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From the atomic ashes: Skeptics! Pop culture's ongoing struggle with portraying believable free thinkers

Pop Culture

From the atomic ashes: Skeptics! Pop culture’s ongoing struggle with portraying believable free thinkers

It wasn’t always like this. Is it changing again?

For the better part of a century, when it’s come to depicting skeptics, popular culture has been dominated by one slim idea — that narratively, the only interesting thing to do with a skeptical character is to convert them. From Maureen O’Hara in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to Han Solo in Star Wars (1977) to Dana Scully in The X-Files (1993-2002) to Twilight Sparkle in the “Feeling Pinkie Keen” episode of My Little Pony (2011) to Dr. Stephen Strange in Doctor Strange (2016), rational skepticism has been routinely portrayed as something to be overcome to enjoy the simple pleasures of believing reassuring, popular myths.

It’s not profoundly difficult to figure out why this has been the case. There is something in us as humans that sides instinctually with the Little Guy Clinging to His Absurd Beliefs that will make the figure of the rigorous, evidence-based skeptic a tough sell in departmental meetings. We can tolerate the deflating of small, quantitatively verifiable claims (as in Mythbusters), but as soon as the raw power of scientific method and detailed criticism gets brought to bear on something that people really base their lives around (as in Penn and Teller: Bullshit!), squeamishness sets in, and the phrase “mean-spirited” gets floated with devastating effect.

From the atomic ashes: Skeptics! Pop culture's ongoing struggle with portraying believable free thinkers

But it hasn’t always been that way, not even in America. Perhaps especially not in America. There was an age, stretching from roughly 1880 to 1930, when thorough-going skepticism and popular culture marched in heady lock step with each other. Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) skewered popular beliefs about spirituality and Western exceptionalism in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906). Mark Twain (1835-1910) savaged American imperialism and religious belief in his later writings to such an extent that his family actively suppressed their continued publication after his death. Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was the nation’s most popular public speaker for decades in spite of the fact that he was an avowed agnostic and free-thinker. Harry Houdini (1874-1926), when he wasn’t carrying out impossible escapes from layers of manacles, grabbed headlines as a buster of psychic mediums who claimed to speak with the Great Beyond. H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) rose to the first rank of American journalists roasting anti-intellectualism, culminating in his piercing articles covering the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. And two of Sinclair Lewis’s (1885-1951) best sellers, Arrowsmith (1925) and Elmer Gantry (1927), fiercely portrayed popular violence against evolution and the vapidity of alternative spirituality, respectively.

From the atomic ashes: Skeptics! Pop culture's ongoing struggle with portraying believable free thinkers

That’s a long list to have made you read through, but the fact that it features not only the greatest writers and journalists, but the most popular speaker (and even the greatest magician) of that age suggests something about just how much the media landscape has changed in this country. From celebrating the solitary figure of the hyper-rational truth-seeker, the intellectual fighting to free himself from the bog of accumulated belief, we somewhere, somehow returned to a more Romantic conception which revels in the drama of Believers Believing Their Beliefs.

In among the privations of Depression, the Can-Do-ism of world war, and the paranoia-laced comfort of the Eisenhower Era, we lost our hunger for challenge. After all, weren’t the Europeans of the early 20th century the great free-thinkers of their age, and didn’t that lead them into spectacular acts of self-annihilation? What good is Enlightenment if it just leads, as Martin Heidegger and Theodor W. Adorno bemoaned, to the reduction of individuals to cogs in an efficiently maximized, rational scheme of things? Easier, and certainly more pleasant, to slip back into the alluring tropes of the Jacksonian Age – the instinctual Aw Shucks mistrust of anything and anyone that pretended to refinement or education, wedded powerfully to the uniquely atomic mania of Cold War anti-Communist sentiment.

There is safety in simplicity, we intoned in the midst of frightful times, and so we eased ourselves into the comforting waters of The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver. Skeptics surrendered the ground they had won and fled to their last popular bastion, science fiction, to continue complicated exercises in social and scientific analysis, while the rest of America figured itself out.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951-1953) hypothesized the salvation of the galaxy at the hands not of crusading space Siegfrieds, but of a small collection of mathematically gifted Encyclopedists. Star Trek (1966-1969) showed scientifically literate explorers encountering strange and mystical worlds and, more often than not, finding rational explanations where before there had been local superstitions.

From the atomic ashes: Skeptics! Pop culture's ongoing struggle with portraying believable free thinkers

And then there’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) — I’m not sure where to put its odd mix of anti-McCarthyist insight, oddball storytelling, and futuristic vision. Perhaps that’s the point, but in the landscape of popular television shows challenging the received wisdom of why humans do what we do, it’s impossible to omit.

In the hallowed halls of science fiction, a skeptic hero was still a possibility long after mainstream pop culture made its decision to believe, and believe hard. While TV reveled in the ready profits of comforting banalities, and the Deepak Chopras and Dr. Oz’s built their feel-good empires of misinformation, a growing crop of science fiction and philosophy nerds kept their heads down, did well in school, stuffed their backpacks with Iain M. Banks, Carl Sagan, and Bertrand Russell, and readied themselves to suddenly and mercilessly take over the world.

Enter the modern age of skepticism in popular culture. Kids raised on Ghostbusters (three random scientists and a hired hand defeat a God using particle physics), Beakman’s World (the answer is always air pressure), Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus, and Cosmos reruns came into their own and demanded that the learning not stop at the edge of adolescence. They asked for heroes who thought and for programming that challenged.

From the atomic ashes: Skeptics! Pop culture's ongoing struggle with portraying believable free thinkers

And, sorta, they got what they desired. Yes, the two most notable examples of fictional skeptics – Dr. Gregory House and Sheldon Lee Cooper — are narcissistic social maladjusts, but they are manifestly there to criticize and analyze, not to be dramatically converted in the third act. Tony Stark, the anti-Commie product of Cold War comics, was reborn as a (narcissistic, socially maladjusted) science hero and spearheaded a research-and-tech heavy recasting of the Marvel Universe for the big screen, where even the Gods speak of Einstein-Rosen bridges.

Meanwhile, skepticism has invaded new art forms. Tim Minchin sells out concert halls singing about pseudoscience and analytic rigor. Greydon Square raps about carbon dating and its relevance to New Earth conspiracy theorists. MadArtLab is a site devoted exclusively to the intersection of science, art, and skepticism, featuring a whole roster of artists bringing critical thinking issues into visual and performance media.

Perhaps most importantly, a whole generation of scientists has stepped up to engage critically with the public through the #scicomm movement. Debates about GMOs and chakras and the consequences of evolution and the strict limits of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory which scientists had once walled themselves off from in the confines of their research labs are now happening on popular forums, adding authority and heightened evidential criteria to what had been a no-man’s land of conspiracy theorists and well-intentioned but woefully misguided autodidacts.

Slowly, ever … so …. slowly … writers have come to realize that there is more to do with skeptics than convert them, while individual skeptics, who had for a half century played a primarily passive role waiting for great minds to capture their essence on page and screen, have taken the reins into their own hands and told their stories in a thousand ways on dozens of different platforms, bringing a whiff of humanity to a group too long perceived as deeply sinister.

And so let the new banner be unfurled…

We exist.
We’re pretty regular folks.
Now let’s talk about why Quantum Entanglement doesn’t mean psychics are real …

Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. To celebrate Darwin Day on the 12th, the AiPT! Science section is exploring skepticism in pop culture throughout the month of February!

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