Sunday, 4 May 2008

Fictional sceptics in pop culture

Scepticism needs promoting. If you want me to argue my case on that score, then you'll have to wait for another entry because for this one I'm simply taking it as my major premise. Ready for the minor one?

Pop culture is a major source of potential exposure, particularly given the Western obsession with television. Now all join in as we sing out the conclusion of our little syllogism:

Scepticism needs to tap into popular culture. There. That wasn't too painful was it? Now before we go any further, I'd like to qualify everything that follows with the admission that I don't watch much TV myself and will thus probably be getting things wrong.

I believe it all began in a major way with Scully. She was the sceptic of the X-Files, offsetting Mulder's desperate desire to believe in the paranormal. I need to watch a lot more X-Files before I can legitimately comment further, but all I really wanted to note was the creation of this "historic" character. If there were any major ones before this, please do point it out to me. There was something culturally undeveloped about the Scully character, however (and that's not a criticism) - she was a sceptic as part of her job, in fact it was probably the greatest defining part of the character. It was wonderful to have such views made widely known, and the sceptical outlook thrown into the public consciousness; but the problem was that the strong links between her profession and her scepticism would not have allowed viewers to realise that anyone can be a sceptic.

Cue the next generation of fictional sceptics. Most of these are situated in sitcoms, which is really the perfect medium; the most important reason for this is simply that their scepticism is not their defining feature. They are regular, everyday people (for the most part), who happen to have an outlook on life which is rational and evidence-based. The three that are standing out in my mind at the moment (by no means an exhaustive list) begin with Robin Scherbatsky from CBS's How I Met Your Mother, who was only "outed" as a sceptic in a throwaway comment a few episodes ago. It was a pretty great moment, in which one character was pretending to have seen a ghost and asked Robin to go along with his story. The one being lied to said "Robin you're a sceptic so if you say you saw a ghost I'll believe you." It was a good moment, and I hope they develop that side of her character a bit more in the future.

Next up is Charlie Harper, from another CBS show, Two and a Half men. The great thing about this character is that he's not a "career" sceptic in any way - he's just the guy who shouts "crap!" every time someone mentions chiropractic. He gets plenty of opportunity, too, what with his brother Alan being a chiropractor. So many jokes about his not being a real doctor, and yet somehow it never gets old. But maybe that's just me. The only real problem I see with Charlie is that he's more of a cynic than a sceptic - there's no hint that he's looked into any kind of research on the efficacy of chiropractic, or that he'd even think to bother. The danger here is that, while being a potential vessel for scepticism in popular media, he may be seen more as a naysayer - people who knock "alternative treatments" without thinking about it. There are important differences between scepticism and cynicism which I may well address at some point in the future.

Finally for this post, someone who I consider to be one of the greatest (if not best-known) examples of a sceptical character in popular culture: Doctor John Becker from (yes, CBS again) Becker. He was a bit of an anti-hero character; flawed (horribly, horribly flawed at times) but human - and a great doctor. He routinely spoke against religion, political correctness taken too far, and other such things; he also (like many sceptics) had a bit of a sacred cow in his irrational belief that little people bring him bad luck. Some of the best moments in the whole show were those in which he would praise the glories of science: his normally miserable, gloomy and dour demeanour would immediately brighten with enthusiasm as he talked about the "miracle" of birth and the immense complexity of the human body. It was a brilliantly conceived scene, and me being equally brilliant, I have tracked it down. The only thing you really need to know before watching is that Boyd is a character who "hears God", and who was told by God that his real name, God's real secret name, was Larry. Watch and enjoy.

Speak to me people - any more sceptics in popular culture? Maybe some really obvious ones I've missed?

EDIT: Yes, I missed a couple of biggies. This suggests to me a possible recurring theme on future entries - the first of which may well follow soon.


Andrew said...

That guy from House? I haven't watched it much, but I've seen him be pretty scathing about religion.

Darkwinter said...


I only went and ignored one of my favourite TV characters of all time, didn't I? Dr House is wonderful, and a truly great example of the sceptical outlook. He uses Socratic Method, regularly refers to Occam's Razor, and yes - criticises religion plenty. The only thing I would say against him as a public paragon of scepticism is that (like Scully) it's very much part of his job. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that scepticism only really applies in areas of science such as medicine.

Related to this is another character very close to that of House - Dr Cox from Scrubs. I believe he once used the phrase "imaginary friend" in reference to God. A wise, wise man.

taw said...

Great post, and I agree entirely.

I've recently found two fantastic pop fiction books with sceptical themes - Ben Elton's "Blind Faith" and Christopher Brookmyre's "Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks". Both really great reads - the former is slightly more humanist, the latter is comprehensively sceptical. I'm going to write them both up as soon as I get around to it.

On a side note, CSI and other crime shows are very much evidence and reason based, though not explicitly sceptical. (I'm trusting Steve and the guys on The Skeptic's Guide on this one, I confess I haven't actually watched an episode of CSI.)

Finally, Andrew, I'm assuming you're the common link between Darkwinter and I...


Darkwinter said...

I've watched a few episodes of CSI, and while I'm willing to be corrected on this front I too am going to go along with the sentiments of the Rogues. The problem with shows like CSI is that they tend to show a very 2-dimensional representation of science and of the scientific method in general. Part of the reason I concentrated on sitcom characters is that they really drive home the fact that anyone can be a sceptic, not just people for whom it comes as a necessary part of their vocation.

As regards the books, I wish I had the time to read anything other than course material at the moment but sadly it'll all have to wait until I finish my Masters.

And Andrew may be the common link here, but to be honest I can't remember how I came across either of your blogs in the first place - so it could be a case of getting from A to C through Z, Y, X, W etc.

AiYume said...

I also like Psych, about a guy raised by a cop to be very observant. After the police believe him to be complicit in the crimes he's phoning in tips on, he starts pretending to be psychic. Some of the episodes come across as a grown up version of Scooby Doo, but the characters are very well done.