Public Impressions of Skepticism

English: Skulls Unlimited Owner, Jay Villemare...
Skulls Unlimited Owner, Jay Villemarette and Director of Education, Joey Williams with the Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman at the Discovery Channel's Young Scientists Challenge 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Public impressions of skepticism seem quite negative, and I think that our entertainment media bears much responsibility for this state of affairs. Aside from something like MythBusters, I have trouble thinking of many examples where skeptics and skepticism are depicted favorably on television. Positive depictions seem even scarcer in the movies. Skeptics are nearly always depicted as being close-minded, stubborn, unreasonable, and most important of all...wrong to have been skeptical.

It is tempting to blame this on religion and to suggest that the negative depictions of skepticism are based on the fear of many religious believers that skepticism, if allowed to flourish, might undermine their beliefs. I suspect this is a factor some of the time, but I am reluctant to conclude that it is the main factor. Far more important, I suspect, is that many people do not want all sorts of comfortable but irrational beliefs called into question. They do not want to have to admit that their biases, hunches, intuition, or folk "wisdom" are often wrong. Religious belief is likely to be part of this mix, but I think the need many people seem to have to cast skepticism in a negative light goes beyond religion.

It is remarkable how often we see skeptics turning out to be wrong in Hollywood films. It is so common as to be nearly universal. The skeptic expresses his or her doubts and stubbornly clings to natural explanations for unusual phenomena only to be proven wrong by angels, demons, monsters, aliens, miracles, and the like. The skeptic must admit the error of his or her ways and become a believer in whatever supernatural, alien, or paranormal thing we are dealing with in the film.

The message of the film inevitably turns out to be that magic, psychic powers, demonic possession, alien visitation, monsters, or miracles are real and that skepticism interferes with our ability to appreciate and/or experience these things. It is always a pro-belief message even if the content is not blatantly religious. Is it any wonder that public impressions of skepticism and of skeptics are so negative?

Films released before and during my childhood often depicted smoking as cool, sophisticated, or glamorous. As data emerged about the many health risks associated with smoking, the entertainment industry faced pressure to change this. At the same time, anti-smoking campaigns were launched to raise public awareness. After a few years, smoking seemed a bit less cool.

In looking at the entertainment industry today, it would be hard not to conclude that we have been waging a well-organized campaign against skepticism. Now, I'm not suggesting that this has actually been the case. What I am suggesting is that this is what it looks like. And what I'd really like to suggest is that those of us who value skepticism give some thought to how we might begin to change this. I think that vocal atheists willing to criticize faith can be helpful, but I suspect that broader efforts are needed. This is one of the reasons I've been happy to see the reboot of Cosmos.