Sunday, January 15, 2006

Abducting the truth

Susan Clancy, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard University, has just published a book called Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Her compassionate but skeptical analysis is especially to be welcomed since until now the most notorious account of alien abductions came from another Harvard academic, the late and lamented John Mack, Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer of T. H. Lawrence.

In Mack's 1992 book, Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, he claimed that "hundreds of thousands, if not millions of American men, women, and children may have experienced UFO abductions, or abduction related phenomena." He based his belief on more than a hundred interviews, often involving hypnosis, with men and women who "remembered" having been taken aboard space craft for bizarre sexual experiments, involving sperm-taking, artificial insemination, removal of embryos, surgical implantation of "tagging" devices, and probes of body cavities.

Needless to say, Mack's book was something of an embarrassment to his Harvard colleagues. At the time, I wrote a Boston Globe column on the book pointing out the striking parallels between the alien abduction phenomenon and the witchcraft hysteria of the late Middle Ages:

-- the investigators of the phenomenon are mostly male.

-- the victims are mostly female, and mostly young.

-- the victims are often wakened in the night with a sense of strange presences in the room. They are taken away through the ceiling and participate in experiences of a sexual nature.

-- the testimony of the victims about their experiences shows remarkable consistency. Handbooks are written describing typical experiences. The consistency of the testimony is taken as evidence that the phenomenon is objectively real.

-- victims are sometimes afflicted with puzzling scars, injuries or pains.

-- the physical characteristics of the abductors, their presumed place of origin, and their mode of transport are consistent with the popular imagination of the time.

-- the investigators participate in eliciting testimony from the victims (torture, then; hypnosis, now).

It seemed to me that these similarities were sufficient to suggest that the alien abduction phenomenon has a psychological explanation, unless, of course, one wants to conclude that traffic with the Devil is real or that aliens visited Earth in the late-Middle Ages. Now Clancy has come along to buttress the psychological hypothesis with solid research and cogent professional analysis. In particular, she swipes away at the supposed reality of alien abduction with Occam's razor, showing that there are less far-fetched explanations for the recovered memories of the abductees.

People in Mack's camp avoid parsimonious explanations, as they reject stark polarities of physical reality versus delusion, fraud or wishful thinking. They reject, in Mack's words, "boundaries between the material and the psychological, the mythic and the real, as well as distinctions between symbolic and literal, and even...the polarities of true versus hoax." It's difficult to get one's teeth into this sort of thing. If a person testifies (often under hypnosis) that she was removed from her home, subjected to physical examination on a stainless-steel table aboard an alien craft, and perhaps tampered with sexually and/or genetically, then a scientific realist would say it either happened or it didn't. Abduction enthusiasts have a more slippery notion of truth. Something is going on, they say, that we can't hope to understand, involving technologies and realities beyond our wildest imaginings. If the abductors can travel here from another planet, pass through walls, and render their victims invisible, then who are we to insist upon the knowledge categories of merely human science?

When my Globe column appeared in mid-1992, John Mack telephoned and we had a chat. He was fun to talk to -- thoughtful, intelligent and sincere. I liked him immediately, and didn't doubt for a moment his earnest conviction that he was helping his patients by taking seriously their reports of alien encounters. Of course, neither of us convinced the other of the correctness of our views. Some weeks after our chat, a friend gave me an audio tape of one of Mack's public lectures in which he referred to our telephone conversation, then added: "Finally, in exasperation, I said to him -- Look, Chet. A UFO could land on Boston Common. Channel 5, Channel 7 and Channel 4 could all have films on the nightly news to show us. The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald could have big articles about it, and you still wouldn't believe, would you?' And Chet said, 'No, I wouldn't.'" Big laugh from Mack's audience.

I don't remember the details of our telephone conversation, but what Mack said is a fair representation of my views. I wouldn't want to fall into what biologist Richard Dawkins calls "the Argument from Personal Incredulity": If it seems impossible to me, it must not be true. Anything, even abduction by aliens, is possible. However, the arrival of a UFO from space would be an event so far beyond our normal experience that any sensible person should ask for compelling, irrefutable evidence. After all, there are other possible explanations for TV and newspaper reports of a Boston Common landing: an April's fool's joke, a hoax, an episode of mass hysteria. I'd want to go to the Common and see the ship with my own eyes. Or, failing that, I would want reliably-documented eyewitness testimony from skeptics, not elicited under hypnosis. I would want material evidence: close-up photographs taken by credentialed news photographers, spaceship artifacts, a few of those "tagging" devices removed from the bodies of abductees by skeptical doctors, and so on. As Carl Sagan has said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Reviewing Susan Clancy's book in Science, Stuart Vyse, a psychologist at Connecticut College, writes: "Clancy never loses sight of the serious questions raised by the alien abduction phenomenon, nor does she waver in her respect for the abductees. Having concluded that these people are not dismissible as ignorant or crazy, she is left with a more unsettling truth: under the right circumstances, normal people can come to hold very bizarre beliefs. Furthermore, the imagined experience of being kidnapped by aliens, while traumatic and frightening, often seemed to provide Clancy's abductees with a kind of spiritual meaning they had not found elsewhere. Unlike people who recover memories of sexual abuse, many alien abductees said that, given the choice, they would still want to be abducted."

As readers of my book Skeptics and True Believers know, this story has an amusing epilogue. I ended my 1992 Globe column on John Mack and alien abductions with this statement: "Tell you what, John. Pass the word through your abductee contacts. I'll be waiting on the college quad at midnight a week from tonight. I volunteer myself for alien abduction experiments. I doubt if anyone will show up to spirit me away -- but I'm prepared to be astonished." The result was predictable, and I should have anticipated it. Almost immediately after the column appeared, signs went up all over my college campus: "See Raymo abducted by aliens! On the quad. Midnight, Monday, April 18." On the appointed night, a thousand high-spirited, spring-fevered students gathered on the quad, many of them in alien costume (consuming dozens of rolls of aluminum foil). A landing area had been roped off. The college radio station had set up a special booth and was blaring Star Wars theme music into space. Reporters from the local newspapers had been alerted and were on hand. I couldn't stay at home. So I joined the throng, with an overnight bag containing a voluminous (ersatz) sperm sample and a fresh change of underwear. At midnight, a thousand voices, many of them cheerily inebriated, counted down the moment of truth. A rousing good time was had by all. I wish John Mack had been there; I think he would have had a good time too. The aliens didn't show.

Further Readings

As I implied above, there is some recycling here from my book Skeptics and True Believers. This reprise is inspired by the publication of Susan Clancy's Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, Harvard University Press.

Then there that classic from the editor of Skeptic Magazine, Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitions, and Other Confusions of Our Time.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.