John Mack, Alien Abductions, and Harvard

by Keith Thompson

Occasionally a story in the news stirs me to reach for the phone to call someone whose Fifteen Minutes of Fame has captured my imagination. Usually I change my mind, but now and then I follow through. Like the day three years ago this month, when I came across a newspaper story that provoked me to dial up a Pulitzer Prize-winning psychiatrist whose research was getting a fair amount of national media attention.

To my amazement, I got through to his private office, whereupon he stated his name and asked, with uncommon courtesy, “How can I help you?” Surprised but undaunted, I didn’t mince words. “Watch out,” I told him. “You’re headed for trouble.” I added: “Trust me, I know.”

I was talking to John Mack, a tenured professor at Harvard Medical School, who was not, actually, a total stranger. We had met a year or so earlier, briefly, at a conference. At the time we were each working on books dealing with the sane subject, namely the bizarre set of phenomena which have come to be known by one of the most controversial acronyms of modern times: UFO.

I remember liking the man. We came from different walks of life and labored in distinct fields – journalism for me, psychiatry for Mack. We had undertaken independent studies of something widely known as “alien abductions” – first-hand accounts of alleged visits from large-eyed beings, mysterious instruments, telepathy, invasive medical procedures, hours of “missing time” and disturbing messages about the future of our planet.

Both of us approached this incendiary subject with curiosity, and with a certain naïve bewilderment about the way the very phrase “UFO” tends to evoke extreme emotional responses among diametrically opposed “believers” and “debunkers.” I admired Mack because he approached the phenomenon as a skeptic – refusing to believe or disbelieve in advance, unwilling to rule anything in or out of the bounds of possibility without being familiar with the data.

We agreed it made sense to let evidence of various kinds – physical, psychological, sociological, even spiritual – do the talking. We were committed, in our own ways, to what former president George Bush might call “the science thing.”

My telephone warning to Mack years later (“Watch it”) was based on smnething I realized in the process of later discussing my book on radio and TV talk shows around the United States. There I learned that to take an even-handed approach to UFOs is sufficient to cause many people to wonder if you have lost your mind – people who otherwise pride themselves on being objective toward phenomena which may not fit comfortably into established scientific or philosophical categories.

Actually, I knew all this going into my research. For some, UFOs “must” be real, for others UFOs “can’t” be real. I wanted to understand these two ideologies. The day I called John Mack, I wanted him to know that his willingness to investigate the phenomenon of “alien abductions” with an open mind was likely to inspire among some of his Harvard colleagues a host of reactions, from discomfort to rage to a desire for revenge. He said he had already reached this conclusion on his own, but wasn’t willing to abandon his research simply because it made some of his colleagues question some of their unexamined assumptions about reality.

“Call me naïve if you want” he told me. “I trust that those who understand the true meaning of science will agree that genuine research is not about excluding disquieting data because it doesn’t conform to preconceived views. This can only impede the progress of science and ultimately keep us all empty-headed.”

I wished Mack well then, and I wish him well today, when he needs it most. After more than 30 closed-door hearings over the past year, an investigatory committee of Mack’s Harvard peers is said to be on the brink of delivering a report sharply critical of Mack, who went on to write a thought-provoking book (Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens) arguing that the phenomenon he has studied must not be simply ignored. “Alien abductions, whatever their true nature, require us to expand our notions of reality,” Mack told me that day. “What they mean is that we must rethink our whole place in the cosmos.”

Some may agree with this conclusion, others may not. The question that matters is what Harvard has concluded about a scholar named John Mack. If the review committee has suggestions for improving his research methodology, surely Mack and his work would benefit from fair and constructive feedback. This is how science functions at its best. Research does not advance, however, when a respected scholar is besieged simply for exploring unsettling domains. “Scientific discovery is not a matter of jamming data into existing categories; it’s about supporting new ones [and] about admitting how much we don’t know,” Kathryn Robinson wrote in the Seattle Weekly, concerning Mack’s research.

A great university is attempting to travel a two-fold path: protecting its well-deserved reputation for scholastic integrity, on the one hand, while coming down squarely in behalf of academic freedom. These two tasks are not at odds, although it is frighteningly easy to abandon the latter (in the name of the former) at times when new ideas rattle old assumptions about the boundaries of reality.

Way back when, I told John Mack he was, in effect, walking a tightrope. Today, so is Harvard. Let us hope for balance.

  • Keith Thompson is author of Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination. He is currently at work on a book entitled Keeping Faith, about the diversity of American spirituality in the global era. He is a contributing editor of the magazine Common Boundary. His articles have appeared in Esquire, New Age, The Utne Reader, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

© 1995 Keith Thompson
Reprinted by kind permission.
Written June 6, 1995

John Mack’s endorsement of Keith Thompson’s book, Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination

“I enjoyed the book immensely, and read it through at one sitting. It is a spellbinding tale that deepens our understanding of the UFO phenomenon. The central value of the book for me was its ability to break down the mental categories that the Western mind has developed. It attacks the boundaries between the material and the psychological, the mythic and the real, as well as distinctions between symbolic and literal, and even challenges the polarities of true versus hoax. Thompson’s ‘cosmic chameleons’ prod us to take apart easy ideas about the supposedly interminable gulf between mind and matter, spirit and body, masculine and feminine, nature and culture, and other dichotomies. This book is an important work. It will help to inspire the serious attention that the UFO/abduction phenomenon deserves and should encourage serious researchers to follow the ‘multiple sets of tracks in the snow’ that have been before us.”
– John E. Mack, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Mack’s endorsement (above) appeared on the original 1993 hardcover edition. Later editions trimmed Mack’s quote to: “An important work.”