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Proof Palliative

October 12th, 2004 · No Comments

I’ve just seen the first episode of SciFi’s Proof Positive, the premise of which is that three mysterious or “paranormal” sounding stories are investigated, two of which will turn out to be nothing so mysterious (odd “rod” creatures captured on film turn out to be motion-blurred insects), the other is (dramatic pause) “proof positive.”

It’s an interesting enough premise, but their first “proof positive” case doesn’t inspire enormous confidence. They pick the story of a police detective named Robert Snow, author of a book about memories uncovered under hypnosis that eventually led him to conclude he was the reincarnation of an obscure 19th Century portrait painter, James Carroll Beckwith. According to the book, he checked 28 facts from his recollections against the life of Beckwith after finding a painting he’d recognized in his attempts (as a self-proclaimed skeptic) to disprove the notion he was remembering a past life and researching the defunct painter.

The method by which SciFi decides to use the phrase “Proof Positive” to characterize this case? A polygraph test Snow passes. (Actually, there were two tests: Snow flubbed a question on the first, attributed to the vagueness of the question’s phrasing.) This should be more than a little problematic. First, I wouldn’t call a polygraph proof of much of anything under ideal circumstances—they’re inadmissible in court for good reason. Second, assuming Snow’s honest, it would at most show that he believed his memories were authentic, that he’d never heard of Beckwith before his hypnosis session. And while I haven’t read Snow’s book, I don’t know how we can rule out his having read some short bio of Beckwith as a child or been told about him.

Which brings us to a second reason to be dubious. Someone scientifically minded would surely realize that it’s impossible to prove that some set of life details “remembered” under hypnosis isn’t someone else’s. How on earth could you establish that a given set of experiences didn’t happen to some obscure figure centuries ago, that a person didn’t exist? You couldn’t, which makes Snow’s claim that this is what he was trying to do a little dodgy sounding. If this was fraud, of course, it would’ve been easy enough to cherry-pick the details. And to the extent that polygraphs are at all reliable, surely a veteran police detective would know how to beat one if anyone does.

That’s not to say Snow’s story is definitely a scam, or even bogus. But “proof positive”? Maybe they should change the name of the show to “too good to check.”

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