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 previous issue                                                           issue #69  posted 10 /16 / 2021                      archive of all  issues

Suggestibility, Alien Abductions, and Democracy 

in the news: On June 25 the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence releases a "Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena". It looks at 144 reports, and, as Reuters news service later quotes an unnamed senior official, essentially says "we have no clear indications that there is any non-terrestrial explanation for them."  It certainly says nothing about aliens. Yet many UFO enthusiasts take the military's finally taking their subject seriously as something of a victory. In the media buzz that follows, on August 6 the movie "Alienated"about a nerdy scientist's encounter with an attractive alien, ending with UFO aided travel with herbecomes available to watch on YouTube. On August 11 science writer Joel Achenbach pens a Washington Post article "UFO Mania Is Out of Control. Please Stop" . And on  September 13 CNN releases a national poll reporting that 59% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that "believing that Donald Trump won the 2020 election" was very important or somewhat important to what being a Republican meant to them. 

commentary and analysis by Stephen P. Cook, founder and manager, project Worldview:

Valuing evidence as it bears on solving problems or making decisions is a key part of critical thinking. Without it, people are unable to separate fiction from fact, and fall prey to believing in nonsense, including that promoted by those pushing conspiracy theories. Based on evidence mounting over the last few decades, one can conclude that a not insignificant portion of the American adult population have minds that seriously lack critical thinking skills. That evidence includes a November 18 2019 CNN story headlined, “The flat-Earth conspiracy is spreading around the globe.” It goes on to report, “A YouGov survey of more than 8,000 American adults suggested last year as many as one in six Americans are not entirely sure the world is round.” And a February 2021 American Enterprise Institute poll that reports 27% of Christian evangelical Protestants “mostly” or “completely” believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory. 

 Suggestibility is the quality of being inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others. North Carolina resident Maddison Welch exhibited this in late 2016. He was alarmed by social media reports of a Washington D.C. child sex ring linked to then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic leaders—something QAnon later grew up out of. In December 2016 Maddison set out, armed with fully-loaded AR-15 military weapon and pistol, driving there to take action. He later realized “…just how foolish and reckless my decision was.” Highly suggestible individuals may fill gaps in their memories of certain events with false information provided by others, or in an attempt to please others. 

 I remember the days when you could ignore people who believed in crazy made-up things, or promoted their false memories, safe in the knowledge their craziness could not affect your life. I no longer feel that way. Just this morning I read a report about a woman who—based on Donald Trump’s endorsement—could one day become governor of my home state of Arizona. Some journalist decided we needed to know this woman* (see note below) was  having lunch with the guy many believe started the whole QAnon craziness.

The "Big Lie" Trump has pushed originated in his unwillingness to accept the abundant evidence—repeatedly verified by tests in court and with recounts—that he lost the 2020 election. The choice #1 alternative to valuing evidence is essentially something that may start with having “positive expectations” but can dangerously degenerate into a childish “wishing making it so” out of touch reality. Trump not only went there, but in the last year has dragged tens of millions of apparently suggestible people into such false belief. And as the January 6 2021 insurrection shows, such demagoguery can result in action that threatens our democracy.

 Compared to the real threat to democracy this poses to your life, you certainly need not worry about the possibility you’ll be abducted by an alien. I’ve long been a skeptic and felt such talk was nonsense. But I recently decided to revisit that conclusion by doing two things: I watched the movie “Alienated” and read the first 100 or so pages  of the 1994 book Abduction --Human Encounters With Aliens  by Harvard’s once highly respected psychiatrist Dr. John Mack. As entertainment they weren’t bad, but I left each experience more convinced that extra-terrestrials are not among us—and are certainly not abducting us.** (note 2 below)

The movie presented a wonderful illustration of quantum flapdoodle—that is, stringing together a bunch of science sounding jargon, possibly including equations, in an attempt to fool scientifically illiterate people into believing the hog wash they’re peddling. Thus in “Alienated” we go from nonsense equations supposedly about getting energy in matter / anti-matter annihilation to a blackboard hand-waving attempt to explain quantum entanglement / spooky action at a distance without using those terms. It is appropriate that the nerdy scientist’s crazy father was trying to invent a perpetual motion machine since we are later asked to believe the alien technology can violate a cornerstone of modern physics: conservation of energy. Yes it can be violated very very very briefly in the ultra microscopic “quantum foam” but not in the way the movie shows it in the big, real world.

 The movie did illustrate that many enthusiasts for pseudoscientific things like astrology or whatever, have little or no connection with related basic observations their eyes might make. Those in the movie the nerdy scientist comments on being amazed with all the stars he saw once away from big city lights—only to mention he also enjoyed the full moon that night. Astronomy literate folks know that nobody sees lots of stars on full moon nights! I was reminded of such ignorance when I saw Richard Tarnas’ name on the back of John Mack’s book giving a testimonial. Tarnas is a Harvard-educated Ph.D,  and long ago author of a once well received history textbook,  who has since gone off the deep end with his belief in astrology.

Tarnas has sullied his historian credentials with finding astrology-based “explanations” for important historical events. His attempt to explain the tragic events of September 11, 2001 is downright embarrassingly laughable!  For starters, the event Tarnas cites—a supposed lineup of Saturn, the Earth, and Pluto referred to as the Saturn-Pluto opposition— was not something someone could observe. I’ll spare you the rest of my put-down. But I will use this to transition into critiquing John  Mack’s accounts of supposed alien abduction adventures.  

Mack’s book reports on his experience over three or four years interviewing seventy-six patients who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. I have no doubt that many of these people needed professional psychiatric help. His book shares the stories of thirteen of these patients with lots of details. I expected to be very impressed with his first account, figuring he’d start with something to really suck both people who wanted to believe—and skeptics like myself—in. Alas the first story involved a man named Ed who under hypnosis was supposedly recalling events that happened 30 years ago when he was in high school. Seems Ed and his friend Bob were sleeping in the back of a car on a camping trip. Before falling asleep Ed recalled how talk degenerated into talking about sex, how they were virgins and how “horny they were.” Suffice it to say that Ed told John Mack about being abducted that night and having “fulfilling” and “great” sex with an attractive female alien. 

What bothers me is not that—in fact something similar was one of the better parts of the “Alienated” movie—but it is a common sense type thing that is overlooked. No doubt Mack touched lots of the right psychiatric bases with his report, but he neglected to answer the common sense question that any serious investigator of what really happened that night would immediately ask. “What evidence can the person right there with Ed in the car that night provide as to what happened?” Mack says nothing about what Bob had to say! Let me repeat: highly suggestible individuals may fill gaps in their memories of certain events with false information provided by others or in an attempt to please others. Or with wishful thinking. Mack’s study has a selection effort problem in that the good hypnosis subjects he worked with are, by textbook definition, highly suggestible individuals. 

I believe that just as serious as the people who discount evidence and prefer the wishful thinking / positive expectations alternative in choice #1, are those who combine that tendency with jumping on whatever some salesman, celebrity or loudmouthed promoter with his or her own agenda is pitching. I’m referring to those who succumb to a (choice #12) “Group Think Imperative.” To quote briefly from its description: “If stimulated / stressed, I give away choices I’d otherwise make. I suspend thinking/narrow consciousness and passively transfer control of myself to some real or imagined authority. I put my faith and trust in, feeling obligated and beholden to, this authority. The authority is associated with a culturally agreed on expectancy behind a setting or belief system. This giving up control happens most often where peer pressure to conform is strong…”

No doubt, many of the people described this way lack critical thinking skills and are highly suggestible. The “thinking” many of them do is not “critical” but more “wishful” or childishly “magical.” Okay, I can accept that this makes a good recipe for believing in nonsense that I can ignore. But ominously it also makes a good recipe for demagogues and their unprincipled colleagues using these simple-minded folks to gain power, and end democracy as they take charge. I can't ignore that. So those authoritarian folks are the “aliens” I worry about. I don't want our democracy abducted. Note choice #29 is essentially between being an "Authoritarian Follower" or for "Education for Democracy." I'm on the side of people having more knowledge, more critical thinking skills, not being ignorant, succumbing to lies / misinformation, and being highly suggestible.   

1) *Kari Lake, former Arizona channel 10 TV Fox News personality. Speculation has it she may run for Governor against Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbssomeone who received death threats for standing by the integrity of 2020 Arizona election results. 

2) As skeptic Michael Shermer has pointed out, with the widespread increasingly availability of phone cameras we'd expect to see an increasing number of pictures of the aliens and their UFO vehicles. Not only has  nothing like that happened, but Shermer speculates that people have been stopped by their coming forward and claiming they were abducted since an obvious question to ask them is for a picture they took.  


#1 (from CS, received 10/19/2021):  Very hard to comment upon this.  Guess I could start by saying if someone wants to dispense with any and all abduction experience accounts on the basis of one experiencer's account not having included any information about what their companion was doing at the time, then I would ask that someone why they felt so satisfied with their thoroughness after reading the first 100 pages of a 424-page book.

      I would also ask:  why choose a movie that wasn't even intended to be factual to pick apart rather than delving into something like the documentary The UFO Phenomenon 7News Channel, 2021, with the excellent reporting of award winning investigative reporter Ross Coulthart, and I quote from the documentary notes:

        "Featuring interviews with the highest echelons of military defence and intelligence officials, leading researchers, scientists and witnesses in America and Australia, this mind-blowing documentary years in the making seeks to answer the most fundamental question there is: are we alone?"  

       Those who wish to put the UFO phenomenon safely back into the box will still do so.  I expect that those over fifty are more likely to do this since there have been so many starts and stops to disclosure, given that our Government has been involved in an ongoing cover-up that has lasted nearly 75 years.

      The military examines such events from one perspective only:  potential threat.  When we get up close with the idea that there could be space ships and aliens interacting with members of our species it amounts to a giant Mind-F___ for most all of us.  For those still fresh enough to take a fresh look, there are some very credible voices speaking for the first time about events completely unexplainable within our consensus frame of reference. To me, to entertain the fact that there are unexplainable occurrences in our skies and for some of our people doesn't indicate a refusal to do critical thinking.  It indicates the willingness to open to an expanded sense of wonder and the willingness to explore.


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