Friday, December 26, 2008

Critical Thinking and Popular Culture.

Many things reinforce our natural tendencies against critical thinking and skepticism.[i] These include human tendencies to see patterns, wishful thinking, and the presence of pre-existing irrational beliefs and superstitions. One often overlooked reinforcement mechanism is popular entertainment, where critical thinking and skepticism are portrayed as tendencies to be overcome. In television and movies, there is an emphasis on the need to have faith and the importance of belief. Moreover, skepticism is often caricatured as a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the supernatural in the face of overwhelming evidence.

This theme of skepticism as a problem is not new; some episodes of the original Twilight Zone included this theme. One modern television show which repeats this theme is The X-Files in which two FBI agents investigate paranormal activity. Mulder, the credulous agent with the slogan "I want to believe," is invariably correct about the existence of whatever paranormal phenomenon he is investigating while Scully, the skeptical agent, refuses to believe in the supernatural no matter how much evidence she has seen.

In The X-Files skepticism is not just incorrect, but pathologically false; the skeptics, represented by Scully, refuse to modify or reduce their skepticism in the face of clear evidence of the supernatural. In this case, skepticism is reduced to a caricature of people who simply refuse to believe despite evidence to the contrary.

This theme occurs not just in television, but across many genres of movie. In horror movies, this occurs almost every movie. [ii] A few examples from the last few years are “Gothika,” “White Noise” and “Darkness Falls.”

This theme is so common that the rare cases where there is a strong skeptical bent are noteworthy. Consider, for example, the original Scooby Doo. I am curious if readers can point to any others like Scooby Doo.

Moreover, in a handful of cases critical thinking is not just a barrier to be overcome, but actually causes death and destruction. One of the most extreme examples of this is an episode of Dark Visions, a recent Twilight Zone knockoff. In an episode entitled “Harmony”, a young man goes to a town where no one sings and the townspeople kill anyone in the town who tries to sing. The people believe if anyone in the town sings, some sort of supernatural creature will be woken up and it will then kill everyone. The end of the episode features a mob about to kill the young man and his friends. He gives a stirring speech that convinces the people that the only monster which exists is inside themselves,and that they are afraid of singing due to the emotion it brings. The entire town begins to sing "Amazing Grace". And then in the last 30 seconds of the episode, it turns out that the monster is real and that their singing has woken it up. The episode ends as the monster begins to destroy the town. The last note by the Rod Serling knock-off is a warning against questioning the beliefs of others. I’m hard pressed to imagine how one could send a message that was more anti-critical thinking.

There is one place where such messages are both particularly common and particularly nefarious in their impact: movies and television aimed at children. In such cases, even when there is a skeptical element, it becomes quickly watered down. For example, many of the sequels to Scooby Doo had supernatural elements.

A recent and glaring example is the charming movie “Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium”. The premise of the film is that there is a magical toy store powered by belief in magic. The new owner does not have sufficient belief and so the store's magic fails. However, the store’s magic begins to return when a child playing with a magnetic toy asks if the toy is magical and the shop owner replies that she believes it to be. According to “Magorium,” critical thinking is not just bad. Rather, one should actively convince oneself and others that well-understood phenomena are magic.

As long as the entertainment industry continues to reinforce in the popular mind that critical thinking and skepticism are barriers to be overcome by unquestioning faith and magical thinking, the proponents of rationalism and reason will face uphill battles.

[i] The exact distinction between critical thinking and skepticism is not always clear. For purposes of this entry I will use the terms interchangeably.

[ii] This isn't strictly true. There are some movies such as “Unrest” that just take the spirit world's existence for granted with only token skepticism. In “Unrest” all the characters take for granted that souls and an afterlife exist. The character taking the most skeptical outlook believes in souls and an afterlife but does not believe in “corporeal manifestations.” This character pays for his attempt at rationality by suffering the loss of multiple limbs at the hands of a ghost.


Anonymous said...

I'm trying to think of movies that either portray critical thinking in a good light or punish irrationality. The Illusionist comes to mind first.

Anonymous said...

God gave us brains. Use it!!!
And don't believe everything you see on TV. (Especially the movies).

Lautreamont said...

We need only remember a quote by Thomas Jefferson's to lay low all this amazingly backward and socially corrosive thought:

"Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat,and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."

Lautreamont said...

Also, God did not give us brains. Natural selection did, and even if left at that alone we would have no real "brains". Education and experience give us that further intelligence; but, something tells me that it is you, Annonymous, who have garnered your gray matter from television and movies..

Anonymous said...

Actually Scully did come to believe in aliens and in many of the other things Mulder believed in, but that was because eventually she had to accept the evidence. Of course, in the real world the evidence isn't there.

Joshua said...

Scully did eventually come around but it took many seasons and when she came around they promptly added additional other characters to be pathological skeptics.