Skeptics “proven wrong” in films and television

I was recently thinking about the cases in movies and television shows where the skeptic/unbeliever is shown to be wrong and that there really is some supernatural events/miracles/aliens/paranormal powers at work in the world of the show. Whether or not it is the intent of the writers, someone who is predisposed could watch the shows, thinking they could apply the events in the show to our world and say that this means a skeptical worldview is “wrong” for whatever they believe in. But in most cases of these shows, the skeptic is shown wrong by undeniable evidence — exactly the type of evidence that anybody that strives for honest scientific skepticism would accept if it were to ever happen in our world (unless they are what tvtropes.org terms “Arbitrary Skepticism“) . And it is with that seeking of evidence in mind which forms the basis of the Randi $1M Challenge and similar local challenges, such as the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) $50,00 challenge.

How about some examples?*

An example near and dear to every geek’s heart is Han Solo’s skepticism about the Force and the power of Jedis:

I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. [Kenobi smiles] Anyway, it’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

And whaddya know, but the Force turns out to be real — and is later given a “scientific” explanation, but that’s not until the prequels — and some dreams and visions that Luke has come true as do various prophecies. What an idiot Han was! But not really, because his skepticism was totally reasonable and once Luke and Obi-Wan’s powers were demonstrated he wasn’t an “unbeliever” any more. I highly doubt that George Lucas’ intent was to imply that things like ESP and fate are real, as he really just wanted to make a fantasy movie in the style of a space western.

How about movie 1408 where John Cusack plays a writer who investigates and writes books about haunted places throughout America but is himself skeptical about the paranormal, having apparently never experienced anything that he could not explain. But the events of the movie in his room are clearly of “real” supernatural origin such that both he and the audience are left to believe by the end of the film. Up until his stay in room 1408, his experiences essentially reflect what most skeptically-minded paranormal researchers have found: there’s always a rational explanation for seemingly “haunted” places. Or put another way, the supernatural explanation is not a reasonable default even if events are currently unexplained (especially if the events are not actually documented except through stories). But in his case, there is no room for doubt for him or the viewer. Though for the rest of the people populating that world, I am not sure the audio recording would be enough evidence to be convincing as that is obviously fake-able.

The Season 5 premier of the drama Bones shows Bones’ skepticism to be wrong when a psychic correctly predicts that there are bodies buried underneath a fountain. Again up until that point Bones had no reason to assume such a specific prediction from a psychic would be accurate, because, well, they never are, especially the famous Sylvia Browne. I would love for psychics to be a useful addition to an investigation, as I’m sure many a detective would be. It would certainly save on some taxpayer-funded hours.If a psychic could demonstrate, especially repeatedly, very specific predictions that they have no reasonable way of having foreknowledge of, I would certainly be convinced (and they could be $1 million richer!).

So it seems possible that these movies and shows are actually making the point in favor of a Skeptical position in that they demonstrate that when the evidence is actual present, and not merely anecdotes or wishful thinking, that even the most “dye-in-the-wool Skeptic” can be convinced.

Speaking for myself, I really really want there to be such a thing as ESP, or psychics, or remote viewing. There just hasn’t been any good evidence for it.

I suspect I will continue to avoid shows and movies which feel like they have the intent of showing that “you skeptics are wrong”, as they mostly just annoy me. This is totally different from movies where it happens to be that in that universe supernatural/paranormal things are just part of reality, but otherwise aren’t part of an agenda-of-sorts.

* Most of these are courtesy of the amazingly addictive tvtropes.org.

About Josh DeWald

I am a software engineer, husband and parent of two. I have been involved in the Skeptical movement for a few years now, especially since having children and so needing to fight pseudoscience related to parenting (vaccines, homeopathy, etc). I've been fortunate to attend TAM twice with my wife (who is also of a Skeptical bent). I also have a blog known as "What Does the Science Say?" (whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com), where I have an odd habit of writing a lot about aspartame.
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20 Responses to Skeptics “proven wrong” in films and television

  1. I totally agree. I’ve had skeptics complain to me about the X-files and other programs that present what they feel is a non-skeptical approach to reality, but what they don’t realize is that within the context of that show, those things ARE real. It’s all in the frame of reference.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Thanks! Glad I made the point at least reasonably clear… in having my wife proofread, at some point I guess it sounded like my point was “and therefore we should believe in these things in our world”.

    • Stephen Propatier says:

      I agree with your frame of reference issue. Still I always liked x-files. I often would find myself getting mad at the “Skeptic” Agent Scully for lack of skepticism. Even thought at the time I did not self identify as a skeptic. I often would point out “hey that is not the problem this is the problem” related to scully’s input. I will say that one episode of the x-files that stays true to skepticism within the confines of the series “reality”. That episode was called I think “the war of the coprophages”. I have a favorite skeptic scene from that story, overall it is about killer roaches. Scully is at a store everyone is panicking buying over killer roaches. Someone knocks over a candy stand and chocolate covered almonds spill on the floor. Everyone panics and runs out of the store. Scully walks over picks up one of the chocolates and eats it in the empty store. The chaos and irrationality of that scene with the “skeptic” keeping her cool was excellent. I would point to that episode as a great skeptics x-file. I think about scene every-time I am at the grocery store prior to a major weather event.

  2. Peter Cleghorn says:

    “I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. [Kenobi smiles] Anyway, it’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”

    Yet only twenty years ago give or take Jedi were running around the Galaxy using the force. In the Jedi Universe Hans scepticism makes no sense, just shows he has a bad memory (guess he’s about 30 years old).

    • Dave says:

      I totally agree. It makes even less sense with the older Imperial officer who slandered the Force directly *to* a Sith lord. Surely that guy would be old enough to remember the giant Jedi headquarters in the middle of the capital, the overthrow of the Jedi Order, etc.

  3. jeffwagg says:

    Star Trek: Science
    Star Wars: Religion
    Take that atheist Star Wars fans!

    For a delightful reversal of this trope, I highly recommend Stephen Fry’s novel, “The Hippopotamus.” I really wish they’d make a movie out of that.

    Also, Sherlock Holmes and the original Scooby Doo Mysteries!

  4. Jeff Grigg says:

    The police always take it seriously when a “psychic” says that they know where the bodies are buried. After all, they might know because they buried them there.

  5. Rob Struble says:

    “There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.”

    Correct, it’s all in the midi-chlorian count

    • Jeff Grigg says:

      I liked it better when it was a mystical “Force of Others.”

      Still, what genetic (or magical?) traits make one compatible with midi-chlorians? It does seem to be inherited — suggesting that it’s genetic.

  6. Freke1 says:

    “Speaking for myself, I really really want there to be such a thing as ESP, or psychics, or remote viewing. There just hasn’t been any good evidence for it.”

    Are You sure? Is that Your conclusion after talking to the scientists doing the research? How many books have You read about these subjects? How many interviews have You listened to (about these subjects)? I’m just wondering, I know You follow Aspartame closely but do You do the same thorough research with regard to ESP, psychics and remote viewing?

    “There just hasn’t been any good evidence for it.”
    Yes that is what most people believe. But is it true?

    • jGalt says:

      If you can provide one single example of a psychic reading someone’s mind — real secrets, not cold reading — I’ll consider it as a possibility. Until the psychics take the time to provide REAL extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claims, it is not our responsibility to prove their negatives.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      The closest thing I’m aware of was the Bem research, which has had multiple failed replications. It’s not one of my interests to be honest, so I don’t follow it too closely. I eagerly await actual evidence, as I think I said in my article.

      • Freke1 says:

        I rather hope ESP, psychics or remote viewing isn’t real, but I keep stumbling upon articles claiming otherwise. It’s not something I follow so I was just trying to determine the research behind that statement (and skip the research myself ;-)). Same goes for aspartame and many other subjects btw.

  7. Peter G Brooksbank says:

    Don’t sweat the detail

  8. Mud says:

    Freke is right… there isn’t any good evidence for psi, remote viewing etc etc..

    The fact that Josh said he’d entertain a world where psi existed is a bit bizarre. Can you imagine the inane blithering on top of the inane blithering people vocalise or write?

    I can see the headlines now…Psychic gives up the ghost after reading reporters mind…

    Save me.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Well I think the world would certainly be interesting if there were in fact people who had these powers. If people in fact had the ability to “remote view” or in other way have access to useful information, that could be quite nice.

      As far as I can tell, we *don’t* happen to live in that world.

  9. Tom Klecker says:

    Polls tell us the the majority of Americans not only believe in God but also in angels, demons and THE Devil, ghosts and spirits (thanks Ghost, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters and M. Night Shyamalan) and magic (thanks Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars).

    And, yes, I have noticed how the skeptic, the scientist, is used as a strawman to illustrate the foolishness of being rationale and skeptical.

    Even the Big Bang Theory has begun catering to the comic book, superhero trivia crowd over the science and downplaying the triviality.

    Still love the show, though.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      I think the comic book crowd has always been part of their target demographic… though I’ve never myself been into comic books, somehow having missed that boat at some point. And there’s a lot to be said for comic books in terms of mythical archetypes.

  10. William J Granger says:

    I think the X-files was popular because a majority of Americans do believe in UFOs and government conspiracy no matter how hard we skeptics try to dissuade them. Just my 2 cents though!

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