Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Need to Believe

Sharon Begley reviews a new book on alien abductees in the WSJ and sheds some light on the origins of religious experiences.

The first thing that struck Susan Clancy during the weekend she spent with people who had been abducted by extraterrestrials was that they weren't that much odder than the folks at her family reunions.

It's not that Dr. Clancy, then a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University, has an especially strange family. But as she was drawn deeper and deeper into the world of "abductees," she realized that they tend to be respectable, job-holding, functioning members of society, normal except for their belief that short beings with big eyes once scooped them up and took them to a spaceship. What makes abductees stand out is something that is so common in American society it's a wonder there aren't more of them: an inability to think scientifically.

Reading the title of Dr. Clancy's new book, "Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens", millions of Americans probably figure the answer to the implicit question is obvious: People come to believe they were abducted by aliens because they were. Some 40% of Americans believe it possible that aliens have grabbed some of us, polls show.

Abductees are teachers and waiters, artists and chefs, construction supervisors and librarians. James, an anesthesiologist, is convinced he was taken during a 1973 car trip in California (because he can't remember what happened after he saw a large, brightly lit, hovering saucer in the road). Will, a massage therapist, was abducted repeatedly by aliens, he told Dr. Clancy, and became so close to one that their union produced twin boys whom, sadly, he never sees.

Numerous studies have found that abductees are not suffering from mental illness. They are unusually prone to false memories, she and colleagues found in a 2002 study, and tend to be unusually creative, fantasy-prone and imaginative, but so are lots of people who have never met a little green man.


Well, this rules out one of the most persistent apologetics for the veracity of religious claims, as embodied in the "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" argument. People can be both sane and have false memories or experiences. Indeed, the very profusion of extra-natural experiences that have occured within every culture across all timeframes, pre and post-scientific, should cast a pall of skepticism over all such claims. Or, to be consistent, should make all such claims equally credible. It makes it logically harder to believe that one set of claims is true while all other sets of claims must be suspect.

Even the smartest abductees fall short, however, when it comes to scientific thinking. Dr. Clancy asked if they realize that memories elicited by hypnosis are unreliable. Yes, the abductees said, but they are really, really careful with hypnosis, so their recovered memories must be real. Do they understand that sleep paralysis, in which waking up during a dream causes the dream to leak into consciousness even while you remain unable to move, can mimic the weird visions and helplessness that abductees describe? Of course, they say, but that doesn't apply to them. As one abductee explained, she was taken not while she slept but when she was on the couch watching Letterman.

And do they understand that the most likely explanation of bad dreams, impotence, nosebleeds, loneliness, bruises or just waking up to find their pajamas on the floor does not involve aliens? Yes, they told Dr. Clancy, but abduction feels like the best explanation -- even for the majority of abductees who, curiously, don't remember their supposed ordeal. (Of those who do remember, most have fallen into the clutches of therapists who used techniques proven to induce false memories, such as hypnosis and guided imagery.)

Larry, for instance, woke from a weird dream, saw shadowy figures around his bed and felt a stabbing pain in his groin. He ran through the possibilities -- a biotech firm stealing his sperm, angels, repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse -- and only then settled on alien abduction as the most plausible. Sam blamed his impotence on aliens, not on his recent prostate surgery. He had read that stress can cause impotence, and alien abduction is stressful.

The principle of parsimony that underpins all of science -- the simplest explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be right -- is, well, alien to abductees. So is the notion that "it feels right" doesn't make it so, and that exceptions to rules are, indeed, exceptions.


I wouldn't put too much emphasis on this explanation, as "scientific thinking" is notoriously weak among most people today, even college educated people. Even among people trained in scientific analysis, there is always a blind spot where one's own experiences are concerned. Often it is the most intellectually accomplished that fall prey to cults, as with the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

What an inability to think scientifically does not explain, however, is why many people believe this one weird thing, not weird things in general. In other words, why ET?

"Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need" to find meaning and purpose in life, Dr. Clancy writes. That need is stronger and more basic than any attachment to empiricism, logic or objective reality.

Most important, perhaps, is that alien abduction feels, to abductees, like the best explanation for their feelings and memories. It is transformative, giving their life meaning, reassuring them of their own significance. Will, the twins' dad, is happy he was "chosen," saying the abduction showed him there is "something out there much bigger, more important than we are." Through his twins, he can "have a part in it."

Dr. Clancy, raised as a Catholic, is aware of the human needs that religion fills -- and how belief in alien abduction fills them, too. "People get from their abduction beliefs the same things that millions of people the world over derive from their religions," she writes: "meaning, reassurance, mystical revelation, spirituality, transformation."


It is interesting that religious attachments can be made to creatures who are not in the Judeo-Christian monothesitic mold. Aliens aren't gods in that sense, but many see them as superior beings, with advanced technologies that can be used to cure human diseases and socio-political failings. Neither were the pagan gods of old, or the spirits of the animist faiths. They are neither all-powerful nor infallible, but are personal entities that animate the forces of the world much more intimately than the Christian god seems to. Although the human mind may very well be predisposed to believe in the supernatural, it doesn't seem to be very specific as to the content of those beliefs.

13 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

Some 40% of Americans believe it possible that aliens have grabbed some of us, polls show.

I'm one of the 40% - which does not, of course, mean that I necessarily believe that anyone's ever been abducted by aliens.

Even the smartest abductees fall short, however, when it comes to scientific thinking.

That sentence lacks sufficient rigor.

Perhaps its author meant that abductees fail the test of Ockham's Razor, which they most assuredly do.
(Which does not mean that they weren't abducted, just that it's not the most likely explanation).

However, "scientific thinking" means "WAGs" when dealing with unusual and unverifiable data, involving a new and troubling paradigm.

It's the same blind faith in "scientific thinking" that leads intelligent people to claim that believing in long-term, human-caused global warming is "scientific", when it's really just a bunch of WAGs put forth to attempt to explain some anomalous events and measurements.

October 31, 2005 12:23 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

The way you phrased I'm one of the 40% ... is interesting.

As in "I'm part of the 40% who believe it is not impossible anyone has ever been abducted by an alien."

Phrased that way, a far more accurate representation of the assertion's meaning, puts a whole different cast on the 40% figure. Off topic, perhaps, but makes the point that you need to analyze very carefully to what such numbers attest.

November 01, 2005 4:42 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

By wording the question "is it possible that aliens have abducted some humans, someone who is scientifically precise would have to say "yes", even if they thought that such an ocurrence to be astronomically improbable. I have to admit that it is possible for me to win the Powerball, but I consider it so unlikely as to be functionally impossible.

As long as there is a more plausible alternative explanation for the claims made by the "abductees", namely that there is some psychological wish projection going on, I'll accept that over the visitation explanation.

I listened in to the Michael Medved show some time ago and was surprised to hear the host come down on the side of Bigfoot believers. Now there is nothing scientifically against the possibility of such a creature, it would just be another species of ape. But for the proposition for the existence of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest to be true, you have to posit certain other things to be true that just aren't so. The odds that such a species exists in that area without having left any as of yet undiscovered physical remains are so close to zero as to be considered impossible. What is the minimum average size that such a colony of apes would have to maintain throughout the millenia in order to survive to this day? 500? 1000? And yet no scientist, archaeologist, tourist, hiker, hunter, camper, logger or mining explorer has ever happened upon a skull, tibia or carcass? No excavator has ever unearthed past remains while building a road, foundation, or laying a pipeline? It is a perfect example of the "dog that didn't bark" principle, as illustrated in the A Conan Doyle story "The Silver Blaze" when Sherlock Holmes solved a crime, or more precisely determined that there was no crime, by noting evidence that should have been there, but wasn't.

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.
“You consider that to be important?” he asked.
“Exceedingly so.”
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

November 02, 2005 8:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

"Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need" to find meaning and purpose in life,

Sure, lots of people lead outward-looking, morally constrained lives for fear of displeasing aliens. For cryin' out loud, what profound meaning in life comes out of the existence of aliens? It is the non-religious scientific community that is as desperate to prove life exists elsewhere as they are to prove humans are just like the apes.

This is one of those assertions we hear so often we just nod and move on. It's kind of like: "people used to have lots of kids to have someone to support them in old age." Sounds good, except it makes absolutely no sense when you analyse it assuming you attribute a modicum of rationality to the old ancestors.

He may be a Catholic but he is playing once again to the secular conceit that religion is a comforting crutch for weak people and it is the brave secularist confronting the existential abyss (preferably in a Paris cafe with lots of wine and a bevy of adoring co-eds). These people never confront the burden of faith or ask themselves why many religious people lead self-denying lives devoted to others while they themselves answer only to their own desires and needs.

The alien fantasy (among the sane)answers a universal antipathy to boredom and need for excitement and novelty in life. It is an escape from duty and necessity, not a source of meaning at all. Quite the opposite of traditional religion.

November 03, 2005 4:09 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

That is why I think the 40% figure contains within it about .0025% of the population who think it is an accomplished fact.

But before we make too much fun of that small number of hard-core delusionals, we need to consider a much larger part of the population. The 25% or so of the US that believes all the claims made in the Bible, many of which, on precisely no evidence, make extra-terrestrial press gangs seem a mundane certainty in comparison.

It must be that need-to-believe thing.

On what basis, one wonders, could we reject as wholly false tales of alien abduction, while leaving untouched revealed scripture?

November 03, 2005 4:33 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

It is the non-religious scientific community that is as desperate to prove life exists elsewhere as they are to prove humans are just like the apes.

Asking a question is not being desperate for proof. "Is there anyone out there?" is a valid question that has one of two specific answers: Yes, or No. I simply don't see how you can conclude from asking, and desiring to answer, that question is any reason to conclude that any significant portion of SETI researchers are either non-religious, or desperate.

Just as with the the question of whether we and other primates share a common ancestor. While a positive answer to that question demolishes any possibility that significant portions of the Old Testament are objectively true, you have no basis for concluding that those searching for answers are non-religious.

Non-Christian, maybe. Or not Biblical literalists almost certainly. But non-Religious? How are you to know?

"people used to have lots of kids to have someone to support them in old age."

Demonstrably true in China, where the prohibition against lots of kids, the fear of destitution in old age, and the customary role of sons to look after their parents has led to a tidal wave of female infanticide. Also, people use to have lots of kids because most people farmed, and kids make for built in farmhands.

I think you over egg the "secular conceit." Some, no, nearly all, people are incapable of pondering a meaningless universe bent on their ultimate destruction. Also, in speaking of the conceit that religion is a crutch for the weak, the phrase "there are no atheists in foxholes" is native to religionists. The conceit is of your own making.

Some, a few, people are incapable of accepting as true claims devoid of evidence. (I am trying, so far with utter lack of success, to find the downside of wine and attentive co-eds.)

(Note the word "incapable." I don't think anyone has any ability to control the degree of faith they have in supernatural claims. Free will, hard to define in any event, probably has no role here.)

I could just as easily assert that religionists never confront the burden of ultimate oblivion, nor ask themselves how many such people who do go on to lead self-denying lives devoted to others. Have you ever pondered that, yourself?


(While they themselves ... is a pure canard, and could just as easily be aimed at mendicants.)

Oh, BTW, and I think this will pass without controversy: "Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need" is the kind of sociological argle-bargle writing guaranteed to make the reader's eyes instantly glaze over.

November 03, 2005 5:07 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Sure, lots of people lead outward-looking, morally constrained lives for fear of displeasing aliens.

There are many motivations for believing in supernatural beings, fear is just one of them. My read is that these people are trying to raise the petty problems of their lives to a higher level. Someone who is stressed out merely from the mundane problems of an ordinary life might ask himself why the struggle is worth it. If his stress is caused by alien abductions, suddenly he is at the center of an intergalactic drama of high import. His existence takes on some meaning.

He may be a Catholic but he is playing once again to the secular conceit that religion is a comforting crutch for weak people and it is the brave secularist confronting the existential abyss (preferably in a Paris cafe with lots of wine and a bevy of adoring co-eds).

Peter, for someone who decries the use of stereotypes against religious people, you sure are quite adept at using them against the secular. I don't carry around this air of superiority, and very few athiests that I know do either.
My attitude has always been that if you need a crutch, use it. Most of us need some prop or another to keep our chins up as we struggle with our existence. My own crutch is anti-depresssants. I've been religious over the first half of my life, and I've always suffered from a melancholic temperament. I've tried prayer. Later in life I tried antidepressants. The prayer didn't work, the anti-depressants did. Some problems are spiritual, others are boiological/chemical. You just have to choose the right crutch.

These people never confront the burden of faith or ask themselves why many religious people lead self-denying lives devoted to others while they themselves answer only to their own desires and needs.

More stereotypes, Peter. How do you know so much about these people and their motivations?

November 06, 2005 6:13 PM  
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