I'm not very interested in UFOs or alien abductions, and I'm inclined to treat the latter, in particular, with a high degree of skepticism. Nevertheless, at a used bookstore sometime ago, I picked up a copy of John E. Mack's controversial bestseller Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, and recently I started looking through it.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about alien abduction claims or the people who make them, Mack showed considerable courage in taking their reports seriously and risking his academic prestige in the process. (He was a psychiatrist at Harvard and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.) In his introductory remarks to the 1995 paperback edition, Mack addresses skeptical criticisms of his work, which are quite similar to skeptical critiques of other paranormal claims. What he has to say is worth reading -- and so, in abridged form, here it is:
The most archetypal expression of the cry of anti-science came from science writer James Gleick in a review in the New Republic magazine (Gleick 1994). Gleick called the "alien-abduction mythology" a "leading case of the anti-rational, anti-science cults that are flourishing with dismaying vigor in the United States." He lumps the alien abduction phenomenon together with "paranormals who bend spoons, parapsychologists who sense spiritual auras, crystal healers, believers in reincarnation" and "psychic crime-solvers" as well as "tarot readers and crystal ball gazers."
In a similar vein psychoanalyst Sandford Gifford, in a review of my book for a psychoanalytic journal (Gifford, in press), called it a "subversive assault on psychoanalysis as a science" (he assumes that the phenomenon must be some sort of product of the unconscious mind), and wrote of the abduction experiencers as individuals "holding irrational beliefs that are not shared by the 'compact majority.'" In that sense, he continued, "they are 'crazy' in the same way as believers in Creationism, faith healing, thought transference, or the end of the world on a specific date."...
I believe these critiques reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of rationality and reason, and even of science itself. For what the worldview implicit in these statements requires is the a priori exclusion of vast amounts of data simply because that information is in conflict with that point of view. This, I believe, is a far more irrational, and even dangerous, approach to knowledge than to allow information from every possible legitimate source to come into our minds before applying rationality and reason in assessing this information once we have "let it in." To exclude data because it does not fit a particular view of reality can only, in the end, arrest the progress of science and keep us ignorant.
The worldview that Gleick, Gifford, and [others] espouse is what is usually called the "materialist paradigm." According to this view, which until recently has dominated mainstream science (although now it is increasingly being questioned, even in contemporary physics), there is only one hard reality, namely that which is observable through the sensory/empirical mode. This dualistic approach would separate cleanly the observer from the observed, subject from object. In so doing, all of the information about other or "unseen" realities that has become available to us through anthropology, comparative religion, parapsychology, consciousness research, and various uses of nonordinary states inside and outside the laboratory -- to name but a few sources of data -- would, of necessity, have to be excluded. This worldview and its accompanying restrictive epistemology would, in short, eliminate human consciousness and experience as legitimate ways of knowing about reality.
Of the many responses which were more open to my material, Kathryn Robinson's reaction to Gleick's review (Robinson 1994) was one of the most telling. Addressing the restrictiveness of the worldview that Gleick's assault reflected she wrote, "scientific discovery is not a matter of jamming data into existing categories; it's about supporting new ones. It's about admitting how much we don't know -- in marked contrast to the hubris of a rationalist such as Gleick, who argues that any phenomenon that's not available to his senses must therefore be a sham. Gleick's arrogance," she notes, "would perhaps approach respectability if there were no mysteries left to science." Psychologist William James made the same point a hundred years ago. "The ideal of every science," James wrote, "is that of a closed and completed system of truth... Phenomena unclassifiable within a system are therefore paradoxical absurdities and must be held untrue (James 1896)."...
This book provides the most detailed accounts we have today from people who report abduction experiences. These reports, I believe, raise profound questions about how we experience the world around us and the very nature of that world. The information that I obtained during the several years of this investigation has been communicated in case after case with such power and consistency that a body of data formed which seemed to point clearly to the experiential truth of the abduction phenomenon, whatever its ultimate source might prove to be. The fact that what the experiencers are describing simply cannot be possible according to our traditional scientific view would, it seems to me, more sensibly, yes rationally, call for a change in that perspective, an expansion of our notions of reality, rather than the "jamming" of "data into existing categories" that some critics would have us do.
John E. Mack, M.D., Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1995 paperback edition)