NASA did NOT hire priests, for pete’s sake

I’ve been seeing a string of headlines over the past couple of weeks or so, reporting that NASA “hired” “theologians” or “priests” to “advise” the astrobiology program (which is one of my funders) on how to prepare for the discovery of alien life.

All of these stories are misleading at best, and mostly incorrect. The stories I first saw appeared in the U.K. press – not sure who published the first one, but subsequent stories were pretty much copy-cat journalism (if you could call it journalism).

By December 22, The Times of London – supposedly a respectable news outlet – ran a story with the ridiculous title, “Heavens above: NASA enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery.” The story was written by Kaya Burgess, identified as a “science reporter and religious affairs correspondent.” She wrote, “a British priest has been helping Nasa to understand how the discovery of extraterrestrials would change the way we see the universe.” This is completely incorrect.

The British priest she is referring to is Andrew Davison, a member of the divinity faculty at the University of Cambridge. I do not know Dr. Davison, so I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but apparently he is trying to publicize a new book he has written, due out next year, Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine. Though I can’t tell for sure, I assume all these stories stem from Dr. Davison’s efforts to promote the book.

Before I quote more dumb headlines and incorrect copy, let me offer a few facts. In 2015, NASA approved a grant for the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton, New Jersey, to conduct an inquiry into the societal impacts of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. According to CTI’s web page, “The Center of Theological Inquiry builds bridges of understanding by convening theologians, scientists, scholars, and policymakers to think together – and inform public thinking – on global concerns.” CTI chooses topics for year-long, multidisciplinary, residential studies. This year’s topic is the environment and climate change. CTI is not a religious institution and has no affiliation with any church.

CTI Director William Storrar said in a 2016 statement about the astrobiology inquiry, “This interdisciplinary team of theologians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences will pursue their inquiry in dialogue with leading astrobiologists and with support from the NASA Astrobiology Program.”

CTI crafted the questions to guide the astrobiology inquiry. It selected the scholars who would participate. Note that the inquiry involved “theologians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences” – not just theologians. No one at NASA had anything to do with these processes. As with any other NASA grant recipient, CTI was simply expected to do what it said it would do in its grant proposal. As far as I know, it did.

As I wrote in a blog post on June 9, 2016, “The grant to CTI was NOT for a study of the implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial life on religion – the project is intended to consider the implications of such a discovery on society, writ large. Yes, religions are a part of societies, but there is a difference. (Also, by the way, theology – the scholarly study of religion and religious thought – is not the same as religion.)”

The Cambridge divinity school reported in a blog post (undated, but presumably written in 2016), “Religious traditions would be an important feature in how humanity would work through any such confirmation of life elsewhere. Because of that, it features as part of NASA’s ongoing aim to support work on ‘the societal implications of astrobiology’, working with various partner organisations, including the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton. Andrew Davison, our Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences, is in Princeton as a member of the Center this academic year, 2016-2017. His focus is on the consequences of astrobiology for Christian theology.” (The first year of the inquiry was 2015-2016, by the way.)

Okay. Now back to more dumb headlines and incorrect copy.

The Hill reported today, “NASA hires religious experts to predict how humans may react to aliens, theologian says. Two dozen theologians were hired by NASA, according to one religious scholar who says he was recruited.” Again, incorrect. NASA did not hire any religious experts. And Dr. Davison was not recruited by NASA. If anybody recruited him, it was CTI. Brooke Migdon wrote, “Davidson says in an upcoming book that a large number of people would seek religious guidance should aliens ever be discovered.” (By the way, Ms. Migdon, his name is Davison, not Davidson.)

The U.K.’s Daily Express reported, “NASA signs up British priest to prepare for alien life. ‘May discover it next week!’” This is what we can expect in Express headlines, I guess.

The New York Post reported Dec. 27, “NASA hired 24 theologians to study human reaction to aliens: new book.” Again, NASA did not hire any theologians. And participants in the CTI inquiry were not all theologians, as noted above (one was a neuroscientist, for pete’s sake).

The oh-so-reliable (NOT) Newsmax also repeated this story, reporting, “NASA Taps Theologians to Assess How Humans Will React if Life Found on Other Planets.” At least this story said, “NASA is reportedly hiring two dozen theologians to take part in a program at Princeton University to assess how humans will react if alien life is found on other planets.” The reports, however, are incorrect. And also CTI is not Princeton University. CTI happens to be in Princeton, New Jersey, but it has no affiliation with the university.

Okay, I‘ve had enough. You probably have, too. Though I’ve discussed these stories with some of my NASA astrobiology colleagues, no one asked me to write this post. I wrote it because this kind of sloppy journalism annoys the heck out of me. It amazes me to see how careless some journalists are about reporting without any fact-checking. Dr. Davison appears to be the source of all these stories. Maybe he’ll sell some books.

Media coverage of John Mack’s abduction research: journalistic business as usual…

This will be the last in my series of posts about my dissertation research project: how journalists participated in the social construction of scientific authority in their coverage of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack’s alien abduction research.

The answer is, in a word, routinely. Journalists adhered to established journalistic practices and news routines, following professional conventions.

In interviews with me some of the journalists who wrote about Mack and his abduction research, they indicated that their primary interests in writing these stories were complying with journalistic conventions and upholding journalistic values — doing what journalists are supposed to do, the way they are supposed to do it, that is, reporting news, engaging readers, providing fair and balanced coverage, maintaining an objective stance and a skeptical attitude.

Overtly and pragmatically, journalists in this case did boundary-work routinely, by following conventions. More subtly and symbolically, journalists did boundary-work by the ritual reinforcement of scientific norms. The journalistic metanarrative explored in this study aimed at identification with “the public” and with scientific elites, offering entertainment coupled with affirmation of social order in the form of the conventional boundaries of science. At the same time, a subversive subtext aimed at identification with a scientist framed as a maverick who was challenging elites.

Mack proposed that the conventional scientific worldview might be inadequate to explain what he called the alien abduction phenomenon. Journalists, and the critics they quoted, responded that if this phenomenon did not fit within the frame of the conventional scientific worldview, it was not real. But then journalists sometimes left the door open to the possibility that Mack might be onto something.

Stories about Mack’s abduction research ultimately did not focus on resolving the question of whether abductions were real. Mack himself became the controversy — an authority, a member of the scientific elite pursuing questionable research, using unconventional research methods, espousing a contrary worldview. The right of a tenured professor at Harvard to speak with authority about what is real and relevant and what is not generally goes unquestioned. In the case of Mack’s abduction research, it seemed to me that journalists were just as concerned with the authority, credibility, and legitimacy of the scientist than they were with the authority, credibility, and legitimacy of his science. For them, Mack represented Harvard, and Harvard represented scientific authority.

My analysis yielded evidence that journalists could not demolish Mack’s authority because, at least in part, I would argue, he was better than they were at boundary-work. When the dust settled, Mack was still standing, credentials and funding intact (with at least enough for him to continue doing what he wanted to do), still able to publish his expert opinions on the prestigious op-ed page of The New York Times (though not, it must be noted, his opinions on abduction). He still had his authority, perhaps somewhat scratched and dented, but functional. But it is not at all clear whether, a hundred years from now, Mack’s case will be depicted in the history of science as more like Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, which is widely accepted as legitimate, or like Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann’s cold-fusion experiments, which other scientists were not able to replicate.

Journalists and scientists both claim authority to inform the public about science. This right to inform can be said to entail a responsibility. I’d like to think that the linkage between right and responsibility could be a bridge by which journalists and scientists might transcend the debunking strategy so commonly used in discourse about claims made and contested in the name of science.

By disseminating the rhetoric of science as supplied by official sources — unfiltered, as it were — journalists reinforce the values and authority of those sources. But while journalists participate in constructing and reconstructing scientific authority in reporting science news, as illustrated in my study of media coverage of Mack’s abduction research, they are not necessarily as fully aware as they might be of what they are accomplishing.

In science reporting, journalists could benefit by improving their understanding of the cultural values embedded in the news their official and authoritative science sources provide. More conscious participation in maintaining the boundaries of science and sustaining the cultural authority of scientists could render the deployment of that authority, and the authority of journalists as well, more productive and responsive.

Scientific controversies end by resolution, closure, or abandonment. In this case there was no resolution or closure. Journalists may have abandoned the story, perhaps in response to Mack’s eventual decision to avoid the press. Mack was killed by a drunk driver in London in 2004, effectively putting an ed to his abduction research program. The case of Mack’s abduction research will likely remain unsolved until and unless a scientific authority of Mack’s stature and character attempts to continue and complete it.

News as cultural ritual: how the media covered John Mack’s alien abduction research

Media reports about Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack’s alien abduction research functioned as ritualistic acts of science-boundary tending, staged in the form of news reports, telling audiences about the activities of official boundary-tenders, framed alternatively as “normal” and “deviant.”

The function of these stories was to inform audiences — and, perhaps, to entertain as well, in the case of at least some texts. Journalists were consistent in following their professional conventions to report on Mack’s abduction research. The news was controversy, and the controversy was worth paying attention to because it involved elite scientists. The function of these stories was to maintain culture over time — to maintain the cultural boundaries of science and scientific authority.

Doing what they believed they were supposed to do, complying with the journalistic convention of balance and maintaining the journalistic stance of skepticism, reporters liberally sprinkled their stories about Mack’s abduction research with references to supermarket tabloids, science fiction, myth, nonsense, cults, fantasies, hallucinations, and so on.

Mack’s own texts about his alien abduction research were colored by his personal and professional interests in war and peace, social change, consciousness and identity, spiritual awareness, and trauma relief. In interviews with journalists about his abduction research, Mack labeled himself a psychiatrist, clinician, and scientist. He characterized his role as a psychiatrist and clinician to be that of helping troubled people, his role as an M.D. and scientist to be that of pushing the boundaries of science toward improving understanding of the human condition. For Mack, challenging the boundaries of science, pushing them outward, was in the public interest. For journalists, tending and defending the boundaries of science, pulling them inward, was in the public interest.

Journalists’ texts about Mack’s abduction research were responses to other cultural cues, assertions they heard in the ongoing dialogue about science: that abduction cannot be real (or can it?), that positivistic science can/cannot explain everything (in the physical world…), that good science depends on observation and evidence (but what kinds of evidence?), that hypnosis is not scientific (but then what is it?), that memories cannot be repressed and recovered (or can they?). Journalists’ texts were also responses to cultural cues about what journalists are supposed to do: report timely, interesting, and potentially significant news; shine a spotlight on experts, authorities, and elites; describe the world. In writing about Mack, journalists followed cultural cues about how journalists are supposed to deal with authority (heed, affirm, and question it), how they are supposed to deal with science (respectfully and skeptically, minding the boundaries of convention), how they are supposed to deal with controversy (cover it, in a “fair and balanced” way).

Mack’s abduction research was described by some journalists as shoddy. He was accused of misusing his authority, endangering and even harming people. He was labeled zany and foolish, operating at the outer limits of acceptable behavior. He was criticized for appearing in People magazine and on network TV. But, in keeping with the journalistic convention of balance, at least some reporters associated Mack and his abduction research (often quoting Mack’s own words) with spiritual awareness, interpersonal connection, personal growth, and psychological transformation — after highlighting his deviance.

Mack frequently wrote and spoke of transformation and transcendence, elements of his screen of power terms. Mack described abduction as crossing over from the spiritual into the material realm, transforming from a spiritual to a physical experience, transcending the boundaries between physical reality and what he called the subtle realm. Mack depicted himself as crossing over, from the conventional to an unconventional scientific worldview, from skepticism to belief, from science to spirituality, from the known world of everyday life over the threshold into unknown worlds of heroic exploration.

Mack employed the metaphors of the cosmos and the profound to conjure the highest, farthest, deepest, strangest reaches of reality, the unknown and perhaps unknowable. For Mack, the profound was worthy of serious contemplation. And thus his contemplation of it was profound. Journalists, on the other hand, metaphorically placed abduction in the realm of supermarket tabloids and science fiction.

For journalists, peer review, approved methodology, proper data and physical evidence stood in for scientific authority in their stories about Mack’s abduction research. Mack identified, and was identified, with the scientific establishment, and journalists used Mack himself, and Harvard, too, to stand for that establishment. Mack represented Harvard’s scientific authority, and Harvard represented the cultural institution of scientific authority. White, male, a graduate and a faculty member of Harvard and an M.D. to boot, winner of a prestigious prize, and an over-achiever, Mack epitomized the authority of science. By dramatically opposing the very real Mack, the prototypical scientific authority, with unreal aliens, the ultimate threat to scientific authority, journalists created conflict, the stuff of news.

How John Mack framed his abduction research, Part 2

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack, in framing his alien abduction research, made it clear that clarity was not what he had to offer. He took seriously science historian Thomas Kuhn’s warning to avoid “the structures and polarities of language” that came packaged with the conventional scientific worldview. But while Mack did plenty of rhetorical hedging, he nonetheless could not escape the strictures of the dualistic vocabulary he claimed he was trying to avoid (real/unreal, happened/didn’t happen) in his efforts to establish the legitimacy of his work. Mack frequently resorted to dualistic terminology in explaining his abduction research, unable to break free of the boundaries of his own native language, claiming, for example, that knowing requires an attitude of not knowing, framing himself as an expert and yet calling himself naïve and innocent as well. Some journalists interpreted Mack’s ambiguity and complexity as credulity, confusion, sloppiness, bad science or non-science. Mack was rhetorically consistent, and consistently rhetorical, in presenting his abduction research: he was consistently ambiguous, with his emphasis on not knowing, and consistently boundary challenging, with his assertions about the limitations of the conventional scientific worldview.

By adhering to the conventions of their profession, journalists reporting on Mack’s abduction research defended what they believed to be a widely accepted conception of science: observing and recording the physical world, using accepted methods, submitting to peer review, keeping a low public profile, defending consensus reality, maintaining a skeptical attitude toward challenging views. Those same conventions, however, and perhaps personal values as well, sometimes led journalists to frame Mack as a maverick, an admirable and even heroic figure.  For journalists, Mack was a physical manifestation of the institution of science, in particular the authority of science, the power to establish what is real and what is not. In their stories, Mack, and science, were heroic figures transversing the boundary between the known world of everyday life and unknown worlds where conventional science could not explain everything there is.

Some journalists employed the rhetorical strategy of debunking to respond to Mack’s claims. Journalists claimed Mack failed to make a credible case for the reality of abduction as a phenomenon and, thus, the legitimacy of abduction as a research subject. Hence there was no need for an expanded worldview. For debunking journalists, Mack’s knowledge and understanding became belief; his worldview became his vision; his professional interests became his personal obsessions; his self-described naivety and innocence became credulity and gullibility.

Journalists’ rhetorical strategies in this case succeeded in catching my eye. They used the elite status of Harvard, the sensationalism of aliens, and the titillation of weird sex to grab readers’ attention. Harvard stood in for scientific authority, aliens for forces out of the control of that authority, and sex for violation of that authority. In their stories journalists used “Harvard” to brand Mack a representative of scientific authority, “alien” to frame him as a threat to that authority, and “sex” to establish him as an overt violator of that authority. Journalists employed frames of rejection in examining Mack’s abduction research, especially his method of hypnosis and his validation of repressed and recovered memory.

More tomorrow…

How John Mack framed his abduction research

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack, with his alien abduction research, was attempting to map new epistemological territory. Mack saw his purpose as exploring the unknown and sharing what he found, the archetypal cultural function of the hero. Journalists served as a sort of Greek chorus in this drama. But they did more than sing warnings of Mack’s possible demise. While superficially they attempted to rewrite Mack’s story, resorting to debunking in some cases, substantially they reproduced the epic form of Mack’s heroic journey.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, Mack depicted himself on a heroic journey into a numinous realm of supernatural wonder in his exploration of abduction. And, wittingly or unwittingly, like the itinerant storytellers of ancient times, journalists recapitulated the tale of Mack’s journey. At the same time that journalists criticized Mack for his choice of research subject and methods, questioned his credibility, and framed his work as violating scientific norms and tainted by personal values and interests, they also played to stereotype in casting Mack as a heroic figure, larger than life, with almost superhuman abilities — “a high-profile idealist” as one writer in Psychology Today put it, “a man with a halo of perfection…one of the best and the brightest…paterfamilias and healer…a high priest. “

Journalists reported on Mack as a scientific authority, though they tended to frame him as a maverick authority who was questioning the conventional ideology of science.

Mack named abduction a “phenomenon” and abductees “experiencers,” to keep the boundaries of scientific reality fuzzy. He named himself “clinician” and “psychiatrist” to legitimize himself as a researcher and objectify his interest in abduction. Journalists named abduction accounts tales and myths; they did not call them lies but they did not deem them real. They called Mack a believer — not a scientist or a knower. (Journalist Ralph Blumenthal published a book in 2021 about Mack’s abduction research, entitled “The Believer.” I have not yet read the book. But from what I’ve seen of Blumenthal’s reporting on UFOs and abduction, I think Blumenthal is the one who’s the believer.)

Mack was consistent, if not always clear, in describing his interests, for audiences ranging from the expert to the mainstream to the fringe — his sense of self and mission, his research rationale, his conception of science and the role of his research as a scientific endeavor. Mack superficially employed a conventional, deliberative, “scientific” rhetorical strategy to convince his audience of the legitimacy of his claims, and himself. In his one peer-reviewed publication on abduction, in Psychological Inquiry (1996), he and his coauthors emphasized this scientific strategy.  But Mack more effectively employed an underlying rhetorical strategy of ambiguity and complexity to keep the picture of the abduction phenomenon — and the boundaries between material scientific reality and his own expanded conception of reality — fuzzy.

By this strategy, which he employed in his peer-reviewed paper, his books, and in interviews with mainstream and fringe journalists, Mack conveyed that simple explanations and quick answers would not be forthcoming in this case. While Mack reprocessed some of his rhetoric in revising Abduction for paperback publication, he stuck to his strategy of ambiguity and complexity and even turned up the heat a few degrees. Mack took his critics’ knowledge claim — abduction is not possible — and reasserted it as an ignorance claim — we don’t know if abduction is possible or impossible. He acknowledged that within the boundaries of orthodox science, abduction claims made no sense. But if the boundaries were broadened, abduction might make sense, he said. Rather than insisting that abduction claims fit onto a standard cognitive map, he said a different map was needed to explore the phenomenon.

How the media covered John Mack’s abduction research: Part 2

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack structured his texts about his alien abduction research as scientific investigations-cum-philosophical inquiries, a scientific-boundary-blurring exercise. He presented his work as a drama, an unsolved mystery. The scene of this drama, the late 20th century, was a time rife with ideas about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, fears of global havoc, and power struggles over who may speak for science. (This is still the case in the early 21st century.) Mack rhetorically structured his claims as scientific and legitimate, and he reconstructed critics’ knowledge claims — abduction is not possible — as ignorance claims — we don’t know if abduction is possible or impossible because we don’t know what it is. Critics defined abduction as illegitimate because it did not fit onto the standard cognitive map of science, and Mack acknowledged that within the boundaries of conventional science abduction claims made no sense, but he declared the standard cognitive map inadequate because it could not accommodate abduction.

Mack’s abduction research and his book about it were worthy of journalists’ attention, were news, mainly because Mack had credibility, authority, and elite status, a Harvard affiliation and a national reputation. Stories were made interesting by emphasizing the sensational aspects of abduction stories and by providing human interest with accounts of abductions. Stories also appeared to be conventionally balanced “on the one hand, on the other hand” reports, fair assessments with quotes from Mack, from supporters, from skeptics and critics. Journalistic reports were interlinked, with elite media referring to each other and second-tier media referring to the elite. The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and The New Republic (Gleick, 1994) cited a feature asbout Mack’s abduction research in the New York Times Magazine. Reports in The New Republic and the Washington Post Book World cited a review in the New York Times Book Review.

The scene of the drama was science — the world of scientific authority and elitism, epitomized by Harvard. The world of psychiatry was also part of this scene, a world of respected M.D.s treading the fuzzy borders between the objective, neuroscientific psychiatric worldview and contested ideas and practices such as repressed and recovered memories and hypnosis.

The scene of this drama was complex. Onstage was an elite scientist, a credible expert studying an incredible subject, along with journalists who were questioning his credibility, the validity of his research methods, the propriety of the publicity he was receiving, and the influence of his personal interests on his work. Offstage were the cultural institutions of science and journalism — their norms, values, practices, methods, worldviews. Other elements of scene in this drama were the scientific elite, represented by Harvard; an ongoing dispute over the validity of the concept of repressed and recovered memories and the method of hypnosis for recovering such memories, controversy over Freudian psychoanalytic ideas and techniques, the persistent presence of stories about extraterrestrial visitations, and the trend toward “infotainment” in media content. For Mack, science was the scene from which he could depart on his journey of scientific exploration (and the scene to which he could return). For journalists, the scene of science was a bounded conception of reality: what could be sensed, measured, and explained.

Mack’s motive in telling his story was to expand the boundaries of science in order to accommodate the abduction phenomenon. Journalists’ motives in telling their stories were to define and reaffirm the accepted boundaries of science and thus explain the abduction phenomenon as something that was not real because it did not fit within these boundaries. Rhetorical strategies employed by Mack, journalists, and Mack’s scientist-peers in this case served to affirm favored conceptions of scientific authority, scientific legitimacy, and scientific worldview and refute competing conceptions. Mack made consistent, but ambiguous, claims for his authority as a scientist and the legitimacy of his research as science, while journalists labeled him, his practices, and his interests in ways that appeared intended to refute Mack’s claims and reaffirm the conventional, positivistic worldview. Journalists leaned hard on the unwritten rules of science in reporting on Mack’s controversial claims, raising questions about scientific evidence, scientific methods, scientific propriety.

For journalists, perhaps the most important element of the scene on which this drama unfolded was the world of news, defined according to conventional news values: current events, interesting people and occurrences, experts and authorities, conflict, deviance. Journalists used their system of conventions to frame Mack’s abduction research as news, focusing on current events (conferences, new books), conveying the views of expert and authoritative sources (Mack, Mack’s peers, and self-proclaimed skeptics), highlighting conflict, and flagging deviance. In talking with journalists about his abduction research, Mack attempted to stretch the boundaries of science to accommodate his thinking about his work. In the texts I examined for my analysis, Mack’s critics — journalists framing their stories and scientists cited by those journalists — appeared intent upon placing him and his claims outside the boundaries of “normal” science, focusing on credentials, methods, evidence, interests, publicity and worldviews.

But who won this boundary war? More later.

How the media covered John Mack’s abduction research: Part 1

In keeping with (now deceased) brilliant communication researcher James Carey’s conception of communication as ritual, stories in the case of the mass media’s coverage of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack’s alien abduction research can be interpreted as ritual enactments of journalists’ roles as boundary tenders, monitors of social and cultural norms and deviance.  It is likely that journalists would not have found the research in this case worth reporting on except for the scientist who was conducting it: a member of the scientific elite (tenured Harvard professor, Pulitzer Prize winner), a properly credentialed professional (Harvard M.D., accredited psychoanalyst) an expert and authority (widely published cited, and known). Some journalists explicitly made this point.

Mack structured his texts as scientific investigations-cum-philosophical inquiries. Mack made the story of his abduction research theater by performing it in public, for audiences of commoners as well as for elites. He presented his drama as an unsolved mystery and an epic in progress. The scene of this drama, the late 20th century, was a time rife with ideas about extraterrestrial life, fears of global havoc, and power struggles over who may speak for science. Mack rhetorically structured his claims as scientific and legitimate, and he reconstructed critics’ knowledge claims — abduction is not possible — as ignorance claims — we don’t know if abduction is possible or impossible because we don’t know what it is. Critics defined abduction as illegitimate because it did not fit onto the standard cognitive map of science, and Mack acknowledged that within the boundaries of conventional science abduction claims made no sense, but he declared the standard cognitive map inadequate because it could not accommodate abduction.

The superficial structure of the typical media text examined for my analysis followed the conventional who-what-when-where model of news and reflected core news values of timeliness, controversy, authority, and human interest. Journalists reported on the who-what-when-where of Mack’s abduction research, focusing on the publication of Abduction or some other current and related event to make their stories timely. Longer magazine features addressed the “how” and “why” as well. With headlines and leads showcasing Harvard, aliens, and sex, these stories established journalists as proper skeptics. For most journalists, Mack’s status as an expert and authority and his credibility and credentials were at the heart of the news. Some addressed nothing else of substance.

Mack’s motive in telling his story to the media was to expand the boundaries of science in order to accommodate the abduction phenomenon. Journalists’ motives in telling their stories were to define and reaffirm the accepted boundaries of science and thus explain the abduction phenomenon as something that was not real because it did not fit within these boundaries. Rhetorical strategies employed by Mack, journalists, and Mack’s scientist-peers in this case served to affirm favored conceptions of scientific authority, scientific legitimacy, and scientific worldview and refute competing conceptions. Mack made consistent, but ambiguous, claims for his authority as a scientist and the legitimacy of his research as science, while journalists labeled him, his practices, and his interests in ways that appeared intended to refute Mack’s claims and reaffirm the conventional, positivistic worldview. Journalists leaned hard on the unwritten rules of science in reporting on Mack’s controversial claims, raising questions about scientific evidence, scientific methods, scientific propriety.

For journalists, perhaps the most important element of the scene on which this drama unfolded was the world of news, defined according to conventional news values: current events, interesting people and occurrences, experts and authorities, conflict, deviance. Journalists used their system of conventions to “process” Mack’s abduction research as news, his world of news, focusing on current events (conferences, new books), conveying the views of expert and authoritative sources (Mack, Mack’s peers, and self-proclaimed skeptics), highlighting conflict, and flagging deviance. In talking with journalists about his abduction research, Mack attempted to stretch the boundaries of science to accommodate his thinking about his work. In texts examined herein, Mack’s critics — journalists framing their stories and scientists cited by those journalists — appeared intent upon placing him and his claims outside the boundaries of “normal” science, focusing on credentials, methods, evidence, interests, publicity and worldviews.

More tomorrow.

John Mack’s abduction research: what journalists had to say

Public discourse about Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack’s alien abduction research involved deviance from what many journalists, and scientists, relating to such things as data collection, methods, and worldview. Jill Neimark, in Psychology Today (1994), noted, for example, that Mack appeared to have “abdicated scientific objectivity.” Framed as an elite scientist by Neimark, and, indeed, virtually all journalists who wrote about his involvement in abduction research, Mack was also typically depicted in these stories as a maverick, and, in some stories, even a heroic figure who was challenging the powers that be in the world of science, raising questions about the ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology of science.

The journalistic texts I examined for my analysis tended to repeat a common narrative of an elite scientist pursuing controversial research, scientific authorities insisting on compliance with accepted procedures (and worldviews), and the maverick scientist insisting on his freedom of thought.

Stories in fringe media targeted to the UFO community were less likely than stories in mainstream media to cite elite-scientist critics of Mack (such as Richard Ofshe), and they were more likely to give overt credence to Mack’s controversial scientific worldview. But even while some stories in the UFO media praised Mack for pushing at the boundaries of the conventional scientific worldview to make room for the abduction phenomenon, others called Mack “gullible” and “subjective,” just as some mainstream journalists did, for taking abduction seriously.

Among the journalistic texts I examined for my analysis, all identified Mack as an expert and authority, making his Harvard affiliation prominent. Virtually all mentioned his Pulitzer Prize as well. Stories made note of this authority’s bypassing peer review and seeking publicity.

The unfolding drama

Literary action is symbolic action, and words are the modes of this action. The symbolic action of communication is the enactment of a drama, a ritual for the purpose of maintaining culture over time, as the late great communications scholar James Carey explained. The drama in this case, as journalists framed it, centered on a controversy over Mack’s abduction research. Journalists reported on an expert and authority who his critics claimed had overstepped the perceived bounds of professional, academic, scientific propriety by studying the so-called abduction phenomenon. In the course of this drama, journalists charged Mack with multiple transgressions: believing abduction stories, using hypnosis, validating the concept of repressed and recovered memory, questioning the conventional scientific worldview, mixing science with politics and religion, and acting like pseudo-scientific therapist rather than a scientific M.D.

In the case of media coverage of Mack’s abduction research, journalists, with the help of the sources they cited, constructed boundaries between science and non-science, between psychiatry and psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis and neuroscientific psychiatry, “psych” sciences and “hard” sciences, science and philosophy, science and politics, and, perhaps most importantly, science and religion. Mack rhetorically traversed all of these boundaries in several senses of the word. He crossed and re-crossed them, he scrutinized them, and he also went counter to them. He challenged their adequacy, validity, and utility. But at the same time, he constructed his research as scientific by locating it within the conventional boundaries of science, thereby reinforcing the very same boundaries he was attempting to alter. Mack described the abduction phenomenon as a violation of the conventional scientific worldview. Journalists reported Mack’s research as a violation of scientific convention, consensus, propriety, standards; a violation of public trust. They blamed Mack, not alien abductors, for violating his clients — their trust, peace of mind, mental health. Journalists seemed to be operating under an assumption that someone with Mack’s credentials had a responsibility to serve as a scientific authority, a responsibility requiring him to police, not breach, the boundaries of science.

My next blog post will address both journalists’ and Mack’s rhetorical constructions of scientific authority.

John Mack and alien abduction: was his scientific authority at risk?

John Mack and alien abduction: was his scientific authority at risk?

Following the completion of its investigation of John Mack’s alien abduction research methods, Harvard Medical School continued to treat Mack as a member of its faculty in good standing. In April 1999, responding to a recommendation of the Medical School’s investigating committee and reinforcing his own ongoing efforts to legitimize his abduction research, Mack’s research organization the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research brought together a multidisciplinary group of academics from Harvard and other institutions for a two-day meeting “to consider how to effectively examine anomalies of human experience that seem not to reveal their secrets to the familiar approaches of Western medicine and science.” Among the group’s findings and recommendations were that “methods of science must fit the subject being considered…new ways of knowing need to be explored…careful phenomenological description and greater precision of language are essential…anomalies are central to the progress of science” and, of course, further studies were needed. Harvard Medical School emeritus professor Arnold Relman – a former mentor of Mack – said in a letter he wrote to Mack as a contribution to the meeting’s proceedings, “If these stories are believed as literal factual accounts, they would contradict virtually all of the basic laws of physics, chemistry, and biology on which modern science depends.”

Another book comes out

Through the late 1990s and into the next decade, Mack kept up his abduction research, and he continued to speak and write about it, prompting the odd mainstream news report here and there. In 2000, Mack published his second book on abduction, Passport to the Cosmos. Mack was identified on the front cover of Passport as “Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the best-selling” Abduction. While Abduction (1994) included no footnotes, no citations, and no index, Passport… included footnotes, extensive citations, an index, and a more extensive list of references. Mack took pains in this second book to be more scientific, qualifying claims and identifying limitations, omissions, biases, and conflicts.

As he had done in Abduction, he began and concluded Passport… with ignorance claims: “I wish to stress at the outset that I am not…seeking to establish the material reality of the abduction phenomenon… I cannot offer proof of the material reality of the abduction phenomenon.” He said abduction “seems to violate what…we have come to think of as real.” He wrote of “uncharted terrains” remaining to be explored, “anomalies within the anomalous…. The boundaries of fantasy, metaphor, and actuality seem…to blur.” He wrote in Passport, “We are just beginning…to understand” the abduction phenomenon. And he persisted in suggesting that the best way to understand this phenomenon might be to adopt “an attitude of not knowing, a kind of Buddhist-like ‘empty mind’.”

In Passport… Mack argued that a “radical split between spirit and matter…has dominated both Judeo-Christian tradition and Western science.” In Abduction. Mack had written that, for him, the phenomenon raised “fundamental questions…which seem to lie outside the ontological framework of modern science and appear to be unapproachable by its methods.” He wrote in Passport… of  “the epistemological and ontological walls that we have erected between the unseen realms of the cosmos and ourselves,” claiming “the materialist juggernaut is loose…and the only thing that can stop it is a radical change in consciousness.”

Compared with the so-called firestorm of media coverage generated by Abduction, Passport… received little mainstream media attention. Mack appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and was heard on the syndicated “Dreamland” radio program, specializing in paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects, to talk about the book. But Passport… was not as widely reviewed in mainstream print mass media and certainly not in elite print mass media. Reviews did appear in fringe media such as The Golden Thread (a “new-age” newspaper) and the magazines Fate, Night, and UFO. Later that year Mack published an op-ed in The New York Times on the presidential election results. Identified as a “professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School,” Mack wrote that the Gore-Bush presidential 2000 election standoff might be the work of a mythological Trickster, “sent when a society is in crisis and no longer serving the needs of its people.” The following year, at the Mutual UFO Network’s 2001 international symposium, Mack gave a talk on “witnessing abductees as sacred truth tellers.”

In October 2003, the curtain effectively came down on the drama of Mack’s abduction research and the media discourse about it when Mack’s Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER) was officially concluded. Described as a 10-year research initiative, the PEER project had run its course. The project had been financed by $1.2 million in gifts from philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, who died in 2000; contributions from Mack and other members of his PEER board of directors; and donations from individual contributors. Neither Harvard University nor Harvard Medical School had provided any support. About the ending of the project, PEER simply said its time was up. About findings and conclusions, Mack claimed nothing more definitive than that his work with abductees “Reveal[ed] an experience that touches people deeply, affecting their outlook on spiritual, environmental, and social aspects of life…. The nature of aliens (whether or not they are ‘real’) [was] secondary to PEER’s primary interest in how alien encounters affect people’s lives and worldview.”

In an interview I conducted for this analysis, Mack described his abduction research, his interest in the subject, and his scientific worldview the same way he did in his own writings and in interviews with journalists. In this interview, he said of abduction experience, “it was not dreams, fantasy…all the other things…it behaved absolutely clinically,” as if it had really happened. With regard to what he meant by “happened,” he told me, “You can deconstruct words like ‘happened’ if you like…what do we mean by ‘something happened’?” Of abductees, he said, ”They don’t seem to have psychiatric problems, the stories they tell are consistent…. The problem, then,” he explained, “was that what they were talking about was impossible from the standpoint of our worldview.”

The “ideology” of conventional science dictates that phenomena “can’t cross over…the sharp divide” between physical reality and the non-material world, Mack said in this interview, but in addition to the physical world of “manifest reality” there appears to be a “deeper reality.” Mack told me he “had to open up” his thinking about the nature of reality, and he said he knew that taking this route would “cause a flap…. I was a little naive in that I didn’t realize how far I had gone in opening to other possibilities.” He told me that before Abduction was published:

I would try to argue more for why I thought [abduction] was true, what was the clinical basis…I’d present the data and my psychiatric judgment about the data….  And I was a little naive in not appreciating that that was not sufficient. I didn’t recognize that the data itself would not be enough. [And] data presented in certain forms is more acceptable.

Narrative, for example, his chosen form of data recording, is not as acceptable as, say, comparative studies, he told me. “I was mapping new territory,” he continued, “I wasn’t in a position” to do standard research.  “Now I’ve gotten more able to work with peoples’ resistance in advance of presenting information”; starting off by acknowledging that abduction seems impossible seems to work better, he said. “You can’t just start by shooting the messenger,” he told me, claiming that while this approach was the one journalists typically took with him, “I can’t do [it] to them.” With regard to challenging or defending the boundaries of conventional science, Mack observed in this interview, “When you’re defending a worldview, anything goes, you don’t have to know anything, you can just make pronouncements and they will fall on sympathetic ears because they’re consistent with what the dominant worldview is.”

John Mack, abduction: scientists and skeptics have their say, part 2

The longer the social construction of “facts” takes, the more that “texts” come into play in the construction process, and the scientific article, as the sociologist of science Bruno Latour has pointed out, is “the most important and the least studied of all rhetorical vehicles” for the social construction of scientific authority. In 1996, Mack published his first peer-reviewed paper about his abduction research, coauthored with two colleagues from PEER (Mack’s Program for Extraordinary Experience Research). The paper appeared in Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal of Peer Commentary and Review, which dedicated an issue to the subject of the alien abduction phenomenon.

This abduction issue included what the journal called a “target” article by psychology professors Leonard S. Newman of the University of Chicago and Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, offering alternative explanations for the abduction phenomenon, along with a number of commentaries providing a wide range of judgments on the Newman-Baumeister article and the Mack et al paper.

In their article, Newman and Baumeister proposed that abduction stories were the products of hypnotic elaboration, spurious memories, fantasies of extraterrestrial sadomasochism, and a desire to escape the self.

In a commentary in the issue, “Fantastic accounts can take many forms: false memory construction? Yes. Escape from self? We don’t think so,” University of Arizona psychology professors Jamie Arndt and Jeff Greenberg faulted Newman and Baumeister for “continually rely[ing] on questionable sources of data without sufficient acknowledgement or consideration of their unreliable and biased nature [emphases added].” Arndt and Greenberg called for “systematic collection of new data, along with more systematic, less biased, and more comprehensive analysis of existing archives [emphases added].”

In their commentary, Yale University psychology professors Mahzarin R. Banaji and John F. Kihlstrom claimed, in “The ordinary nature of alien abduction memories,” that such memories were delusions, “false, but highly valued, beliefs about oneself.” Claims of abduction memories “should not merely be dismissed as evidence of…credulity or lunacy, or mass hysteria, or…preoccupation with the supernatural and paranormal,” they wrote; “explaining them in naturalistic terms and demystifying them ought to be [psychologists’] business.”

In a commentary entitled “On the edge of science: coping with UFOlogy scientifically,” University of Waterloo psychology professors Kenneth S. Bowers and John D. Eastwood began, “One of the interesting issues raised by Newman and Baumeister’s…article is the boundary that separates scientific from nonscientific claims.” They ultimately rejected Newman and Baumeister’s explanation, concluding that such a “motivational account of UFO memories” would suffer the typical fate of “psychoanalytic hypotheses regarding the human condition, which have never had much appeal to the mainstream scientific establishment and…are now being seriously challenged because of social problems that adherence to some of them has wreaked.”

In a commentary on “the construction of space alien abduction memories,” psychology professors Steven E. Clark of the University of California-Riverside and Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of Washington claimed people can invent false memories “with some help” — that is, suggestion, or what they called “the misinformation effect.” Clark and Loftus invoked the authority of “the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association…the International Society of Hypnosis…and the society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis” as scientific organizations that “have published strong warnings concerning the use of hypnosis as a tool in memory retrieval.” Loftus had already established herself as an expert on false memories at the time this article was published.

In his commentary, “When scientific explanations fail: science and pseudoscience in psychology,” Dartmouth College psychology professor Jay G. Hull claimed Newman and Baumeister’s explanation for abduction memories was “entertaining” but flawed “as a reasoned argument” and constituted an effort “to legitimate a pseudoscientific enterprise that is to the detriment of this field.” The authors, Hull claimed, had relied on “nonexperimental research — content analyses of retrospective oral and written accounts”— to formulate their explanation, and thus their explanation was not scientific. Hull declared it “pseudoscience,” and not even “good pseudoscience,” because it “is not internally coherent, is less parsimonious than existing accounts, and…lacks plausibility.”

Robert Wood Johnson Medical School psychiatry professor Donald P. Spence examined “abduction tales as metaphors” in his commentary for the issue, speculating that perhaps abduction stories could “be better understood as metaphors for an ongoing cultural crisis.” Spence agreed “that masochism and loss of self are two key ingredients in the stereotypical abduction story” but said those features “might be secondary to…the modern sense of powerlessness, helplessness, and anomie…. As we move into the 21st century,” he concluded, “escape from freedom has been followed by escape from reason…. Systematic analysis of UFO abduction stories might be one of the best ways to understand and eventually counteract this” trend.

In their response to these commentaries, Newman and Baumeister agreed with their critics that they had not provided scientific proof of their theory. Their point, they said, “was to argue that…other phenomena provide a plausible way of understanding UFO abduction narratives…we remain firm in our belief [emphasis added] that ignoring the motivational themes of the UFO abduction narrative will only hinder our understanding of it.”

The commentary in this journal issue co-authored by Mack, entitled “A more parsimonious explanation for UFO abduction,” was rich with the rhetoric Mack had previously employed to establish his abduction research as legitimate. The rhetoric employed in this paper was more conventionally scientific than the rhetoric Mack employed in Abduction and other writings about this research. Such an adjustment was proper for publication in a scientific journal. However, Mack’s typical abduction story — his description of the phenomenon and his approach to studying it — remained essentially intact. The description and justification of the research in this article firmly located Mack and his fellow PEER researchers within the boundaries of the established scientific community and their abduction research within the boundaries of legitimate science. “As members of a culture that defines reality in a very structured way,” they wrote: “Scientists are motivated to embrace a simplification of anomalous data like abduction experiences. This minimizes our own cognitive dissonance and allows us all to dismiss this phenomenon before we are forced to examine more closely the data involved. Were it not for clinical contact with individuals who demand of us compassion and careful evaluation, the authors of this commentary would also find it expedient to dismiss the phenomenon.”

Abduction, they wrote, “challenge[s] very basic tenets on which Western civilization is based,” they wrote, “tenets that we, as Western scientists, are personally invested in defending.”

(This was a huge sticking point with colleagues in the scientific community….)

Scientists and other “Western” thinkers, they continued, have a “cultural bias” against accepting abduction as a subject of scientific study because the idea of abduction “dethrones us…from our position of mastery and predominance in the universe,” they asserted, “threaten[s] our personal sense of safety [and] challenge[s]…dualistic thinking.” Enhancing this bias, “most of the information about the abduction phenomenon has been disseminated by the popular press, which is neither educated in psychological complexities nor motivated to present subtleties,” they wrote. “The press tends to sensationalize and polarize issues,” and thus “few serious scientists are interested in pursuing it.”

Mack and his colleagues dismissed alternative explanations one by one in their paper, including Neumann and Baumeister’s theory that abduction experiences are masochistic fantasies, in the same way that the scientists who had offered those alternative explanations had dismissed their claims about abduction. “Newman and Baumeister, like the majority of the scientific community, have felt obliged to declare their belief in the nonreality of the phenomenon without the benefit of  “careful, first-hand study of these experiences,” they observed.