Back in the mid-1990s, the mother of one of my students confessed to me in front of her husband that, as a young girl, she had been abducted and raped by aliens.
I was stunned by her blunt confession and left speechless for what seemed many uncomfortable minutes. When I recovered my wits, I told her that I was highly skeptical about such extraterrestrial matters but then asked about the details of her memory. She began to cry. What followed was indeed a sordid recounting of rape, but I didn’t hear any credible reproach of space invaders – only a vague hint of someone who had abused a little girl. It was a ghastly conversation with no happy resolution.
She was one of 3.7 million Americans who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, according to a Roper poll conducted between July and September 1991 and published in 1992.
The focus of this column, however, is not about the nature, or even the accuracy, of alien abduction memories per se. It is my view that such memories are delusional, but not psychotic, as explained in T.F. Oltmanns and B.A. Maher’s 1988 book, Delusional Beliefs: “Delusions may be defined as anomalies of judgment or belief, commonly revolving around themes of persecution, grandeur, love, jealousy, and inferiority. They are false and even implausible beliefs that are assumed to be self-evident, and they are held with intense conviction by the believer, who shows a great deal of ego-involvement and preoccupation with them. Although incorrect, and even implausible, delusions are incorrigible in the face of persuasion, counterargument, and counterdemonstration.” Belief in alien abductions at least among some of the victims may instead be a screen memory for childhood sexual abuse. Whatever they are, such beliefs should not be dismissed merely as evidence of individual credulity or society’s increasingly antiscientific preoccupation with the paranormal, but should instead be explained in naturalistic terms, demystified by social psychologists, and even investigated by the appropriate authorities.
The mother’s confession provides a broader platform for this column: the possibility of alien visitations to Earth throughout human history. Somewhere around half of all Americans believe that aliens already visited us. A past Canadian minister of defense testified recently in Congress that “aliens are living among us and that it is likely at least two of them are working with the U.S. government.” Former Representative Merrill Cook (R-Utah) told the world in May 2013 that aliens are the best explanation for the claims of UFO sightings made by witnesses. One-time Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, declared to The Daily Telegraph in 2008 that aliens have visited Earth, asserting a government cover-up. Some believers in alien visits point to vague Biblical references for ancient stopovers. Others see aliens clearly designated in old Mayan tomb carvings or extrapolated in the Nasca geoglyphs in pre-Hispanic South America. For all the hyperbole (dare I say delusion?), not one shred of physical evidence exists for alien visitations to Earth, let alone that they’re doing unspeakable things to humans. Not one for all the stories, all the contentions, all the accusations, all the claims of 3.7 million Americans. Not one.
Allow me to provide an additional, admittedly prickly, comment about this alien business. The most notorious proponent of the speculative notion that aliens were responsible for many early civilizations is Erich von Däniken, the author of Chariots of the Gods?, a 1968 book filled with now-debunked claims that the myths, arts, and social organizations of ancient peoples were introduced by astronauts from other worlds. A Swiss-born writer, von Daniken never claimed that the Parthenon, Roman Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, Chartres Cathedral, or Eiffel Tower was influenced by aliens. European creations, of course. Only the vast city of Teotihuacán in Mexico, the iconography of Pakal’s sarcophagus lid at Palenque, the Nasca lines in Peru, and the architecture of Pumapunku in Bolivia and Sacsayhuaman in Peru: all from pre-Hispanic cultures in the New World. Was his message that those dim-witted pre-Aztecs, Mayans, or Incans were incapable of such extraordinary creations on their own, some of which dwarfed their contemporary European creations, and thus required “outside” assistance? Erich von Daniken, like many proponents of alien visitations, seems preoccupied by his bigoted views and antiscientific beliefs in the paranormal. For these folks, the absence of physical evidence has become a badge of honor to speak scathingly about science as a way of knowing.
Science is not the only way of knowing, of course. It’s based on observations and experiments about the natural world. Other ways of knowing, such as logic, ethics, and belief, rely on factors other than evidence and testing, but these are outside the realm of science. Their proponents get into murky water when they try to coat their nonscientific ways of knowing with a scientific patina. So-called creationism, or “creation science,” is an example of a conservative religious belief imitating a scientific method to make it more palatable to lawmakers, textbook publishers, and a naïve American public always superficially vexed about seeming unfairness and inequality. (Lest there be any doubt among my readers, nearly all authorities – scientific and religious – view evolution as the reigning postulate in science to explain the origins of life and creationism as a separate religious construct: two non-overlapping magisteria to explain the material universe.) As a way of knowing, science has yielded extraordinary insights into the how’s, where’s, and when’s of natural phenomena; religion attempts to elucidate the why’s.
Of course, in a near-infinite cosmos, it stands to reason that we are not alone. Among 70 sextillion stars in the known universe, can it be that Earth is the only living planet? I think not. But has any intelligent life from off-planet visited Earth? I think not. Not ever. The delusional stories “out there” say more about the whimsical creativity of the human mind than about the reality of Martians, Arcturians, or the followers of Xenu.
H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer