Four Colors to Infinity: Towards a New Skeptic

In the real world, a skeptic is someone who, faced with a lack of convincing evidence, does not believe in the existence of the supernatural.  She is, in short, someone who believes the evidence of her own eyes, and if tasked to explain the presence of vampires, unicorns or Jehovah, says “show me”.  In the world of fiction, though, a skeptic is, like as not, someone who doesn’t believe in something despite the evidence of her own eyes; she is shown, and cannot explain, and instead chooses to close her eyes.  For a real skeptic, the scientific method is what liberates and frees from blindness; for a fictional skeptic, it is the cause of blindness.  Of all fiction’s tropes, this may be the most curious:  a character archetype’s standard portrayal being almost the exact opposite of what it actually is.

Let’s clarify, though:  what we’re talking about here is the character of a skeptic in the framework of a world routinely suffused with the fantastic.  It’s a formulation that’s both common and bewildering.  Many writers seem to believe that skepticism is a sort of ingrained ideology, like spiritualism — less an approach to natural phenomena than a kind of character trait.  So we find, in stories where it is demonstrably shown that supernatural creatures and paraphysical occurrences really do exist, and on a semi-regular basis at that, that it still seems necessary to the story to include a character whose skepticism would only make sense in our universe.  In the world you and I live in, it is perfectly intelligent to maintain a skeptical attitude towards, say, vampires; in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they appear with nightly regularity, it would be insane to do so.  In other words, the very quality that makes a skeptic in our world makes skepticism in a ghost-haunted world a completely perplexing reaction.

The best-known manifestation of what I call the “Stupid Skeptic” is represented in the photo above:  poor Dana Scully from The X-Files, whose status as an intelligent human being was forever compromised by writers who insisted on her maintaining an ever-skeptical reaction despite being constantly exposed to phenomena which are clearly supernatural in origin.  Her position made no sense by the fourth episode of The X-Files; by the fourth season it was downright ridiculous.  TV Tropes, despite its narrow focus and over-reliance on things like fan fiction and anime, is particularly clever at separating skeins of stereotype and shorthand from the tapestry of fiction; they call this particular development “Arbitrary Skepticism“, and refers to Scully as a “Straw Skeptic“.  But while it’s provided us with the paradigmatic example of the form, television isn’t the greatest offender.

Stupid skepticism is endemic to the world of superhero comics.  Although it hasn’t made any sense since around 1963, when even Stan Lee’s more ‘realistic’ fictional universe contained all sorts of miracles and wonders revealing themselves before the public on a regular basis, it’s been endlessly riffed on, repeated, and ingrained into readers that the ordinary citizens of the Marvel and DC universes are a bunch of Carl Sagans.  Every citizen of Marvel’s New York has seen the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man on a daily basis, and Galactus at least two or three times; and yet they don’t believe Thor or Hercules are actual gods.  We are assured that many of Gotham City’s residents believe that Batman is some sort of urban legend, which their neighbors in Metropolis must find a bit bewildering.  Even in books like Marvels, we are presented with a public that, despite living in a world where they can take package tours to Atlantis and where a country whose ruler builds endless robotic duplicates of himself gets a vote in the United Nations, is given to golly-whiz flip-outs at even the briefest encounters with super-heroes.  Even the central metaphor of mindless bigotry and prejudice that drives the X-Men makes no sense in context:  our world, one imagines, would find homophobia less offensive if gay people could shoot laser from their eyes, kill people with their thoughts, or knock jet planes out of the sky with a gesture.

It’s easy to see why the trope has survived into the 21st century; it’s easier to draw a jaw-dropped yo-yo saying “What th’ — ” and pointing towards the sky than it is to invent an alternate sociology that accounts for a world full of miracles.  But it’s also insulting, not just to the reader, but to the whole idea of skepticism.  It’s time to come up with a new one; Dana Scully’s brain is a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

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  1. Dave Lartigue
    04/13/2011 at 8:17 AM

    I realize this is only tangential to your main point, but your comments on Dana Scully’s character touched a nerve with me. In her world (as is the case with other television skeptics), she is not only a fool, she can’t win. Even if a “natural” explanation is found for the mysterious phenomena, and even if the believers around her agree to her mundane theory, the show itself, behind her back but winking at us, will inevitably demonstrate as it fades out to show the producer’s name that all is not as it seems and ho ho guess who is not so smart after all ho ho!

    I’m not one of those skeptics who gets infuriated with supernatural stuff on TV, but it did used to bother me that she was never given a fair shake, a chance, even once per season, to actually be right. As you point out, if everything is amazing then little is, and without a baseline of normalcy how does one even define extra-normalcy?

    • LP
      04/13/2011 at 9:37 AM

      Yeah, considering that she attracted a lot of female fans and got the show’s creator a lot of credit for making a ‘strong female role’, Scully was a real punching bag most of the time.

  2. Ford
    04/13/2011 at 1:41 PM

    I always considered the role to be a necessary evil. In television and film, the skeptic contrasts those who accept what is with those who seek control. They end up as the object of ridicule or mocked by the audience because, at least in the realm of fiction provided by X Files, Fringe, or even 30 Rock because the writers benefit from reminding the audience that suspension of belief in control is what will get you through this: Accept that Tina Fey is the least attractive woman in New York City. Accept that fringe science resulted in every major breakthrough of the last fifty years and that Bell and Bishop were enough to bring that about, or a snake monster in the woods will eat you or you’ll killed by a teleporting madman. Accept that it is your destiny to seek, not to know. Scully is what you look like when you try to force your rules on any of the serials that captured the past decade of television, so don’t.

  3. Andrew Levine
    04/13/2011 at 2:30 PM

    I don’t know about this. If anything, human proclivity to fool and con others being what it is, the existence of real superheroes and giant planet-eating aliens (I admit to being so unread that I had to look up who Galactus is) would lead to no shortage of charlatans looking to capitalize on the combination of public awareness and public misunderstanding of mysterious powers to claim to be gods or whatever. Hell, I’d probably be skeptical of that, too. What makes you a god, Mr. “Thor,” and not just a super-strong guy with a super-hammer in a Hagar the Horrible costume who, for all I know, wants a band of religious followers for whatever ugly purpose?

    Same goes if you’ve got magic or crazy technologies flying around instead of (or in addition to) the guys in spandex. As long as people don’t reliably know where the limits of the possible lie, there will be folks to exploit that uncertainty, and we’ll need other folks to unmask the tricksters.

    • LP
      04/13/2011 at 3:28 PM

      I’m not sure I understand the functional difference between “super-strong immortal guy with myriad powers and magical weapons who wants people who worship him” and “god”. Likewise, I’m not sure I would classify a guy who can fly and knock down walls and shoot laser beams from his hands because he’s a superhero or a mutant as ‘legitimate’ and a guy who can fly and knock down walls and shoot laser beams from his hands because he’s magical, or because he has some high-tech devices, as a fraud or a trickster. They can both do superhuman feats, so why quibble over nomenclature?

      These distinctions make a difference in our world. If someone claims to be able to knock down walls and fly and shoot laser beams from his hands, we are forgiven for being skeptical, because NOBODY can really do those things. In a world where dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of people can do them, why would somebody be skeptical? Why get bogged down with the cause when the effect is all the same?

      • Andrew Levine
        04/13/2011 at 4:51 PM

        It’s not about quibbling over the source of the powers lie, because you’re right that it’s not important. It’s the potential for easy deception based on the fact that the phenomena are mysterious, ill-understood, and sometimes of an unclear nature. So you need skeptics to seek out what the limits are and to make sure people don’t get taken in because they don’t know those limits.

        As an example, Doctor Who sometimes puts the Doctor in the role of a useful skeptic, even though he’s the most knowledgable character about how his pseudo-magical universe works. There’s an episode where alien invaders make credulous Earth leaders (and the audience) believe that their mind-control technology can be used to cause millions of people to jump to their deaths. Before Earth can give in to the invaders’ demands, the Doctor shows up just in time to identify the technology as something too weak-sauce to force anyone to hurt themselves against their will, and the invasion a big bluff. This is more along the lines of what I mean.

        • Nullstellensatz
          04/13/2011 at 11:27 PM

          That was something that bugged me about the third volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways. There was a bit where all of the characters decide to become born-again Christians, arguing that, since the Gibborim existed, and they were from the bible (although they in no way resembled the portrayal of the Gibborim in the bible) that, therefore, not only must God exist, but the Catholic interpretation of God must be correct.

          But in an earlier issue (the Oliver Twist homage), one of the pickpocket kids said he ran away from home because he wanted to worship Thor and his parents wouldn’t let him. The implication was that the little pickpocket kid was crazy to think Thor was a god, even though he regularly saves the world. I don’t see Yahweh fighting Galactus.

  4. Kurt Schwind
    04/13/2011 at 2:31 PM

    The initial role of the fictional skeptic is a role of story-telling convenience. As the reader/viewer we can better empathize with character that doesn’t believe in the super-natural since we ourselves don’t. So when they are all WTF!?, we are also WTF!?

    Unfortunately, over the length of a series, the role becomes less and less useful as we, as reader/viewers, have bought into the world-view and, as stated above, it doesn’t make sense to be dogmatic about the belief.

  5. Isaac
    04/15/2011 at 8:12 PM

    Sometimes these characters are based on a wretched misunderstanding/misrepresentation of how a skeptic operates, but I think that often (intentionally or not) they serve as a good poke at real world “believers”. It seems to me that a character that absolutely refuses to believe in the supernatural when there are gods and monsters and ray guns all around them serves to hold a mirror up to someone who, in a world of science and reason, insists that people were created by an invisible magic sky father.

  6. David Thiel
    04/16/2011 at 10:39 AM

    My early frustration with Dana Scully wasn’t that she was a skeptic in the face of overwhelming evidence of the supernatural. It was that the overwhelming evidence always managed to leave the room just as she came on the scene, like some sort of cryptid Mr. Snuffleupagus. (Kids, ask your parents about the days when Big Bird’s friends all thought he was delusional.)

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