Answers as elusive as evidence on topic of alien abductions

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / May 31, 2010

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The title of the event: “Alien Abduction Experiences: Normal Science or Revolutionary Science?’’

A confab featuring National Enquirer editors? A gathering of “X Files’’ devotees?


It was the subject of a panel discussion yesterday at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science, and it showcased credentialed scientists discussing the reasons alien abduction — think UFOs — may or may not be a genuine phenomenon.

The speakers — including a university dean and a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist — acknowledged the topic was scarcely standard fare for an august conclave of researchers. But that, they said, was exactly the point. After all, from Galileo to Edison to Einstein, doubt has shadowed some of the world’s deepest thinkers.

“If we’re not open to the possibility that things we regard as preposterous might be true, then we’re going to miss the discoveries,’’ said Dr. Roger K. Pitman, a Harvard psychiatrist.

Not that Pitman was there, at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, to make the case in favor of space aliens. In fact, he is among Harvard researchers who have reported that people asserting they were abducted are more prone to false memories than people making no such claims.

Stuart Appelle, dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at the State University of New York Brockport, wasn’t arguing one way or another about the existence of human-abducting aliens.

Instead, Appelle, editor of the Journal of UFO Studies, sketched the reasons why researchers might be eager to dismiss talk of abductions as so much scientific sophistry. There is, he said, fear of ridicule and the tendency to glom onto easy answers.

“Simplicity,’’ he said, “is not a virtue if it ignores facts.’’

Among the facts he propounded: case files that detail alien-abduction claims contain assertions that challenge the assumptions of naysayers.

For example, doubters dismiss abduction memories as the mental meanderings of people who suffered sleep paralysis in their bedrooms. But the case files, he said, show that most accounts of alien abduction are not set in bedrooms and do not involve sleep.

Susan Clancy, the Harvard-trained author of “Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens,’’ agreed that it was intellectually disingenuous to dismiss people’s abduction claims. But, she said, “ridicule goes both ways.’’ Since her book was published in 2005, she has been pelted daily by e-mails from abduction acolytes.

“They are mean,’’ she said.

Research shows, Clancy said, that people purporting to have been abducted have potent imaginations and an affinity for daydreaming, although there is no evidence they are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders.

Budd Hopkins, an artist who started the Intruders Foundation to provide sympathetic help to people reporting UFO abductions, showed pictures of scars and skin gouges to the audience of about 75 people that he said suggested the handiwork of space visitors.

“It isn’t just something flying around up there or flying around in people’s heads,’’ Hopkins said. “It’s real.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at

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