Legend of the Ztarr: The Skeptic Epic
Entertainment—whether in the form of books, television, film, music, or graphic novels—can be a powerful way to convey a message, including the promotion of science-based thinking.
In 2009, I was invited to attend the prestigious annual idea conference TED (Technology Entertainment Design) as a TED Fellow; the conference’s new fellowship program offers all-expenses-paid attendance for forty young world-changing individuals from across the globe. TED’s slogan is “ideas worth spreading,” and this is what they’re looking for in their speakers—as content producer Kelly Stoetzel describes, “We look for someone who will say, ‘Here’s what we can do to make things better.’”
One thing I love to point out about the TED community is how well skeptics and science educators are represented at the events. TEDTalks speakers include James Randi, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Carolyn Porco, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Michael Specter, Brian Cox, and Phil Plait. I spoke on the TED Fellows stage at TED ’09 and the TED You stage at TED Active ’10.
My feeling is that the TED community and the skeptical movement have a common goal—making the world a better place—but the key to reaching it lies in the tools of skepticism. An essential part of finding ideas that improve human wellbeing is the ability to know what ideas are wrong. This is the strength of critical inquiry. It forces us to see the flaws in our own cognition so that we may attain a more accurate view of reality. Without skepticism, we are at the mercy of the biases of our fallible minds.
But skepticism can be a difficult idea to promote. Our tendency to default to belief and intuition make magical thinking an easy sell. Mysticism is quick to find superstitions to fill the uncomfortable gaps in our knowledge; it’s an easy fix. Herein lies the difficulty—not in ignorance but in misinformation. Missing facts are easy enough to remedy through education, but once a belief has settled into our minds it’s difficult to remove. In fact, a misinformed individual will typically become more confident in his or her belief when presented with disconfirming information. So what do we, as proponents of critical thinking, do in the face of this disheartening reality?
Here is where my work as a writer and artist crosses over with promoting science-based thinking. Entertainment—whether in the form of books, television, film, music, or graphic novels—can be a powerful way to convey a message. One of the most important things to accomplish in entertainment and storytelling is to connect with your audience emotionally. An interesting plot just isn’t quite as good unless you feel emotionally invested in the characters. A technically proficient piece of music or artwork that doesn’t provoke an emotional reaction doesn’t really stand a chance against a piece that does, even if that piece isn’t as technically sound. The intellectual arguments in science and skepticism are often far superior to those made in belief-based schools of thought. Adding the strength of a good emotional argument may be a strategy that can help promote science-based thinking by getting people emotionally invested in the idea.
One of my favorite examples of the power of storytelling is the 2010 film Inception. Not only is it quite a good example of successful storytelling, but the plot itself is analogous to how good stories are told. The plot involves the main character, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), hired to place (by entering a fabricated dream-world) the idea into the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to break up his father’s company. The movie can be interpreted as symbolic of how movies are created. The idea to be incepted represents the message a film is trying to convey; Cobb’s character represents the director, whose job is to execute that successfully using a crew, cast, and setting. The other characters represent the cast and crew: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), “The Point Man,” is the producer responsible for overseeing the details of the job. Ariadne (Ellen Page), “The Architect,” creates the settings for the dreams and can be viewed as the script writer. Eames (Tom Hardy) is “The Forger,” who can transform himself into different characters, like an actor; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) represents the crew as “The Chemist” who does the practical job of getting the others into the dream-world. Saito (Ken Watanabe), who hired Cobb and his team, is the money behind the job, just like a movie studio. “The Mark” is Fischer, who must be convinced of the reality of the dream and implanted with the desired idea—representative of the audience of a film.
The characters set out to accomplish their job of incepting Fischer by boiling down the message to a very basic concept and then constructing a reality that will make him emotionally invested in that concept, manipulating him into thinking that he came to the idea himself. This is very similar to what actual storytelling does using characters, settings, and plot to guide the audience through a constructed reality with the goal of implanting a message in its members’ heads. Just like the dream worlds of Inception, stories feel real while you’re in them, and you leave with the seed of an idea growing in your mind that has been planted by the emotional impact of the world you experienced. Articles, lectures, and documentaries are great mediums for communicating ideas (and do involve a certain amount of creating an emotional impact), but there’s something very powerful and lasting about the effects fiction can have when executed successfully.
Science fiction, of course, has been a genre hugely successful at promoting science and skepticism through fiction. I’d like to argue that it doesn’t have to be the only genre we can turn to when looking to promote critical thinking through storytelling. One of my favorite counterintuitive examples of another genre promoting skepticism is the immensely popular fantasy series Harry Potter. For a story about a boy wizard who attends a school of witchcraft and wizardry, it contains a lot of content that promotes the ideas of both skepticism and secular humanism. The magic, witches, wizards, and mythological creatures are all simply part of an attractive setting; the actual plot does nothing to really promote the belief in the existence of the fantasy content.
The most skeptical of the trio of main characters is, without a doubt, Hermione. She is the problem solver in the group, always relying on her book smarts to get the group out of trouble; on numerous occasions it’s pointed out how lost the other main characters, Harry and Ron, would be without her. The characters are taught to think for themselves and to be cautious of their own assumptions or biases. For a story about magic, it certainly makes a point to demonstrate that there are more important abilities one can have. Near the end of the first book, as Harry and Hermione find themselves in one of the barriers placed between them and the philosopher’s stone, Hermione remarks how clever it is that one of them is simply a puzzle in logic.
“Brilliant,” said Hermione. “This isn’t magic—it’s logic—a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.”
One of the main points of conflict in the Harry Potter series carries a strong secular humanist message. The antagonists are wizards who place value on so-called “pure bloods”—wizards who were born into magical families—over the “Muggle born,” wizards who come from non-magical families but are born with magical abilities. One of the main goals of the villains is to see the pure blood wizards gain their “rightful” status above other wizards as well as the non-magical humans (Muggles). The heroes of the story fight to stand up for the ideal that all humans deserve equal rights and that no class of people deserves to rule over another based on bloodline.
I’d like to note that many people have mentioned to me, after hearing one of my talks, a fan fiction called “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” which involves an alternate storyline in which Harry is brought up by a scientist and uses critical thinking to investigate the magical world. I’ve heard great things about the story, but it misses the point of why I bring up the example of Harry Potter in the first place. The Harry Potter series is an example of using the fantasy genre—a world with magic and mythos—to promote critical thinking. The whole point is that it does this without having to inject any science fiction into the plot.
What I find so intriguing about this concept is that it exposes audiences and readers to nonscientist heroes who are critical thinkers, demonstrating that logic and reason are for everyone. It’s always great to see scientists as lead characters (such as Jodie Foster’s role as Ellie Arroway in the film Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan), but too often the heroes we’re presented with are nonscientists who simply use a token nerd character when a scientific solution is needed. I’d like to see more storytelling with characters of all types using critical thinking to solve the conflicts with which they are presented.
This is an important focus of my own work as a mangaka—a writer and illustrator of manga graphic novels. Manga is a type of comic book that originated in Japan and was made popular by its animated counterpart, anime. My latest series is Legend of the Ztarr (pronounced “star”), a swords-and-sandals space epic following the adventures of a young woman named Adora Ztarr. Our young protagonist is the daughter of a legendary rebel who died attempting to overthrow the oppressive Emperor of the Known Universe, Lord J’Nar. The story begins with Adora being recruited by her father’s still-loyal followers to fulfill the prophecy of the family sword: “The Sword of Ztarr, but once, shall slay and end The Holy Emperor’s reign.”
A key aspect of Adora’s character is that she uses her skeptical mindset to solve the problems with which she’s presented. Her power comes from her critical thinking abilities rather than just her swordsmanship and fighting skills. This is in contrast to the character of the evil Emperor and his loyal group of true believers, who concern themselves only with protecting their ideologies and preconceptions. But the antagonists aren’t the only characters who hold tightly to deeply held beliefs; our heroine makes her journey with a band of guardians who have their own variety of irrational ideas. Adora is left contending with the friction this causes as they attempt to work together against Lord J’Nar.
The goal is to create a series that serves as a skeptical epic with a sci-fantasy feel—swords, emperors, prophecies, star ships, and powerful mysterious objects—that can connect readers to the values of critical thinking using emotional rather than logical arguments. The advantage to using storytelling to promote a message is that it is primarily entertainment. Arguments that might otherwise be challenging to get across can travel more subtly on the backs of the drama, humor, and romance of narrative. Magic and mysticism, already seductive through their emotional appeal, sell themselves easily this way and have made themselves pervasive in entertainment. The power of storytelling can instead be harnessed to open people to a world devoted to the idea of distinguishing between what is true and what we simply want to be true, of avoiding self-deception and empowering ourselves with the tools of critical inquiry. This is an idea worth spreading.