The American Way: Truth, Justice and Abduction.

Thomas Bullard
Magonia 34, October, 1989

Americans have turned a deaf ear to social and psychological explanations for UFO phenomena, by and large. Magonia and its predecessors have long provided a voice for these ideas, a voice the editors must have felt was crying in the American wilderness, unheeded for these many years. Times have changed. The editors can take cheer that their magazine now provokes almost as many grumbles among American ufologists as the Skeptical Inquirer.

The past two issues alone (Nos. 31 and 32) caused uproars when Edoardo Russo and Gian Grassino berated Americans for their attention to Gulf Breeze, crash retrievals, abductions, and bedroom intrusions; when Manfred Cassirer and Martin Kottmeyer not only proposed a psychological explanation for abductions, but even dared to do a good job of it; and when Hilary Evans sinned the great sin of praising Phil Klass and his abduction book, a well-nigh mortal transgression.

To be fair, Europeans and Magonia can claim no monopoly on opposition to the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Many articles published in the leading American UFO journals opt for alternatives, as people are thinking and the forum is open. At the same time these authors may feel like honorary Europeans – or exiles – for all the attention their ideas receive. No one over here could doubt for a moment that the ETH dominates among the rank and file, as well as among most active researchers. Thanks in part to abductions, this hypothesis is enjoying a revival among the most serious ufologists. As thoughtful a researcher as Jerome Clark has rejected his Jungian musings from The Unidentified to write instead of ‘The Fall and Rise of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis’. [1]
The belief in abduction by extraterrestrials
has a firm rational basis,
 whether that belief is right or wrong

A parting of the ways between American and European ufologists has continued for a long time, but probably nothing has widened the separation as much as the abduction phenomenon. True to form, Americans have found aliens yet again, whereas Europeans and other followers of the left-hand path have regarded these increasingly fantastic stories as evidence for a modern mythology of psychological origin. Do the extraterrestrialists have a rational leg to stand on? For the sake of international peace and understanding, I will assume the role of apologist and answer in the affirmative. The belief in abduction by extraterrestrials has a firm rational basis, whether that belief is right or wrong.

Opposition to alien abductions follows two general strategies: one focuses on witnesses and explains their reports in psychological terms; the other focuses on report content and doubts its objectivity by pointing out its parallels with other phenomena.

The least systematic of the witness-oriented explanations blames hypnosis, general familiarity with abduction ideas, and confabulation between an impressionable subject and an over-zealous, true-believer ufologist as sufficient reasons to account for abduction stories. Largely external influences make an abductee in this view. The boundary-deficit and fantasy prone personality theories postulate a distinctive personality type which predisposes some people to altered states of consciousness, vividness of imagination, and confusion of the real with the unreal. An interpretation on a deeper plane introduces psychological constants as a potential source of abduction sights and events. One possibility is birth trauma imagery, another is psychic symbolism based on archetypes of the unconscious functioning in a psychodrama of personal transformation. Even more exotic proposals include the efficacy of thought to manifest physical or quasi-physical objects, the induction of abduction visions by the electromagnetic energy from tectonic stress in rocks, or intervention by unknown powers to alter our habits of thought and behaviour for reasons beyond our ken. [2]

What the literalistic approach offers is a largely self-evident reading of the reports. In a few cases where witnesses invoke religious or other ideas out of step with modern beliefs, interpretation is sanctioned, but seldom needed. Many reports conform to the ETH outright. They describe encounters with alien beings who arrive in spaceships and kidnap humans for purposes that include physical examination. The craft is clearly a product of advanced technology and the examination shows proper signs of scientific curiosity. Hints of planetary disasters and an interest in reproduction suggest that a pragmatic survival motive underlies these visits. The beings seem to control their captives by some form of mental influence, and this control may carry over beyond the abduction as major life changes follow in its stead.

No opponent denies that the ETH account of abduction stories is superficially plausible. The literalistic reading certainly offers a self contained answer. What opponents seem to reject is the naivety of that reading. It simply takes too much at face value without cracking a smile at how close such an explanation comes to science fiction mythology or how much the stories resemble old lore in modern guise. Deaf and blind to all parallels or similarities, the ETH proponents exist in a vacuum. Since Americans seem to preserve this vacuum with a will, their adherence to the ETH looks to an outsider like a fool’s errand instead of a rational choice.

A case can be made that the literalistic view is less naive than it seems, and subjectivist sophistication is equally debilitating to rational decisions. Taking witnesses at their word may seem rash. Yet it is just as rash to reject their stories simply because they are fantastic. Some investigators of extraordinary experience narratives, such as David Hufford in his work with Old Hag encounters, break with received wisdom to conclude that witnesses sometimes describe such events with remarkable fidelity. [3] Experience may give rise to belief, rather than belief to experience. Ufology offers many good reasons to doubt eyewitness testimony and demonstrates that presuppositions can exert remarkable influence over observations and reports. An anomalous event may be subjective in origin and culturally influenced in description, but this outcome is not inevitable. The literalistic looks with sympathy on abductees as the people closest to a strange event, and looks askance at the subjectivist who takes their error for granted.

Much blame has fallen on hypnosis as the real cause of abductions. This is well founded. Expert opinion is unanimous that, hypnosis throws open the door to fantasy and confabulation, so that hypnotic testimony can combine fact and error into an inseparable, plausible unity. The risk is clear, but is it realised? If hypnosis truly shapes and distorts abduction testimony, some evidence of this influence should remain. Most critics ignore the reports that have emerged without use of hypnosis. They make up a substantial minority, and compare so favourably with reports obtained by hypnosis that almost no differences in form or content appear. If the hypnotist influences witnesses with his own beliefs, each investigator should leave some distinctive mark on the cases he investigates. Again a comparison shows that the cases of various investigators are all pretty much alike.

The trump card against hypnosis has been the experiments with non-abductees described by Alvin Lawson. Under hypnosis these non-abductees told stories very much like those of ‘real’ abductees, so the subjectivity of the reports seems sure. In fact these experiments convict neither hypnosis nor abductions. In a comparative test the accounts of non-abductees differed considerably from the accounts of real abductees, a difference best seen in descriptions of the beings. None of the experimental subjects reported the same type of being, but populated their narratives with a varied array of ‘aliens’. The range of variety compares with that of the real cases, but the frequency of each type corresponds to chance distribution, and in no way approximates the regularity with which small grey humanoids appear among real cases. The similarities are of the more obvious sorts and assertions that the two bodies of reports are alike express more hope than reality. [4] Americans may keep the faith with hypnosis for all the wrong reasons, but in fact there are sound reasons for that faith.
As Freud is supposed to have said,
sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke

The same distrust applies to Jungian theories. They are beguiling, and Dennis Stillings can sweep up much of the abduction story into the Jungian scheme, but his argument remains unconvincing. The present world situation is supposed to be so dreadful that a salvation myth emerges into our consciousness, but when has the world ever not been in dreadful shape? If abductions seem too real to be dream-like, Stillings has the answer – they are not ordinary dreams but archetypal dreams. If abductions have a physical component, he has an answer for this eventuality as well – the psychic and physical realms become one and indistinguishable.[5]
Joseph Campbell’s myth of the hero follows a pattern of separation, initiation (ordeal, assimilation, and adoption), then return of a wiser, improved person. This pattern clearly fits abductions, but it just as well fits the life of a youth who goes off to college. As Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke. An interpretation of abductions in terms of symbols and psychodrama is quite possible, but what makes it compelling? This psychological theory is broad enough to encompass almost anything, as speculative as the ETH, and little better credited by establishment science. In a standoff of faith against faith, little wonder that Americans reject the ornate schemas of Jungian thought for the simplicity of aliens.

The more down-to-earth psychology of predisposition to fantasy is far more believable, but also far from proven. We understand all too little about abductees as individuals. What their personality traits and life circumstances may contribute to the story remains an unknown quantity and our scant knowledge impressionistic at best. Yet abductees seem to be a diverse group, not obviously prone to fantasy or boundary deficiency except by the circular argument that they report an abduction experience. A psychological profile of Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker shows no inclination to fantasy. [6] The Slater study of nine abductees is cited by Kottmeyer as evidence that these subjects display boundary deficit symptoms.[7] A sample of nine is sufficient to refute the charge that all abductees are psychotic, but hardly adequate to demonstrate that many of them have boundary deficit personalities. In fact the description of these individuals as ‘distinctive, unusual, and interesting’ suggests that they are more different than alike.

June Parnell, whose doctoral work under Leo Sprinkle included personality testing of some 200 participants in his annual ‘contactee conferences’, found significant evidence for creativity and fantasy among subjects who reported communication with aliens, but no significant evidence among subjects reporting various UFO encounters. Considerable care must be taken in interpreting her work, since these subjects are not all classical abductees by any means. Of those subjects I read as most likely to be abductees, their ‘fantasy’ scores are actually among the lowest, no higher than scores for people reporting only lights in the sky. In any case the expected hierarchy of scores fails to appear – there is no increase in fantasy indicators as the strangeness of UFO stories increases. [8] Alexander Keul and Ken Phillips seem to find enhanced creative and artistic abilities among UFO reporters in general and not just among abductees. [9] Any conclusion must be of the most tentative sort, but the meagre and oblique evidence available suggests no radical psychological departure of abductees from narrators of less fantastic UFO stories.

The search for parallels is dear to the hearts of folklorists who have engaged in it for decades on the premise that world-wide likenesses in narrative reflect a similarity of psychological experience among all humans, not a similarity of literal experience. A list of parallels between abductions and other cultural phenomena is impressive, including diminutive beings, kidnap, torture, enchantment, changelings, and a subterranean other-world. Probably no other discovery gives as much pause to proponents of literal abductions.

In comparing folklore and abductions, many features fit but at the same time many do not. The temptation is strong to call attention to the successes and ignore the failures. No reliable standards say how many hits against how many misses justify a comparison, but abduction reports differ in many ways from the cited parallels. Fairies do not fly space-ships or use eye-like scanning devices, for example. When abstracted to general terms, the features of the abduction story can match folklore or symbol systems with impressive fidelity. Yet the truth is, we have traditions for all occasions. Whatever the abduction story described, whether the beings roasted their captives on a spit or played pinochle with them, an equally appropriate tradition could be found and the parallel would look just as impressive.

One of the more impressive arguments for
literal abductions is the considerable coherency in form and content of the body of reliable reports

The case for literal abductions stands on its merits as well as on the short-comings of its adversaries. Multiple witnesses report some abductions, a significant criterion for objectivity. The explanation that shared fantasy or influence of one witness on another is responsible for these reports founders in as prominent an example as the Hill case, where Barney’s experience took an independent course and complemented Betty’s account without duplicating it. Accounts sometimes claim physical evidence in the form of body marks, implants, residues, vanishing pregnancies, and landing traces. Appeals to alleged physical evidence are hackneyed in ufology. Critics are right to complain that such evidence has much in common with a mirage, but they must admit that proving the validity of some small physical sample would be difficult even with objects of truly alien origin.

One of the more impressive arguments for literal abductions is the considerable coherency in form and content of the body of reliable reports. This coherency reaches down to certain minuscule details and squares with shared experience better than with personal fantasy or cultural learning. Multiple witnesses, physical evidence, and coherent narratives make an influential case for real abductions. Arguments for subjectivity appear lame against this sort of evidence, while its apparent tangibility, even if illusory, appeals strongly to American sensibilities.

What if abductions are literally true? Then the entire story falls into place without need for intellectual gymnastics. The ‘Oz Factor’, missing time, floating sensations and all other surreal aspects of the reports make sense, not as dreamlike events but as consequences of mental control exercised by aliens. They are advanced beings capable of interstellar travel and quasi-magical technology. The rounded, uniformly lighted interior of their craft is no womb image but just the place it seems to be, an examination room. Something has gone wrong with their planet and captives sometimes see it as devastated, dark or subterranean. This motif reinforces the claim that the beings use us for genetic materials in some vast project to save themselves, a project which includes implants into captives for monitoring purposes. These surreptitious purposes mesh in turn with motifs suggesting that the aliens are deceptive and secretive to a degree, most concerned with their examination and extraction procedures but pretending a concern and friendliness they do not feel, if indeed they can feel as we do. Learning our emotional makeup is part of their project. Piece by piece the puzzle appears to fit together.

Once accepted, the ETH can absorb almost any objection. Michael Swords has argued quite forcefully against the hybridisation hypothesis. The genetic makeup of true aliens would differ so enormously from ours that easy combination could not occur, while aliens with the technology to overcome this difficulty would have no need to turn kidnappers. They could get the result they want with less trouble by starting from scratch. [10] David Jacobs counters that we do not know enough about the aliens to evaluate their capabilities and limitations. What seems reasonable to us may not apply to them at all – and witnesses continue to describe hybrid babies.’ A correspondent of mine unites several threads of the story when he suggests that the aliens had to jump into their ships and flee a sudden catastrophe, escaping with advanced transportation but only fragments of their former biotechnological expertise. Historical circumstance accounts for the odd mixture of advancement and backwardness we see in the visitors. Jenny Randles finds that British abductions are more likely to include human-like aliens than grey humanoids. [12] Apologists have proposed different races of aliens or screen memories to hide the true humanoid appearance.

Faith in literal abductions may signify a failure
of critical thinking, but
not a failure of reasoning powers

Such responses are shamelessly ad hoc rationalisations. Yet in light of the ETH, these excuses make sense. The abduction story itself is so fantastic that it necessarily exasperates unbelievers. It is simply too pat, too heedless of the difficulties aliens would face and the question of why ufologists should uncover so easily the best-kept secrets of these other-world conspirators. Again the same answer applies – never mind the whys and wherefores, the extraterrestrial explanation works. It satisfies believers with a systematic, internally rational account of the abduction phenomenon, all for the price of buying a single premise: alien origin. This notion has long been popular with Americans, at least American ufologists, and Swords has shown that the ETH of ufology is a natural extension of the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life. [13] Faith in literal abductions may signify a failure of critical thinking, but not a failure of reasoning powers.

A venerable genre of American literature is the ‘Captured by the Indians’ story. Many such accounts appeared in print from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and served such purposes as propaganda against the Indians, examples of God’s providence, and exciting entertainment. Some narratives are pure fiction, and some of them are true. Most are a little of both. To complicate matters even more, narrators learnt the tradition of this genre and cast their stories in its mould, adapting even personal experience to the form and stereotype of prior examples until distinctions between truth and fiction blurred beyond recognition. Theories, methods and comparisons can identify the rhetoric and formula or point up the art and artifices of the genre. but the central dilemma remains unresolved: Is the story true or false? Any text can claim to be true, and if the only evidence is a text, fiction counterfeits truth to perfection. Theoretical positions suggest probabilities, but gain little purchase to separate the true from the false in any definitive way. If any one approach was always reliable, philosophy of science scholarship could fold up, but it stays a healthy enterprise.

We know the complexities surrounding the Indian narratives. Most of the abduction evidence is again in the form of texts, and non-literal interpretations have paid almost exclusive attention to this frustrating class of evidence. Abduction stories carry an added burden because we do not know if even one of them is true. Rival theories can flourish because no one has an infallible, all-conquering answer. Each solution has its strengths and weaknesses but none has proof, so choices may rely more on temperament than epistemological soundness.

Mark Rodeghier pointed out recently that different styles characterise European and American ufological enquiry. [14] Europeans tend to work from the top down, starting with fully articulated, highly abstract theories and methods, seeking a place for the subject phenomenon within a broad scope of meanings. The phenomenon is secondary to the theory. It orders knowledge of many phenomena and neither stands nor falls on its success with any one of them. Success itself seems to have an aesthetic dimension, so that elegant integration of a phenomenon into the architecture of the system counts for more than close adherence to the facts. This primacy of the theory justifies taking a few liberties with the evidence, selecting bending or abstracting it until the result is an idealised phenomenon matched to the theory, but perhaps no longer an accurate reflection of the original sources.

Americans reverse this order and work from the bottom up, wallowing in facts, often content just to accumulate and enumerate them. Explanations follow as an after-thought, on the grounds that the evidence speaks pretty much for itself. Suspicious of abstractions that range very far from the empirical base, Americans often feel satisfied to cobble together a few unsystematic generalisations and prefer to isolate phenomena rather than relate them. In European eyes this approach is narrow and intellectually unadventurous. American devotion to the ETH looks like an urge to impose an outworn idea on abduction reports, an unimaginative literalism that downplays their fantastic character and refuses to give serious attention to alternatives.

To American eyes Europeans are too impatient with evidence. They rush off in unseemly haste to abstract, theorise and debate theories without ever confronting the factual base on its own merits.

All right, while being true to their inclinations Europeans choose psycho-social explanations and Americans the ETH. Can we leave the matter there? I think not, because these choices have consequences. If any criterion of preference can be found between the European way and the American way of looking at abductions, that criterion lies in the treatment of evidence. Americans start with the more complex assumption when they opt for the ETH, and thereby violate the principle of parsimony; but Europeans enter a labyrinth of theoretical arguments where the phenomenon itself gets lost all too easily. The lure of comparisons and symbolic interpretations leads theoreticians into the errors of ‘stewpot thinking’, which Budd Hopkins has warned against. [16]

Right or wrong, an ETH interpretation of abductions keeps attention on the reports themselves. Some Europeans complain that abductions are largely an American phenomenon. Can they honestly say that they have actively sought abductees, or that European abductees would know where to turn for a sympathetic hearing of their suspicions or stories? Failure to find abductions may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Respect for the ETH assures hat investigators will welcome, value and seek out reports, whereas other assumptions may stifle enquiry and redirect research efforts toward sterile infighting over theoretical stances.

Given our present state of knowledge, recognising the tentativeness of any explanation is necessary on both sides of the physical and intellectual Atlantic. The reasons against the ETH are also many, but more diffuse and subtle, and poorly served by the plethora of unpersuasive alternatives raised thus far. Too often these proposals appear even more naive than the ETH in their treatment of texts, testimony and comparison. If taking witnesses at their word sets the literalistic belief on a foundation of shifting sand, that base is still firmer than the thin air of theoretical speculations.

Ask any red-blooded American!

Read Dennis Stilling’s response to this article: 

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