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.