The literate world is well aware that a controversy about the reality of the UFO phenomenon has raged for decades. Arrayed on one side are the enthusiasts – the casual, the serious and the bizarre – along with thousands of highly qualified pilot- witnesses, high-ranking military personnel, intensely interested scientists, and even an astronaut or two. All regard the hundreds of thousands of global sighting reports as a scientific problem of major significance, and all demand that science finally conducts a thorough, objective investigation. Centrally opposed to this position are a large number of mainstream scientists, most of whom are not only indifferent to the subject of UFOs, but also grossly uninformed about the weight of the evidence. Allied with them is a strange amalgam of groups that includes official spokesmen for the United States Air Force, Bible Belt Fundamentalist preachers such as Pat Robertson, and a small but vociferous band of self-described “rationalist” debunkers (who probably look upon their religious brethren as hopelessly superstitious). Clearly, the battle against a scientific investigation of the UFO phenomenon makes strange bedfellows.
A few years ago, when those of us in the research community heard rumors of a two-tiered scientific investigation to be undertaken at Harvard University by experimental psychologists Richard McNally and Susan Clancy, we were curious but wary. Dr. McNally, we were told, intended to test a group of self- described UFO abductees for the presence of certain symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He would employ as a model a similar test used years before, in which a group of Vietnam veterans tape recorded their traumatic war experiences and then, at a later time, were scientifically measured for signs of stress as they heard their taped accounts played back. Dr. Clancy planned to employ a word memorization test, which was supposed to reveal a subject’s tendency towards false memories. Unfortunately, neither McNally nor Clancy intended to carry out any actual investigations of UFO abduction reports or examine any physical evidence. They would remain in the laboratory, limiting their project to the ostensibly scientific testing of their abductee subjects’ veracity.
Early in the Susan Clancy enterprise, any hopes I had for her objectivity evaporated when I learned that her purported abductee subjects were to be self-selected. She had placed ads in a number of newspapers, asking for those who believed they had had UFO abduction experiences to contact her. Little or no vetting took place, and her unscientific protocol thus opened the laboratory door to anyone who claimed to be an abductee. Her subjects were not a group whose accounts had been investigated and accepted as reliable by experienced researchers, but instead, Clancy accepted virtually anyone who came in off the street and told her they were, indeed, abductees. Some of her subjects had such tenuous, even vapid reasons for believing they were abductees – a “mysterious bruise” or a “vague feeling” – that knowledgeable researchers would have immediately shown them the door. The uncritical Dr. Clancy, however, made them part of the “abductee” group she studied!
Anyone familiar with the phenomenon is aware that very few abductees will come forward to discuss their experiences publicly, or to subject themselves to “testing” of any kind by people or organizations that they do not know and trust. Doing so would be to run the very real risk of becoming targets for career-threatening ridicule. Obviously, the more highly credentialed abductees are the most hesitant to volunteer as test subjects because they have the most to lose. Neither the NASA research scientist, the NASA engineer, nor the many psychiatrists, psychologists, police officers and military professionals who, over the years, have reported their abduction experiences to me, would ever involve themselves in what might well turn out to be sensationalist and incompetently mounted tests of one kind or another. Adding to that basic flaw in her study, my second concern had to do with the fact that neither Clancy, whom I had twice met, nor McNally made any attempt to contact Dr. David Jacobs or me. They were both undoubtedly aware that the two of us have accumulated between us masses of data after decades of work with literally hundreds of abductees. We were never consulted on any issue, nor was our help in vetting test subjects called for. In retrospect, Dr. Jacobs and I could have easily prevented the two testers – innocent of the complex work of actual investigation – from making many of the egregious errors which have so seriously damaged their work.
The results of McNally’s test for signs of posttraumatic stress disorder were significant. Those reporting abductions showed virtually the same intensely emotional reactions upon hearing their taped accounts replayed as did the Vietnam vets when they heard the tapes of their traumatic war experiences. But as we soon learned in McNally’s analysis of the test results, the devil was not in the details themselves but in his interpretation of the details. He announced that, since we “know” that UFO abductions don’t exist, all of his subjects’ accounts have to be false memories. And since they registered just as powerfully as “true” memories, what the test shows, he explained, is that “false” memories can be just as traumatic as “real” memories! This classic illustration of “heads I win, tails you lose” circular reasoning provides a perfect example of ideology trumping science. Unfortunately, as astronomer J. Allen Hynek once remarked, science is not always what scientists do. In effect, McNally seemed to be saying that even if his own test results support the traumatic reality of the abduction phenomenon, that fact changes nothing since UFO ABDUCTIONS JUST DO NOT EXIST, and that somehow, someway, he will make his test results fit his hypothesis! McNally’s ideological interpretation of the test results – a clear example of “faith-based science” – is just as rigid in its way as the creationists’ willful denigration of evolution, no matter what the fossil records have revealed.
Susan Clancy’s word memorization test as an indication of false memories is far more tenuous than McNally’s test for the presence of posttraumatic stress. (This is perhaps not the place to go into its technical inadequacies, other than to reiterate what I have already said about its fatal flaw – the reliance upon an unvetted, self-selected sample. I will return to the specifics of her work in a later paper.) Instead, the problem I would like to discuss is her use of a rather simple word memorization protocol to ratify her belief that a subject’s demonstrably traumatic memories are false. Clancy baldly stated in an early newspaper interview that she assumed everyone would accept the idea that all abduction experiences were false memories, because “everyone” knew there were no such things as UFO abductions. This, she apparently thought, was settled truth – and another illustration of irrational, faith-based science. So, at the outset of their work, neither she nor McNally intended to raise even the possibility that such things as UFO abductions might have occurred, let alone to actually investigate that possibility. The ideology they shared assumed that such experiences were, ipso facto, false memories, a theory the two seem to believe as fervently as the Pope believes in the virgin birth.
Another analogy comes to mind. Instead of a group of abductees, imagine an equal number of women who have reported rape experiences and who are now to be tested by a pair of experimental psychologists. The psychologists state at the outset that they do not believe any of these women were actually raped and are proceeding on that assumption. Thus their goal is not to investigate the veracity of the women’s claims but to discover a way of establishing their “tendencies to fantasize and form false memories.” Since the testers “know” in advance that these rape memories are false, no police investigation into the alleged rape accounts is necessary – no examination of physical or medical evidence, no visits to alleged crime scenes, no interviews with possible witnesses, and no checks on the reputations of the rape victims. In short, nothing will be undertaken that might support the reality of their experiences. An outrageous, even inhumane idea, of course, but analogous to the Clancy-McNally attitude to UFO abductees.
As I pointed out above, Clancy carried out no investigation of any of her subjects’ abduction reports – no inquiries into supporting witnesses, no visits to alleged sites, no search for physical evidence, no interviews with friends and family members. Everything she did apparently took place in the laboratory, by way of her word memorization test and personal interviews, though she apparently lacked a firm grounding in the literature, history or complexity of the UFO phenomenon. Recently I appeared on “Larry King Live,” along with Clancy and several others, when one of the guests showed a blow-up of the world-famous Trent UFO photographs from McMinnville, Oregon, arguably the best-known UFO photos in existence. They were prominently featured in “Life” magazine in 1950, and have been reproduced hundreds of times since in many publications. What’s more, in 1969, after careful analysis, an investigator for the skeptical Condon Committee described the McMinnville photo case this way: “This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical, appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disc-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses.” Optical physicist Dr. Bruce Maccabee has investigated this case thoroughly, flying to McMinneville, interviewing the Trents, their family and neighbors, taking his own test photos from the same location, and carrying out literally months of optical analysis of the original pictures. Maccabee’s work has been published widely, but the photos themselves should be familiar to anyone with even a cursory involvement in UFO study and research. Yet, during the Larry King program, abduction authority Susan Clancy glanced at the photos on the monitor and said something like this: “that could be anything… someone who threw up a hubcap or a Frisbee or something.” Her evident ignorance of this case, and, by extension, of the literature and history of the UFO phenomenon, was aptly illustrated by this glib, contemptuous wisecrack, a remark one might expect to hear late at night in a Texas barroom, but not from someone holding a Ph.D. degree from Harvard. Earlier, when King asked her how she became interested in the subject of UFO abductions, she began her answer this way: “I’ve been studying aliens for… ” Studying aliens Again, this peculiar description of her work in the laboratory is not what one would expect to hear from an experimental psychologist on an ostensibly serious TV program.
Though as a faith-based scientist, Susan Clancy has no problem asserting her absolute belief that all UFO abduction accounts are nothing more than false memories, she is left with the problem of explaining how these memories are generated. By what process can many thousands of extremely similar accounts from around the world come into the heads of this multitude – especially since her colleague, Richard McNally, has established that abduction memories have essentially the same traumatic qualities as memories of the Vietnam War Clancy’s solution was to cobble together a melange of theories, many of them mutually contradictory, in an attempt to account for the power and similarity of these “false” memories. Abduction researchers have long been familiar with the explanations Clancy offers, and over the years we have refused to deal with many individuals whose abduction accounts are either extremely tenuous, lacking in evidence, or easily explained away. Where we differ from Clancy is that she insists upon her a priori belief that every abduction case can be explained away by her various theories and that no actual investigation is necessary, whereas experienced investigators, being scientific skeptics, believe that abduction accounts, accompanied by supporting evidence of various types, deserve investigation before firm conclusions about their credibility can be drawn.
Her first explanation – one that is currently popular with debunkers of every stripe – is that abduction memories are formed during episodes of sleep paralysis, a relatively rare neurological event that usually lasts a matter of seconds. The sleep paralysis explanation has been eagerly seized upon because a sizeable percentage of UFO abductions occur at night, in the subject’s bedroom. There are, of course, myriad objections to the sleep paralysis theory, but it clearly self-destructs before one central problem: the large percentage of UFO abductions which occur in the daytime, when the abductee is up and about, driving a car, taking a walk, playing in the front yard, or even, in one case, driving a tractor. In fact, for the first twenty years of UFO abduction accounts, I am aware of none that reportedly took place inside one’s home or bedroom. So, as science decrees, if a theory does not fit the data, it must be rejected.
Clancy also indicts the use of hypnosis as the medium by which false memories are implanted in unsuspecting clients by unscrupulous hypnotists. The problem with this theory is that about 30% of the thousands of UFO abduction reports researchers have investigated were recalled without the use of hypnosis. Beyond that, virtually all abductees recall at least some aspects of their experiences without hypnosis. Otherwise, they would have had no reason to contact an investigator in the first place. In the light of these facts, the “hypnosis explanation” as to how “false” abduction recollections are generated also collapses.
It should be added that further doubts about the efficacy of hypnosis in inducing false memories have been raised by recent experimental studies, such as the work of psychologists Steven Lynn and Irving Kirsch. They summarize their results this way: “The most appropriate conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence is that hypnosis does not reliably produce more false memories than are produced in a variety of non-hypnotic situations in which misleading information is conveyed to participants.” It is also a matter of record that many hypnotherapists with no knowledge of the abduction phenomenon have, to their surprise, uncovered traumatic abduction recollections in subjects with whom they were working. In fact, Dr. Benjamin Simon, a psychiatrist highly skeptical of UFO reality who was treating Betty and Barney Hill for post traumatic stress, uncovered details of their terrifying abduction experience in what is now seen as the first systematically investigated UFO abduction case. Obviously, during hypnosis, his personal skepticism had no effect whatsoever on the Hills’ recollections. There are many reasons to trust the process of hypnosis, if it is handled carefully and skeptically, with the use of false leads and other validating techniques (all of which I have discussed elsewhere). But it should be clear by now that objective science must reject Clancy’s theory that hypnosis per se is implicated in the wholesale generation of false memories.
One of the early theories used to explain UFO abduction reports insisted that such experiences were nothing more than a new “space age religion.” Since the gods are supposedly dead, abductees have invented encounters with “godlike” alien beings to replace them. But that highly speculative theory was discounted years ago by serious researchers on both sides of the issue because of yet another major problem: the vast majority of UFO abductees feel that their abductions have been deeply traumatizing – sometimes even physically painful and injurious – and that the small, hairless, big-eyed UFO occupants they describe are anything but godlike. (Richard McNally’s own test results buttress this abductee view). It should be pointed out, however, that one occasionally comes across an abductee who is fully aware of the emotional trauma he has suffered, but who is nevertheless willing to regard these experiences as being, in some way, spiritually uplifting. For such people, this positive view of traumatic events is probably a coping strategy, similar to that of certain battered wives who will not complain to the police, but instead insist that their abusive husbands really do love them. Perhaps, for some battered wives as well as for some traumatized abductees, this kind of coping strategy is a way of retaining one’s self esteem by fighting off the sense of being a helpless victim and by insisting that somewhere, somehow their ordeals must have a silver lining. One is reminded of the many victims of Hurricane Katrina who have lost everything but whom, when interviewed on television, cling to the idea that their ghastly experiences have somehow been transformative and spiritually uplifting.
Equally damning of Clancy’s religious explanation is the fact that the UFO reports of many abductees in more primitive cultures describe exactly the same details as do abductees in more advanced cultures, and yet these more primitive people work assiduously to make their UFO experiences fit into the schema of their traditional religions. Thus, in a well-known Zimbabwe incident, the natives who described small, white-skinned aliens in shiny one-piece jumpsuits insisted that they were the ghosts of their ancestors, who can now, apparently, fly around in wingless metal discs. Clancy would have us believe that many previously religious people have simply dropped their traditional beliefs and begun to worship the abducting aliens in a new kind of “false-memory religion,” but in cases such as this African incident, the natives did the opposite. They forced the conventional “space age” UFO and the white-skinned aliens they had actually observed into strained conformity with their pre- existing religious beliefs. Thus their UFO experience can be seen as strengthening their traditional beliefs, rather than replacing them.
Another shaky explanation Clancy mentions is that of media contamination. According to this idea, perfectly normal people are so influenced by something they’ve seen on TV or read in a book that, like helpless sponges, they adopt details from other people’s abduction accounts and thus weave tenaciously held false memories from “an odd bruise” or a “strange feeling” or something equally tenuous. It is unnecessary to point out that experienced investigators would, at the outset, recognize these “wannabes” for what they were and refuse to deal with them. Furthermore, it seems obvious that these newly minted “wannabes” would be among the first to answer Clancy’s ads soliciting abductees for her tests, because, in doing so they would achieve legitimacy by becoming part of her sample. Thus the central point of her “contamination” argument brilliantly exposes the original and most damaging flaw in her methodology: the self-selected and therefore completely unrepresentative nature of her subjects.
So who were the people Clancy was attempting to test Were there some apparently legitimate abductees among her sample Possibly. Were there wannabes, publicity seekers and emotionally unstable people among her sample Undoubtedly. And under these conditions, what kind of valid generalizations could she possibly make about the UFO abduction phenomenon
In the light of these crippling problems in her methodology, we must briefly consider which areas of the complex, many-sided abduction phenomenon which Clancy’s faith-based attitude refused to consider. What kinds of data did she overlook Here, briefly, are some examples:
1. She included no study of the patterns of well-known and clearly defined physical sequelae – scoop marks and straight- line cuts – that frequently appear on individuals after their abductions.
2. She included no reference to the patterns of ground traces – altered soil, tree branches snapped off from the top down, affects on the surrounding foliage, etc. that are often discovered at UFO landing sites after abductions.
3. She made no mention of the eye-witness testimony of neighbors observing a UFO hovering over a house where an abduction is taking place; of witnesses who search in vain for an abducted child who is later found outside a fully locked house; of the incidents in which the police are summoned because of the temporary disappearance of a baby from his crib or a child from her bedroom, but who turn up, unobserved, an hour or so later; or hundreds of similar cases in which abductees are known to be inexplicably missing.
4. She made no mention of the bizarre errors the UFO occupants often make, such as returning individuals from group abductions wearing someone else’s clothes; replacing abductees in the wrong room or building after an abduction; or returning an individual to her bedroom in a locked and bolted house with her feet soiled and the back of her nightgown covered with damp leaves; or any of the scores of other such significant errors.
5. She made no mention of the hundreds of cases in which two or more individuals are abducted at once, and whose traumatic memories match in every detail.
6. She made no mention of a few accounts – such as the Travis Walton case or the Linda Cortile abduction – in which numerous witnesses see all or part of the abduction as it is being carried out.
7. She made no effort to interview the friends and family members of the people in her sample, or in fact anyone who might have insight into their general trustworthiness and emotional soundness. Instead, Susan Clancy alone, because of her faith in the non-existence of UFO abductions, decided that all of her subjects’ abduction accounts were false, and that all of their traumatic recollections were nothing more than false memories. She is therefore implying – indirectly but absolutely – that none of her subjects can tell the difference between dream and reality. To the public at large, this means, in effect, that an experimental psychologist with a Harvard degree believes everyone claiming UFO abduction experiences is suffering from a form of mental illness.
For me, in the absence of any actual investigation of their accounts, such a radical, blanket condemnation by Susan Clancy of her innocent and naively trusting subjects is both ethically reprehensible and a disgrace to science.
Budd Hopkins New York October, 2005
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