Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Motivated Reasoning and Research of Alleged Alien Abduction

Science and political journalist Chris Mooney wrote an article, The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science. It was published in the May/June 2011 issue of Mother Jones.

Mr. Mooney explored a 1950's era case study undertaken by renowned Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger. The study focused upon the activities of the Seekers, a Chicago-based group whose members were convinced they were interacting with aliens.

Those familiar with the present day phenomenon known as alien abduction will not find it surprising to read that the Seekers' interests included matters of religious and existential significance. They also believed their activities, which included transcribing messages through automatic writing from their alien counterparts, were both reliable and ahead of their time, not entirely unlike assigning such beliefs to regressive hypnosis.

One such message was believed to notify the group of not only an impending apocalypse, but its exact date, December 21, 1954. Careers were abandoned and preparations were made to be rescued by a flying saucer.

When the day of reckoning came and went, Festinger and his colleagues were eager to observe how the group would respond. Following a brief period of apparent confusion, a new message arrived. The Seekers, the message indicated, had gloriously saved the entire world from ruin. Their willingness to be drawn to the light and believe in the prophecy had negated the dark contents of the prophecy. The members of the group, Festinger documented, framed the lack of occurrence – and arguable destruction of their belief systems - in a manner that strengthened their resolve to believe.

Mooney explained that the behavior of the Seekers is what is known as motivated reasoning. Preexisting beliefs and emotions can be primary factors in forming conclusions, and far more so than the introduction of facts. More studies were cited by Mooney, demonstrating how people will cling to any number of political and social belief systems even after conclusive evidence to the contrary is presented. As Mooney concluded, In other words, paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values - so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

Cultural Beliefs

Factory owners in Bangladesh needed no convincing of Mooney's findings when they opted to shut the business down and hold special prayers to rid the site of a reported ghost. Skeptical author Benjamin Radford reported last month at Live Science that some 3,000 workers at the garment factory rioted due to what they believed was a haunted ladies restroom.

Interestingly, Mr. Radford noted, very few, if any, workers claimed to have actually seen a spirit. A woman who apparently started the chain of events did not report seeing a ghost, but said she felt sick and assumed such a ghost was responsible.

Are such unfounded cultural beliefs entirely different from some of those found in the UFO community, such as identifying short term amnesia, or “missing time”, as an indication of alleged alien abduction? Similarly, it could indeed be considered unreasonable to assume alien abduction, the perpetrators of which have yet to be so much as demonstrated to exist, typically occurs among multiple generations of a family. It would seem much more reasonable to establish a presence actually exists prior to claiming qualified to identify its preferred methods of operation. Should such a presence continue to defy identification, a valid argument could be made that alternative explanations should be considered, perhaps not altogether unlike seeking a more readily available explanation than a ghost for the Bangladeshi woman's illness.

Wanted: Abduction Researcher - No Ethics Required?

In recent weeks I have increased writing about UFO researchers and organizations that inaccurately claim to conduct scientific investigation. I subsequently participated in several discussions at a number of venues in which self-described abductees, self-described experiencers and various interested parties defended their chosen perspectives. Discussions evolved at times to some participants defending sham inquiry, or the misrepresentation of nonscientific activities as science, and as consistently committed by such individuals as David Jacobs and such organizations as the Mutual UFO Network.

I listened to many excuses made for sham inquiry, and why alleged alien abduction – and even UFOs in general – are such difficult subjects to research and investigate. I reasonably patiently entertained statements which included such claims as the definition of science is a matter of opinion. The same individual informed me that aliens use some kind of technique that somehow blocks human memory from functioning, as those familiar with abduction lore will quickly recognize as common subject matter. The individual then assured me that techniques such as regressive hypnosis implemented as a memory retrieval tool can effectively be used “side by side” with psychoanalytic techniques as developed by “Fraud and Young”. 

Somewhat similarly, another individual undertook defending the actions of David Jacobs while recommending he be consulted by those fearing they might have been abducted by aliens. “He is a doctor of history, no ethics required for that,” the person wrote, apparently implying that Jacobs was not obligated to adhere to codes practiced by medical professionals, as well as mistakenly under the impression that such a statement strengthened their argument. 

At one point an individual agreed with me that “abduction research in general and Dr. David Jacobs' research specifically fail the scientific standard.” They added that an excuse might be made that abduction is too weird to fit scientific methods of investigation. While that might or might not be effectively argued, it completely fails to address why Jacobs and others claim to follow scientific methods. One might not only ask why such false claims are made in the first place, but why excuses for them are made at all.

The enabling of sham inquiry is as much a part of the problem as is the perpetration itself. When the UFO community evolves to truly want answers – not excuses, not patronizing and not motivated reasoning – it will find them. Then and only then will it mature to seek what it has claimed it wanted all along: the truth. 

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