Untangling The Abduction Conundrum. Peter Rogerson

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In Internet discussion forums Greg Sandow has been one of the most vocal critics of psycho-social approaches to the abduction experience. Peter Rogerson reviews Sandow’s critique and finds it flawed:


Highlight of the latest issue of the Anomalist (No. 7, Winter 1998-9, $9.95) is Greg Sandow’s essay ‘The Abduction Conundrum’. This has been hailed in some quarters as the definitive answer to the psycho-social hypothesis. It most certainly isn’t that at all. It is the usual mountain of special pleading, misstatements of fact, and cult of pseudo-openmindness taken to the point of lunacy that we have been hearing from abductionists for years.

I say pseudo-open mindedness, becauce the open mindness is distinctly one sided, there is no open mindness towards sceptical views of abductions at all, there may be problems in cultural interpretations of abduction stories, yet Sandow’s dismissal of Martin Kottemeyer’s essay ‘Entirely Unpredisposed’ as “one of the zaniest essays ever written on UFOlogy”, with the usual angry wave of the hand, scarcely betokens of open mindness towards that quarter. Indeed, though Sandow pays lip service towards impartiality, and makes a few mild, token criticisms of Hopkins and Jacobs, in reality the essay is just another extended defence of abduction literalism.

Thus we get the defence of hypnosis, the critics of the idea that hypnosis aids memory recall are dismissed as ‘experimental psychologists’ “who sit alone and think”, (oh dear I thought that experimental psychologists conducted, erm, experiments, something that elsewhere Sandow concedes, but only to say that they create artificial situations, or do nasty things like make children think they were lost in the mall), not like the nice empathic therapists, who deal with real people, and whose anecdotes one should therefore take on trust, and not both about nasty things like trying to verify them by carefully conducted experiments. The work of Spanos and colleagues is also dismissed (they commit the ultimate sins in not believing hypnosis at all, and shock horror, “quote from Phil Klass”) (Bit off message here Greg, your friends have been quoting this same article against the fantasy proneness hypothesis – wrongly as it turns out – for years now).

Sandow asks why do only some science fiction motifs feature in abduction lore, why not tales of visits to other planets, or possessing special powers? The answer is that there are, as there are tales, and a growing number of people who claim to be aliens themselves, but they don’t feature in the approved Hopkins/Jacobs canon, because these authors know what the “true abduction story” is, and dismiss anything that deviates from it as fantasy or screen memory. (Come to think of it, can anyone recall encountering the idea of screen memories in a non UFOlogical context? The only example I can think of was an episode of MASH, in which Hawkeye had a screen memory of being saved by or saving his brother from drowning – I can’t remember which. That turned out to be a screen for one of them trying to drown the other. The idea seems iffy and rather dangerous; what happens when Inspector Plod tells you, “I’m sorry sir, your memory of sitting quietly in front of the TV with your family, was a screen memory for you raping and pillaging the neighbourhood, no sir I don’t have any evidence for this assertion, but then absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Mind coming down to the station with me Mr Sandow, we have a hypnotist to hand”.

Most abduction narratives, which people construct, often to account for actual anomalous personal experiences, many associated with aware sleep paralysis and other hypnogogic and hypnopompic experiences, are based on the the abduction narratives of others. At first these were transmitted through supermarket tabloids, this was the source that Patty Price, the first of the really modern abductees, used in (unconsciously) constructing her abduction narrative. When narratives are placed in order of investigation and/or publication, the building process, in which elements from one narrative are carried forward into the next, with a new motif added from time to time.

Sandow has some fun at various psycho-social explanations, but if some broad psycho-social approach is correct, we should not expect there to be just one overarcing cause. Abduction narratives mean different things, and serve different purposed for different people. Fears of science, love-hate feelings towards high-tec medicine, guilt feelings about animal experiments, the sense of loss of autonomy, feelings about abortion, other sexual problems, abductors as parental and other authority figures, the abductor as faceless, grey bureaucrat, and more besides may play parts. The meanings change over times. Remember that when Bullard wrote his huge two-volume thesis on abductions in 1987 the hybrid fairy child featured nowhere in it., Within a couple of years it had become the main motif.

What parts of Sandow’s essay bring out, is the divide between what C. P. Snow called the Two Cultures, the mutual incomprehension between people with liberal arts and science backgrounds. Thus even a highly educated liberal arts graduate like Sandow, has only a vague notion of science, with a concept of the future largely derived from Star Trek. Thus teleportation, alien human hybrids, people being sucked through solid walls, all are assumed in some vague sense to be possible, because of past scientific advance. Science, unless everything we think we know about the world is wrong, actually puts limits on what is possible, but this is not a notion that Sandow takes on board. Thus, if not actually endorsing the idea, he calls on us to be open minded about alien human hybrids, and people being sucked through solid windows. Two comments. First after his strictures on the lack of rigour in psycho-social UFOlogy (Kottmeyer’s theories are too vague to testable), the double standard is breath taking: if aliens can suck people through solid walls they can do anything, the ETH can never be refuted. I have been hammering at this point for ages now and will go on doing so till someone deigns to answer (I suspect hell will freeze over first). Second, that if nothing is ruled out, we get total anarchy, nothing can ever be decided.

The correct response is to accept that if we actually listened to what the abductees are saying, it is quite incompatible with a literalistic interpretation. If you don’t want to deal in certainties, then at least it is overwhelmingly more probable that we are dealing with some kind of ‘virtual experience’, If you want to make absolutely certain, and perhaps set the abductees own minds at rest, then at least in the case of frequent repeater abductees the solution is to get them into properly monitored sleep laboratories, and find out just what is happening in abduction experiences, if anything. If the experiences, however real and frightening they are to the abductee, are in some sense or other a product of their imagination, then they can be told that this is the case, that they are in charge and can change the scenario of the dreams or visions. They can be helped, which is something that Jacobs in particular cannot do, with his doomsday scenario of despair.