Popular Delusions VII: Alien Abduction

Popular Delusions VII: Alien Abduction October 21, 2007

Back in August, in “Some Thoughts on Fermi’s Paradox“, I proposed some explanations for why there’s no evidence of intelligent alien species. But I left out what seems like the most obvious explanation of all: they do exist, and they’re already here.

This may well be the most popular answer. To judge by polls like this one from 2002, almost half of American adults believe that intelligent aliens have visited the Earth. (Ironically, The Onion actually gets this percentage right in its deadpan take.) And it’s not just visiting Earth, either: the same poll shows that 20% of Americans – which is on the order of 60 million people – believe that some human beings have been abducted by aliens or have otherwise physically interacted with them. Even some fringe Christian groups believe in this, although they tend to believe that aliens are demonically aligned, if not demons themselves.

I’ve written previously about sleep paralysis, which figures into many claims of hauntings and is probably at the root of most alien abduction claims as well. The common symptoms of sleep paralysis – inability to move, strong sensation of a menacing presence, mild hallucination – are perfect parallels to the usual elements of an abduction story.

To complete the tale, many alien abduction claimants undergo hypnosis to “remember” their experience. In reality, hypnosis makes a person highly suggestible and prone to confabulate. When primed with leading questions by the therapist, a subject under hypnosis is very likely to invent details which they later believe to be real memories. In fact, some studies have shown that abduction claimants are more likely than the general populace to concoct false memories. In this way, alien abduction becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon, as the stories and images in popular culture seed the abduction reports of the next generation of true believers.

What I’ve always wondered is, if aliens are really visiting Earth and abducting us, why is it so easy for people to find out about it? To judge by the accounts of abductees, it is extremely easy to recover the details of their experience under ordinary hypnotic regression. I would imagine that a race advanced enough for interstellar travel would either not care about concealing themselves, or would be able to hide their presence so effectively that we would be completely unable to detect them.

Even today we have drugs, such as scopolamine, that can block the formation of memories (it’s often used by date rapists and other criminals, and in the past was given to mothers in labor), and as an added bonus, makes recipients highly cooperative and suggestible. Hypnosis is ineffective at helping a person recall what they did under the influence of this drug, because the memories are never stored in the first place. Wouldn’t highly advanced aliens have something at least as effective as this?

And for that matter, why would they need to keep abducting us? Couldn’t a species so advanced just abduct one human and then reverse-engineer our genome to run whatever experiments they wanted? And couldn’t they come up with implants and sensors that could be read out remotely and wouldn’t need repeated visits? (Don’t aliens have Wi-Fi?)

Ultimately, alien abduction has simply become another modern-day religion, with advanced extraterrestrials taking the place of gods, angels and devils. Like latter-day prophets, some of them come to warn us of planetary catastrophe or guide us toward salvation. Others, like demons, come to torment and terrify us. Some true believers have created elaborate Manichean cosmologies where some aliens are good and others are evil. And, like all religions, these convoluted and fantastic claims are always advanced without a scrap of real evidence.

Other posts in this series:

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The Fountainhead: Jury Nullification
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America’s Functional Atheism
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