Saturday, October 08, 2005

Robert Fulford on Abductions: Why Are Aliens So Boring?

Robert Fulford is one of Canada's best and most influential journalists, his profession since the summer of 1950, when he left high school to work as a sports writer on The Globe and Mail. He has since been a news reporter, literary critic, art critic, movie critic, and editor on a variety of magazines, ranging from Canadian Homes and Gardens to the Canadian Forum. He was the editor of Saturday Night for 19 years, 1968-1987, and has since been a freelance writer. His books include This Was Expo, Best Seat in the House: Memoirs of a Lucky Man, Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto, and The Triumph of Narrative, the text of the Massey Lectures he delivered on CBC radio. His column appears in the National Post on Tuesdays in the Arts & Life section and on Saturdays on the Op Ed page. He is an officer of the Order of Canada and a senior fellow of Massey College.

You can check out his Web site by clicking here.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered (as I was enjoying today's National Post - while trying to chase a cold away with some Tim Horton's chicken noodle soup) that, to this sterling resume, Mr. Fulford can now add: "has written a column about the UFO phenomenon that is certain to get him labelled a debunker, klasskurtzian and a skeptibunkie."

From the National Post, Saturday, 8 October 2005, p. A19:

"Why Are Aliens So Boring?

The folklore of the 20th-century produced nothing more absurd, yet nothing more persistent, than the belief that creatures from other worlds habitually visit Earth, kidnap a few humans and then return them, apparently unhurt, to their homes. The alleged human vitims later describe their experiences in what scholars of alienography call 'abductee narratives.' These sound like tales told by idiots, but no one who cares about the popular imagination can be entirely indifferent to them.

Abductees report that some aliens say they are bringing world peace and others announce that their mission is war. But a strikingly high percentage appear to be carrying out a peculiar assignment, raiding the reproductive systems of their victims to collect DNA. 'My eggs were taken,' one typical abductee reported, and another said, 'sperm was sucked from my penis by a machine.'

Why? Extraterrestrials must be far smarter than we are (they travel distances our scientists can barely imagine) so anyone even mildly curious will wonder what they want with a substandard planet's genetic material. That in turn suggest another question to Susan A. Clancy, a Harvard psychologist and the author of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard University Press), the latest book on this phenomenon. Having interviewed dozens of abductees, and found them likeable and honest, Clancy writes about them with compassionate but sceptical understanding. She's not like the late John Mack, a psychiatrist at the Harvard medical school, who scandalized his colleagues by deciding that abductions actually took place. Clancy believes her subjects only in the sense that she believes they think they are telling the truth.

And she doesn't abandon her sense of humour. She asks why mentally superior aliens haven't anything better to do than hang around North America stealing our genes. 'Why are these genius aliens so dim?' she asks. 'After fifty years of abducting us, why are they still taking the same bits and pieces? Don't they have freezers?'

And why are aliens so boring? They often speak to abductees but they never say anything interesting. As Clancy has noted, not one of them sounds as engaging as an average human child. They recall those dead people who speak from the spirit world through table-tappers and similar mystics. The record shows that these communicants have never uttered even one interesting sentence. Most conversations consist of 'I saw your Uncle Leonard.' 'How is he?' 'Fine, sends his best.'

The reason is the same in both cases. The conversations are fictional and both abductees and spiritualists suffer from stunted imaginations. They are capable of one delirious flight of fancy, nothing more.

Clancy discovered that abductees share certain characteristics. They are not crazy, but they score high on a schizotypy test, which doesn't mean they are schizophrenic but suggest they have a weakness for fantasy and for thinking related to magic. Most of them believed in flying saucers before they were abducted.

In her view the aliens are entirely human creations, expressing fairly ordinary emotional needs. Most of us don't want to be alone and many of us yearn to believe there's something bigger than out there - and that it cares about us. Also, we want to feel special. 'Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need.' Abductees express these feelings by believing in a convenient story that can never be proved and therefore never disproved. They may also be terrified (and thus made to feel vulnerable) by recent discoveries in genetics and reproductive technology.

Clancy devotes careful attention to the mother and father of the abductee community, a New Hampshire social worker named Betty Hill and her postal worker husband, Barney. Believing they were abducted in 1961, they began hypnotherapy a few years later. That's how Barney deeply affected American mass culture by giving credibility to the little guys with big heads and wraparound eyes who have since appeared in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The X-Files.

Asked under hypnosis to draw an alien, Barney came up with a sketch that launched a thousand myths. In fact, he was reproducing a face he had seen 12 days earlier on a TV show, The Outer Limits. But by the time anyone figured that out the aliens Clancy calls 'macrocephalic space-waifs' had become permanently lodged in mass culture. As Clancy says, 'Betty and Barney Hill got their ideas from books, movies and TV. From then on, people got their ideas from books, movies, TV, and Betty and Barney Hill."

For the aggrieved (and I'm sure there will be many), you can e-mail Mr. Fulford at

For the rest, consider this - in the past few weeks, the National Post, one of Canada's two national newspapers, has printed columns by two of its most respected columnists dealing with aspects of the UFO phenomenon (the first was Andrew Coyne's column on Paul Hellyer, see Don't Shoot the Messenger, This, I believe, is a result of the recent Exopolitics conference held in Toronto, which has indeed achieved more media attention for the UFO phenomeon (one of the goals of the conference organizers) - unfortunately, most of it has not been good. Call it the "Paul Hellyer factor."

Both Coyne and Fulford are well-read, intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive people - they are the kind of opinion-shapers that ufology needs to engage if it is ever to make any headway, and move away from being a fringe pseudo-science.

I'll do my part - I'll send them each a DVD copy of Best Evidence: Top 10 UFO Cases. I've also sent Mr. Fulford a response, which can be found at:

But ufology should also do its part - no more conferences with former Ministers of National Defence (or anyone else, for that matter) citing Corso's The Day After Roswell, please.

Paul Kimball


ufoia1310 said...

Nice editorial by Fulford. Thanks for bringing this to the attention of us non -Canadians.

btw, Tim Horton's rocks. I used to live in Michgan and TH's kept me sane and happy. The meal with chili, bread, doughnut and coffee is the perfect lunch. I miss it greatly!

Paul Kimball said...


I have nothing but the greatest respect for Fulford, who is one of Canada's best journalists, in my opinion. However, as my response makes clear, I think he's only seeing one side of the issue here, although I understand how the abduction aspect can create confusion. I remain highly skeptical of it myself.

Yes, Tim's is great. Instead of bashing the United States in order to prove how Canadian we are, we should focus on those things that TRULY define us - hockey, Tim Horton's, SCTV, and, in eastern Canada, Irving and their Big Stop restaurants!

Oh, yes - corrupt Liberal hegemony, and incompetent Conservative opposition. Talk about the opposite of the United States!!


paranorman said...

"...both abductees and spiritualists suffer from stunted imaginations. They are capable of one delerious flight of fancy, nothing more."

lol he hasn't read much whitley strieber has he?

Rod Brock said...

Great article. Gets right to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, it may be too late ; I hope not, but it's pretty bad out there, right now, and doesn't appear to be getting any better.

Re: Tim Hortons. I like it better than Krispy Kreme. Once I actually drove up to the Sumas, WA/Abottsford B.C. border crossing, specifically to visit the Tim Hortons, a couple blocks away, on the Canadian side. The border guys thought that was pretty funny.