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Dr. John E. Mack's Response to Nova, February 22, 1996
February 22, 1996
WGBH Science Unit
125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134
Dear Ms. DiIanni,
I am in receipt of your letter of February 13 and have also viewed the film
Kidnapped by UFO's? for presentation on PBS on Tuesday, February 27. First,
I want to extend my appreciation to you and the staff at NOVA for attempting
to give the subject of alien abduction serious attention. You have presented
many important issues, which I am currently studying, and there is an
opportunity for a dialogue on this controversial subject to emerge.
However, I am disappointed and disturbed that you did not meet your usual
high standards for scientific reporting. I would have welcomed_indeed, was
looking forward to_a scientific presentation of the data. Instead, the film
has been seemingly constructed to self-fulfill a predetermined point of view.
A hypothesis is to be considered in light of all of the aspects of a given
phenomenon, yet in your program the viewer is not given the benefit of the
full range of possibilities. This is irresponsible scientific journalism.
In addition, the implication that my assessment is based on such flimsy data
is insulting to my level of experience and competence after forty years of
clinical psychiatric practice.
Specifically, I have five main objections to the program as it currently
portrays alien abduction research in general and my work in particular.
1) You have presented a biased view by omitting scientific data directly
relevant to the discussion.
2) Carl Sagan defines the question (internal vs. external) in a manner which
prematurely restricts the investigation of the abduction phenomenon.
3) Individuals without clinical credentials or expertise make allegations
about the ethical and clinical nature of my work.
4) You have neglected to check factual data and have misrepresented the truth.
5) By choosing to present this topic as stated above, you are disregarding
the potential psychological harm to this population.
I will address each of these points in turn.
1) A Biased View
None of the critics you interviewed have collected data which tests their
hypotheses related to abduction experiencers. Furthermore, you neglected to
mention data which have been collected by other researchers to test these
hypotheses. You fail to evaluate the theories in terms of all three factors
that make abduction a coherent phenomenon.
o You show me saying that there are no adequate psychological theories
to account for abduction reports, yet you do not allow me to explain how and
why the theories are inadequate. You therefore imply that I have naively
dismissed or overlooked these theories, an action which would be
irresponsible for a man of my senior standing in the psychiatric community.
Why was I not asked to comment? It was my clear understanding when you asked
me to be interviewed for the program, that you were going to present
alternative hypotheses and I would be given the opportunity to comment on
o My consideration of the alternative theories and how they are
inadequate is on record. (See the appendix of the Abduction paperback,
available since 1994, which I am enclosing). Why didn't you look there while
preparing your research?
o A large proportion of abduction experiences are associated with
daytime, not sleep. You interviewed individuals who reported daytime
experiences. Spanos (1993) found that 40% of individuals reported alien
contact or abduction that had not occurred at night.
You neglect to mention this in your presentation.
o Sleep paralysis is an inadequate hypothesis to account for the
phenomenon. Because two or three symptoms may look like what occurs in sleep
paralysis doesn't mean that this explains the whole phenomenon. Baker and
other critics leave out the 45 or 50 phenomena that do not correspond to
sleep paralysis such as the detailed, consistent narratives that are the
substance of the alien abduction accounts (McLeod, 1996). Furthermore, sleep
paralysis and hypnogogic hallucinations of long duration are a symptom of
narcolepsy, an easily recogizable neurological disorder characterized by an
overwhelming desire to sleep at any time (Carlson, 1994).
o 30% of abduction accounts are obtained without hypnosis of any kind
(Bullard, 1989). Most of the data collected by me is not collected under
o Data show that abduction experiencers are not unusually suggestible,
hypnotizable, and do not suffer from mental illness consistent with
hallucinations or self-deception (Rodeghier, Goodpastor & Blatterbauer, 1991;
Parnell and Sprinkle, 1990). The late distinguished psychologist researcher
Nicholas Spanos writes of his data:
"these findings clearly contradict the hypothesis that UFO reports_even
intense UFO reports characterized by such seemingly bizarre experiences as
missing time and communication with aliens_occur primarily in individuals
who are highly fantasy prone, given to paranormal beliefs, or unusually
suggestible" (Spanos, 1993, p. 62).
Loftus and Baker may have found suggestibility and hallucinations in the
general population, but there is no evidence that these psychological
explanations account for abduction reports.
o Contrary to the slant of your program, I am actively testing the
alternative hypotheses you propose. The question of how suggestibility and
hypnotizability affect the reports of alien abduction is worth studying. For
this reason I and the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research are
conducting a controlled study to investigate this matter. Although we
informed you of our study, you chose not to report on it. You imply that
the data you review is the latest and the best.
o Carl Sagan suggests that people do hallucinate, but he knows little
and says nothing about the conditions under which hallucinations might occur.
There is not one shred of evidence given that hallucination applies to this
particular population. As an astronomer, Sagan is not qualified to determine
psychiatric criteria for hallucinations and the conditions under which they
might occur. Those conditions are not fulfilled in the case of abductees.
Sagan also speaks of the human capacity for self-deception. Here, again, he
is making a clinical statement, albeit it a general one, but then glibly
ascribes this mechanism to abduction.
o The validity of information obtained under hypnosis has been a source
of controversy in both the psychiatric and the UFO communities (Frankel,
1993; McConkey, 1992; Scheflin and Shapiro, 1989; Bullard, 1989). Hypnosis
is limited to a corroborating role in my investigations at this time.
Nevertheless, it is my impression that data obtained through hypnosis in
abduction cases is often more reliable because it comes without the conscious
mind's distorting efforts to provide reasonable, coherent narratives.
o No theory explains all of the following three elements:
1) the consistency of subjective reports,
2) the level of affect, associated with these reports, both in and
out of hypnosis, and
3) the physical evidence that corroborates the subjective reports.
o There is no evidence that Loftus or anyone else can induce the level
of emotion associated with these experiences, whether in hypnosis or by
direct suggestion. In your program both the hypnotic subject working with
Baker and the young woman given the suggested memory of being lost in a
shopping mall show a clear lack of emotional expression related to their
experiences. The experience does not seem to be of central importance to
them. Abduction experiences tend to have high impact on the person involved
(McLeod, 1995). Research tells us that memories of central importance are
more likely to be accurate than memories of peripheral importance
o You define the controversy in terms of physical evidence, yet fail to
report cases in which physical evidence and corroborative reports by others
supports the subjective report. You state quite clearly that physical
evidence is never recovered; MIT physicist David Pritchard (among others) has
studied and written about physical evidence consistent with the reports
(1994). It does not prove or disprove the existence of aliens, but does
corroborate the stories. You have a responsibility to report all data.
o Contrary to Baker's assertion, most experiencers look for alternative
explanations to their experiences, and find no comfort in the content of
their stories. This should have been evident from your interviews of the
o Loftus is mistaken; there is evidence for "body memories," as
reported by, for example, Harvard Professor van der Kolk (1994).
o It is impossible to interview the nuns from centuries ago to
investigate whether their stories met our current criteria for abduction
experiences. Baker's point about this is irrelevant to the argument.
2) The Manner in Which You Define the Controversy Prematurely
You frame abduction research in terms of ridiculous dichotomies that do not
reflect the complexity of the data we and others have collected.
o Reducing proof for the validity of the abduction phenomenon to proof
of the existence of extraterrestrials is overly simplistic and reflects
neither my opinion nor the current status of the field. I cannot explain the
source of these experiences; different researchers have postulated that the
experiencers come from different places or domains.
o The question is not is the phenomenon real on an internal vs. an
external level, but, how can we begin to investigate a phenomenon that has
strong characteristics of both?
o We are facing a problem like that faced by the people of the
fifteenth century. In that day many people could not believe that the world
was round because common knowledge dictated that people would fall off any
round object. Similarly, many doctors in Lister's time did not believe in
germs because reality dictated that nothing existed that was smaller than
could seen by the naked eye. In both cases, scientific knowledge progressed
because researchers continued to make observations in the face of criticism
by those who claimed that the observations were impossible.
3) Absence of Qualified Clinical Opinion
There were no other clinicians on your program in addition to myself who have
worked with people who report these experiences. In no other field would it
be permitted that unqualified individuals present as witnesses outside their
domain of expertise.
In addition, individuals are making negative allegations about the ethics of
my work, despite that fact that 1) they are not clinically qualified to make
such judgments, 2) they are clinically unfamiliar with my cases, and
3) evidence against those allegations is documented in the public domain.
o Baker and Sagan, neither of whom have clinical expertise, offer the
opinion that I am doing harm by listening to experiencers' accounts. Baker
even suggests that I would serve experiencers better by telling them that an
experience is "all a dream, and it was all imaginary, and it will probably
never happen again." His suggestion is clinically unsound and, as any
psychiatrist would agree, would do harm.
o A basic counseling principle is that any individual with any kind of
problem requires a listening ear. Baker's suggestion that a person's
distress goes away if he or she simply stops talking about it is (at best)
psychologically unsophisticated. There is documented evidence that being
able to speak candidly about their experiences is helpful to them.
o Abduction experiences are distinct from usual imagination and dreams
in that they occur with similar details across cultures and people of all
ages, and have no apparent relationship to the details of the individuals'
ongoing lives. If abduction reports are the result of a common, detailed
dream experienced by thousands of people across cultures, than that itself is
an extraordinary event that should be studied.
o Contrary to Baker's allegations, I do not tell experiencers they are
victims; the transformational aspects of the abduction experience are
detailed in my book and in the articles I have written.
o In its apparent zeal to discredit my work and show me as doing harm,
the program fails to include testimony from any of the experiencers whom I
have helped or the mental health professionals who value my approach.
Furthermore, in its (mistaken) depiction of abduction experiencers as
disturbed people prone to disturbed imaginings, the program is potentially
doing harm to the well being of a large group of vulnerable people.
o Current research is being conducted in accordance with APA ethical
standards, as interpreted by the Human Subjects Committee of The Cambridge
Hospital at Harvard University. As noted in your program, there has been an
internal review of my work, but you do not represent its conclusion
accurately. Although Harvard Medical School did not necessarily agree with
me, they have encouraged this current study, and have also asked me to bring
in more colleagues into discussion of this work. An accurate representation
of Harvard Medical School's position is stated in the attached press release
of August 3, 1995, to which you undoubtedly would have had access.
4) You Have Neglected to Fact Check the Story of one
of Your Principal Witnesses
The segment of your broadcast dealing with Donna Bassett is factually
inaccurate, and the statements which she has made and which appear on the
preview are totally false.
o Ms. Bassett is described as a "writer." If Ms. Bassett is a writer,
what are her published articles?
o Your description of how I met Donna Bassett is inaccurate. We met at
a UFO conference at which extensive details about abduction were presented by
a variety of speakers. She was already highly informed about the phenomenon.
Her interest in the field is documented to at least ten months before meeting
o Your program states that I sent material about the abduction
phenomenon to Donna Bassett in preparation for a therapy session. I sent
this material to both Edward and Donna Bassett in preparation for a collegial
meeting with them in the lounge of the Charles Hotel. There had been no
discussion of my working with Ms. Bassett as a client at this point. Your
program, in an unconscionable violation of journalistic ethics, deletes the
upper part of that note so that the viewer cannot see both of the addressees.
o Your program implies that I met with Donna Bassett in a bedroom at
the Charles Hotel. I met twice with both Edward and Donna Bassett at the
Charles Hotel lounge. It was only until after these meetings that Ms.
Bassett requested working with me. I conducted three hypnosis sessions with
Ms. Bassett. These sessions took place in my home/office and my female
assistant was present at all of them.
o Ms. Bassett has a history of making misstatements in print. She has
no credentials except that she lied to me and was supposedly "believed." In
Time magazine Ms. Bassett reports that "hearing the tale, Mack became so
excited that he leaned on the bed too heavily and it collapsed." I'm sure
that as you reviewed the tape of our session, you heard no such thing.
o There is no evidence that I took her account at face value or that I
was "ecstatic." In fact, to the contrary, even prior to her "expose" her
account was uncharacteristic of the majority of abduction reports. For this
reason I put aside her material, choosing instead to write about other, more
o It is not possible to determine at this time whether Ms. Bassett, or
anyone else, was abducted by aliens. It seems to me that she is a person who
has been traumatized.
Of the more than one hundred individuals I have worked with, you have chosen
to rely heavily upon the testimony of a person whose story you did not fact
check. Donna Bassett's interview and your editing of it are an
unconscionable misrepresentation of the truth. My attorney has provided you
with extensive detailed documents related to this matter.
5) Disregard for Potential Psychological Harm
to this Population
Finally, and, in my opinion, most importantly, by choosing to present this
topic in the manner stated above, you are seemingly disregarding the
potential psychological harm to people who have been isolated and anxious
about sharing their experiences. I see no reason to be disrespectful to
those individuals who are attempting to make sense of them and are willing
to share their experiences with the rest of us.
In our work thus far, we have found isolation to be one of the most damaging
aspects of this phenomenon. As a psychiatrist, I want to go on record saying
this program is potentially harmful to many people. We are not saying what
is generating this phenomenon; we are not drawing conclusions. As a
psychiatrist with more than forty years of clinical experience, my assessment
is that these people are having real experiences that are not the product of
a psychiatric condition or psychological distortion. The source of these
experiences is unknown. But as a clinician I am compelled to respond to my
clients' distress, their ability to function in their daily lives. This has
gotten lost in the show.
After your unnecessarily biased presentation, individuals who have had these
experiences may feel obliged to return to the closet and become silent once
again. People will consider them crackpots, not in touch with reality. They
may once again suffer in isolation. I wish to be a voice that enables them
to share their experiences appropriately.
John E. Mack, M.D.
Bullard, T.E. (1989). Hypnosis and UFO abductions: A troubled relationship.
Journal of UFO Studies, 1, 3-40.
Carlson, N.R. (1994). Physiology of Behavior (Fifth ed.). Needham Heights,
Mass: Allyn and Bacon.
Christianson, S. (1992). Do flashbulb memories differ from other types of
emotional memories? In E. Wingrad & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and Accuracy
in Recall: Studies of Flashbulb Memories, (pp. 191-211). New York:
The Cambridge Press.
Frankel, F.H. (1993). Adult reconstruction of childhood events in multiple
personality literature. American Journal of Psychiatry, 150(6):954-958.
McConkey, K.M. (1992). The effects of hypnotic procedures on remembering:
The experimental findings and their research implications for forensic
hypnosis. In E. Fromm & M.R. Nash, (Eds.), Contemporary Hypnosis Research,
(pp. 405-429). New York: The Guilford Press.
McLeod, C. C. (1995). Extraordinary experience research at PEER. CenterPiece:
A Publication of the Center for Psychology and Social Change, Winter
McLeod, C. C. (In Press). A more parsimonious explanation for UFO abduction:
A response to Newman and Baumeister. Psychological Inquiry.
Parnell, J.O., & Sprinkle, R. L. (1990). Personality characteristics of
persons who claim UFO experiences. Journal of UFO Studies, 2, 45-58.
Pritchard, D. E. (1994). Physical evidence and abductions. In A. Pritchard,
D. E. Pritchard, J. E. Mack, P. Kasey, & C. Yapp (Eds.), Alien Discussions:
Proceedings of the Abduction Study Conference held at MIT, (pp. 279-295).
Cambridge, Mass., North Cambridge Press.
Rodeghier, M. Goodpastor, J., & Blatterbauer, S. (1991). Psychosocial
characteristics of abductees: Results from the CUFOS abduction project.
Journal of UFO Studies, 3, 59-90.
Scheflin, A.W. & Shapiro, J.L. (1989). Trance on Trial New York: The
Spanos, N., Cross, P., Dickson, K., & DuBreuil, S. (1993). Close encounters:
An examination of UFO experiences. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(4):
van der Kolk, B.A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving
psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1,
Mack Response to Nova, February 22, 1996
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