In response to:
The Mindsnatchers from the June 25, 1998 issue
To the Editors:
Frederick Crews’s article, “The Mindsnatchers” [NYR, June 25], provides yet another excuse for scientists to avoid the one course of action compelled by their profession: the thorough, open-minded investigation of the UFO phenomenon.
Although one would never know it from Crews’s angry, tendentious article, the evidence supporting the reality of UFOs is extraordinarily extensive. For more than a half-century, researchers have amassed thousands of highly significant sighting reports, many by highly trained observers: astronomers, such as Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto; astronauts, such as James McDivitt, Deke Slayton, and Gordon Cooper; and a multitude of commercial and military pilots, police officers, and scientists from a variety of disciplines. In hundreds of UFO sightings the craft were observed both visually and on radar.
Supporting these eyewitness and radar observations are many motion-picture films, videotapes, and still photographs of UFOs which have been independently analyzed and validated by photo experts such as Dr. Bruce Maccabee, an optical physicist employed by the Navy Department. Ground traces—signs of some kind of physical interaction between UFOs and the environment—have been examined in hundreds of cases, most notably perhaps by the scientists of Groupe d’Etude des Phénomènes Aérospatiaux Non-Identifiés, an official agency operating within the French version of NASA. The GEPAN report on the 1981 UFO sighting and accompanying changes in the environment at Trans-en-Provence presents an extraordinarily detailed study of the physical evidence. Logically, if this evidence suggests that extraterrestrial craft may be operating in our environment, then the thousands of UFO abduction accounts cannot be automatically discarded, as Crews implicitly suggests.
Frederick Crews and I do agree, however, that whatever may lie behind them, all of these reports of sightings and abductions constitute an extraordinary phenomenon. As a man experienced in the field of psychology and with enough interest to write about UFO abductions, he should be curious enough to join those of us who are actively looking into the matter. An extraordinary phenomenon such as this demands an extraordinary investigation.
Sadly, I have become used to critics with no firsthand knowledge of the UFO evidence attacking these reports rather than investigating them. Crews cites as broad and sensible the book UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game by journalist and debunker Philip Klass. Ostensibly a serious investigative study, UFO Abductions is essentially a work of reverse hagiography, a series of ad hominem assaults on an “enemies list” of UFO abductees and prominent researchers. Apparently Klass practices a new kind of journalism because, though he attended conferences where all were present, he never bothered to interview any of these abductees and researchers for his book.
But Philip Klass is not alone in his curious indifference to the firsthand investigation of UFO abduction reports. In 1987, when the late Dr. Carl Sagan appeared with me on a Boston TV program, he said that I should inform him of my “next good abduction case” and he would join me in its investigation. I waited until I received such a report in the Ithaca, New York, area, from a student at Cornell. The young man’s memories of his experience were extensive, he bore a scar from the abduction, and there was even a subsidiary witness to an aspect of his encounter. When I spoke to him on the telephone, he agreed to go to Sagan’s office if he were asked to, and he was quite willing to be examined by any members of the Cornell psychology department whom Sagan wished to bring into the investigation.
I wrote all of this to Dr. Sagan, reminding him of his promise to me and stating my willingness to keep our joint investigation confidential. I received a four-line reply; Carl Sagan did not find the case interesting and declined to interview the young man. So far as I know, Sagan never became involved in the firsthand investigation of a single UFO abduction case, despite his frequent authoritative statements that UFO abductions can be easily explained away as psychological phenomena. And on the now infamous Nova program—which so dishonestly distorted the evidence for UFO abductions—he implied that he had personally investigated such cases and found the evidence to be lacking.1 Science is not always what scientists do.
Frederick Crews leans heavily upon such slender reeds when he ridicules those of us who have spent years investigating UFO abduction accounts with the goal of separating those with supporting evidence from those accounts which suggest a psychological etiology. The essential difference between Crews and myself is that he is an ideologue, a true believer in the a priori falsehood of all these reports, whereas I am a pragmatic investigator who, because of the evidence, finds himself unable to reject the possibility that UFOs—extraterrestrial spacecraft—do exist, and that among the thousands of traumatized men, women, and even little children who describe extraordinarily similar abduction experiences, many may actually be telling the truth.
New York City
To the Editors:
Frederick Crews’s review of my book The Threat [NYR, June 25] displays a tiresome but characteristic reaction to research on the UFO abduction phenomena; he assumes its illegitimacy, and cynically castigates those who would be foolish enough to study it, suggesting that they are motivated by avarice and self-promotion.
Mr. Crews implies that I insert frightening abduction scenarios into peoples’ minds while I pay lip service to the problems of hypnosis. This is not only wrong, but Mr. Crews displays an underlying ignorance of my methodology and, not surprisingly, of my book, which contains a sustained analysis of the problems of abduction hypnosis and a detailed critique of researchers who have used faulty techniques.
That Crews would resort to naming hypnosis and, of course, false memory syndrome as his solutions for abductions is expected. In fact, these common interpretations are accepted by most who have not studied the phenomenon. Indeed, Crews seems unaware of why “tenured apologists” and other academics and professionals would find sufficient evidence to impel them forward into this career-endangering field so immersed in ridicule and scorn.
Although Crews is seemingly aware of the wide range of psychological, psychiatric, and cultural stimuli that could generate these extraordinary narratives, he is unaware that abduction researchers have devoted an enormous amount of time and attention to them. Had these mental determinants, which Mr. Crews accepts so easily, been found to be sufficient in their explanatory power, the controversy would have died long ago. It is precisely because they have proven inadequate to explain the phenomenon that allows us to engage with the evidence on a serious level and to search for explanations that will satisfy the data.
For abduction researchers, all explanations suggesting internal generation must come to terms with the following: perhaps as many as 20 percent of all abduction narratives are with two or more individuals who can confirm the others’ experiences. Victims are physically missing from their normal environments during abductions. They present puzzling scars and other marks on their bodies not there before the abduction (which might have taken place the night before). Their narratives are precise and detailed. They match accurately with thousands of other details of narratives which have never been publicized.
Mr. Crews is also unaware that abduction narratives are global and have little concern for the individual’s culture or upbringing. The accounts are nonidiosyncratic and the narrator’s economic, intellectual, geographic, political, religious, ethnic, or racial background has little bearing on them. Psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, scientists, attorneys, writers, professors, and a wide range of people down to and including individuals who are uneducated and unable to hold a job have all described the same experiences—sometimes in such detail that researchers have learned the function of instruments and the purpose of typical abduction procedures. Of course, Mr. Crews fails to even mention the great number of abductees who remember their experiences immediately afterward and have not availed themselves of hypnosis.
It is these types of elements, and many more, that constitute the core of the abduction phenomenon. Not to study this phenomenon, or to automatically assume prosaic explanations in the face of disconfirming evidence is, in my opinion, intellectually dishonest. Crews would have us dismiss the evidence and ignore the data. Rather, it is important for the intellectual community to engage with the abduction data and begin to understand its tenets so that we can, free from ridicule, finally solve this persistent and puzzling mystery.
David M. Jacobs
Department of History
To the Editors:
Frederick Crews [NYR, June 25] correctly states that whatever plausibility the alien-abduction hypothesis may have is due to the (allegedly) “otherwise unaccountable congruence of detail from one ‘abductee’ narrative to another,” referring to this as “the classic sophistry of all ufologists.” He does not address the question whether any argument based primarily on firsthand testimony can be plausible which implies, as this one does, that such phenomena as telepathy and interpenetration of matter (e.g., “wafting” through closed windows) are physically possible. As it happens, the best, most versatile skeptical strategy may well be to concede the theoretical possibility. Our current physical theories are indeed admirably well confirmed, but this fact falls far short of entailing that no such argument could ever seem plausible to rational people. To deny this would leave the abduction theorist with the not unattractive reply that the history of science is well-stocked with cases in which theoretically anomalous anecdotal reports were eventually accounted for by revolutionary new theories, and that claims that this can never again occur seem remarkably dogmatic coming from people billing themselves as “skeptics.” Skeptics may thus not assume, but must demonstrate, that the claimed congruence of detail can indeed be accounted for without such counterintuitive hypotheses. Of course, Crews takes himself to do that very thing; but he sometimes seems to base his rhetorical dismissal of abduction researchers as scientific ignoramuses simply on their willingness to entertain the abduction hypothesis itself. This can cause him to overplay his hand.
For example, far from displaying “insouciance” with respect to scientific questions, as Crews alleges, David Jacobs is quite right to dismiss as irrelevant skeptical worries about the presumed impracticality of interstellar travel. Let’s say the alleged aliens aren’t from around here. But if they don’t have the ability to travel here, skeptics remind us, then they aren’t here at all. True enough; but this statement is logically equivalent to the following: If they are here, then they have the ability to travel (somehow). What we are actually interested in, of course, is the aliens’ presence, which is the only reason the issue of interstellar travel came up in the first place. The evidence Jacobs has available to him—first-person reports from possible abductees—has to do with the former, and not the latter; so that is indeed the appropriate target of his investigation. The bizarreness of the hypotheses he provides concerning methods of interstellar travel, which Crews mocks as if they were Jacobs’s own, is meant to emphasize this point. Indeed, how could we conceivably investigate the possibility of travel via the “astral plane”?
Crews also claims that researchers of alleged alien abduction are unaware of the ways in which “memories” retrieved with the aid of hypnosis can be unreliable, and of how the researcher might unwittingly cause both himself and the subject to believe that events occurred which actually did not. In fact, however, Jacobs devotes a thirty-page chapter of The Threat to the difficulty of performing competent investigations using hypnosis, clearly spelling out all the points of which he is supposedly unaware, including the risks of media contamination, confabulation, leading questions by the investigator, mutually confirmatory fantasies, false memory syndrome, sexual abuse, etc. Here and elsewhere in the book, he explains how others, including John Mack, have failed to take these dangers into account, and describes his own attempts to overcome them, including demanding from the subject a minute-by-minute account of the alleged abduction experience. In particular, he argues that since induction of the actual hypnotic trance is something that anyone can do, the best defense against inadvertent contamination of abductee reports, once the above dangers are fully understood, is extensive familiarity with what alleged abductees have already related about the abduction phenomenon as a whole (as well as, I would add, what actually happens in movies like Close Encounters and E.T.). If Crews believes that Jacobs’s is just as much a “token [gesture] of caution” with respect to the dangers of confabulation as that of, say, Mack, and that his “actual prudence in that regard is nil,” he is surely obliged, by professional decorum at least, to provide specific evidence that this is the case, beyond pointing to Jacobs’s seemingly unacceptable conclusions.
David F. Maier
Department of Philosophy
New York City
To the Editors:
As one of the academic peer evaluators for Cornell University Press who was favorably impressed with Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America, I am compelled to respond to Frederick Crews’s “The Mindsnatchers” [NYR, June 25]. Crews attacks not only Dean, but Cornell University Press and us poor benighted academic fools who would dare to think that the dramatic rise of belief in alien abduction in the United States might have something to do with political disillusionment and a distrust of the national security state.
There is no doubt that Dean’s argument is disturbing, but hardly because it is stagnant, incoherent, irrational, or slack (terms Crews deploys with a casualness that suggests long experience with polemics). Of course, most authors who tackle such difficult problems will not find universal agreement with all of their conclusions. There are elements of the argument Dean advances that I find myself in disagreement with, most specifically her characterization of NASA’s influence on ufology. But such disagreements don’t and shouldn’t detract from the importance of her argument and the seriousness with which she has advanced it, an argument which is distorted and trivialized by Crews, even as he attempts to cast her out of the house of reason.
Dean suggests that there is a profound epistemological crisis in the late modern age, and argues in detail that the contemporary explosion in ufology and alien abduction narratives are largely consequences of the emergence of qualitatively new modes of communication—namely television and the Internet—that not only make the news of that crisis widely available but ironically demonstrate the existence of and intensify that very crisis by virtue of their own modes of representative instability. In other words, she traces a paranoid politics of everyday life that has disseminated throughout the modern American polity in a complex relationship with the historical rise and decline of the political dominance in the United States of the national security state. She presents a serious, complex, and thought-provoking argument.
Perhaps because Dean traces the theoretical roots of this crisis primarily through the lens of poststructuralism—a mode of analysis often rejected wholesale by writers in The New York Review of Books—she shouldn’t expect respectful treatment in this venue. Moreover, Crews is right in his passion about one important political point: there is a substantive issue at stake here of great importance, concerning how we in the academy and in public venues of opinion are to understand alien abduction, and how we are to address our fellow citizens who believe in the phenomenon. But he is mistaken in his accusations concerning Dean’s alleged attitude of slacker neutrality.
Crews suggests that Dean is neutral on the issue of the existence of abduction, when what informs Dean’s study is precisely the sort of compassion and care Crews suggests is missing. The difference is that Crews wants Dean to engage in an effort that would be exactly like his well-known efforts in battling the use of repressed memory syndrome in cases of child abuse. The weight of Dean’s analysis, however, is to suggest that such a campaign would be an unfortunate error. To argue to ufologists from claims of science as though the most relevant sciences, such as astronomy and various branches of physics, have not been heavily dependent on the national security state for funding, and as though they have not in research funded by the state engaged in practices of secrecy, but are able to make simple, straightforward, totally pure and value-neutral judgments, would only be used as further evidence of the conspiracy of science for the ufology mill.
Who is responsible for this state of affairs, this strange double bind? Surely some of the responsibility lies at the feet of those who have compromised with the national security state in order to get some of the funding pie. In explaining why believers in alien abduction have plausible reasons for deep doubt about the assurances of rationality advanced by those scientists long in the employ of a national security apparatus, Dean is pointing to yet another corrosive effect of the cold war and suggesting that the solution to the problem of this phenomenon is at least as much political as it is therapeutic. Crews obviously disagrees, but he goes an awful lot further than disagreement in his condemnation of Dean, Cornell University Press, and left academics in general.
Indeed, Crews shows himself to be an apt defender of the national security state, when after accusing Dean for failing to write about Soviet expansionism (in a book about alien abduction narratives in the United States!) he writes, “For her, as for other post-Vietnam academic radicals, ‘Cold War containment culture’ was just an instrument for imposing American values on the world, penalizing social nonconformity, and hounding imagined ‘enemies within.”‘ Oh, wow. Some of us foolish academics who have come of age after the turmoil of the 1960s once hoped that red-baiting would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not to worry, though. For “Communist” just substitute “postmodernist,” shake slightly, and pour.
Thomas L. Dumm
Department of Political Science
Frederick Crews replies:
Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs modestly characterize themselves, above, as mere researchers who are neutrally “looking into the matter” (Hopkins) of UFO abduction and searching for an answer to “this persistent and puzzling mystery” (Jacobs). On the contrary, they are at once movement leaders, propagating a counterintuitive theory about the alien presence among us, and uncertified hypnotherapists who apparently induce vulnerable people to misconstrue their sleep disturbances as abduction memories.
That this is no trivial matter is attested by Hopkins’s and Jacobs’s own descriptions, in their books, of psychologically shattered “abductees” who live in fear of further onslaughts from the extraterrestrials. Yet these two meddlers have no inkling of their role in causing such harm. Failing to understand that the essence of hypnosis is the inducing of compliance with suggestion, they feel that they are merely collecting evidence when hypnotically drawing out “memories” that could provide them with precious support of their contested UFO belief.
Hopkins, in his appendix on hypnosis in Intruders (1987), shows no awareness whatsoever that hypnosis involves suggestion (Ballantine edition, pp. 301-304). In his view, the only risk attending hypnotic memory retrieval is that the subject may remember something that was misperceived in the first place. Such ignorance of the hypnotist’s potential contribution to error is well suited to the naive imparting of Hopkins’s ideas to his “informants.”
Jacobs is cannier about making token gestures toward the danger of confabulation, but in practice he is just as foolhardy as Hopkins, his hands-on trainer in hypnotic method. In The Threat he tells us about the “precautions” he takes against false memory, including spending “several hours talking” with his subjects prior to hypnotizing them, issuing them “a strong and frank warning about the dangers of going forward with hypnosis and uncovering an abduction event,” and offering them “perspective and the ability to analyze as they remember” (pp. 30-32). In short, Jacobs has multiple ways of letting subjects see what kinds of “memories” he would find agreeable.
Jacobs’s ultimate “precaution” is to withhold judgment about an unprecedented hypnotically reported detail until he gets “confirmation by another abductee unaware of the testimony” (The Threat, p. 34); then he is sure that the first recollection must be genuine. What we see here is the strength of Jacobs’s bias toward miraculous explanation. Although there could be several earthbound reasons why a narrative feature reported by one interviewee might eventually be matched by another, Jacobs is satisfied as soon as he finds a congruence between accounts by two subjects (among indefinitely many) who are typically saturated in the UFO lore emanating from more books, movies, tabloid papers, and TV shows than he could possibly monitor.2
That same saturation explains why, as Jacobs remarks above, a good number of “abductees” now volunteer their “memories” without benefit of hypnosis—in much the same way that unprompted recollections of “Satanic ritual abuse” began appearing in the wake of Geraldo Rivera’s 1988 NBC special entitled “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” Such immediate “recall” constitutes a challenge not to skeptics but to the ufologists themselves, who until recently maintained that only hypnosis could disable the amnesia that the aliens always impose on their kidnap victims.
Now it seems that ETs, methodical to a fault in other respects, have begun forgetting to induce forgetfulness every now and then. Or have they recently amended the strategy for world conquest that Jacobs spells out for us in The Threat? When Jacobs and Hopkins address this new mystery, perhaps they will also explain why nobody claimed the prize—$100,000, raised to $1 million, and finally dropped for lack of plausible candidates—that the National Enquirer long promised to anyone who could produce credible evidence of UFO visitation.
In its academically punctilious way, David F. Maier’s letter is as obfuscatory as those by Hopkins and Jacobs. Maier begins by misrepresenting me as having maintained that “the classic sophistry of all ufologists” is the appeal to a congruence between abduction narratives. No; I applied the quoted phrase only to the cumulative weight that ufologists ascribe to vast numbers of reports, each of which lacks evidential merit. Maier then claims that I tried to “demonstrate” why the alleged congruence is unavailing, and he proposes ways in which the “demonstration” could have been strengthened. But even if Maier’s critique made sense—and it doesn’t!—he has failed to grasp the difference between a book review and a fresh investigation of the topic.
Far from undertaking a demonstration, I referred interested readers to books that already show the empirical vacuity of the case for UFO abductions. All of the factors cited above by Hopkins and Jacobs—multiple witnesses, “missing time,” the vast number of sightings, the films and videotapes and still photos, the ground traces, the survivors’ scars, the similarities among abductees’ stories—are laid to rest in those studies and others that are apparently unknown to Professor Maier. It is precisely Jacobs’s and Hopkins’s (and Strieber’s and Mack’s) indifference to extant empirical critiques—typified, above, by Hopkins’s ad hominem gossip about Philip Klass—that brands them as pseudoscientists.
Maier’s most puzzling move is his endorsement of Jacobs’s assertion that the manner by which aliens could have gotten here has no bearing on the question of whether they are here. Of course it does. If nothing better than travel on the astral plane can account for the arrival of ETs, and if there is no reason to suppose that the astral plane exists, the UFO hypothesis stands in dire jeopardy. By Maier’s twisted reasoning, I could assert that, sitting here in Berkeley, I can see just what he is doing in his kitchen in New York. To the objection that this feat defies our knowledge of physics I could reply, in Jacobs’s style, that I’m not interested in such “irrelevant” issues. And according to Maier, I would then be “quite right” and beyond logical cavil.
Having fallen for Jacobs’s prudential rhetoric about his methodological scruples, Maier challenges me to provide evidence that Jacobs is more reckless in drawing inferences than he claims to be. Will the following sentence, chosen at random, suffice? “The new order will be insectlike aliens in control, followed by other aliens, hybrids, abductees, and, finally, nonabductees” (The Threat, p. 253).
Thomas L. Dumm charges me with having “cast [Jodi Dean] out of the house of reason.” But it is Dean herself who explicitly refuses to apply rational criteria to the assessment of extraterrestrial abduction claims. On this and every other question, her position is that “we lack…the capacity to discern and distinguish, to use and deploy, to judge and evaluate the knowledges we need…” (Aliens in America, p. 109). Since the abduction skeptics, in her view, fail to “remain neutral before competing conceptions of the real” (p. 170), they are actually less skeptical than the believers, who “rely on practices of hypnosis and readings of the body to track fugitive alien truth” (p. 46). As for self-perceived abductees, “Taking them seriously, trusting the words of everyday people, now means allowing for the truth of alien abduction” (p. 46).
Dean, then, regards critical reasoning as both a political error and a violation of the epistemic nihilism that she now considers de rigueur. Who is her model in striking such a fatuous pose? The apparent answer is Thomas Dumm, “whose beautiful writing and provocative work at the intersection of political and cultural theory provided a powerful ideal, [and who] contributed valuable suggestions and advice” (p. xi). Aliens in America repeatedly cites Dumm as having pointed the way to a properly postmodern weariness with reason. For example:
Thomas Dumm…speaks of the contemporary situation as one “when time has become empty of meaning, when perspective flattens.” Passivity makes sense if we lack perspective, if we lack even the possibility of perspective because all possible points from which to assess our situations have collapsed into one another. Passivity makes sense when truth presents itself to us as our other option, when truth demands that we leave our bodies and prepare for the level above human. [p. 173]
I grant that Dumm shouldn’t be held accountable for the New Age construction that Dean here places on his already opaque words. Where science is at issue, however, Dean takes exactly the stand sketched in Dumm’s letter above: that the association of astronomy and physics with “the national security state” fatally compromises their believability.3 From that position it is only a small step to praising abduction lunacy, as Dean does, because it is “produced by an alternative science, by a discredited discourse with claims to truth” (pp. 21-22).
When Dumm writes, above, of Dean’s “compassion and care,” he must have in mind her sympathy with people who regard themselves as abductees. Clearly, they need our help in coming to a realization of the cruel trick that has been played on them. But Dean’s shadowboxing politics require that the deluded not awaken to their exploitation. Only by staying just as they are, subject to paranoid hallucinations and terror, can they do duty as “marginalized” opposites to the astronauts on whom Dean heaps fashionable scorn:
No abductee has ever been given a parade. Compared with astronauts they are victims, not heroes. Many are taken into space, chosen in accordance with some unknown criteria rather than through competitive tests with clear, objective standards. Some stay at home, and space and its alien inhabitants come to them. Again, though, they are chosen, a select group. The criteria for their selection are no doubt unfathomably demanding. Why else would the aliens be able to find women fit for the rigors of space when NASA had such trouble locating women qualified enough to be astronauts? [p. 102]
The work of Dumm’s that Dean found so beautiful is the cutely titled united states (1994), which sets out to examine “the American political unconscious” in a way that “resists the privilege of dispassionate judgment” (p. 1). What Dumm doesn’t resist is empty generalization, tedious self-display, and continual invocation of yesterday’s theoretical gurus. In Dumm’s lowercased united states, a typical moral question is whether or not he should “buy a nationally known brand of junk food from a multinational corporation that is inevitably implicated in the politics of oppression” (p. 142); a philosophical question is whether “Deleuze’s zone is not the anus but the vagina” (p. 133); and a historical question is whether George Bush unconsciously harbored a “wish to be fucked by Ronald Reagan” (p. 50).
Dumm’s book was published by Cornell University Press—the same house whose editors chose Dumm as a peer evaluator of a manuscript he had helped to shape both by cited example and by gratefully acknowledged advice. Made famous at Thebes, the incest taboo is evidently null and void in Ithaca.
October 8, 1998
For substantiation of this charge, see my Response to Nova’s Program on the UFO Abduction Phenomenon on the Intruders Foundation Website: www.if-aic.com. ↩
Jacobs claims above that abduction narratives show virtually no cultural specificity. Yet the “hybrid” stories reproduced in his own book feature both the gadgets of middle-class America and its standard anxieties, including above all a fear of miscegenation. And as John Mack naively reports in Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (Macmillan, 1994), “Abductees overseas seem to have contact with a greater variety of entities than Americans” (p. 12). The “Nordic” type of space creature is more often spotted in—can you guess?—Scandinavia. See Andrea Pritchard et al., editors, Alien Discussions: Proceedings of the Abductions Study Conference (North Cambridge Press, 1994), pp. 48-49. ↩
It is clearly Dumm, not just “the ufologists,” who holds this view. In any case, he is far from the mark in supposing that I favor trying to persuade ufologists to renounce their faith. As my review suggested, damage suits by disabused victims of quack hypnotists would be far more efficacious in bringing the pernicious abduction fad to an end. ↩