The Motivation for the Mack Inquiry


In a guest commentary appearing in The Crimson ("Defining Academic Freedom," Jun. 30, 1995), Alan M. Dershowitz strongly criticized Harvard Medical School's inquiry into Dr. John Mack's work with people who claim to have been "abducted" by alien creatures from outer space. He charged that Dr. Mack, a professor of psychiatry, was being investigated because of his unorthodox ideas and his choice of research topic. Mr. Dershowitz professed concern about the "chilling of academic freedom" resulting from the inquiry and he asked: "Will the next professor who is thinking about an unconventional research project be deterred by the prospect of having to hire a lawyer to defend his ideas?" He repeated this criticism in a front-page story that appeared in the Washington Post on August 4.

I chaired the ad hoc faculty committee appointed by Dean of the Medical School Daniel C. Tosteson '44 to conduct the inquiry, and I feel compelled to answer Professor Dershowitz because I believe his arguments are misinformed and misleading. He is mistaken about the committee's purposes. He also misunderstands the nature of clinical science and the standards by which the Harvard medical faculty--or, for that matter, the faculty of any other first-rate medical school--are judged by their peers.

I speak only for myself, although I know that my views are shared by many clinicians and scientists here at Harvard and elsewhere. Readers should also understand that the committee's work, like all internal faculty reviews, was confidential; I will not breach that confidentiality by anything I say here. But important questions have been raised by Mr. Dershowitz's charges and they need to be addressed. My comments address only those issues and will be based on what is already in the public record.

The Crimson's excellent story this week ("Letter Questions Work of 'UFO Dr.'," news story, Sep. 11, 1995) effectively refutes the notion that Dr. Mack was being criticized simply because he holds unconventional views. As described in that story, the dean's letter made it perfectly clear that there never was any challenge to Dr. Mack's right to do research on "abduction," to propose hypotheses or to hold controversial opinions. That Mr. Dershowitz would prefer to believe otherwise is puzzling. He either hadn't seen the committee report, in which case he was relying on hearsay or guesswork, or he had seen the report and chose to misrepresent it. The committee was critical of Dr. Mack not because he was interested in the "abduction" phenonmenon but because he wasn't doing any scientific research on the problem and wasn't being sufficiently objective and detached in his clinical approach to the "abductees."

Mr. Dershowitz argues that "the paradigm of the scientific not the only criteria [sic] for evaluating academic undertakings." He makes the interesting observation that "[i]f Dr. Mack had taught at the Divinity School, it is unlikely that any investigation would be tolerated, since divinity schools are not governed by the laws of science." He's quite right of course, but I fail to see how this is relevant. Dr. Mack is a member of the Faculty of Medicine. Schools differ not only in their areas of intellectual interest but also in the methods of study used by their faculty and in the way the quality of scholarship is judged. In the Medical School, faculty are expected to base their work on science and the rule of evidence, and to conduct their clinical practices in accordance with the highest professional standards. Those were the criteria applied in this case; different standards would presumably be used in assessing scholarly work at the Divinity School or elsewhere in the University.


Mr. Dershowitz questions the justification for our unprecedented inquiry into the work of a tenured member of the faculty. Why not let Dr. Mack's views be tested by his peers in the "marketplace of academic ideas?" The answer is that in science, ideas by themselves aren't enough. They must ultimately be supported by peer-reviewed evidence, and Dr. Mack failed to meet that expectation. He hadn't published evidence in the scientific literature or in any scholarly books. He had not involved his peers in any collaborative studies of the "abductees." He had in effect isolated himself from his academic colleages and discouraged the kind of evidence-based peer review and criticsm that ordinarily take place in the "market-place" of science.

Under these circumstances, and in view of the extraordinary nature of Dr. Mack's claims and the enormous attention he was attracting, it seems reasonable that an ad hoc committee of the medical faculty should have been asked to gather information about his activities. Mr. Dershowitz evidently thinks otherwise. In the June 30 issue of The Crimson, he said that the appointment of the committee "will act as a sword of Damocles, hanging over the head of every professor who drifts outside the mainstream..." And in the Washington Post article of August 4, while applauding the outcome of the inquiry, he said the investigation was a mistake, because it "will chill controversy."

Although I share Mr. Dershowitz's commitment to academic freedom, I think our inquiry will have exactly the opposite effect. Who could be more "outside the mainstream" than a clinical professor who seriously suggests that his patients (and thousands or millions of others) may have been abducted and abused by extraterrestrial "aliens." And yet, the issue of concern to the Medical School was not what Dr. Mack chose to study, but the way he did it. If Harvard did not challenge Dr. Mack's freedom to work on that subject and hold such views, how could any future maverick on our faculty have cause for concern?

Arnold S. Relman, M.D. is Professor Emeritus of Medicine and of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine.