As a Harvard Ph.D. student in the late 1990s, psychologist Susan Clancy took a skeptical look at the phenomenon of "recovered memories," which had been sending accused molesters to jail for a decade. Her work promptly got her labeled a "friend of pedophiles," politically biased, and professionally suspect.
Unprepared for the political minefield she'd stumbled into, Clancy started searching for a way to study false memory creation without inviting accusations of bias. Naturally, she turned to aliens. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard University Press) takes as its subject the disturbing vulnerability of memory, the appeal of pseudoscience, and the ability of otherwise normal people to hold completely bizarre convictions.
Assistant Editor Kerry Howley spoke with Clancy in December.
Q: What was the reaction when you tried to discuss false memory creation in terms of sexual abuse?
A:Members of the faculty at Harvard told me to stay out of this area because I would jeopardize getting a position when I got out of graduate school. Letters were flooding in to me from people who were furious. In one New York Times article, my research was labeled biased and political, even though it was peer reviewed and published in reputable journals.
Q: How prevalent is belief in recovered memories? Are they still commonly accepted as evidence?
A: Yes. It is unbelievable. All of the scientific research shows that repression is just preposterous. But most therapists believe that repression exists. And most people in the world believe that the concept of repression is real.
Q: The subjects of your book seem to always be proselytizing—trying to convince you that you too were abducted by aliens.
A: The worst experience in all this research was a woman who was a "channeler," which is like a medium between aliens and humans. She told me, among other things, that I was interested in this research because I was part of a select alien sisterhood. She said I had actually had a baby. I had been pregnant in the past, and the aliens took the baby—the baby is part alien—and now the baby was 9 years old.
Q: You argue pseudoscience is proliferating "more than ever." What's the evidence for that?
A: Thinking in terms of probability or parsimony does not come naturally to any of us. And even when we do think scientifically, we're still capable of believing in things like alien abductions.
I think we're scientifically more sophisticated today than we have ever been, but there is no evidence that our belief in ghosts or aliens or macrobiotic diets or the power of echinacea to kill colds has decreased. We are as interested in mysticism today as we were five decades go. Or forever, as far as I can tell.