“On Monday, August 8, 1983, I was abducted by aliens.”
That’s how Michael Shermer, founder and director of The Skeptics Society, opens the chapter on UFO abductions in his book Why People Believe Weird Things. You just know, don’t you, that he’s speaking tongue-in-cheek?
He intends his story as an object-lesson about belief in alien abduction. Which I think it is, in a way he may not have intended or considered.
Shermer’s Weird Things book, published in 1997, wasn’t the last time he publicly told the story. It reappears in his “Skeptic” column in the February 2005 issue of Scientific American. “In the wee hours of the morning on August 8, 1983, while I was traveling along a lonely rural highway approaching Haigler, Neb., a large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship. I can prove that this happened because I recounted it to a film crew shortly afterward.”
The real story is this: In the early 1980s, Shermer competed as a marathon bicyclist in the 3000-mile “Race Across America.” “It is a rolling experiment on stress, sleep deprivation, and mental breakdown.” In 1982, he finished third, and as a result “I vowed to ride sleepless in 1983 until I got the lead or collapsed.”
Which he did. Just outside Haigler, Nebraska, “I was falling asleep on the bike so my support crew (every rider has one) put me down for a forty-five minute nap. When I awoke I got back on my bike, but I was still so sleepy that my crew tried to get me back into the motorhome. It was then that I slipped into some sort of altered state of consciousness and became convinced that my entire support crew were aliens from another planet and that they were going to kill me. …
“The context for this hallucination was a 1960s television program–The Invaders–in which the aliens looked exactly like humans with the exception of a stiff little finger. I looked for stiff pinkies on my crew members. The motorhome with its bright lights became their spacecraft.”
In the past three paragraphs, I’ve been quoting Shermer’s 1997 book. In his 2005 Scientific American column he reports that “a distant memory of the 1960s television series The Invaders was inculcated into my waking dream,” from which it sounds like he hadn’t seen a rerun of the show but was evoking something from 15 years in the past. The question, Why? inevitably intrudes itself.
After another 45-minute nap, Shermer was back in reality. “To this day, however,” he wrote in 1997, “I recall the hallucination as vividly and clearly as any strong memory.” And in 2005: “After my 90-minute sleep break, the experience represented nothing more than a bizarre hallucination, which I recounted to television crew filming the race. But at the time the experience was real, and that’s the point. The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless, and the effects of belief are overpowering.”
Reading Shermer’s two accounts, I find it unclear why he speaks (in both) of having lost his memory of what happened inside the “ship.” He first thought the hallucination was real, then recognized it as a hallucination, but he seems never to have forgotten its contents. The theme of alien abduction repressed from conscious memory–already a cultural staple in 1983, thanks in part to a 1975 television movie on Betty and Barney Hill–seems to have shaped not only the hallucinatory experience itself, but also Shermer’s narration of it.
“The effects of belief are overpowering,” Shermer says; and adds smugly: “Thanks to science we have learned to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” He doesn’t seem to have reflected on what for me is the central question:
Why did the abduction theme have such power for him that, when his rational mind blinked out, UFO abduction became the template by which he understood what was happening to him?
The “belief” that had such an “overpowering” effect on him, after all, wasn’t his own. Or was it?
It’s long seemed to me that the UFO debunker has an emotional investment in UFOs comparable to that of the believer, only with a minus rather than a plus sign attached. This was noticed more than 45 years ago by Lester Grinspoon and Alan Persky, two psychiatrists who spoke at the 1969 American Association for the Advancement of Science UFO symposium. The issue, Grinspoon and Persky thought, was an “unconscious concern with death and immortality.” For believers, the UFO “symbolically represents a denial of the finite nature of life,” whereas “those who have a need to deny that there is any anxiety at all around the issues of death and immortality may be led to attack the hypothesis with considerable passion.”
(The very existence of that symposium, let it be noted, provoked such frantic hostility among some AAAS members that they wrote to Congressmen and even to then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, demanding that they force its cancellation. “Considerable passion” indeed.)
Jerry Clark’s excellent entry on debunker Donald Menzel (1901-1976), in The UFO Encyclopedia, speaks of him as acting “like a man obsessed” and notes that Menzel had his own UFO experience which he could almost but not quite explain away and which stuck like a bone in his throat. (Why else would he write no fewer than three books on a subject which, by his own accounting, was of no significance?) Watch the video of Neil deGrasse Tyson twitching, gesticulating, and bellowing his disparagement of UFOs, and tell me there’s no emotional engagement there.
And when Michael Shermer turns a benign intervention by his mobile support crew into an alien abduction, that tells us that UFOs and abduction have a powerful unconscious meaning for him, surely linked to his having founded a society whose purpose is to attack such beliefs. It won’t do to say, well, he was just influenced by that old Invaders show. The Invaders aliens and their “stiff pinkies” (wonder what Dr. Freud would make of that?) would have remained a “distant memory” from a past decade, unless they plugged into something current and vital within him.
What is that “something”?
That question, for me, is what the real science of UFOlogy is about.
by David Halperin
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