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Robert Todd Carroll

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Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.


Robert Todd Carroll

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1

February 27, 1996. NovaAlien Abductions.

It wouldn't be fair to characterize the Nova program on alien abductions as pure bunk, but this program definitely did not live up to a very high standard of scientific scrutiny of extraordinary claims. It was to be expected that Nova would give advocates such as John Mack and Budd Hopkins a chance to state their case. What I did not expect was to see an hour-long program devoted mostly to the incompetent, if well-meaning, Mr. Hopkins. The cameras followed Hopkins through session after session with a very agitated, highly emotional "patient" and then on to Florida as he cheerfully helped a seemingly unstable Florida woman inculcate in her children the belief that they had been abducted by aliens. In between more sessions with more of Hopkin's "patients," we had to listen to him again and again give plugs for his books and his reasons for showing no skepticism at all at very bizarre claims of humans being experimented on by aliens.

Dr. Mack was also given a very good amount of time to defend his work as a Harvard psychiatrist who cannot come up with a better explanation than that these people who think they've been abducted by aliens have really been abducted by aliens. He lists as reasons for believing the accounts are true the fact that his patients are not mentally ill (why does he treat them, then?), that they are otherwise normal people (that's a debatable point I might have granted him before I heard some of Hopkin's patients tell their stories), that they have nothing to gain by making this stuff up (no mention was made of what he and Hopkins have to gain by encouraging these people to come up with more details of their "abductions" rather than start from the assumption that they are probably deluded), and that their stories are very similar (which could well be because they've all read the same stories and seen the same movies).

The skeptics did have their say, but my guess is that they were given one minute for every four or five given to the abductee advocates. Carl Sagan, looking very old and wan, spoke eloquently, if briefly, to the issue of scientific skepticism and the lack of good evidence that aliens from outer space are here amongst us, much less kidnapping some of our most imaginative and emotional citizens for reproductive experimentation. He noted that anecdotes are all we have for this belief and anecdotes are not good evidence for scientific proofs.

Elizabeth Loftus was brought in for a few minutes to comment on memory construction in patients by "therapists" and to evaluate Hopkin's method of "counseling" the children whose mother was encouraging them to believe they'd been abducted by aliens. Dr. Loftus noted that Hopkins did a lot of encouraging to remember more details, as well as giving a lot of verbal rewarding when new details were brought forth. She characterized the procedure as "risky," because we don't know what effect this "counseling" will have on the children. I think we can safely predict one effect: they will grow up thinking they've been abducted by aliens and this belief will be so embedded in their memory that it will be practically impossible to get them to even consider the possibility that the "experience" was planted by their mother and cultivated by characters like Hopkins.

Several other skeptics were also interviewed. A psychologist offered the explanation that the abductees were deluded, but no attempt was made to explore very deeply why this particular delusion is so widespread. Another was a physicist who echoed some of Sagan's concerns about the lack of empirical evidence for the claim of alien visitation. (All these people over so many years in so many countries and not one souvenir! How inhuman!) Another skeptic interview was a Michael Persinger, a psychologist who offered an explanation in terms of brain states which he apparently was trying to duplicate in a lab.

I don't believe that everything in the universe can be explained, but I think the viewers of Nova deserve more than brief attempts of one or two skeptics to account for so many people having the same delusion. Otherwise, Mack's view will seem reasonable to many people: since there aren't any good explanations in terms of pathology, the best explanation is that the anecdotes of alien abduction are based on real experiences.

There was a beginning of an explanation in noting that the similarity of accounts counts against rather than for their being accounts of real events. Too much similarity indicates they've been influenced by the same written and visual sources, stories and movies. But the next step is to try to account for why these people are susceptible to these stories and why it is easy to get them to develop and expand them. It may seem to be begging the question to assume that a "normal" person would be skeptical of such stories and rather than be tempted to accept them and re-evaluate their own experience in terms of them, would find them unbelievable on their face. But I think it is a reasonable assumption to make. Thus, despite the fact that the abductees seem "normal," I would take as a working hypothesis that they are not normal, reasonable people, despite the fact that they may function well-enough in society or in their circle of family and friends. I would not go so far as to call such people functional psychotics, but I think the term "functional delusional" would be fairly accurate. That is a term I would also use to describe many religious believers. I do not think it is an accident that the beliefs of abductees and religious devotees seem very similar. A person can function "normally" in a million and one ways and hold the most irrational religious beliefs imaginable. Since religion is a culturally accepted delusion, this is not seen as being very strange and little effort is put forth to try to find out why people believe the religious stories they believe. But when someone holds a view outside of the culture's accepted range of delusional phenomena, there seems to be a need to "explain" their beliefs. There is, of course, one aspect of the abductees' beliefs that differs from most, but certainly not all, religious believers: the belief is based on an "experience." Here, the closest analogue in religion seems to be the mystical experience. Thus, it might be best to start with the assumption that abductees are like mystics: they believe they have experienced something denied to the rest of us. The only evidence for their experience is their own belief that it happened and the account they give of it. There is no other evidence.

The comparison of abductees with mystics is not as farfetched as it might at first seem. Think of the history of mysticism. The accounts of mystical experiences fall into two basic categories: the ecstatic and the contemplative. Each type of mysticism has its own history of accounts, its anecdotes and testimonials. And, like the stories of abductees, the stories of each type of mystic are very similar, too. Ecstatic mystics tend to describe their indescribable experiences in terms clearly analogous to sexual ecstasy. Going from darkness into the light recalls the birth experience. The contemplative mystics describe their experience of perfect peace and bliss in ways that anyone who has had a good night's sleep could identify with. Or, in the more advanced stages of mysticism, the experience is clearly analogous to death: a state of total unity, i.e., no diversity, no change, no anything. In short, the fact that mystical experiences are described in similar ways by mystics born in different countries and in different centuries, is not evidence of the authenticity of their experiences, but speaks more to the uniformity of human experience. Every culture knows of birth, sex and death.

On the other hand, the ecstatic and contemplative accounts of mystics may be similar due to similar brain states associated with bodily detachment and a sense of transcendence. The language and symbols of birth, sex and death may be nothing but analogues for brain states. Abductees may be describing similar hallucinations due to similar brain states.

Even more to the point might be the similarity of accounts given by those who have had near death experiences (NDE). It seems most reasonable to think that the accounts reflect similar beliefs before the experience rather than similar experiences in the "other world."

But there is more than just this similarity of how abductees's stories have common threads and so do the stories of mystics and NDE's. Still, this similarity helps see how the fact that stories are similar does not give very good evidence that the stories are therefore authentic accounts of actual similar experiences. More important, though, is the delusional nature of mysticism and out-of-body experiences (OBE's). If we can explain why people believe they have had mystical experiences or OBE's, we ought to be able to explain why people believe they've been abducted by aliens.

I don't think we should rule out good old-fashioned wishful thinking as being at work here. Although, it is a bit easier to understand why someone would wish to have a mystical experience than it is to grasp why anyone would want to be abducted by an alien. But, the ease with which we accept that a person might want to have a mystical experience is related to our cultural prejudice in favor of belief in God and the desirability of union with God. The desire to transcend this life, to move to a higher plane, to leave this body, to be selected by a higher being for some special task....each of these can be seen in the desire to be abducted by aliens as easily as in the desire to be one with God or to have an OBE.

If there are beings clever enough to travel around the universe today, there probably were some equally intelligent beings who could have done so in ancient or medieval times. The delusions of the ancients and the medievals are not couched in terms of aliens and spacecraft because these are our century's creations. We can laugh at the idea of gods taking on the form of swans to seduce beautiful women. We can laugh at the idea because it doesn't fit with our cultural prejudices and delusions. We can laugh at the idea of devils impregnating nuns because it doesn't fit with our cultural prejudices and delusions. The ancients and medievals probably would have laughed at anyone in their times who would have claimed to have been picked up by aliens from another planet for reproductive surgery. The only reason anyone takes the abductees seriously today is because their delusions do not blatantly conflict with our cultural beliefs that intergalactic space travel is a real possibility and that it is highly probable that we are not the only inhabited planet in the universe. In other times, no one would have been able to take these claims seriously.

Abductees are analogous to mystics and OBE's, or to medieval nuns who believed they'd been seduced by devils, or to ancient Greek women who thought they'd had sex with animals, or even to women who came to believe they were witches after hearing their priest read from the Bull on witches of Pope Innocent VIII or from a book on how to identify witches such as The Witch Hammer. And their counselors and therapists are like the priests of old who are there not to challenge beliefs, but to encourage them, to nurture them, to do everything in their power to establish their stories as orthodox. My guess would be that it will very hard to find an abductee who has not been heavily influenced into their belief by reading stories of aliens, or books like Communion or Intruders, or by seeing movies featuring aliens. It will be even more difficult to find an abductee who hasn't been greatly encouraged in their delusion by a counselor like Hopkins or a therapist like Mack. Given a great deal of encouragement by a believing community, and reinforced by the high priests, is it really that difficult to understand why there are so many people today who believe they have been abducted by aliens? I don't think so.

The only question that I find interesting and challenging in all this is the question as to what makes certain people susceptible to such beliefs, while other people would never be tempted to have such delusions. We can list a few items we have good reason to believe are not at work here. Intelligence is probably not a significant factor. Abductees and their high priests seem to be as intelligent or unintelligent as the rest of us. Brain disease, or serious chemical imbalance, is not likely a factor in most cases. Brainwashing is an unlikely factor. Even childhood experiences or upbringing are not likely factors. But when we try to identify factors which are common to the "true believers" but absent from the "skeptics" and vice-versa, it is difficult to establish such lists of characteristics with confidence.

About the only characteristics which I think are common to the abductees are the qualities of "vivid imagination" and very strong emotional response to experience. However, many skeptics could be said to have both vivid imaginations and very strong emotions. So, those qualities in themselves don't seem to explain anything. However, one characteristic which seems apparent in abductees and is lacking in most, if not all, skeptics, is a strong tendency to be suggestible. It may well be the case that while abductees and skeptics might be described as having strong emotions, the way the emotions function in an abductee's life is quite different from how they function in a skeptic's life. A skeptic may get quite agitated at people who refuse to examine evidence or who don't seem to have a clue as to what counts as a controlled experiment. A skeptic may be overcome with sadness at the credulity and gullibility of others, especially people he or she loves. But I think it would be a rare skeptic whose emotions so dominate their experience that they become very suggestible or very vulnerable to ideas offered by simpatico fellow travelers or high priests who seem to placate or explain their feelings. It may not be simply that the abductees have strong emotions; they may be much more self-conscious of their feelings and emotions, much more likely to say they are experiencing "vague" or "strange" or "inexplicable" feelings. This is not the same as being in tune with one's feelings. It is more like being constantly aware of being uneasy but without any sense as to why you should feel that way. And it certainly is not the same as having strong emotions.

I am obviously outside of my field of expertise in speculating as to what might explain thousands of people having a common delusion of being abducted by aliens. I am not nearly as sorry for having speculated on the matter, however, as I am that Nova made only a minimal effort to provide a skeptical psychologist's attempt to explain this phenomenon. I would have preferred a program that spend 45 minutes with Dr. Robert Baker, the skeptical psychologist, than one which spend 45 minutes with the likes of Hopkins and Mack from whom I learned nothing of value. I would also have preferred a program which would have included all of the footage Nova took of an interview with Philip Klass where he offered his analysis based on thirty years of investigating UFO reports. Instead, all the Klass footage ended up on the editing room floor.

Finally, I would have preferred to have heard more from Dr. Loftus regarding the role counselors and hypnotherapists play in creating memories in their patients. From the little that Nova showed us of Hopkins at work, it was apparent that Mr. Hopkins encouraged the creation of memories. A little comparison with the Bridey Murphy case or other past-life regression cases would have been in order, too.


Postscript. I have just finished reading the many responses to the Nova program on their UFO Feedback Page. Apparently, I am only one of a very small number who thought the program was "too fair" to Hopkins and Mack. Most of the feedback was critical of the show for debunking the alien abduction notion and its advocates. Many of the critics of the show were dismayed that Nova did not examine the "scientific evidence" for abduction and spent all of its time promoting the hypothesis that all alien abduction stories are based on false memories implanted by therapists. I would agree that the show spent too much time dealing with therapy, but I think Hopkins and Mack were certainly given more than enough opportunity to make their case...much more opportunity than the false memory advocates Loftus and Baker.

The criticisms of the show (including my own) should remind us of how we want the media to be our advocates, to present things the way we see them, and when they don't we criticize them for being "biased" and "unfair" or, in this case, "unscientific." In addition, given the volume of specific criticisms they received, I think Nova might do well to consider doing another program on the subject which focuses on the "scientific" evidence for visitation and abudction, such as scoop marks on legs, scars and soil. Apparently, the program did include some footage of this "evidence" but it did not make its way to the final program. Nova has posted online some of the interviews it did for the program. The interviews, as well as other material Nova posts for teachers who might want to use the Nova program in the classroom, are located at their site called Exploring the Alien Abduction Phenomenon. If I had read all the material posted, especially the stuff for teachers to use to get their students to think about memory construction or evaluating the theories of von Daniken and Reichert about Peruvian land drawings (alien airport or native calendar), I would have viewed the program in a very different light. I would have seen it as many of the critics saw it: an attempt to explain alien abductions as hypnogogic hallucinations nurtured into false memories by therapists. I would also have better appreciated what I thought was going overboard to let Hopkins and Mack present their case. This was part of a lesson plan emphasizing the problem of evaluating competing explanations of the same phenomenon. If a skeptic views the entire package, the Nova WWW site and the TV program on alien abductions, he or she will probably see that the program is much more skeptical than if one viewed only the TV program.

Imagine what response Nova would have gotten if it presented another explanation that compared belief in having been abducted by aliens with belief in having had a mystical experience or having been blessed with a vision of the Virgin Mary. 

February 25, 1996. NBC: The Mysterious Origins of Man by Dave Thomas. I have nothing to add to this review of a show featuring Charlton Heston spewing anti-science propaganda.

February 23, 1996. Ann Landers, (from the Davis Enterprise). Today, Ann Landers gave a boost to alternative medicine quackery by not responding to the illogical reasoning of P.W. from Taiwan regarding Western medicine men versus Chinese herbalists. P.W., a European married to a Taiwanese, wrote that while in Europe his wife had become pregnant three times and each time she miscarried due to fetal chromosomal abnormalities. Their European doctors declared the couple to be "healthy" and apparently gave them every indication that they were just unlucky. This evaluation was "depressing," says P.W.

The barren couple went East and in Taiwan their gynecologist gave them "a bag full of herbs" which they were instructed to take for a year. Halfway through the "treatment" Mrs. W. became pregnant. At the time the letter was written their son was 10 months old.

P.W. implored Ann: "Please, Ann, tell your readers in the West that couples who cannot have a child do not necessarily have a problem. The problem might be with their specialists, whose Western knowledge of the human body is sometimes quite limited." Now, I think most Western physicians would admit that their knowledge of the human body is often limited, but it hardly relates to P.W.'s situation. He assumes that the Chinese herbalist, who spoke of "harmony and balance in the body and mind," was instrumental in his wife's pregnancy. Furthermore, he assumes that the Western specialists were wrong in attributing their problem to bad luck. What evidence does P.W. have for these notions? The only "evidence" he has is the fact that his wife got pregnant after taking the herbs. This bit of post hoc reasoning is totally insufficient to warrant P.W.'s conclusions and Ann Landers should have let him know that. Instead, she replied:

I'm for whatever works. Considering the number of people who die from botched and unnecessary surgery and improper medication, herbal medicine could be a viable alternative.

Ann doesn't consider how many people die or continue to suffer when they take herbs instead of getting proper "Western" treatment with surgery, medicine, or drugs. But worse than that she seems oblivious to the insufficiency of evidence presented by P.W. The fact that his wife got pregnant after taking herbs does not prove the herbs had anything to do with her getting pregnant. It might have been "luck" [the luck of natural events taking their course] or divine intervention, for that matter, that explains the pregnancy. However, P.W. had ruled out divine intervention because his wife's father, an herbal doctor, told him "there are no miracles in healing." To which P.W. commented in a fitting non sequitur: "those so-called miracles just show how little some traditional doctors know."

Ann doesn't ask what herbs they took and she certainly indicates no interest in whether anyone has done a controlled study on the effectiveness of these herbs. She's for "whatever works." What does that mean? It seems to mean, "I'm for believing whatever you feel like believing when you are happy with some event." P.W.'s happy he has a son, so he is welcome to believe that the herbs did it and that the European physicians who told him he and his wife were healthy but unlucky didn't know what they were talking about. Furthermore, this proves herbalists with their notions of harmony and balance and other gibberish are not just valid, but superior notions to the Western notions of the body and cause-effect relations. What bunk!

February 11, 1996. Parade Magazine, "How to Control the Pain," by Earl Ubell.

This article presents a very misleading picture of the state of psychiatry's treatment of mental illness by drugs. The header for the article reads:

Every major mental illness--from schizophrenia to anxiety disorder-- is being successfully treated, using fresh insights and new drugs.

The statement is not false. Some mentally ill people are being treated successfully with drugs, but this and other statements scattered throughout the article make it sound like the vast majority of mentally ill people are either now being successfully treated or soon will be. The article produces no solid basis for such optimism. It is based primarily on anecdotes and testimonials. The article never defines "successful treatment" as it applies to the mentally ill. No empirical research is cited, but the National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH}]is cited as a source for such claims as "the success rate for the treatment of [obsessive- compulsive] disorder is almost 60 percent." Does that mean the failure rate is almost 40 percent? We are also told that "drugs have raised the success rate for treatment of anxiety disorder to 80 percent." What we are not told is what the success rate is for non-drug treatment of this disorder. Without a reference point for non-drug treatment, we can't adequately evaluate the 80 percent statistic.

No statistics are given for drug treatment of major depression, but the NIMH is cited to support the claim that "by treating a patient with a variety of medications, doctors have controlled the symptoms of bipolar mood disorder 80 percent of the time. The same source is used to support the claim that manic depression, if treated with the drug lithium, is controlled in 50 to 60 percent of patients. Does that mean it is not controlled in 40 to 50 percent of patients?

As for drugs and the successful treatment of schizophrenia, the article is very light. It gives one anecdote, no data, and a list of the drugs being used to treat this awful disease. I am glad that at least one person has been successfully treated with drugs for schizophrenia. But where is the rest of the story? Where are the accounts of those who have been treated with dozens of different drugs over many years, to no avail? Are these "failures" the vast majority of schizophrenic patients? If so, why is this not mentioned in the article? If not, why is there no evidence given in the form of scientific research which would back up the claim that schizophrenia is being successfully treated by drugs in the vast majority of cases?

The article is also misleading when it asserts that

Since the 1960s, NIMH reports, the number of Americans in mental institutions has fallen by 85 percent. The new drugs developed since then unquestionably have contributed to this.

The reason the number of patients in mental institutions has fallen so dramatically is mainly political: political leaders like Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, shut them down. All over the country, mental institutions were shut down because they were not being funded any more. They weren't shut down because many or most patients were being cured with drugs.

I would be the first to admit that some mentally ill patients have been successfully treated with drugs, with therapy and with a combination of the two. But to suggest that the vast majority will be cured with drugs in the near future because of these successes is grossly misleading. Today, scientists know a lot more about the brain and its relation to human behavior than they did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. However, despite the fact that researchers will continue to study brain and genetic systems, the optimism expressed by Mr. Ubell (whomever he may be....nothing about him is presented in the article) seems unwarranted and may give unjustified hope to millions of people who now suffer themselves or through a loved one afflicted with a brain disorder.

and from my scrapbook


April 19, 1987. Alice Kahn, "Channeling for Dollars,"The San Francisco Chronicle. Channeling has become big business for New Agers. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, $15 gets you in to hear "Michael"--an entity said to have had 1,050 beings over time--give personal advice to enthusiastic young professionals. After the show, the customers are offered "Acu-Kinetic Repatterning." For $520 anyone can become a "certified practitioner," and for $150 anyone can purchase the program "Change Your Life Through Colors." The latter, the customers are told, is usually $275, but this is a special introductory offer. Kahn's article was based on her attendance at one of the sessions. She also notes that for $125 anyone could attend the 3rd annual Michael Retreat at Harbin Hot Springs for "shamanic rituals, dream-sharing, breakfast and dinner."

 

 

 

 

ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

 

Last updated 03/30/10
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