Believing that a pile of debris from a military surveillance nuclear-testing device found in the New Mexico desert in 1947 was the wreckage of an extraterrestrial aircraft—well, it’s a plausible belief. You’d have to ignore a great deal of very persuasive disconfirming evidence and believe in an extremely large and extremely secretive government conspiracy, but, hey, a lot of people think along similar lines. Looking up at the night sky and seeing alien ships when others see Venus, unconventional aircraft, odd stellar formations, northern lights, blinking towers—or any other visual manifestations from a potpourri of earthly phenomena—hey, that’s not too strange. Some people have more imagination than others; they fill in the blanks where the rest of us stick pretty close to what their eyes tell them.
But alien abductions are another kettle of fish altogether. This is not a matter of perceiving ambiguous stimuli in a certain way or believing in conspiracies. And remember, some conspiracies do happen. But do alien abductions? Extraterrestrials kidnapping humans, taking them to their space ships, performing experiments on them, cutting them open, raping them, forcing women to bear hybrid babies? Thousands of people believe they have been abducted by aliens. Their memories of these experiences are vivid, painful, and terrifyingly real. What’s up here? Should we believe their stories?
Tales of alien contact have been narrated for centuries. Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1638) and Ralph Morris' A Narrative and the Life and Astonishing Adventures of John Daniel (1751), are taken today as intended fiction. However, in 1758, in Concerning Earths in Our Solar World, Emanuel Swedenborg made the claim that he had actually visited all the then-known planets, which he described in great detail, all inhabited by creatures who had devised ideal societies. We now know of the existence of planets that were not described by Swedenborg (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto—the last of which astronomers have declassified as a planet), and we know the ones he described bear no relation to his accounts, and of course, all the evidence we have says they’re uninhabited. And how was Swedenborg to know that half the planets in the solar system were gaseous and can’t support the weight of solid objects, such as humans? Or that Venus is a toxic hothouse of sulphuric acid that could support no conceivable life whatsoever. The truth is, he knew virtually nothing about what was on our solar system’s planets—and he couldn’t have.
The pre-1947 literature on alien contact usually has the contactee visiting another planet. These narratives include an account given in 1890 by Helen Smith of Martians speaking a language that sounds very much like French; in 1906 by Sarah Weis, who described nonexistent Martian canals in great detail; in 1918 by Aleister Crowley, who describes contact with "Lam," an inhabitant of a distant constellation who has a bulbous head and tiny, beady eyes; and in 1930 by one Willard Magoon, who described Mars as a beautiful, lush planet of forests, parks, and gardens. Today's contactees hardly ever tell stories of being transported to the extraterrestrial's home planet; instead, the aliens are here, on Earth, and the contactees are frequently abducted and taken onto an alien spaceship. When listen to or read a tale of alien abductions, we are confronted with the phenomenon of "close encounters of the fourth kind." Abductees (who prefer the term "contactees") describe all manner of contact, a great deal of it sexual in nature. The parallels with imaginary—or invented— satanic ritual abuse, frequently described in the 1980s and 1990s, is extremely strong.
John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist, endorsed the idea that the stories his patients told him about having been abducted by aliens were literally and factually true. Mack's evidence? He was convinced because of the intense, heartfelt emotion that accompanied their stories, and because of their narrative consistency. They had to be telling the truth, Mack reasoned, because they had no reason to lie, they told their stories reluctantly, their stories were similar to one another, and their therapeutic sessions with him were filled with genuine terror. They aren't faking or seeking attention, Mack reasoned, nor are they insane. They sincerely believe that they are telling the truth.
Members of folk and tribal societies have told consistent and emotion-laden stories of being attacked, seduced, apprehended, abducted, threatened, or terrorized by ghosts, goblins, elves, demons, fairies, "old hags," and assorted incubi and succubi, with great emotional intensity for thousands of years. For Mack, the highly emotionally-charged manner in which these accounts were narrated to him was the empirical observation that convinced him of the reality of aliens on Earth.
Scientists tend to be skeptical about contactee reports. The fact that they almost never point to independent corroborating witnesses who can confirm their stories or have witnessed the abduction, even if they have been taken in an urban environment such as New York City, seems to be of little concern to believers. To the scientist, this consideration makes the assertion highly suspicious.
The fact that a remarkably high proportion of abductions occur during hypnogogic (in a twilight state when falling asleep) and hypnopomic (when waking up) states, forces scientists to wonder whether these are hallucinations, dreams, rather than genuine, real-world events. To the ufologist or UFO believer, this issue is of little concern or interest.
The fact that contactees return from their experience with aliens in space vehicles without any extraplanetary physical souvenirs; an apparatus of some kind, an article of clothing (apparently aliens never wear clothes), part of a space suit (perhaps they can breathe our atmosphere without difficulty), a scrap of metal, glass, plastic (it could be they’ve evolved beyond and have no need of these primitive materials), food (maybe they don’t eat or drink), something—anything. Nothing. And if they do obtain such an object, they should take it to the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History. Apparently they don’t got it. Why shouldn’t scientists be suspicious? Ufologists don’t seem to be bothered by these matters; but they would be ecstatic—as all of us would—if a contactee backed up a story with a solid piece of undeniably trans-galactic paraphernalia.
Contactees claim that aliens display powers that scientists say are all but impossible. They move through solid objects, move from one location to another practically instantaneously, beam humans onto the mother ship, appear before entire cities and remain undetected. It is not surprising that most scientists remain extremely skeptical of contactee claims. Ufologists invoke forces that are contrary to the laws of science, and offer no plausible evidence to back up their stories.
The fact that abductees return claiming to have had experiences that normally leave physical traces when they display none, or unremarkable, clearly earthly, marks, causes the scientist to be extremely skeptical about whether such experiences actually took place. Female contactees report having been impregnated and bred for alien-human hybrid offspring, yet gynecologists detect no such physical changes in their bodies. Contactees report having been cut open, yet no scars, or only old and conventional scars, can be found. Electronic devices are reported to have been implanted in their brains, yet, again, none that are indisputably extraplanetary have been located. As an explanation, contactees claim that the technology of the extraterrestrials is so powerful, so advanced and sophisticated, that aliens can make evidence of such interventions disappear or blend in with human tissue. Mack agrees; he claims implants have been recovered from the bodies of contactees, but when retrieved, they turn out to be unremarkable and not uncontestably of extraterrestrial origin. He argues that the genetic or chemical structure of material in his patients’ bodies conform to earthly specifications is of little significance, since, again, aliens are capable of altering that material. Scientists and most physicians don’t buy it. Usually, this matter is of little or no concern to abductees and ufologists.
Such evidentiary issues do not disprove the contactees' claims, but they do explain why many scientists are skeptical about claims that attract many fervent, committed adherents, and this will remain the case until extra-planetary beings actually do pay us a visit, or leave something behind that’s unquestionably theirs—not ours.