Jun 20 2011

Consistent and complicated, but still not true

Category: Epistemology,ReasoningJames @ 7:49 pm

The following is from the book Revelations by Jacques Vallee. The book, which was published in 1992, is about UFOs (it debunks many of the strange conspiracy theories held by UFO enthusiasts and discusses some of the more notable UFO hoaxes). In one section, Vallee discusses the Ummo UFO phenomenon in Europe, which lasted for decades and involved people all over Europe and elsewhere receiving letters from unknown authors claiming to be aliens from the planet Ummo.1 To illustrate how the Ummo hoaxers could have created thousands of pages of internally consistent documents describing the purported civilization and science of Ummo, Vallee discusses a case study which illustrates how someone could construct an elaborate, and internally consistent fantasy, delude himself into believing it, and even convince a psychiatrist who was hired to help him overcome his fantasies that the whole thing was true.

The passage has nothing to do with UFOs – I’m quoting it because it is a fascinating illustration about the power of the human mind to create internally consistent fantasy worlds, and about every person’s susceptibility to being fooled by such fantasies. What’s the moral of this post? The human brain is absolutely amazing; it has an almost infinite capacity for invention, and it can construct believable and consistent stories which are completely false. Always be careful about what you believe; a story or idea is not true just because it is complex or internally consistent. How can you evaluate whether something is true? Think critically and carefully. Apply the scientific method, along with the other methods for discovering truth which I discussed in my five-part series on discovering truth.2 Don’t let yourself get sucked in to the point where you let confirmation bias take over such that you only look for confirmatory evidence. And for your already-held beliefs, watch out for confirmation bias – don’t reject evidence which contradicts your view, and always be willing to change your ideas (even if they are deeply held), when the facts don’t match your beliefs.

If we listen to the adepts of UMMO, like Jean Pierre Petit, a major argument against the idea that a single man, or even a small group, could have manufactured the UMMO material resides in the very weight of the documents. How could one person have manufactured the hundreds of reports, some containing hundreds of pages, which comprise the UMMO corpus? What about the maps, the tables, the mathematical system, the formulas, the codes? Clearly, the believers say, what we have here is the product of an entire civilization.

The people who say this have never studied the psychiatric literature. They have never heard of Kirk Allen.

On a sultry June morning in Baltimore a successful psychiatrist named Dr. Robert Lindner received a phone call that would initiate the most remarkable case in his career, a case he would later summarize in his book The Fifty-Minute Hour: A Collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales.

The phone call was from a government physician at a classified installation in New Mexico, an installation where research on the H-bomb was in progress (although Dr. Lindner does not mention the fact). The physician wanted to refer a patient to him. He was a brilliant research scientist in his thirties who was “perfectly normal in every way” except that he seemed to have acquired an amazing amount of detailed information about another world—a world with which he seemed to become increasingly preoccupied to the point of neglecting his work.

When he was asked by his superiors about the drop in the efficiency of his department, Kirk Allen apologized profusely and said he would “try to spend more time on this planet.” It is at that point that the government decided he needed expert help. They would fly the scientist to Baltimore as often as necessary, all expenses paid.

Kirk Allen arrived in Dr. Lindner’s office three days later.

“Any speculations I had had about him as a mad scientist evaporated when I saw him in my office,” writes the physician. “A vigorous-looking man of average height, clear-eyed and blond, his seersucker unwrinkled despite the long trip and the humidity . . . he looked like a junior executive . . . He spoke with just enough diffidence to let me know that the situation he now found himself in was slightly embarrassing.”

During the first session, Dr. Lindner elicited detailed information about his patient’s background and childhood. He learned that Kirk Allen was an avid reader of science-fiction and had somehow become convinced that a series of stories in which the main character had the same name as himself were really parts of his biography! The stories had to do with the faraway world of other planets. It became an obsession with him to complete this biography, to establish the continuity of his life, to resolve the contradictions between various parts of what he called the “record.” He succeeded in doing it when he discovered that he had the ability to travel psychically to the world of the other Kirk Allen.

Dr. Lindner soon realized two things—first, that his patient was utterly mad; second, that his psychosis was life-sustaining and would be very difficult to manage. He requested that Kirk turn over to him the documents on which his research was based.

It is impossible to convey more than a bare impression of Kirk’s records . . . There were, to begin with, about twelve thousand pages of typescript comprising the amended biography of Kirk Allen. This was divided into some 200 chapters and read like fiction. Appended to these pages were approximately 200 more of notes in Kirk’s handwriting, containing corrections necessitated by his more recent “researches,” and a huge bundle of scraps and jottings on envelopes, receipted bills, laundry slips, sheets from memo pads, etc.; these latter were largely incomprehensible since they were written in Kirk’s private shorthand, while some of them were little more than hasty designs or sketches, mathematical equations, or symbolic representations of something or other: each, however, was carefully numbered and lettered with red pencil to indicate where it belonged in the main script.

In addition to this bulky manuscript and its appendages there were:

1. A glossary of names and terms that ran to more than 100 pages.

2. 82 full-color maps carefully drawn to scale, 23 of planetary bodies in four projections, 31 of land masses on these planets, 14 labeled “Kirk Allen’s Expedition to —,” the remainder of cities on the various planets.

3. 61 architectural sketches and elevations, some colored, some drawn only in ink, but all carefully scaled and annotated.

4. Twelve genealogical tables.

5. An eighteen-page description of the galactic system in which Kirk Allen’s home planet was contained, with four astronomical charts, one for each of the seasons, and nine star maps of the skies from observatories on other planets in the system.

6. A 200-page history of the empire Kirk Allen ruled, with a threepage table of dates and names of battles or outstanding historical events.

7. A series of 44 folders containing from two to twenty pages apiece, each dealing with some aspect of the planet . . . typical titles, neatly printed on these folders, were “The Fauna of Srom Olma I,” “The Transportation System of Seraneb,” “Science of Srom,” “Parapsychology of Srom Norbra X,” “The Application of Unified Field Theory and the Mechanics of the Star Drive to Space Travel,” “The Unique Brain Development of the Crystopeds of Srom Norbra X,” “Plant Biology and Genetic Science of Srom Olma I,” and so on.

8. Finally, 306 drawings, some in watercolor, some in chalk, some in crayon, of people, animals, plants, insects, weapons, utensils, machines, articles of clothing, vehicles, instruments, and furniture.

It is a catalog that dwarfs anything in the UMMO literature, anything in Urantia or the other fringe areas of the UFO field. As Dr. Lindner writes:

The reader can imagine for himself my dismay at the sheer bulk of this matter: I do not know if he can appreciate with what misgivings I approached the task of weaning this man from his madness.

The roots of Kirk Allen’s fantasies were evident from the story of his childhood and adolescence. The son of a naval officer who was assigned as governor of a remote Pacific island where they were the only white family, his mother abandoned him to a series of governesses, one of whom seduced him when he was eleven years old before running away with the husband of the island’s only schoolteacher. From then on the boy, who was gifted with unusual intelligence, spent his time reading every book he could find and fantasizing about remote worlds.

Dr. Lindner considered several strategies to try and cure Kirk Allen. He rejected shock therapy as inhumane and extreme. He also rejected the use of hypnosis, a technique he had used often in other situations, for reasons today’s ufologists would do well to consider:

Kirk’s hold on reality was tenuous enough as it was, and I frankly feared to break the thin thread by which his connection with this world was maintained.

Dr. Lindner decided the only alternative was to enter his patient’s fantasy and to try to pry him from the psychosis from that position. By then Kirk Allen had moved to Baltimore. The physician steeped himself in his records and became increasingly fascinated as he worked on them, hour after hour, with Kirk Allen as his mentor. Whenever he would detect some gap in the data, he would “send” his patient to get the missing information psychically. At first this was just a convenient technique for Dr. Lindner—but he became caught in the game and often found himself anxiously awaiting the requested answers.

One day the doctor noticed a major discrepancy in the star maps, which used a scale measured in ecapalim, an Olmayan unit equivalent to a mile and five-sixteenths. They worked on the discrepancy, and Dr. Lindner insisted that Kirk go back to his interplanetary institute to check the original records.

There were several such incidents, in which the therapist sought to displace Kirk’s obsession by sharing it with him. As he did so, however, he found himself increasingly immersed in the fantasy. He actually reversed roles with Kirk, often solving by himself the discrepancies he found in the Olmayan records!

One day when Dr. Lindner was expecting Kirk Allen with special anxiety because he had sent him on a key mission to retrieve more data, he found his patient strangely uninterested in the results. When he queried him eagerly, Kirk shrugged and finally confessed that for the last few weeks he had been lying to the physician.

“I’ve been making it up,” he sputtered, “inventing all that . . . that . . . nonsense!”

“What about the trips?” asked Dr. Lindner with what he describes as a mixture of disappointment and triumph, of concern and relief.

“What trips?” asked Kirk Allen. “Why, it’s been weeks since I gave up that foolishness.”

The patient in this case had continued to pretend that the trips were real for the sake of his therapist, who was now so utterly caught up in a fantasy that was fulfilling a need in his own life.

Kirk Allen returned to his research work with the government, leaving Dr. Lindner with the problem of curing himself. That section of his book is perhaps the most remarkable part of the record:

Until Kirk Allen came into my life I had never doubted my own stability. The aberrations of mind . . . were for others . . . It has been years since I saw Kirk Allen, but I think of him often, and of the days when we roamed the galaxies together.

On long summer nights on Long Island when the sky was filled with stars, Dr. Lindner would look up, smile to himself and whisper: “How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

And I am similarly tempted to ask: “Is there peace in IUMMA? And are the Ummites truly pleased with the transcendental function of OEMII?”3

Don’t read this and think about how you would never fool yourself into believing the fantasies of someone like Kirk Allen, or spend the time creating elaborate fantasies for yourself. While none of us may go as far as Kirk Allen, we are all susceptible to such cognitive mistakes (just look at Dr. Lindner’s eventual mental immersion in the fantasy), and our brains are very good at deluding ourselves so that we don’t even know we’re making such errors in thinking. The first step to overcoming them is to acknowledge that our thinking is fraught with potential for such errors and recognize the limitations of our minds and our knowledge. Next, we should always seek better evidence and information, and be willing to change our ideas, attitudes, and beliefs in response to new information and discoveries.



2 Here are links to the five parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

3 Jacques Vallee, Revelations: Alien contact and Human Deception, pp. 116-121

2 Responses to “Consistent and complicated, but still not true”

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