people when they sacrifice all semblance of a normal life for a prestigious position that they end up not being able to do well. (In this guy's case, his father was a neurosurgeon too; always a bad move.) The neurosurgery residency is brutal, and to go through that and then find that you don't enjoy it and you suck at it - and for other people to notice it, with legal consequences - would be devastating. These people have never thought of doing anything else with their lives. And sadly, stupidly, people in medicine and academia would sometimes rather die (or kill) than leave the only status hierarchy that they and all their friends and family ever knew. Remember the failed scientist at U Alabama-Huntsville who shot her colleagues? I personally know of a resident who stepped in front of a train rather than having to endure the department head saying "You're not working out". Yes, tough - but really worse than death?

So when some otherwise traumatic event comes along that can be spun, someone in trouble can seize on it as a way out. Bible colleges often have to put in their admission requirements that applicants can't have pending charges or jail time. (Yes, really.) Why? Even if it doesn't keep the scondrel out of jail, it shields them from the bitterest of their friends' and families' disappointment; a coward's way out of a tough spot if ever there was one. To a neurosurgeon, no longer being a neurosurgeon is far worse than jail. Alexander was facing a similar loss of status. And instead of doing the honest, difficult thing, he backed out, and wrote a demonstrably false book and toured the world promoting it. I bet he hasn't spoken much to his former colleagues much after this. They're all onto him.

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