How can we explain the ubiquity of alien abduction claims and other paranormal phenomena? AC Grayling is a philosopher who believes that science can explain both the stories and why some people need to believe themby AC Grayling / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Jason’s house is flooded by a brilliant white light. The dogs growl and stir uneasily. Later, they and all members of the household fall into a profound slumber. When they wake, Jason is nowhere to be found; a search finds him in a nearby locked barn, asleep. On being roused he weeps, saying that he had been taken by strange creatures who rose from the floor of his bedroom and took him away to their spaceship.
This tale is told by Ann Andrews and Jean Ritchie in Abducted. They tell us that Jason Andrews, now a teenager, has been the subject of extra-terrestrial attentions since infancy. For years the family was plagued by paranormal activity which centred on Jason: he would disappear from his bed and then be found sleeping in odd locations; scars would mysteriously appear and disappear on his body; he would babble mathematical formulae; clocks would stop; bright lights would bathe the house and the family’s animals were mutilated. When Jason was 12, a television programme about UFOs suddenly gave the family the explanation it needed: he was being abducted by space aliens. After a while Jason’s mother Ann realised that she was also an abductee; and she began to suspect that her father had been one before her. “Abduction,” the book tells us, “runs in families.” Everything fell into place: not just the events surrounding Jason, but his delinquent behaviour at school, Ann’s miscarriage, and other mishaps.
I have reported the book’s content as neutrally as I can. It is an ill-constructed and desperately implausible farrago which cannot make up its mind whether Jason is a victim or a chosen one. It mixes beings from space with psychic phenomena; has Jason physically removed from his house at night, yet later wandering in astral form while his body sleeps in bed; has the extra-terrestials able to perform extraordinary scientific feats but incompetently putting Jason back in the wrong place when they return him (they frequently blunder in other ways); and has the ETs sometimes able to perform miracles and at other times not-as when on one page they cure pain at a touch, but on another are helpless to stop it. And so, endlessly, on. Nothing in the book persuades you that anything remotely connected with beings from outer space is happening to this apparently dysfunctional council estate family with its large menagerie of animals and problem son. What, then, is going on? If we grant that their claims to abnormal experiences are sincere, what explains them?
A personal detour is required in preparation for an answer. About 20 years ago I watched a BBC Horizon documentary assessing Erich von D?iken’s briefly celebrated theory that God is a space alien who came to earth in antiquity and left traces of his visit in the world’s religions. The programme debunked von D?iken’s views, but ended by suggesting that there is one unresolved mystery of a related kind, which might indeed provide evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation. This is the fact, discovered by anthropologists, that the Dogon people of Mali in west Africa have a religion based on a star invisible to the naked eye. This intriguing fact has been investigated by Robert Temple in his book The Sirius Mystery. Temple traced the Dogon’s knowledge to ancient Egyptian astronomy, which deepens the mystery; for whereas the Dogon could have had contact with modern astronomers just before the anthropologists arrived, the ancient Egyptians must have acquired their knowledge by different means.
The star in question is Sirius B, the invisible dwarf companion to Sirius A, the Dog Star, one of the brightest objects in the night sky. The Dogon know, as the Egyptians knew before them, that Sirius B is small yet massive, and has an orbital period round Sirius A of 50 years. Temple argues that this is convincing proof that there are extra-terrestrial beings and that they have visited earth.
The proper method in evaluating such cases is to ask whether there is an explanation for these phenomena which accords with current knowledge. This is not a refusal to admit that there could be things outside the sphere of current science; it is a demand that we should not leap to exotic speculations before we have examined all the known possibilities. In the case of Sirius B the answer is simple and prosaic. Sirius A and B form a “binary stellar system” whose members orbit each other. In such systems the dwarf, because of its immense gravitational field, pulls material from its neighbour. The stolen material collects around the dwarf, constantly increasing in pressure and therefore temperature. Eventually the temperature becomes so great that the accumulation flares off in a “nova” episode. Such an occurrence can make a usually invisible star visible to watchers on Earth. You need only two assumptions in this case: that the nova episode was sufficient to make Sirius B visible to human observers, while not being so great as merely to make Sirius A seem brighter for a time; and that its effects lasted long enough for its 50-year periodicity to be established. (These assumptions are well within the limits of standard science.) The ancient Egyptians were good astronomers and would have been impressed by such a phenomenon.
I published this explanation of the “Sirius Mystery” in a popular astronomy magazine, whose editors invited Temple to reply. He did, in vituperative terms, sparked by irritation at being told that we have no need to invoke “little green men” when current science has a satisfactory account to give. (Temple has just republished his book and-irresponsibly-has made no mention of the scientific points at issue in the exchange between us.)
Most of the phenomena described in “extra-terrestrial visitation” claims are readily explicable. Moreover, there is a typical pattern to arguments used by ET advocates-they share it with conspiracy theorists, ghost hunters, New Agers and most other amateurs of the fringe.
ET advocates point out that respectable astronomers such as Carl Sagan say that the existence of life elsewhere in the universe is probable. This is true: mathematics favours the hypothesis. Astronomers accordingly conduct searches for evidence of extra-terrestrial life, so far without success. But for ET advocates, mere possibility is the same as actuality. They reason as follows: “Reports are at times made of anomalous meteorological or airborne phenomena. It is accepted that there might be life elsewhere in the sky. Therefore, extra-terrestrials are visiting earth.” To this multiply fallacious argument is added the equally fallacious standard line: since no one has ever proved that ETs are not visiting earth, we are justified in believing that they are.
Because general arguments of this kind are hopeless, ET advocates need to rely on the evidence they can adduce to make at least a prima facie case for their claims. Here, the problem is that the evidence they proffer is anecdotal and subjective. There are no definitive photographs or recordings, no independently reliable witnesses, no objective data; there is only hearsay, rumour and assertion. Ritchie says that Jason’s story is atypical because he remembers his “abduction” experiences; most abductees do not, and only learn about the phenomenon when they “recover memory” under hypnosis. She also says that extra-terrestrials put implants into abductees, but remove them before they can be scientifically investigated. Thus amnesia and alien cunning serve as convenient excuses for the ET advocates’ lack of hard evidence.
Sceptics might pause if the extra-terrestrial visitors told or showed “abductees” something genuinely interesting. But the messages reported by “abductees” are banal: extra-terrestrials tell them that if humankind does not stop pollution and war, the result will be disaster. (It takes no visitor from space to tell us that.) This resembles the surprisingly trivial things that God and angels are reported to tell people who report holy encounters to the Religious Experience Research Centre at Westminster College, Oxford -a serious body whose periodic reports make entertaining reading.
Ritchie states that ETs do not abduct educated people because they are cleverer than the smartest of us, and therefore have no interest in what we know; they choose to consort with plain folk, whose emotions they wish to share. This, too, is a convenience for the ET advocates’ case: there are no expert witnesses.
ET advocates also tend to be conspiracy theorists. In telling Jason’s story, Ritchie repeats other ET advocates’ claims that “governments” know about extra-terrestrials but conceal the facts from the public, to avoid panic. Why then do governments not conceal reports of approaching meteorites or epidemic diseases? Moreover, the many people working in astronomy and related disciplines worldwide would have to be party to an improbably huge conspiracy if the silence were to be maintained.
If the ET advocates’ case is easily demolished the onus still remains on the sceptic to provide a rational explanation of the phenomena reported (we assume sincerely) by Jason and others. Two sets of explanations offer themselves, one general and the other particular.
The general explanations are provided by a historical analysis. People once claimed to communicate with gods-to be inspired by them, to hear their voices, even to see them in dreams and ecstasies. When Christianity acquired its hegemony, the pagan gods were demonised, and intercourse with them redescribed as dalliance with devils. Possession was a disease of body and soul, exorcism was the cure. In time, the possession theory was applied to awkward women, and witchhunts began (at about the same time that men were taking over the practice of medicine from women). By the 19th century, and largely because of revulsion against the theology of demonic possession, devils left the scene and ghosts became fashionable. Of course ghosts and haunting had been a fringe interest since antiquity-but it was in Gothic novels and then in Victorian parlours that the hobby took hold. It needed only manned flight and Apollo moonshots to change the ectoplasmic beings who rose from the floor during seances into aliens stepping out of spaceships. The metaphors which humans use always follow the technology of the day: centuries from now our descendants, travelling by molecular reconstituters or some such, will laugh at us for our clumsy belief that because we needed a machine in which to fly, so did extra-terrestrials. To put it another way: if there really are extra-terrestrial beings visiting our planet, why do they use the machinery invented by science-fiction writers in the 1930s?
More particular explanations are drawn from neurology and psychology. A brief survey of a neurologist’s casebook provides almost all we need for an account of the origin of gods, demons, ghosts and extra-terrestrials. Take a single case reported in a forthcoming book by the neurologist Adam Zeman. A middle-aged man complained to his doctor that he had suddenly begun to have extraordinary visual experiences consisting of vivid images of people floating in the margin of his right visual field. The images moved, and after several days began to change in character and activity. Rather than infer that he was being haunted by ghosts or abducted by aliens, the man sought medical advice. Investigation revealed that he had suffered a stroke in an area of his visual cortex. After a while the phenomena faded. Had the man been less phlegmatic, he might now be the subject of an exotically speculative book. His case, which is not atypical, is instructive because there is a recognised brain function disorder with a characteristic symptom: in the twilight space between waking and sleeping, sufferers are apt to “see” figures rising from the floor at the foot of their beds. How much mythology turns on the electrochemistry of nerve-tissue.
The psychological explanations are equally compelling. Disturbed, hyperactive or allergic children, and those (like Jason) who were hypoxic at birth, can be imaginatively creative or unusual to a high degree, and often cannot themselves distinguish between truth and the tales they tell. One mark of maturing intelligence is the ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy, and to apply successful hypotheses about the world’s character. As normal children grow, the blurring between imagination and reality clears. But some forms of psychological distress can perpetuate the blurring. Add to this the powerful human drive to impose patterns on experience and it is easy to see how ET stories appear so compelling.
This pattern-imposing capacity helps to explain Jason’s story. An unruly and disturbed child is a puzzle to his family, teachers and himself. After a time, grasping at straws, he and they conclude that he is being abducted by aliens. (They might have chosen another plight: he is haunted, or psychic, or possessed, or mad.) This hypothesis is confirmed by everything odd or uncomfortable they have experienced, and which they now draw together into a single unified explanation. What is more, we live in the age of the victim: everyone can be excused his or her failings by appeal to something nasty that once happened or still happens. The ultimate in such explanations-irrefutable, up-to-the-minute and saleable-is alien abduction.
Responsible intellectual endeavour consists in maintaining a balance between two virtues: an open mind and critical scepticism. Scientists are the least dogmatic of enquirers; it is a premise of their work that their best current theories might have to be revised or abandoned in the light of new evidence. They therefore accept the obligation to make the strongest possible case for their theories, knowing that the scrutiny of their peers is relentless.
But science is a minority sport. It requires skills which are not within everyone’s reach, or to everyone’s taste. It requires a facility in mathematics, and an imaginative ability to see the world in unexpected and often counterintuitive ways. It also requires endless patience, and lack of dogmatism. The scientific mentality is almost exactly the opposite of the religious mentality. Science is open, sceptical and eager to submit its tentative claims to test. Religion is dogmatic, final, closed, knows all the answers, and damns as a heretic anyone who asserts otherwise. If the two mentalities resemble each other in any respect, it is in their wonderment in the face of the universe. ET theories and their general ilk fall into the religious category.
The spirit of rational enquiry is not reserved to science. It is what gave rise to science in the first place. It remains an ideal, and often enough a fact, in other fields: in philosophy and history in academia-and in law, business, and administration in the practical sphere. Common sense, available knowledge, and thoughtful assessment of the merits of a case-that is what matters in practical affairs. It is also exactly what is required in thinking about any claim on our credulity. In the light of this approach, the Jason story, the “Sirius Mystery,” and all their kind, have a striking tendency to evaporate before our eyes-not abducted by aliens, but deduced by reason. Abducted: the true story of alien abduction in rural england
Ann Andrews and Jean Ritchie
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