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Science and Reason in Film and Television

Article

William Evans

Volume 20.1, January / February 1996

Recent entertainment media portrayals of science and pseudoscience imply that skepticism is no longer useful and may even be dangerous.

Who has the most dangerous job on prime-time entertainment television? The police officer? The soldier? The private investigator? The answer is “none of the above.” On prime-time entertainment television, scientists are most at risk. Ten percent of scientists featured in prime-time entertainment programming get killed, and five percent kill someone. No other occupational group is more likely to kill or be killed (Gerbner 1987).

Popular entertainment media have long portrayed scientists as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but in the past few decades entertainment media portrayals of science have changed significantly, and these changes seem to have accelerated in recent years. Science remains dangerous, but it is also increasingly portrayed as useless in solving problems. The skepticism about paranormal claims that is a part of scientific thinking is portrayed as a handicap. And in many newer entertainment media offerings — most notably in ”The X-Files” — the paranormal is portrayed as, well, normal. “The X-Files” offers a world in which fantastic events such as alien abductions and spontaneous human combustion are everyday occurrences.

Film and television entertainment programming increasingly portrays science and reason as tools that are unsuitable for understanding our world in a new age of credulity. This article reviews entertainment media portrayals of science and pseudoscience and considers the important function of skepticism in horror films and other offerings. The evidence reported here will likely be discouraging for many skeptics, but it is evidence that skeptics must nonetheless consider if they are to effectively counter entertainment media tendencies to devalue science and reason.

Television and Public Conceptions of Science and Pseudoscience

There is a correlation between watching entertainment television and credulity. Habitual viewers of entertainment television — approximately one-third of U.S. adults watch more than four hours of television daily — are more likely than infrequent viewers to hold negative opinions about science and positive opinions about pseudoscience. Habitual viewers are more likely than infrequent viewers to believe that science is dangerous, that scientists are odd and peculiar people, and that a career in science is undesirable (Gerbner 1987; Gerbner et al. 1985). These findings persist even taking into consideration education, sex, age, and other factors that are known to influence people’s attitudes toward science. Habitual viewers are also more likely than infrequent viewers to believe that astrology is scientific. Thirty-seven percent of adults in the United States believe that astrology is scientific (National Science Foundation 1989), but among habitual viewers of television this figure is 55 percent (Gerbner et al. 1985).

While the existing evidence does not permit us to claim that viewing entertainment television creates antiscience and pro-pseudoscience attitudes, it seems certain that entertainment television provides a symbolic environment in which such attitudes are readily cultivated. Our entertainment mass media provide a steady diet of negative images of science and skepticism — images that reflect and reinforce popular misgivings and misunderstandings about science.

Mad Scientists and Clever Laypersons

Western literature and popular entertainment media have long featured scientists in the role of the troublemaker (Haynes 1994). Mad scientists are second only to psychotics as the primary source of trouble in horror films. In fact, mad scientists account for a larger percentage of horror movie antagonists than zombies, werewolves, and mummies combined (Tudor 1989).

Although scientists have been consistently portrayed as dangerous in twentieth-century popular entertainment media, there have been important changes in the portrayal of scientists’ abilities to solve problems. Tudor (1989) notes that between 1951 and 1964 scientists were often portrayed in film as being responsible for saving as well as endangering humanity. In films of that era science is dangerous, but science also provides the most appropriate means of dealing with the dangers that science unleashes. Scientists might, for example, inadvertently create mutant monsters, but scientists also most commonly figure out how to eliminate the threats they have created. In these films, science is dangerous but efficacious.

In contrast, more recent entertainment films portray scientists as being unable to solve problems or eliminate threats to humanity. Instead, laypersons most commonly save the day (Tudor 1989). Scientific expertise is devalued in these films, and may even be portrayed as a handicap of sorts. In horror films like C.H.U.D. and the 1988 remake of The Blob, laypersons rid the world of dangerous creatures, but only after the laypersons outwit scientists who either fail to understand the dangers or who have a vested interest in perpetuating the dangers. In films like E.T. and Splash, laypersons save the lives of kind and intelligent creatures by rescuing them from scientific captivity. In these and many other recent films, science no longer provides resources for solving problems, but rather, becomes an obstacle to solving problems (Goldman 1989; Tudor 1989).

You Will Believe

Like science, skepticism is devalued in current popular film and entertainment television. Indeed, skepticism is shown to be untenable and even irresponsible. Films about the paranormal typically feature a fictional skeptical character who doubts the reality of poltergeists, demons, and other paranormal phenomena, even though it quickly becomes apparent to everyone else — story characters and audience alike — that supernatural forces are at work. As a result of the skeptic’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the supernatural, the film’s protagonists are endangered. These films typically include a pivotal scene in which the protagonists explicitly reject the skeptical point of view. Soon after, the skeptic is either killed, converted to credulity, or simply written out of the action. At this point in the film, the protagonists (who, again, are seldom scientists unless they have “converted” to credulity) can eliminate the paranormal threat.

A quintessential example of this narrative structure is found in the film Poltergeist III. In this fictional story, a psychologist, Dr. Seaton, steadfastly insists that young Carol Anne is not being pursued by demons, but rather, is suffering from an emotional disturbance of some sort. Dr. Seaton continues to insist that nothing supernatural is going on long after he, every other major character in the movie, and the movie audience have seen quite remarkable supernatural events. Dr. Seaton’s diagnosis is clearly wrong, but as a skeptic he is unwilling to accept the ample evidence of supernatural forces at work. As a result, Carol Anne suffers repeated and terrifying encounters with otherworldly entities. Dr. Seaton seems cruel, and his continued skepticism in the face of incontrovertible evidence seems almost pathological.

Fortunately for Carol Anne, a psychic arrives to save her. The psychic, named Tangina, becomes aware of Carol Anne’s plight via telepathy and rushes to help her, only to be rebuked and ridiculed by Dr. Seaton. As the peril to Carol Anne and others grows, and Dr. Seaton refuses to accept Tangina’s warnings about the great power of supernatural forces, Tangina demands that Carol Anne’s uncle and aunt (with whom Carol Anne is living) make a choice: They must choose between Tangina’s mysticism and Dr. Seaton’s rationalism. The uncle and aunt decide to follow Tangina’s recommendations and to reject Dr. Seaton’s counsel. When Dr. Seaton objects, the previously restrained uncle treats him harshly, calling the psychologist’s diagnoses “stupid and idiotic.” The outcome of this confrontation is meant to be pleasing to an audience that has witnessed Dr. Seaton’s increasingly strained and, finally ludicrous, attempts to find prosaic explanations for fantastic events. Shortly after this confrontation, Dr. Seaton is killed, pushed down an elevator shaft by a teenager who is possessed by evil spirits. At this point, the real work of saving Carol Anne can begin, and sure enough it is a combination of faith and benevolent psychic power that in the end save Carol Anne and her loved ones from the malevolent spirits.

While the portrayal of Dr. Seaton is perhaps unusually negative, skeptics are frequently portrayed by Hollywood as being dogmatic, misanthropic, and just plain wrong. In films such as Poltergeist III, The Entity, and even Ghostbusters (where the skeptic is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who insists that it is the ghostbusters rather than ghosts who are responsible for an epidemic of strange phenomena and whose order to shut down the ghostbusters’ “containment system” brings predictable, dire consequences), skepticism is shown to be foolish and inefficacious, while psychics and parapsychologists step in to eliminate the paranormal threats.

Hess (1993) and Tudor (1989) identify the transition from skepticism to credulity as a major theme and distinguishing feature of recent horror and suspense movies. People who live in haunted houses (e.g., as in The Amityville Horror), or find their loved ones possessed or pursued by demons (e.g., The Exorcist, Poltergeist), or find themselves immersed in satanic conspiracies (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen) typically are at first skeptical regarding the supernatural; but their safety and even their survival require that they acknowledge the reality of the supernatural. In these films, to deny the reality of the supernatural is to place oneself and one’s loved ones at risk. As audience members, we often find ourselves rooting for skeptical characters to forsake skepticism. Sometimes a converted skeptic must work to convert other skeptics, to make others recognize the reality and danger of the supernatural. Here again, audience members often find themselves rooting for successful evangelization, since the survival of one or more likable characters, and perhaps even the world, depends on it. The power of these narratives is such that even dedicated skeptics often find themselves cheering when a skeptical character comes to believe in the supernatural.

The Paranormal Becomes Normal

While skeptics should be distressed by films that portray the transition from skepticism to credulity as a matter of life and death, at least these films acknowledge that skepticism is an understandable first response to fantastic claims and wondrous events. In these films, the major characters typically at first consider prosaic explanations, even though they soon become convinced that supernatural forces are at work. These films reassure us that the major characters are not eager to believe in the supernatural, that they are sensible, normal people. (In fact, very few mainstream entertainment media offerings portray the victims of the supernatural as having had an interest in the supernatural before they became victims, even though in the real world a previous interest in UFOs, demons, and other paranormal phenomena is characteristic of those who claim to have encountered such phenomena.)

In contrast to entertainment media offerings in which skepticism is portrayed as a normal, if untenable, response to fantastic claims, the television series “The X-Files” presents a new and potentially pernicious portrayal of the paranormal as entirely normal. In “The X-Files,” FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate paranormal events in the same routinized, “it’s all in a day’s work” manner in which “Dragnet’s” Sergeant Friday and Officer Gannon investigated armed robbery and petty theft. Paranormal events are mundane, “The X-Files” suggests, and even an initial but quickly abandoned skepticism is no longer warranted. Agent Mulder is always ready (and often eager) to consider the possibility that paranormal forces account for the phenomena he is investigating, and his hunches typically prove to be correct. In conversation, Mulder and other characters are fond of offering offhand and even wholly gratuitous, credulous references to a wide variety of paranormal phenomena. Emery (1995) aptly characterizes these references as “extraneous poppycock.”

Agent Scully plays “The X-Files'” token skeptic, but as Emery (1995) notes, Scully’s skepticism is often a symptom of her closed-mindedness. Like Dr. Seaton in Poltergeist III, Scully remains skeptical even after she has witnessed remarkable and unequivocally paranormal events. Her skepticism is seldom shown to be useful or warranted, and in recent episodes she seems decidedly less skeptical (a change that should perhaps be expected given the many paranormal forces and extraterrestrial beings she has encountered in the show’s first two seasons).

“The X-Files” achieves a kind of realism that sets it apart from previous television science fiction series such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” “The X-Files” adopts the quasi-documentary style of recent television police dramas, appropriates the authority and prestige of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and suggests that “The X-Files” cases are similar to real cases. “The X-Files” perhaps has more in common with shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Sightings” — shows in which allegedly real paranormal events are often reenacted — than it does with older shows such as “The Twilight Zone.” In following the discussions of “The X-Files” fans on the Internet, it becomes clear that, while most fans do not believe “The X-Files” to be a documentary (although a few fans seem to have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction), many believe that “The X-Files” cases are highly plausible and that the FBI and other government agencies are actively, if secretly, investigating similar cases.

In popular entertainment prior to “The X-Files,” skepticism was necessary, if only to provide an obstacle for the protagonists to overcome. In “The X-Files,” skepticism is almost wholly unnecessary. Although it remains to be seen if future entertainment media offerings will follow the lead of “The X-Files,” the total immersion of “The X-Files” in the paranormal is worrisome. It suggests that paranormal events are common and that even likable, educated, and attractive people like agents Mulder and Scully can embrace the supernatural.

Skepticism and Hollywood

Skeptics have had some success in persuading journalists to include a skeptical point of view in news stories about the paranormal, although, clearly, more needs to be done in this regard. Unfortunately, Hollywood accords skeptics no standing to address the portrayal (or the absence) of skepticism in film and television. Many film and television producers would no doubt claim that because their products are merely entertainment, neither viewers nor researchers should take “The X-Files” and similar offerings seriously. But this excuse is increasingly disingenuous as the evidence mounts that viewers’ conceptions of reality are influenced by media entertainment programming (Gerbner et al. 1994). These same producers increasingly turn to docudramas, “reality-based” shows, tabloid journalism, and other program formats that owe their success in part to the strategic blurring of fact and fiction.

Hollywood television producers have agreed in recent years to work with experts to design portrayals that inform viewers about various health and environmental issues. Perhaps entertainment television and film producers can be recruited by scientists and skeptics to help ensure that critical thinking does not disappear from our entertainment media environment. Of course, it is perhaps easier to remind viewers that unprotected sex is dangerous or that aluminum cans can be recycled than it is to invite viewers to develop critical thinking habits, an invitation that would require producers to abandon their reliance on skepticism as a source of error and danger.

Carl Sagan (1995) implores television producers to work with scientists and skeptics to develop a nonfiction series that details how fantastic claims can be investigated scientifically — a kind of “Solved Mysteries.” Such a series, Sagan suggests, could make for entertaining televison that would also encourage viewers to appreciate and cultivate the power of rational thought and rigorous investigation. Unfortunately, although many viewers would find such a series worthwhile, it may never reach an audience watching tabloid television. As a culture, we have long preferred that our tales of the supernatural be credulous rather than skeptical. Still, the breathless celebration of the paranormal in current films and television programs must be addressed. Understanding the need for media portrayals of skepticism is a necessary first step toward change. Skeptics would do well to identify or invent commercially viable alternatives, and entertainment media producers would do well to more often and more explicity acknowledge in their programming the important roles of science and reason in maintaining our civilization.

References

William Evans

William Evans is assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30303.