As a kind of echo to Brian Dunning’s recent episode about skepticism and commercial entertainment on the Skeptoid Podcast, I offer this as an example of an interesting use of skepticism on a popular TV show. (Just FYI: I’m going to try not to spoil anything, but I’m not going to make any promises.) I’m not a diehard fan of Vince Gilligan and his shows. I watched all of his beloved series Breaking Bad, and I enjoyed it. I never thought, though, that it was as good a show as many other people seemed to. Nonetheless, seeing a science-minded (anti-)hero onscreen was great. I haven’t checked the actual scientific accuracy of that show, but I’m sure someone has and found it wanting. (Falk Harnisch and Tunga Salthammer at the chemistry education hub chemistryviews.org seem to have done this work, and their critique appears pretty predictable, if less cinematic than the flaws.)
I’m now watching Gilligan’s spin-off/prequel, Better Call Saul, which stars Bob Odenkirk (who I am a big fan of), and which was co-created by Peter Gould. Gould and Gilligan give pretty good credit to skepticism and scientific thinking, if only in a secondary, though important, plot. Jimmy McGill (the series protagonist, played by Odenkirk), has a brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who claims to suffer from electromagnetic sensitivity. Light and electronic devices seem to cause him enormous distress. His family members, neighbors, and coworkers make taxing accommodations for him, though they are evidently doubtful of his purported condition. They care about him and are sensitive to his suffering.
Still, the show makes it totally plain that what Chuck is suffering from is a psychosomatic response to stress, not electromagnetism. That even includes a pretty clear and reliable diagnosis from an ER doctor, played by Clea Duvall. The story can be a little indulgent about emphasizing Chuck’s reaction to light or devices, but it also makes pretty plain that these events keep occurring at moments of maximum stress and that Chuck is the victim of anxiety, not electromagnetic toxicity. (For a really good rundown on electromagnetic woo similar to Chuck’s, and why it’s wrong, see Skeptoid Podcast episode 72 and episode 273, as well as blog posts by Dunning and by Eric Hall.)
It’s nice to see, too, the way that Chuck is subject to confirmation bias. He is, according to the show, one of the best lawyers in Albuquerque, where the show is set. Lawyers are supposed to look for evidence that strengthens their argument, but not necessarily evidence that gives a full and accurate picture of the world. So it’s no surprise that someone like Chuck should look for confirmation of his preferred position: that he’s being harmed by electricity. He’s not unintelligent or uneducated. But he is mistaken, and has assigned a logical but unsound relationship between electromagnetism and his stress. And he seeks support for that conclusion—which evidence he’s really good at finding—while excluding the much greater evidence that his malady is unrelated to its presumed cause. The people around him are forced to make choices about how best to deal with his delusion, whether by pandering to it or pointing out how mistaken he is.
Those are hard choices to make, especially with loved ones who you know are capable and smart people. You can easily risk offending or alienating them, as seen in the show. But allowing them to indulge in their fantasy is also harmful. And it’s really great to see someone like Odenkirk (whose character is also totally flawed, as a person) deal with those challenges. I’ve gone through that sort of dilemma before, and I imagine a lot of other readers have, too. That’s moving stuff about an interesting issue for the social piece of skepticism and science.
So here’re cheers to a well made and a more or less honest show (about lawyers no less!). It’s good entertainment that includes skepticism about a pseudoscience that viewers may have heard of, and a thoughtful, humane response to that pseudoscience and the people caught up in it. I think I appreciate Gould and Gilligan’s work for this even more than for his high-concept western drama about drugs and hustlers in the American desert. I’ve seen shootouts on TV, and they can be exciting; but I’ve rarely been so entertained by rational doubt.