Sunday, October 4, 2009

Goddamn You, Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne is at the Atheist Alliance International meeting and has his report here. It sounds interesting. I have the AAI 2007 DVDs, which are quite good, but I have a feeling this year will be even better.

So why am I cursing a man who wrote one of the best popular science books on evolution (I'm only about halfway through Dawkins' TGSOE, but I still like Coyne's better)? Because of this part:

I attended a talk (and had breakfast with) William Dav is, better known as “The Cigarette Smoking Man” of X-Files fame. Davis’s nominal topic was a response to Dawkins, who has criticized The X-Files for being inimical to reason (the supernatural explanation always won). Davis’s response basically boiled down to “Well, we all knew it was fiction,” which I think is inadequate. Davis also gave a bit of biography (I learned this morning that his X-Files cigarettes were herbal, and he had somebody else light them), and threw out a few bizarre statements, to wit: it might have been better not to fight against Hitler in WWII, and that perhaps democracy isn’t the best political system for the US (he feels that it’s inefficient at confronting our enormous global challenges).

I was delighted to find out William B. Davis is an atheist and skeptic (as is David Duchovny, well, maybe not atheist, but I suspect so). However, Coyne says in response to Davis defending The X-Files that "the supernatural explanation always won." No. It. Fucking. Didn't. Jerry, if by some odd circumstance you read this, you're a fucking stud, but this remark is horseshit. It is apparent you have not watched much of The X-Files. In the majority of the "creature of the week" episodes (the non-plot related, alien conspiracy episodes, which were about a quarter or less of the seasons' episodes) there was some purely natural explanation for the seemingly supernatural event. In Unweaving The Rainbow, Richard Dawkins says:

The cult of The X-Files has been defended as harmless because it is, after all, only fiction. On the face of it, that is a fair defence. But regularly recurring fiction -- soap operas, cop series and the like -- are legitimately criticized if, week after week, they systematically present a one-sided view of the world. The X-Files is a television series in which, every week, two FBI agents face a mystery. One of the two, Scully, favours a rational, scientific explanation; the other agent, Mulder, goes for an explanation which either is supernatural or, at very least, glorifies the inexplicable. The problem with The X-Files is that routinely, relentlessly, the supernatural explanation, or at least the Mulder end of the spectrum, usually turns out to be the answer. I'm told that, in recent episodes, even the sceptical agent Scully is starting to have her confidence shaken, and no wonder.

But isn't it just harmless fiction, then? No, I think the defence rings hollow. Imagine a television series in which two police officers solve a crime each week. Every week there is one black suspect and one white suspect. One of the two detectives is always biased towards the black suspect, the other biased towards the whit. And week after week, the black suspect turns out to have done it. So, what's wrong with that? After all, it's only fiction! Shocking as it is, I believe the analogy to be completely fair one. I am not saying that the supernaturalist propaganda is as dangerous or unpleasant as racist propaganda. But The X-Files systematically purveys an anti-rational view of the world which, by virtue of its recurrent persistence, is insidious.

I can only think of one "creature of the week" episode off the top of my head that is supernatural in nature, and that was the Bruce Campbell episode (s06e07, Terms Of Endearment) where The Chin plays a demon knocking up human chicks. There is a boy that has a psychic connection with the aliens, but I'm not going to quite call this supernatural because the aliens communicate telepathically, as do some ants on Earth, and this boy does have a connection with aliens.

Coyne also does not believe that the show being a work of fiction is adequate. I think this is a valid concern, but superficially, I think it is an adequate explanation. All viewers should know that it is fiction, but that probably is not the case all the time. So I do understand the concern over the "message." I have no doubt that the show fueled conspiracy theories. I know Alex Jones (famous conspiracy theorist) interviewed Dean Haglund (Langly from The Lone Gunman) about the Lone Gunman (X-Files spinoff) episode where the World Trade Center was about to be hit by a passenger plane aired months before 9/11. I also talked to Jordan Maxwell (another conspiracy theorist) about that episode a few years back. So there are valid concerns about The X-Files within the skeptical community, but the supernatural aspects need to stop.

As for the talk, which I have not seen yet and Coyne only talked of a couple points, William B. Davis was generally only in the alien conspiracy plot episodes. I don't know if he's seen the "creature of the week" episodes where he was not involved, but if he had, he would have had a better case to defend the show.

I am really sick of skeptics shitting on The X-Files. Not all skeptics do, in fact a few skeptics actually have no problem with the show or even promote it. Those are the skeptics that have actually watched the show, for example, this article on Skeptic Tank. Why not piss on shows such as Supernatural? I actually quite like Supernatural because it does what The X-Files did not. That's right, the mysterious entities are actually supernatural. There is even a great episode making fun of Ghost Hunters. Speaking of which, why aren't skeptics going after Ghostbusters? It has been out 25 years.

I woke up this morning and turned on UFO Hunters (I love me some kooks) on The History channel to have on in the background as I did some way fucking overdue homework. I think it would be more prudent for skeptics to go after these type of shows (and many do) on channels that purport to be of some credibility than to dwell on a long dead fiction show. Most importantly, if you are going to be a skeptic, examine what you are criticizing before you shit on it. I have plenty of kneejerk reactions, myself, that make me a lesser skeptic than I could be, and the wonder of the internet is that someone out there with more knowledge than you on the topic will point that out. That is exactly what I am doing and I am confident I know plenty more about The X-Files than Jerry Coyne and I am calling him out for being too ill-informed about the show to make the statements he did.

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