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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1997 > Nov > Nov 12

Media Influence on Abduction Reports

From: Greg Sandow <gsandow@prodigy.net>
Date: Wed, 12 Nov 1997 00:02:58 -0500
Fwd Date: Wed, 12 Nov 1997 17:52:12 -0500
Subject: Media Influence on Abduction Reports

Recently we've had one of our little teacup tempests about TV
influence on the Hill case. Or in other words about Martin
Kottmeyer's theory...that an Outer Limits episode, featuring an alien
with wraparound eyes "that speak," furnished Betty and Barney Hill
with the model of the aliens they claimed had abducted them.

The more I think about this -- and about the debate we had -- the
sadder I get. Betty Hill, as we know, denied that she and her husband
had ever seen the Outer Limits. To which some of our skeptics
replied: "But how do we know for SURE that they didn't? How do we
know what else they might have seen on TV?"

As I remarked at the time, Kottmeyer's theory then becomes a classic
example of a non-falsifiable (and therefore damnably non-scientific)
proposition. If there's no way to prove the Hills never saw the
episode in question, then Kottmeyer can always claim he might be
right.

We've got to do better than that. Besides, there's yet another
problem with Kottmeyer's way of thinking. It's based -- to put it
mildly -- on some rather loose concepts of how TV gets in people's
heads. In fact, it's based on no concept at all.

Here's how it seems to work. The Outer Limits alien, Kottmeyer tells
us, had wraparound eyes, and its eyes appeared to speak. (Or were
said to speak.) The Hills described aliens with more or less
wraparound eyes, and said the eyes were compelling, hypnotic,
communicative. Given no more than that, we immediately have people
saying the odds are 100,000 to one against such a similarity
appearing by chance.

But, gosh....how do we know such a thing? I'll grant that some very
detailed similarities would obviously be damning. Suppose a TV
episode showed us an alien with pockmarked green skin that liked to
eat cupcakes, and said it came from a planet of the star Sirius. Now
suppose some abductee reported exactly that alien, cupcakes, Sirius,
and all. I don't think we'd have to think very hard to make the
connection.

But wraparound eyes that speak? We're talking about some VERY broad
points here, with details that (at least as I see it) could have come
from all kinds of places in our culture. I'd need to see precise
similarities of concept and language before I was convinced we had
evidence of TV influence here. Most of all, though, we need to know
what we're talking about when we say things are similar. We need
something approaching an objective measure of "similarity." We need
some common understanding of what we mean when we say things are too
much alike to be similar only by chance. Otherwise we'll be hurling
accusations back and forth without knowing what we're really talking
about.

And even though I can twit Kottmeyer's defenders here for setting up
a situation in which they just can't lose, I have to concede that
they have a point. There's no way to prove, in any one case, that
somebody wasn't exposed to any media source anybody wants to propose.
So we need to get beyond individual cases. We need to develop a
larger understanding of how media may have helped create the standard
abduction account, and then find ways to prove the theory true or
false.

In particular, let me propose two things that need to be done, before
this discussion will make any kind of scientific sense.

1. We need a control. We need to look at some known case where images
spread from science fiction (or from something else in the media)
into some form of popular consciousness. We need a test case nobody
will argue with, to show us how this phenomenon of media influence
actually works. Then we'll have something approaching solid ground to
stand on, when we look for media influence in abduction reports.

2. We need some falsifiable hypotheses. Up to now, any discussion of
media influence on abduction reports has been, from any systematic
point of view, just laughable. Kottmeyer says there was something on
TV sort of like the Hills' aliens! Gosh! Robert Shaeffer (at the MIT
abduction conference) trots out a really old Buck Rogers comic strip,
showing aliens examining a captive human on a table! Wow!

Get real, folks. This isn't science. At best, these are tentative
suggestions. What we need is something far more thorough, and far
more responsible. The people who believe there's been media influence
on the standard abduction account should make some predictions about
things that would be true, if what they're saying is right. You
know...the way Einstein's relativity theory predicted that light
would bend in a strong gravitational field. Lo and behold...light DID
bend, thus providing evidence that Einstein's theory might be true.
What predictions would the media-influence theorists care to make
about abductees and abduction accounts, so that their theories can be
tested? What predictions would those who think the stories are
genuine care to make?

The two numbered points on my wish list have to be used together. For
example, here's something I'm fond of saying. I like to compare the
prevalent description of aliens (going right back to the first
reports of UFO "occupants") to the visions of aliens in popular
science fiction. UFO aliens were, right from the start, almost
universally described as "little men." Science fiction aliens,
however, are much more varied than that. They can be blobs, bug-eyed
monsters, creatures with tentacles, robots, you name it.

Therefore, I like to say, the descriptions of "little men" don't come
from the media. But am I right? Now that I'm examining this whole
business as critically as I can, I have to question my view. It still
feels like common sense to me, but sometimes science demonstrates
that what we thnk is common sense is actually wrong. What's missing,
in my thinking, is an overview of media influence. I've imagined that
UFO data borrowed from the media would have to include a good
sampling of the media data the influence supposedly comes from, but
does it? Maybe there are examples out there of only one detail
plucked out of a media context and turned into a compelling fantasy,
minus many of the details it had in its original incarnation.

What I'm proposing here are ground rules for the scientific study of
media influence on abductions -- and an end to petty debate on a
subject that, at present, we haven't even begun to define.

Greg Sandow.


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