Thursday, September 24, 2009

City Weekly alien abduction story

A month or so back, I was interviewed by Salt Lake City Weekly, the local alternative weekly. I was asked help provide a skeptical perspective on alien abduction.

Looks like the story was just published online (my quotes are all on page 2), and the dead tree version comes out next week.

This is my first experience at being a Token Skeptic, but hopefully not my last (token skepticism is at least better than NO skepticism, right?), so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

When interviewed I didn't have any information on the specific cases being discussed, so I tried to speak in generalities. I will say that I appreciate the author including every main point I tried to make, and including a second skeptical voice as well (Joel Layton, who made some similar points).

Is the story written from a rather credulous perspective, taking the statements of "abductees" at face value? Yeah, but I'm having trouble faulting the author for that. That's just kind of how stories like this go. I think I did a decent job of giving a reasonable counter-balance, though it would have been nice to tailor my thoughts more to the specifics of the stories mentioned.

And so... that's what I'll do here! I'll try not to recap the stories themselves too much here, so keep the article handy if you want to follow along. In each case, I'm more or less assuming that the people interviewed are being honest about their memories, and not deliberately lying (there's no reason to think they were lying).

The article starts with a few "abduction" accounts. First up is Don Anderson's story, where aliens come to take for his four-year-old son and he convinces them to bring him along.

To me, Anderson's story reads just like the recounting of a dream: many things happen that aren't particularly causally linked to each other, lots of odd details that stick out with unusual focus in the story, the "tall blond woman" who seems strangely familiar (I know when *I* dream, people I know are often composited into other people who I don't quite know... alternative explanation: it was Six). It even ends with him springing out of bed.

I once dreamed that I was eaten whole by a fifty-foot tall genie on a Godzilla-like rampage through downtown Salt Lake City, only to discover that it was a robot on the inside. I challenged the robot's controller to a game of Uno and, upon winning, defeated him with a withering one-liner.

No one would report such a dream as an actual experience, yet if they dreamed the same experiences as Anderson, I could easily see them interpreting it as an actual experience, as our society is primed to accept stories of alien abduction more readily than those of giant robot genies.

There is nothing in this story to make me think it was anything other than a vivid dream.

Ron Johnson's story (not to be confused with Jon Ronson) is the same. It sounds like it was a nightmare, period. He had a nightmare about a scary-looking creature staring at him when he was fourteen. Two hundred years ago, he'd have dreamed it was a demon or a succubus; but in our culture, aliens are a more plausible beastie, so he he dreamed about an alien. Moving on...

Glenys Moore also recounts a story that sounds much more plausible as a dream. I hate to sound like a broken record here, but to me, these all just sound like dreams. Moore's may have been a sleep paralysis dream. As I mention in the article, sleep paralysis is a well-understood neurological phenomenon that, when coupled with a nightmare, can lead to some horrific experiences of captivity at the hands of whatever is in the nightmare, be it an alien, a succubus, or Freddy Krueger. Terrifying, but still just a dream.

None of these people are crazy nutjobs, but neither are the stories compelling... But wait, there's more!

Enter, Marlee Spendlove. Spendlove is a hypnotherapist and (though the article fails to mention this fact) Assistant Director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) of Utah.

Now, if those two details together don't raise your skeptical alarm bells, perhaps you should have them readjusted.

According to Spendlove, aliens futz about with the memories of abductees to erase or mask what really happened. And Spendlove uses hypnotherapy to help her patients, including Anderson and Johnson, recover their memories of alien abduction.

Uh oh...

In the 1980s, there was a nationwide pandemic of people who, as adults, used hypnotherapy to "recover" "memories" of their parents sexually abusing them children in Satanic rituals. The only issue? It didn't happen. There was no such pandemic of Satanic abuse, and the recovered memories were actually false memories created by the therapist and the patient, sometime cause huge amounts of personal trauma, family estrangement, and prosecution over events that never took place. Furthermore, it minimized or distorted the trauma of people who really have been sexually abused by their relatives.

I should mention that I don't think such false memories are deliberately put in place through such therapy. I've no doubt that these therapists, including Spendlove, are providing these "therapies" honestly. It's just that they don't provide reliable memories, particularly when the therapist is predisposed to lead their patients to a particular conclusion, like Satanic sexual abuse or alien abduction.

Indeed, Spendlove is approaching her therapy with the assumption that her subjects have had an abduction experience, and from how I read it, helps direct her therapy to make her subjects come to that conclusion:
Spendlove says that extraterrestrials are able to block portions of memories, so that the human who interacts with them carries screened memories where the actual alien encounter is replaced with elements that are more typical of everyday human life. After his initial experience, Anderson says that memories of other experiences made more sense to him. “When I was a kid, the 9-foot man in the back yard was one of those beings coming to get me. On other times, they would send these little 3-foot black troll-looking guys to get me, and I called them my gorillas. Thinking back, it made sense, because I had a little black stuffed animal that was a gorilla.”
Umm... Or you, in a suggestible state, constructed a memory wherein two unrelated memories you already had (a scary nightmare and the gorilla stuffed animal) were combined into a narrative story that's much more interesting. Continuing...
Anderson hoped his young son would corroborate it. “I thought, ‘My son has got to prove to me that this really happened.’” When he arrived home from work the day after his first alien encounter, he met his son, who told Anderson he’d had a dream about being attacked by wild bears that were in the house. Anderson had recently read that “in screened memories, aliens mask themselves as animals, because people are comfortable with that.”
Really? A dream about bears = "I was abducted by aliens!" What would the interpretation have been if his son had dreamed of a trip to Willy Wonka's factory, or of a slimy reptilian monster under the bed, or us a giant robot genie, or if he could remember no dreams atr all? I'd bet money that any of these would be interpreted as evidence that the abduction story were true.

Anderson's original story was that they brought him along to make his son feel less afraid. Why was that necessary if they seem to have such mind-control powers? And why, then, did the aliens choose to disguise themselves as BLOODTHIRSTY FREAKING BEARS
Anderson’s son said, “It was really, really weird because it felt so real. And I reached down to scratch my leg, and it’s all bloody.” Anderson says he wiped some of his son’s blood away and “there was a little crescent mark on his leg, which is what extraterrestrials do to take DNA samples.”
So, let me get this straight: An alien species that has evolved to be so human-like in appearance and physiology that we can have sex with them (more on that later) develops faster-than-light space travel and journeys to our planet, but they don't know how to take a DNA sample without leaving a gaping, bloody gash on a young boy's leg? And this is supposed to be a plausible explanation? Ever heard of a cotton swab on the inner cheek? Or a syringe?

None of the stories recounted have any kind of physical evidence to support them. It's all based on people recounting their experiences years or decades after they actually happened. Ron Johnson claims to have actually obtained physical evidence at one point, though of course, it was never retained for analysis. Back to Ron Johnson...
In 2008, for the first time, Johnson was willing to discuss finding tangible physical evidence of alien encounters following several instances of sexual relations with extraterrestrials that occurred over many years. He describes lying on a table having intimate encounters with scrawny-looking, near-anorexic aliens with large eyes. For him, it felt like having sex with a mannequin. “They had no life to them.”

He says he always awoke with a green residue—the color of lime sherbet and texture of Karo syrup—in his underwear. He says he encountered a young man from England at a UFO conference in Laughlin, Nev., who had similar experiences. Recalling his many encounters, Johnson wishes that “whatever the aliens want to do with me, I wish they would let me know what it is.”
Great! So, he always awoke with a mysterious green substance in his underwear, and even found others that had the same experience! We should have some of this mysterious green goop, right?

No? We are supposed to accept that these who independently evolved to be almost human traveled across space to have sex with humans, and even left behind some sort of intergalactic lube for us to study, but the people they left it with threw it all away so we don't actually have any physical evidence?

Again, what is more plausible?