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Teachers explore Library of Congress primary sources. (Stephen Wesson/Library of Congress)

Teaching Scientific Literacy: The Case of the Alien Abduction

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This post is coauthored by Josh Levy, the Manuscript Division’s historian of science and technology, and Jackie Katz, 2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. It is one in a series on teaching scientific literacy using primary sources related to pseudoscience.

What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience? The designation of a discipline as a science indicates that it involves the study of observable, natural phenomena that can be better understood through tests that produce consistent and predictable results. The findings of these tests must always be considered tentative. If any of the above tenets are absent, the research is pseudoscientific.

Engage your students with exploring the difference between science and pseudoscience by examining accounts of alien abduction. People have been telling stories about spotting mysterious, glimmering lights flitting across the night sky for centuries, but accounts of alien abductions are relatively new.

The modern alien abduction story has a single origin: the 1961 abduction of Barney and Betty Hill in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When driving through the White Mountains late on a September night, Betty Hill spotted a bright light that seemed to follow them. Barney panicked, and turned off the main road. Once the Hills returned home, they realized two hours were missing. Betty began to have recurring nightmares about an abduction. A few years later, a therapist put the Hills under hypnosis, and they fleshed out the details: short, gray, long-nosed aliens who probed them and showed Betty a map of the spaceship’s route through the stars.

Image of mountainous area with roads
Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, about five miles from the site where the Hills said their abduction took place, 2011. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

To begin, ask students to sketch out a typical alien abduction account, including the location where it occurs and the individuals and objects involved. Then tell your students the story of Barney and Betty and show them the photograph of the White Mountains taken near the Hills’ route. Ask students how the image and the details of the story compare to their sketch and ask what past experiences led them to their sketch. Responses to these questions could lead to a conversation about bias if students identify movies and books that have influenced their vision of an alien abduction.

Ask students to use their sketches as well as the image of the White Mountains and the Hills’ story to generate a class list of evidence that indicates an alien abduction occurred. Evidence might include: limited ambient lighting at the scene, gray figures, and bright lights.

Next, provide students with astronomer Carl Sagan’s evaluation (pages 18-20) of one of Betty Hill’s strongest pieces of evidence, her recreation of the “star map” shown to her by the aliens. After students read Sagan’s description of the star map, ask students to list the evidence Sagan includes in his description of the star map. Then discuss the biases that may have been part of Sagan’s own reflections and inferences. How do these compare to the biases that led to the students’ own sketches? Finally, ask students to evaluate how convincing the evidence is. 

Finally, revisit the class’s list of evidence. Has Sagan’s evaluation made them question the validity of any of the evidence listed? Why or why not? What evidence would they need to support the idea an alien abduction occurred? Would it be possible to generate this evidence? Students can further consider Sagan’s conclusions (pages 6-8) as to how the Hills’ story became so convincing to many UFO believers, and offer their own.

By discussing pseudoscientific concepts, students can build their scientific literacy and critical thinking skills, helping them consume the news of today with more confidence. Pseudoscientific concepts also provide an opportunity to have difficult conversations regarding bias in science, and its social impacts.

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