Many people 

will hold on 

to their 


beliefs despite

any amount 

of contrary 





From Incubi to ET
Seattle, Sagan and Psychology
 By Bryce Buchanan 

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) held its annual convention in Seattle this June. The following are observations of one of the two O4R members who attended.

Intellectual battles are generally more sedate than other forms of combat, but the opening session of the Seattle conference on "The Psychology of Belief' was an adrenaline charged evening full of surprises, angry arguments and comedy. The topic was alien abductions. For those of you who think alien abductions are a small problem, like I did prior to this conference, let me tell you that there are press reports that up to 8.7 million Americans have been whisked away for brief visits with little creatures from outer space.

     The six combatants who made formal presentations were evenly divided, three UFO abductee believers and three skeptics. I will focus on three of the speakers.

     Professor Robert Baker, from the University of Kentucky, discussed the psychological phenomena which can explain many of the abduction stories. Hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are a fairly common set of feelings, sounds and visions experienced by people in the dream-like state between sleep and full consciousness. Common symptoms include the feelings of being paralyzed, that someone else is in the room, or that some power has taken control of your body. It is also known that dreams of a sexual nature are common, as are dreams of flying.

     For centuries, in Christian cultures, these nighttime phenomena were blamed directly on evil creatures called incubi and succubi. Incubi are male demons who come at night to possess and have sex with helpless females. Succubi are the female demons who do the same unspeakable things to the men.

     Baker was countered by Dr. John Mack, Harvard psychiatrist and author of Abductions - Human Encounters with Aliens. Mack is the most prominent of the alien abduction proponents and, with his book and talk show appearances, he is being well rewarded financially by a culture hungry for such stories. I admired his courage in coming before a large group of skeptics. I did not admire his credulity.

     When a patient tells Mack an alien being took control of them in the night and transported them through walls up to a spaceship to have sex, he believes them. He said he has patients as young as three years with abduction stories, and the fact that the stories have so many similar elements convinces him they must be true.

     In his opening remarks Mack told the audience, "We are operating intellectually in different universes." This was true. His rebellion against the universe of objectively verifiable facts became clear spoke. "'You can’t just be restricted to this way of knowing and say that's all science can be," he said. Mack called skeptics "epistemological totalitarians" because they say there is only one way to know ... the only way to know is by objective physical proof ... you don't allow consciousness, our total being, as a way of knowing." He added, "Every culture, except this one, has known there is an unseen world; there is a world of other dimensions, of other realities, that can cross over into our world."

     Mack thus aligned himself proudly with epistemology that gave us ghosts and goblins, and implied or stated that if we could only "expand consciousness" and "stretch our ontological boundaries"' we may be able to be as enlightened as he is. In that enlightened state we would not have a problem believing that people fly through walls to meet space aliens for sexual adventures. We would see, like he sees, that if physical laws do not allow people to fly through walls, physics is wrong.

     Mack said he did not understand the resistance he has met to his alien abduction theories. He has met people who have strongly resisted his ideas, who do not care to be "enlightened" into a mystical epistemology, but hold firmly to the “narrow materialistic world" and the scientific method for understanding it. "What is at stake here?” he asked, seemingly completely unaware of the role that rationality has played in Man's progress, or the danger a slide back into irrationality represents. He asks that the rules of evidence and the laws of physics be relaxed so he can indulge himself and others in their fantasies, and regards it as a matter of little consequence. I don't.

      Donna Bassett, an investigative reporter, described posing as an abductee and being "treated" by Mack. Mack readily accepted her fabricated claims, allowing her to infiltrate the social network of his enthusiastic abductee patients. Her report appeared in the April 25, 1994 issue of Time. This, their first face to face meeting since her Time exposé, created a tense situation.

     Despite what Bassett had said about her undercover operation, Mack said he believes she was abducted and that he was not sure why she was denying it now. Mack's reaction to Bassett illustrates one key psychological principle skeptics should never forget in dealing with true believers of any kind: Many people will hold on to their cherished beliefs despite any amount of contrary evidence.

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© 2001 Oregonians for Rationality