The Problematic Use of Skeptics in Supernatural Shows

Soon-to-be fellow Freethought Blogs blogger Jen McCreight has a good post, wherein she is skeptical of a character’s skeptical reactions in an episode of True Blood. Jen gives spoilers, but I won’t. I can just sum up the problem abstractly as the following: a character who over the course of 47 episodes of the show has discovered the existence of various surprising supernatural creatures, and who has had her own intense, deeply personal, terrifying multi-episode storyline with a supernatural force, is told a new story of strange goings-on with a supernatural being, and reacts with complete and total skepticism. This character insists the story she is being told must be a drug-induced hallucination of some sort.

Jen wonders whether a character in such a world, who has had so many surprising revelations of supernatural activity, would still have such skeptical reactions. I wondered the same thing as I watched the scene too. I think the only logical explanations of her skepticism were that the character who told her the story was a drug addict and the story he told was of being taken sexually by a beautiful supernatural being, and he is not particularly sexually attractive.

Nonetheless, the scene reminded me of one of my biggest pet peeves about the use of skeptics in supernatural shows and films. The problem is that skeptics are treated as a character type which just has a proclivity to doubt even in the teeth of overwhelming evidence. Rather than being judiciously thinking people who believe when they see evidence, and who are skeptical merely of frauds and of the unproven, they are people who remain stubborn disbelievers despite clear and unavoidable evidence or despite knowing about similar kinds of realities within their world, etc.

This lazy plot device sends the subtle message that skeptics are, ultimately, people of biased and stubbornly closed-minded temperaments, whose bad critical thinking skills make them unable to see a set of truths that normal people all intuitively understand exist and which true believers are especially good at discovering even before normal people do. When the believers and the skeptics disagree in supernatural shows, their debates are not ultimately so much about the quality of the evidence or about the appropriateness of believing without sufficient evidence, but whether default believing or default disbelieving is more truth-conducive and rational. And when the believers are inevitably proven correct, the implication is that default believing is vindicated as the more generally truth-conducive approach to the world, and that default disbelieving is proven foolish and obstinate. It is rarely countenanced that a bad reasoning process could yield a true belief or that a good reasoning process rightly could temporarily lead to a false belief and also correct that false belief when sufficient evidence properly emerges. No, whoever had the true position is implicitly treated as vindicated in her entire method of reasoning, no matter how dubious and antithetical to real world progress in knowledge.

Or, worse, in these shows there really will be solid evidence for a counter-intuitive proposition and yet the person who believes it will be represented as the one having “faith” simply because the content of the belief is strange and new. Skeptics in such cases are those who refuse to respond to the evidence because the clearly indicated new belief does not fit with preexisting beliefs and they are supposedly too “scientific” and “rational” too reexamine preexisting beliefs in light of new evidence–only people of faith do that! The message: there are all sorts of obvious things that people of faith just know because they can plainly see them, even though “science” and “reason” cannot confirm them empirically and rationalists too narrow-mindedly accept only what has an existing full scientific account as real. Why can’t these shows have skeptics who respond to a surprising new set of facts by applying critical thinking and scientific methods to reveal how careful reasoning can not only verify but illuminate how the strange phenomena actually work?

In the real world, it is unskeptical believing that is stubborn and foolishly willful, and it is hesitance until there is evidence that leads to consistently better and more reliable beliefs. And it is the scientists, not the everyday believers, who follow the evidence to counter-intuitive ideas like evolution by natural selection and the dynamics of quantum mechanics which upend common sense assumptions entirely. In the real world, some of the most staggeringly counter-intuitive and amazing beliefs humans have ever conceived have come to us through science itself and are all readily accepted by the hardest nosed scientific skeptics and rationalists. Good skeptics are neither default believers nor default disbelievers. They believe countless counter-intuitive or strange things as long as they are demonstrable.

Joss Whedon does a particularly terrible job of addressing this issue in the video below:

After doing a basically good (though in some ways overly deferent) job of assuaging the fears of a Christian who feels persecuted by the mere existence of atheists, Whedon describes creating a scene in which Angel expresses Whedon’s own skeptical disbelief that the world is guided by any sort of purpose. Then he explains his choice to have another character point out that an actual miracle (even within the terms of Whedon’s fictional world) has just happened for Angel which aided an important purpose he had and essentially evidenced that his own actions really did serve deeper purposes and that the universe accommodated a miracle to make sure he fulfilled it:


The message this sends is, again, that skeptics and, more particularly in this case, nihilists just think the way they do in a closed-minded, arbitrary way. While I am not myself a nihilist, I do not think nihilists are simply that way by temperament or that they are so closed-minded as to be beyond persuasion. Here Whedon, based on his own poor judgment about what being fair and balanced towards opposing viewpoints entails, is doing his own professed point of view an injustice by characterizing it that way.

Finally, what is especially irksome in supernatural shows is when psychics and other frauds from real life are presented in them using the same dubious techniques they use in real life and yet actually being in touch with spirits through their vague means of contacting the dead and of receiving messages. In real life “psychics” get only vague, inconclusive, one-size fits all messages because they are the results of shameless cold-calling techniques. When pressed for why they cannot say anything falsifiable or why they cannot reveal that they know anything which is truly unguessable, the frauds insist that psychic powers just “don’t work that way”. In the movies, the psychics should not act like the real life frauds do and send the subtle message that those fraudulent cover up lies about “how those things really work” are plausible and realistic. Instead, the psychics and the ghosts should be completely verifiable and the ineffectual frauds should be exposed and driven out of town.

The depiction of real psychic abilities should not be as vague and sketchy and limited in precisely the ways that hoaxes are limited. This implicitly sends the false message that in the real world there is some scintilla of plausibility to the self-professed psychics. It paints a picture where in our real world there is something hard to figure out about whether psychics are real since they seem to know a lot that they could not. The movie or show then fills out for the frauds just how their vague messages could be more than just good guessing—“they are clues we need to piece together since the dead cannot come out and tell us what we need to do but rather must make us figure out our destinies for ourselves”, or something similar. Such shows and films emotionally validate the utterly false and misleading impression from real world psychics that they have an uncanny knack for hitting on truths they “should not be able to know”, that they really could be the result of a murky science of engaging the supernatural, when in fact there is nothing ambiguous about what psychics do or how they get their “spookily” accurate results. It is unwise to encourage people to be fooled into thinking otherwise.

None of this is to say we should have any less supernatural or mythic art. I love at least some wildly imaginative stories and imagery as much as the most superstitious person. What I think though is that supernatural and mythical worlds should be truthful in one key respect—they should not lie about the nature or value of critical thinking or about the irrationality of shoddy, faith-based, anti-evidence thinking. And they should not implicitly play off of and exacerbate people’s real world confusions about real life frauds. Their supernaturalism should clearly distinguish itself from, and never inculcate or reinforce true belief in, real life superstition peddlers and profiteers. Instead they should quench the mind’s thirst for the unreal in ways that cleverly counter and undermine erroneous real life beliefs in dangerous immoral anti-rational nonsense.

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