As part of my responsibility as a good parent, I try to be informed about the television shows and movies my son is watching. I often sit and watch them with Atom and we discuss the content. I certainly don’t think kids shows should have to demonstrate a skeptical perspective. It is pleasing though, to occasionally find shows that take on a problem with the tools of science and critical thinking.
I have seen excellent examples of this on Arthur, which has an episode debunking an urban legend and another taking on UFO claims. We enjoy several PBS Kids programs such as Curious George, Cyberchase, and Sid the Science Kid, all of which regularly use scientific thinking to solve problems. The Nick Jr. series Backyardigans (pictured) has a great episode about the Yeti that challenges both extreme credulity as well as knee-jerk skepticism as it lets the evidence lead viewers to the answer. Of course there’s also good old Scooby-Doo, the prototypical skeptical cartoon.
Cartoons get it very wrong sometimes too. The above-mentioned Curious George, a program funded in part by the National Science Foundation, featured and episode with a naturopath and a bunch of ridiculous claims. Even the beloved Scooby-Doo has a number of later episodes with supernatural solutions to the mysteries and there are always the elaborate conspiracies to blame when the supernatural won’t do.
Nothing gets it more wrong than the Robert Zemeckis directed animated feature, The Polar Express. I won’t go into too much detail here, as I intend to write an entire post on The Polar Express but it isn’t just a credulous fantasy film. I have no problem with that. Kids do a great job of navigating the line between fantasy and reality. The Polar Express is an outright attack on skepticism. The film takes an intelligent kid with actual evidence that Santa doesn’t exist and bullies him into believing by making him look like a bad person for having doubts. Let me stress that I don’t think kids films should have to be skeptical. They are often intended only to entertain. I just find the core message in The Polar Express to be anti-skeptical and that is a little troubling.
I would be very interested in hearing from others about skepticism and woo in children’s TV and films that they have stumbled across. Perhaps I will compile a list of shows and movies that get it right as well as those that get it wrong.