Harry Potter and the Chamber of Skeptics
November 4, 2002
(A warning to readers: this essay reveals parts of the plot of the upcoming November 15 film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. However, if you see a black space here: spoiler! then read on, because the spoiler will be hidden, and can be revealed by use of your magic wand!) When it comes to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, it’s probably fair to say that card-carrying skeptics, not all but certainly many of them, have tended to view the books with…well, skepticism. My good friend Matt Nisbet’s "Generation sXeptic” column on this website, for instance, once mentioned the Harry Potter “fantasy yarns” in the same breath as the New Age self-help manual Who Moved My Cheese?
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal’s Young Skeptics Program, meanwhile, emphasizes that children should learn to distinguish between “the people, places and things” within the imaginary world of Rowling’s books and “those that can be found within reality.” The underlying concern here seems to be that there’s something amiss with our culture if even our most popular and dominant fictional narratives so heavily emphasize the supernatural.
Such an attitude is hardly surprising among skeptics, given how relentlessly the mass media play up any paranormal theme they can get their cameras on. Yet when it comes to Harry Potter, I think it may be a misguided one. Granted, it could just be that I’m the oddball skeptic who also happens to be a dedicated Harry Potter fan. But as the November 15 film release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets nears, and everything from two liter coke bottles to buses sprout ads for the movie, I’d like to try to persuade those who prize the writings of Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan to reconsider J.K. Rowling’s fantasy books—if they haven't already.
First of all, it’s not at all clear that the staggering popularity of the Harry Potter novels is solely a function of their magical or supernatural content. Certainly Rowling’s books are full of magic and fantastic creatures; and as I've written elsewhere, they also stack the deck against ordinary “Muggles” (yes, skeptics are most definitely Muggles). Yet the books’ clever plotting, playful charm, and knowing parallels to our own reality—Quidditch equals British football, Hogwarts is a boarding school, and so on—have been equally crucial to their literary success. At the very least, it’s hard to argue that Rowling’s writings ought to be lumped together indiscriminately with media schlock like “Touched by an Angel” or “Crossing over with John Edward."
And even as some skeptics have taken a page from the religious right in their negative reactions to the Potter books, other less noted aspects of Rowling’s novels actually seem to inculcate skeptical values. For example, through their adventures Harry and his friends repeatedly demonstrate to us why we shouldn’t accept arguments from authority—not even when they're coming from Hogwarts teachers. On a similar note, Rowling’s fictional world prominently features underhanded journalists and outright frauds who use the media to dupe the public (a perennial skeptic theme). In fact, this is one of the most fundamental ways that the Harry Potter world resembles our own.
Consider J.K. Rowling’s philosophy of education. Harry and his friends almost never obey their Hogwarts teachers in anything that they do—and they're usually rewarded for it. Indeed, as the Brown University political scientist James A. Morone observed in a fascinating piece of cultural criticism in The American Prospect magazine (where I used to work): “Harry would be expelled from most American schools by Monday afternoon.” Morone went on to argue that schools in the U.S. ought to learn something from the way Professor Dumbledore runs Hogwarts:
Rowling imagines something special. In her books, the kids are the central agents of their own lives. They make choices. Weigh judgments. Wrestle with freedom. The books crawl with brave kids and bullies, cowards seeking scapegoats, and stout hearts sticking up for friends. In Rowling’s magical world, the kids—like the paintings and the chessmen—get to think for themselves.
There are many examples of this, some of them cited by Morone. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, Harry is forbidden, for his own safety, from leaving the Hogwarts grounds. Yet he promptly sneaks off to join his friends in the village of Hogsmeade. This is a case of simple misbehavior on Harry’s part, but other instances of rule-breaking show Harry and his friends examining the official dictates of the Hogwarts teachers and nevertheless finding rational grounds for disobeying them. Take, for example, Harry and his friend Ron Weasley’s decision to rescue their friend Hermione from the cave troll in The Sorcerer’s Stone. They've been told to return to their dormitories, but realizing that Hermione doesn't know about the troll and hasn't heard the order, they decide to make sure she’s okay.
And not only does Harry flout rules; by doing so he regularly ends up saving the day. Clearly, Rowling’s books promote individualism, independent thought, and even irreverence, attributes that feed into the skeptical outlook. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better literary affirmation of Carl Sagan’s mantra that arguments from authority carry no weight in science than the way Harry and his friends behave in J.K. Rowling’s novels.
This paragraph contains a spoiler for the movie. If you see a blacked-out area to the left, then congratulations - you are not a muggle!
To view the spoiler, move your wand (mouse pointer) to the start of the paragraph, then click and hold the wand button. While continuing to hold the button, move your wand to the end of the paragraph, while chanting SPOILER!
The second novel of the Harry Potter series, The Chamber of Secrets, contains another key skeptical message. Much transpires in the book, but one key subplot is the eventual exposure of a classic charlatan, the Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart. A heartthrob celebrity who’s constantly offering Harry advice about living in the limelight, Lockhart’s purported heroic exploits go unchallenged by the wizarding media. Yet by the end of the book, Harry discovers that his sensational first-person accounts of magical adventures—published in books with titles like Gadding with Ghouls and Wanderings with Werewolves—are fabricated. Lockhart stole the stories from adventurers who had far more guts than he, and cast memory spells on them to make sure they wouldn’t remember the exploits that he'd claimed as his own. Lockhart is, it turns out, a simple fraud.
In this he is hardly an isolated case in Rowling’s books. In the third novel, The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are forced to sit through the airy prognostications and astrological ruminations of Sibyll Trelawney, their “Divination” professor who sees eerie portents in every aspect of reality. In classic huckster fashion, as she makes slews of predictions Trelawney repeatedly emphasizes the hits and ignore the misses. But Rowling doesn't let this behavior slide. In the students’ very first Divination class, Trelawney predicts that Harry will die within the year. The students are understandably terrified, until they relay what happened to Professor McGonagall, who observes: “You should know, Potter, that Sibyll Trelawney has predicted the death of one student a year since she arrived at this school. None of them has died yet. Seeing death omens is her favorite way of greeting a new class."
Taking McGonagall’s rationalist message to heart, Harry and Ron soon learn how to play along with the “Sibyll.” They fill their Divination papers with portentous nonsense: “Next Monday…I am likely to develop a cough, owing to the unlucky conjunction of Mars and Jupiter.” Trelawney laps the stuff up. In fact, when she finally actually appears to predict something accurately, Professor Dumbledore comments wryly to Harry, “That brings her total of real predictions up to two. I guess I should offer her a pay raise.” Perhaps a more classically skeptical headmaster would have sacked Trelawney, but Dumbledore’s ironic stance may ultimately be even more devastating.
Finally, Rowling shares with skeptics a deep suspicion of media sensationalism. After all, Gilderoy Lockhart is not without parallel in our own reality. And in her fourth novel The Goblet of Fire, Rowling takes on the tabloid journalists who make Lockhart’s type of posing possible. In the character of the lying, spinning, and spying Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter, we find all the worst attributes of devious journalists rolled into one: the fabrications of Stephen Glass, the hack-work of David Brock, and a touch of Geraldo and Jerry Springer thrown in as well. It’s probably no surprise that someone like Rowling would make common cause with skeptics when it comes to criticizing the mass media. After all, the press’s hounding of celebrities goes hand in hand with its hawking of the fabulous.
Despite all this, I would certainly be the first to admit that some messages in Harry Potter would make any skeptic wrinkle her nostrils. What I don’t concede, though, is that these messages are fundamental to the success of the books. Rowling’s novels are funny, quick-paced, and impossible to put down. All the more reason, then, to be glad that they contain messages so well-attuned to the principles of skepticism.