AFTER years of mockery from colleagues, Dr. Ian Stevenson, Director of the Department of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, is finally getting respect. In ''Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence For Past Lives,'' (Simon & Schuster, 1999) Tom Shroder, a Washington Post editor, reviews the 80-year-old clinical psychiatrist's research on reincarnation and finds it hard to refute.
Mr. Shroder joined Dr. Stevenson on evidence-gathering trips to India and Lebanon, where they questioned subjects like Suzanne, 25, a Druse in Beirut who recalled her life as a woman who had died months before she was born. By age 2, Suzanne knew the names of 13 of the woman's relatives and could recount parts of the eulogy delivered at her funeral. Mr. Shroder concludes: ''The only way to account normally for what people were telling us was to hypothesize some massive multi-sided conspiracy, either conscious fraud or some unconscious communal coordination among people from different families and communities with no obvious motive or clear means to cooperate in a deception.''
In a recent interview, Dr. Stevenson discussed his (present) life's work, but wouldn't say whether he himself remembers a past life. ''Readers should make up their own minds,'' he argues, ''not on the basis of what I believe or what anybody else believes.''
Q: In 1938, Dr. Sigmund Freud wrote of psychoanalysis: ''I had to pay heavily for this bit of good luck. People did not want to believe my facts and thought my theories unsavory. Resistance was unrelenting.'' As a psychiatrist who has faced scorn from colleagues and the press, do you identify with Freud?
A: I've been through somewhat similar neglect. I'm not paranoid about it though. There seems to be an inappropriate reluctance on the part of some of my colleagues in medicine to even look at the data.
Q: What drew you to study reincarnation in the first place?
A: Discontent with other explanations of human personality. I wasn't satisfied with psychoanalysis or behaviorism or, for that matter, neuroscience. Something seemed to be missing.
Q: You have repeated the saying: Science changes one funeral at a time. What did you mean?
A: Science develops ideas of what is so and it becomes very difficult to force scientists to take a look at new data that may challenge existing concepts. I'm not trying in any way to replace what we know about genetics or environmental influences. All I'm offering is that past lives may contribute a third factor that may fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.
Q: You've investigated more than 3,000 cases of possible reincarnation. Was there one case that struck you as particularly difficult to explain in any other way?
A: Twins in Sri Lanka. We did testing that showed they were identical, yet they were markedly different in their behaviors and physical appearance. One twin began to talk about a previous life as a Sinhalese insurgent, said he was shot by police in April 1971. Anyway, his family laughed at him, so he shut up and nothing could be verified about what he said. The older twin talked copiously about the previous life of a young schoolboy. He made several specific statements that ultimately checked out. He said he lived in a place called Balapitiya and traveled by train to a school in another town called Ambalangoda. He made comparisons between the families' property. He referred to an aunt, by name, who had cooked chilies for him. Perhaps the most astonishing thing was that when the two families met, the boy pointed to some [writing] in a wall that turned out to be the name of the deceased boy he was remembering. The subject said he had made that when the cement was wet. No one in the deceased boy's family had noticed it before.