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.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Diana Hickman

    That’s what willing suspension of disbelief is for. The “willing” part is important. You know that you are preparing yourself to enjoy a story that couldn’t happen. Temporary suspension of disbelief is a far cry from belief, and a lot more fun.

    • Camels With Hammers

      There’s a difference between suspending one’s disbelief in fantastic realities. It is another thing to suspend one’s beliefs about the best norms for belief and practice. Routinely we judge (or should judge) immoral characters by our same values we use in real life (while taking into account the peculiarities of the characters’ unique circumstances if necessary, as we also would in real life). We should judge a show badly if it deceptively implies an evil behavior is good. Similarly, we should challenge art work that presents lazy, misleading, and outright false views of how good reasoning works. These shows often make big dogmatic points out of shaming the skeptics and celebrating the believers. Those are ideas being advanced—badly thought out ideas that are fair game for criticism and doubly so when a credulous audience already believes those bad ideas about epistemology or, worse, the world.

      I have no problem whatsoever with suspending my disbelief, but only bad art demands you refuse your reason and your values altogether, and such art should not be heeded.

    • plutosdad

      Suspension of disbelief means “i will accept that vampires exist in order to enjoy the show”
      That does not mean “I will accept changes to the character” or discontinuities such as a character who says they want proof to be convinced, then suddenly deciding proof is not enough. They changed the character making her not care about what she always did, in order to keep a gimmick going.

      This happens a lot with romances on shows too. The characters for years act like all they want is this person, then they just get together, the character suddenly rejects the relationship. I suppose writers do this because they do not want to drop the “game” of the scenes, but they are not being true to the characters. Once that happens the audience doesn’t care anymore about that character, why should they when the writers don’t care about the character? This seemed to be a real pet peeve among some of my teachers.

      So maybe it’s that they don’t understand skepticism, or maybe they also just wanted to keep the gimmick going and think that is more important than the character is.

      I felt the same way about Scully after the X-Files movie. After she was kidnapped in the spaceship and Moulder rescues her, and all she had gone through, the first episode of the next season she was right back to “there must be some other explanation” It was just ridiculous and an attitude that struck me more of faith than skepticism.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Exactly, on TV skepticism is portrayed as faith and faith is portrayed as empiricism!

  • Aliasalpha

    So what would be the most accurate portrayal of the skeptical approach in a supernatural themed show?

    Scooby Doo?

    -Hear about something weird
    -Think “Yeah thats probably bullshit”
    -Pull off rubber mask
    -”I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids”

  • lexaequitas

    Whedon has a bit of a habit of doing this: I remember a scene in Firefly where River Tam, who was portrayed as being mentally slightly autistic*, was ripping quotes from the Bible as “not realistic”, and the religious character came along to stop her and reasonably assure her that she just needed to believe in miracles on faith. The scene always bothered me.

    *admittedly, it was involved than that, but essentially she was a confused, somewhat irrational person.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I think the problem is that TV shows like this present being a skeptic as having almost unassailable faith in a set of propositions, rather than presenting skepticism as attitude or intellectual approach.

    If I had experienced what Scully experienced in The X-Files I would have come to believe that aliens visited the earth, many psychics really were onto something, and that several shadowy conspiracies were afoot. And I would believe these things because I’m a skeptic, not in spite of being a skeptic.

    Skepticism is an approach to how one forms beliefs, not a set of propositions one believes.

  • Melanie

    Scully’s role on XFiles for roughly 8 out of 9 seasons is to be skeptical and disbelieving of Mulder’s wacky-yet-always-turn-out-to-be-correct theories. There’s a point at which it almost becomes a drinking game…

  • Codex

    Have to agree with whoever above said ‘Scooby Doo’. Could also argue from a ‘science fantasy’ though not supernatural view that Doctor Who would be pretty perfect for positive portrayal of sceptics (last ep I may have squealed a little when it was said that Rory – favourite Who character in years – had no religion, no superstition). However sci-fi/fan does tend to lend itself better to scepticism, for obvious reasons, than straight fantasy.

  • Tisha Irwin

    Scully was a terrible “scientist”. Science does not mean dogmatically believing what’s in your science textbooks.

    Plus she mispronounced almost every medical word in the script.

  • Ian Andreas Miller

    Thank you for posting this. I love it.

    This reminds me of the irritating My Little Pony episode “Feeling Pinkie Keen”:

    Augh. Your post sums up the point of it pretty well.

  • Aaron Greenberg

    I think it’s simply a lazy, arguably necessary, script tactic. When you are creating a show about some fantastical thing, most of the time you “need” to give viewers the shock that even the most skeptical person can be persuaded (or killed off by the unbelievable thing). Otherwise, why should we as viewers accept it?

    Of course, most of the best treatments of paranormal things are the ones where you aren’t really sure at the end if it’s real or imaginary. In my case, I usually lean toward imaginary (except maybe for Hobbes of Calvin and Hobbes).

    It’s akin in scripts to what I call “demonstrated badassery.” In a TV show, where you have plenty of time over the season, it’s not needed as much, and not really in books, either. But a movie? You’ve got an hour and a half. You “need” to, right off the bat, do some throwaway (in terms of plot) scene where you prove the badassery of your hero, the villainosity of your villain or the suavery of your James Bond. How else, unless it’s a sequel or familiar character, can we take it for granted that they really are a badass, villain or superspy?

    Of course, when you have Ahnold as your star, you don’t need that, and James Bond doesn’t anymore, either. It’s lazy, and great films tend to ignore it and often start with plot points. Or even contradict your expectations.

  • Aaron Greenberg

    Also, to quote Arthur Conan Doyle (and later, Spock) about skepticism: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

    That’s one of the things that are cool about Spock. He’s a skeptic open to new ideas. Sometimes, by the process of elimination, he’ll even offer the new idea.

  • Ace of Sevens


    A lot of this is failure to think through the larger implications of the changes you’ve made in order to tell your story. Notice how the presence of super heroes in the Marvel universe, despite being a wedge issue has no real effect on politics and the elections always turn out the same.

    • Aaron Greenberg

      Actually, while DC is always considered the less realistic universe, it deals with that kind of thing all the time. And the best example is Watchmen, where the entire history changes because of Dr. Manhattan.

  • plutosdad

    I felt the same way about Scully in the X-Files, after the X-Files movie. How could she still think aliens were not real?

    But I am not sure it really has to do with people being unfamiliar with skeptics, but rather a failure writers have for many archetypes. There is a “game” of the scenes, where the characters play out these archetypes. but as time goes on, the characters develop personalities, wants, needs. But too often, writers sacrifice character for the game of the scene.

    It is often seen in the romance in tv shows, will they get together ever? won’t they? Lately this is also called the “ross and rachel” phenomenon, and is often seen in romance. When the two people finally get what they secretly desire all along, then suddenly throw it away to keep the drama going, you immediately stop caring about those characters. Because at that point the writers have stopped caring about them.

    So, it’s not just about skeptics, it’s about fear of making changes to a formula that is working, getting laughs/views, and in the case of tv, making money. But you see it on the small stage too.

  • plutosdad

    wow im sorry, i thought this was a new post when i saw it on facebook :)