Professor of History and Bioethics
In our present-day media climate saturated by fake news and commercial hype, it’s often repeated that everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. In the 1980s and 1990s, a bizarre social phenomenon appeared on the scene that seemed to challenge both assertions – indeed, it appeared to challenge the very distinction between opinion and fact. People were coming forward claiming to have been abducted by frightening extraterrestrials, who took them to their spaceships, performed medical examinations and experiments on them, and then returned them to where they had been taken. The witnesses were compelling, their stories terrifying. Books and films recounted the tales. Support groups were formed to help the victims, and television talk show hosts interviewed them for national audiences. The skeptics were many, however, and debunkers raised questions about the veracity of the ever more incredible tales being told.
This project examines the history of these experiences and claims as well as the attempts to make sense of them. At the heart of the alien abduction phenomenon was a debate about how one should respond to assertions of far-fetched, traumatic personal experiences. Its story is a story about truth, trust, and trauma in the modern age: weighing the truth of others’ experiences and beliefs, deciding on which methods and experts one can trust in judging such matters, and using trauma to legitimate and delegitimate highly subjective claims. The case of alien abduction is a reminder that truth may not always be resolved through the discovery of trauma and that personal experience cannot always be separated from personal belief.