From: Greg Sandow <email@example.com> 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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