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Science and Skepticism a Growing Trend? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Alison Smith   

scienceShows based on mysterious investigations have been a staple of American television for years, and have had the public entranced by the logical explanations of Mr. Spock , fascinated by the resourcefulness of MacGyver, and wondering at the possibilities rattled off by Agent Fox Mulder.

But until this point, television wasn’t necessarily concerned with the accuracy of what was represented, leading to episodes of Star Trek that made viewers pause and wonder at the plausibility of a giant hand in space. We are at a strange point in time – one where what the public finds entertaining happens to be logic and science, even if the edges of the scientific accuracy are blurred.

At this particular moment in time, there are nine investigation shows where a scientist is a lead character. Lie to Me, The Eleventh Hour, Fringe, Criminal Minds, House, Numb3rs, and of course, all three incarnations of CSI. There is also a grouping of shows whose lead characters have honed real-life skills to become super investigators: Psych, Monk, and The Mentalist.

In fact, even though The Mentalist is only in its first season, it has been topping the ratings – and beating CSI, which regularly pulls in 18 million viewers.

By comparison, Medium, the show based on the life of psychic Allison Dubois, only has around eight million viewers. And Ghost Whisperer? Just under ten million viewers.

In the past, I have slammed some of the science-based shows as being so impossible that I’m continually shooting caffeine free Diet Pepsi out my nose when I watch as a shock reaction, but right now I’m so awed by the fact that science is playing a part at all that my Diet Pepsi is staying where it belongs. What is popular right now indicates a shift in public thinking that may well open doors for critical thinkers everywhere – and help bring new ones into the fold.

Maybe the public has gotten sick of the paranormal hullaballoo, and wants real answers. This would seem to be the case, at least, if you have watched the most recent episode of House – ‘Here, Kitty,’  – which had a basis in the real-life exploits of Oscar, the psychic death cat, who predicted the deaths of several nursing home residents.

You can even see the shift in comedies, like 30 Rock, when Jack Donaghy explains to Liz that reiki is the art of laying on hands to improve one’s life. “How does your life improve?” Liz asks, “Do the hands have money in them?”

If you’re reading this article at all, it is probably because you’ve come to the JREF as a critical thinker and skeptic, and want that to be a major part of your life. So the big question is: What are we going to do with this shift?

If you have ideas about what you’d like to see happen next, and you’re willing to put forth some effort in making them happen, send an e-mail to alison@randi.org. Let’s see what we can come up with.

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written by BillyJoe, March 29, 2009
If you have ideas about what you’d like to see happen next, and you’re willing to put forth some effort in making them happen, send an e-mail to alison@randi.org. Let’s see what we can come up with.

Well let's see it right here.
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written by The voice in the back of my mind, March 30, 2009
I'm sorry to say that the bad/implausible science in fiction bothers me more than the impossible magic/psi. Well; at least if in the first case they have the pretense to be realistic, and as long as in the second case they haven't. I don't mind technobabble in sci-fi, for example. It may be nonsense but it's not pretending to be something else. On the other hand, taking Numb3rs as example, I gave up on the first time I saw it when they used Bayes as some magic plot device that solves every problem.
I suppose that about sums it up: I don't like science abused as if it's magic, nor vice versa.
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written by MadScientist, March 30, 2009
Personally I don't see a shift. Poking fun at the ridiculous and promoting the ridiculous have both been part of TV entertainment for as long as I can remember. For examples of poking fun at the ridiculous, there are numerous episodes from Johnny Carson and from Saturday Night Live and every now and then even Dave Letterman does a good job of it. For promoting the ridiculous there (were) the XFiles and other shows whose names I can't even remember now and I won't even mention the contemporary shows. Then there were the shows that were just ridiculous and they were meant to be that way and not taken seriously - just good mindless entertainment like "Bewitched".

So as a skeptic, I'd say: please supply a more thorough lineup of shows promoting woo-woo, shows promoting science, and 'others' for, say, the past 20 years to establish the claim that there is a shift in TV programming in favor of science.
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written by John Huntington, March 30, 2009
What is popular right now indicates a shift in public thinking that may well open doors for critical thinkers everywhere – and help bring new ones into the fold.


I'm so happy to see someone viewing this situation in what I consider to be the right context. Maybe it's a trend, maybe not, but I think that 18 million people (including me) watching The Mentalist is a big deal.

Yes, we'd all love for woo to go away forever and scientific thinking guide every thing in our culture, but those things don't happen overnight, and woo will never go away completely. Maybe viewers of all these shows won't give up reading their horoscopes over night, but at least they are being exposed to these important ideas. The combination of skepticism and entertainment is what drew me to the first TAM, and I'm all for anything that (even incrementally) exposes critical thinking a large group of people. And I think that open their minds by drawing them in far more effective than confronting them.

John
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written by John Huntington, March 30, 2009
up, that was supposed to be "opening their minds", not open. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by Basscadet, March 30, 2009
oh how I wish it were a trend, it seems crazy ideas spread like wildfire and no reasonal arguments can prove them wrong to the ones believing them. I'm just the non-believing, down-to-earth skeptic that seems to miss the joys of life because he's so taken to debunking them. Any call for reasonable analysis or sober fact checking seems like it's coming from some dry, teacher-like figure that criticizes without "lightening up". Condescending? Me? Why? Because I roll my eyes when facing all that woo crowd?

Sadly, I find that not much has changed in broader public's critical thinking... At least not where I live (and it's a European country's capital lol)
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written by LovleAnjel, March 30, 2009
The really sad part about these shows is that people think they are very factual, what prosecutors dub the "CSI Effect". Criminal science is not magical, and you can't pull DNA off every surface a suspect winked at, but juries expect law enforcement to be able to do so. People are now being acquitted, not for lack of evidence, but for lack of the amazing evidence CSI seems to find every week. Folks in the media think that having a show be fictional tells the audience to take it with a grain of salt, and unfortunately that's not true.
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Scientists as lead c
written by bigjohn756, March 30, 2009
I have read several blogs which talk about scientific or skeptical TV shows. All neglect to mention Bones in which all the main characters but one are scientists. Furthermore, the Bones character is an avowed atheist and skeptic who has had numerous animated discussions with her cohort the very religious FBI agent Seeley Booth about atheism. In my opinion, Bones is more entertaining than House and certainly much better than any of the CSI shows.
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written by tmac57, March 30, 2009
One aspect that might be missed by some concerned about the bad science in some of these shows is that they can generate interest in those academic pursuits such as forensics, math, physics, etc at which time they will be exposed to good science.
Back in the 70's I read a book called 'The Dancing WU Li Masters' by Gary Zukav, which dipped it's toe into quantum woo, despite some good info on physics that it contained. But despite it's flaws, it got me interested in physics, which led me to read good books about astronomy, quantum physics, etc. , and I have heard that enrollment in some of these subjects is up , due in part to the popularity of such shows (anecdotal alert).
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written by Trish, March 30, 2009
I think it's great there are so many dramas based on rationality & scientific investigation, but don't forget all the factual TV shows that examine forensic, scientific & historical questions - like Forensic Files, Cold Case Files, 48 Hours Hard Evidence, The New Detectives, etc., etc. I think we should include viewers of these shows in the talleys of viewers who like rationality better than woo woo [of course, we'd have to add to the Ghost Whisperer side of the scales UFO Files, Monsterquest & the Haunting of Discovery Channel].

While on the subject of rational vs. woo woo TV is when the two are conflated, like when the History Channel or National Geographic Channel do a show about ancient times & report as fact Bible stories like Hebrews built the pyramids - even though other shows on the same network show the burial ground of the Egyptian skilled craftsmen who did the actual building. Or a show about Herod in which the claim that he ordered the murder of male toddlers to stop Jesus is repeated.


Star Trek Tangent...

I know the giant hand was silly - but it wasn't nearly the worst Star Trek TOS blunder. The giant hand was actually an image put into the minds of the crew, in combination with a force field, to frighten the crew. My vote for the worst was the "Yangs & Coms" episode in which not only has a planet had a "parrallel development" to earth - up to the point of the Vietnam era - but that the founding documents of America survive in garbled form that Kirk is able to decipher and use to end what had been a centuries' long conflict with a speech that included the display of tattered American flags. It doesn't get any cheesier than that - well, except for ST TNG, which regularly undermined the ethics portrayed in the original series - more than one TNG character was convinced or allowed to be taken against their will, by governments that wanted to force them to accept unfreedom, [one forced to commit ritual suicide due to his age, another had her sexuality rewired] in the name of "respect" for the beliefs of the society that wanted the person returned. Kirk & Spock would not only have offered such characters a ride to the nearest star base, they'd've blown up a computer or two along the way.



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You forgot...
written by WhisperElmwood, March 30, 2009
You forgot to mention such gems as:

'Bones' - the lead character is a forensic anthropologist who not only asks for evidence in every situation, she is also an atheist and goes straight for the real-world answers every time- she is supported by a host of scientists and FBI - which is based on the life of real-life forensic anthropologist and author, Kathy Riechs.

'Wire In The Blood' - the lead character is a psychologist who takes on the part-time work of criminal profiler for the police, profiling and catching, predomiantly, serial killers. This series is based on the books by Val McDermid and is seriously one of the best programs around for portraying criminal profiling, how it works, why it works and so on.

'Dexter' - a serial killer who actually works in the forensic field, with the police, using his work to track down his victims.

Personally, 'Fringe' gets on my nerves - its 'science' is too far in the direction of woo amd CSI annoys me when their DNA profiling (for example) takes a matter of hours, or they don't tie their hair back, or they don't wear over-alls, or gloves or.. etc. Also, the original 'The Eleventh Hour' - it's orignally British, the lead played by Patrick Stewart (hows that for a link!) - is far better and less... americanised, for want of a better term.

However, even with the science and the forensic procedures effed up occasionally, they make for damn good incentives to the younger generations to get their butts in gear and sign up.
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Documentaries?
written by SeanKehoe, March 30, 2009
Trish, those documentaries bug me also. Discovery Civilisation has been particularly nasty when it comes to giving woo woo an easy ride. Overall I find the quality on Discovery to be decent, but Civilisation is prone to covering something like Däniken, presenting little evidence, and finishing with a "perhaps we'll never know" type of line.
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written by Herk, March 30, 2009
I've noticed that on House the writers always give the nod to religion. Even though House is an atheist, he seems to be a very uncertain one. He is continually testing it, such as giving himself near-death experiences, to make sure he's on the right track. In the two-part episode where Amber, Wilson's lover, dies, Amber "seems" to communicate with House, even after she's dead. The question is always left open, and religious people seem to make points that House cannot quite counter.
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The Scotty syndrome
written by nelson650, March 30, 2009
I grow weary of the wrung out old plot line where the ship is on fire, the engines are dead, the Klingons are bearing down and the captain demands action. Scotty will always suggest that "I can reroute the ritzganots thru the hangerplatzits" How refreshing it would be to hear Ole Scotty say "From the escape pod porthole it looks like your goose is cooked.... Adios!"
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It ain't the floating hand ...
written by adering, March 30, 2009
Several thoughts occur.

First. The enjoyment of Star Trek lies in the attempt to "make it so." Kirk and Spock encounter Yangs and Coms? Yes, a bit hard to believe. So you try to make it work. As an intellectual exercise, to make the allegory work, you fix the errors. You come up with a way to make the author's story work. How could the Yangs and Coms exist only a few hundred years later, light years away, and have been there for millennia at the same time? The Star Trek fans have come up with an explanation (two, actually). One: a timewarp. Two: other, more advanced civilizations made duplicate Earths and each one came out a different way. The best part of both of those explanations? Neither falls into what I'm about to bring up.

Second. Recently, Battlestar Galactica (if you haven't seen the ending, don't read further) resolved four seasons of high drama and complex plots with "God did it." Yep. It was all part of God's plan. Deus ex machina taken to an offensive level. Why was the ending so unsatisfying? For the same reason the old "God Did It!" answer always is. It allows you to do whatever you want and then just hit the reset. Had to shoot Old Yeller in the head? Don't worry. It was God's plan. Here's Old Yeller, fine and dandy.

Star Trek never used that cheap, dirty trick. Roddenberry never used the "Well, God was there and did something miraculous" cheat because Roddenberry might have given us space shlock, but at least he didn't screw us on the ending. I strongly suspect that is why Star Trek has endured, because, honestly, a lot of the scripts sucked.

Third. In the most-recent episode of Family Guy, Brian the Dog (who is also an Atheist) basically hits Meg in the face with both barrels of the Reality Shotgun when she becomes a born again Christian after watching Kurt Cameron on the only channel she could get on the TV while stuck in bed with the mumps. I recall from memory:

Brian: "Meg! What kind of God would give you a flat chest and a fat ass? What kind of God would give you a hot mom like Lois but make you look like Peter? What kind of God would stick you in a house where no one respects you or values you, so much so that you caught mumps because they forget to get you vaccinated?"

But whenever you bring that sort of argument up (the "why does God hate amputees" argument, in other words) the "faithful" come up with the same lame responses. That's what I like about sci-fi. The good authors understand that if they tried to use that sort of crap on their readers, the readers would stop reading their books.
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The Bandwaggon
written by mglasco, March 30, 2009
I have been running behind the bandwaggon for a few years. I recently caught up and jumped right in. I read about a TV show in production by a skeptic group that focuses on debunking... think of mythbusters of the paranormal and "unexplained." I hope more shows like that pop up... and I hope this show get picked up. I think it was somehow connected to the creators of Skeptic Magazine, but I don't remember.

Also, I have been considering printing up some cheap business cards with websites of skepticism and science on them... just to have something to hand out. Maybe we can organize something like that?
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written by mglasco, March 30, 2009
http://www.skeptologists.com/ That is the TV show Pilot that I am talking about... I hope this show gets picked up.
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Caffeine free diet Pepsi?!
written by Marcus, March 30, 2009
I've always maintained that the only reasons for drinking carbonated cola beverages are the energy from the sugar and the stimulation from the caffeine, so I've never seen the point in cutting both of those elements out!
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written by BillyJoe, March 30, 2009
All neglect to mention Bones in which all the main characters but one are scientists. Furthermore, the Bones character is an avowed atheist and skeptic who has had numerous animated discussions with her cohort the very religious FBI agent Seeley Booth about atheism.

Hmmm...my wife's favourite show.
Perhaps there's hope for her yet. smilies/smiley.gif

BJ
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written by BillyJoe, March 31, 2009
I've always maintained that the only reasons for drinking carbonated cola beverages are the energy from the sugar and the stimulation from the caffeine, so I've never seen the point in cutting both of those elements out!

The taste without the waist.
The sensation without the palpitation.
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written by Trish, March 31, 2009
Carbonated, nonsugar, noncaffeine beverages? For me, it's the fizz, and the taste.

Also, I tend toward ulcers, and for some reason, find fizzy drinks soothing when I feel queasy.
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written by bosshog, April 01, 2009
And let's not forget "Gilligan's Island". It featured a scientist as one of its main characters. Sure, it went a little overboard sometimes with its coconut shortwave radios and coconut iron smelters and coconut particle colliders and such. But it promoted the scientific viewpoint just the same so it was a good show.
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written by Goolash, April 01, 2009
Let us not forget the degradation of The History Channel. Which now spends most of its time devoted to the paranormal
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written by BillyJoe, April 01, 2009
And let's not forget "Gilligan's Island". It featured a scientist as one of its main characters.

Not to forget a couple of hot chics.
(Though my favourite at the time was Billie-Joe in Petticoat Junction).

BillyJoe
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Ode to Billy Joe
written by bosshog, April 04, 2009
(Though my favourite at the time was Billie-Joe in Petticoat Junction).

I dunno. I always kinda wished I was one of Ellie Mae's critters.
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written by Trish, April 07, 2009
Sorry, adering, love the Original Trek as much as I do, I think the Yangs & Coms episode was the lamest thing they ever did - and not just me. Many of the people involved in the series admit season 3 was weak, and this episode was the weakest of the weak.
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written by Steel Rat, April 13, 2009
Scotty will always suggest that "I can reroute the ritzganots thru the hangerplatzits"


Well that's just silly. Everyone KNOWS that the ritzganots have nothing to do with the hangerplatzits. Such a routing would have little more effect than causing all the synthesized food to develop a left nipple.

Star Trek never used that cheap, dirty trick. Roddenberry never used the "Well, God was there and did something miraculous" cheat because Roddenberry might have given us space shlock, but at least he didn't screw us on the ending. I strongly suspect that is why Star Trek has endured, because, honestly, a lot of the scripts sucked.


You're kidding, right? Practically every episode of ST:TNG had a cheat ending. Make up some BS subatomic particle and reverse it, voila, we're saved! Not to mention the myriad of false dilemmas which had to be overcome.
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written by Steel Rat, April 13, 2009
Let us not forget the degradation of The History Channel. Which now spends most of its time devoted to the paranormal


Or the double whammy of Hitler and the Paranormal.

Though I've hereby dubbed it The Holy Channel. the amazing amount of religious crap they show is just gobsmackingly mindnumbing.
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written by HiEv, May 06, 2009
My earliest skeptical TV show was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. The monster/alien/ghost/whatever always turned out to be some guy in a mask, a hidden projector, or some other rational, non-supernatural explanation.

Sadly, some of the more modern incarnations of the show have had monsters and such really exist in them, which has caused me to lose some respect for the franchise. smilies/cry.gif
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