Skepticism

Inside Job by Connie Willis: Sketpics in Fiction

I’ve started a discussion of Inside Job by Connie Willis in the Skeplit forum.

In preparation to read this book, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the presence (or absence) of skeptical characters in literature. Feel free to discuss here in the comments if you don’t participate in the forums, but please NO SPOILERS in the blog comments!

Here’s the message I posted in the forums. (BTW, when Rebecca gets the new site software installed, we’ll be able to integrate the discussions better, so I won’t have to do separate blog and forum postings. For now, I’ll keep posting in both places, because different people seem to participate in each.)

Hi all. Has anyone started reading Inside Job by Connie Willis yet? If not, you still have time to nab a copy at the bookstore or library and catch up because it’s a short book.

Here are a few questions to get a discussion started:

Which is more important for skeptics to build a reputation: fiction or nonfiction? Which has more of an impact on the perceptions of the general public?

In your answer to the previous questions, does your definition of fiction include movies, or just novels and written stories?

Are skeptics, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, (insert the name you like best), adequateley represented in fiction?

When skeptics etc., are included in fiction, are they represented fairly?

What other novels have you read that have main characters who are skeptical?

I’ll have more discussion questions specifically about Inside Job over the next weeks.

Donna

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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14 Comments

  1. I think that unfortunately, the role of skeptics in fiction (particularly movies/TV), has been to be the Scully to their Mulder. In other words, to play the critical voice that gets to say why, in the real world that we all know and cherish, some things are not possible, or at least highly unlikely, only to be shown later on that this is in fact the movies and anything is possible.

  2. I find the Grissom character on CSI to be a well represented skeptic. I like how he approaches every situation with an impartial scientist's curiosity. Like in the episode with the convention of people who dress up as animals. It was just one more case study to him. Or his all-too-brief interest in the Lady Heather. He never judged her for being a Madam/Dom. He always has an open mind, but believes his science above all else.

    I had forgotten about Scully. But in that show, strange things really did happen, so she was often made to look the fool.

    As far as written fiction, I am partial to fantasy novels where magic and the supernatural do exist, so a skeptic character would be just like a real life fundie: blind to what's right in front of him. Does Alice (In Wonderland) count? She tries her darndest to disbelieve and apply logic to all the insanity around her. ("We're all mad here.")

    I haven't read too much non fiction, but I can't think of any good skeptical characters.

  3. Yes, Grissom really is the best represented skeptic on TV. And I know people have suggested inviting anyone from that production to TAM for a Q&A. And I personally think the director/creators/writers would probably be more interesting than the actors, although it's quite possible a bunch of them are genuine skeptics in real life too.

    I really can't think of any other well known skeptics in fiction right away. Mostly, as mentioned before, they seem to serve the role of cynics, who are insistent it's not real only to be shown later on that it is :(

  4. I have written and published short stories trying to ripoff the Harry Potter theme. Sort of a Hardy Boys with magic. The kids are at a wizard academy in London, but solve crimes with logic and investigations. The magic is used in place of crime labs and computer searches.

    The idea, of course, is to introduce critical thinking to kids while they are still forming ideas. In occassional brute exposes, the story kids discuss how they make money by charging for fake medium and mind reading shows. In my case, fiction provides a good platform to introduce critical thinking skills in an entertaining way.

    A necessary disclaimer. The other short stories in the books are by other authors and are generally as risible as the rest of popular entertainment.

  5. One of the best exemplars of skepticism in fiction — and not just skepticism, but a Saganesque "marriage of skepticism and wonder" — is Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. Remember the days when the morning funnies provided a steady diet of dinosaurs and intergalactic adventures, combined with a wry, critical examination of advertising, public schools and even religion? Occasionally, I see a car with a "praying Calvin" sticker (a species frequently seen in proximity with the Yellow-Bellied Rapture Sticker — "Warning: in the event of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED"). It always makes me wonder if the owner of the car had read the same comic strip as I.

  6. I just rewatched Sleepy Hollow, (the Tim Burton movie with Johnny Depp) and I found myself admiring the character of Ichabod Crane. He never accepts the superstitious explanations for the events until he sees the evidence first-hand. He says at one point, "Seeing is not necessarily believing." and uses an optical illusion to illustrate his point. When it he is faced with the reality of the supernatural events taking place, he admits his mistake and continues to seek a rational explanation given this new information. Even within the world of headless horsemen returned from the grave, he uses reason and science to find the real killer. I thought this portayal of a skeptic to be admirable, even if the world it's set in is haunted.

  7. Wow, those are all interesting posts! Maybe we need a Skepchick movie reviewer, too. I had the same response to Sleepy Hollow, although I'd forgotten about that. And it did have a non-magical solution, didn't it?

    I love magic in movies and books, though, I must admit. I mean, I read and watch fiction as escapism, so I'm not always looking for reality. In fact, I hate movies and novels that are so serious that they are not fun.

    skepdaho, what's your real name or the name of your published stories, so we can check them out! Sounds like fun.

    Another of my (current) favorite TV shows is Psych. The guy is a Sherlock Holmes type of detective (with astute observation skills) but no-one believes him and so he pretend to be a psychic to get to solve cases. Very funny. And sad in a way, if you think that it could possibly be true.

    Donna

  8. I think there are lots of books that contain an element of scepticism. I would argue that books by authors such as Jonathan Swift, and other satirists, encourage critical thinking through satire. Much Enlightenment period art and literature were the first breakaway from established doctrine towards the idea of rationality.

    Then there's later literary phenomena like Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and on the mainland European continent authors like Victor Hugo encouraging people to see the church and state in more critical terms. Pre-Marxist Marx and Karl Engels produced much literature about poverty in the UK/Europe that questioned the Victorian attitudes towards poverty, again popularist writing (yes, we all know where that ended up but it had a significant impact on the way people think so it's worth noting, and I'm not mentioning Hegel because anyone who likes they way he wrote is bonkere).

    At the start of the 20th Century people like Bertrand Russell began to popularise scepticism with strong philosophical backing, through popular lectures and the media.

    Two characters in book that I would like to mention is Henry Wilt and Sir Harry Paget Flashman. Wilt and Tom Sharpe's earlier books like Indecent Exposure, were about rational characters surrounded by irrational people, swept along.

    I think there are lots of books with sceptical themes, primarily because many authors are part or wholly sceptical. There are many American authors that have taken critical approaches to contemporary themes (Henry Miller, Joseph Heller, …)

    I draw no distinction between the impact of fiction and non-fiction. Something is either popular or it isn't. They can both be abused or lead to people taking the wrong conclusions, but the potential harm is outweighed by the fact that they make people think.

    Of course, American television has House MD, Dr Know, Mythbusters, and South Park. Here in the UK we have (Jack scratches his head, furrows his brow) … nothing comparable. Still, we have less fundies so :-P

  9. As a big sci-fi fan, I think it doesn't really matter what you read. It's bound to make you think. If it doesn't, it's not good sci-fi.

    And anything "magical" that happens in those stories is usually given a scientific sounding, technological solution rather than parapsychological mumbo-jumbo. The old "anything technologically advanced enough is going to seem like magic …" thing.

  10. If you folks haven't watched it already – I highly recommend "House" It's about as skeptical as American TV gets. It does of course help that the lead actor (Hugh Laurie) is a skeptic himself. He's also the olny British actor I've seen to do a great American accent – but that's beside the point. His character is purley about science and brooks no nonsense – to the point of being abrasive at times… but hey, at least he's a skeptic! The last episode I watched did something I would have thought unthinkable for prime time TV – it established him as an atheist. It even included such gems as "If there is a god he's unimaginabley cruel" and " beilef in a god simply doesn't make sense". Kind of weak for the anti-theism arguments I know… but this was still prme time TV in America and more than I would have ever guessed I'd see.

  11. >As a big sci-fi fan, I think it doesn’t really matter what you read. It’s bound to >make you think. If it doesn’t, it’s not good sci-fi.

    Actually, that does not apply just so sci-fi. Anyone wanting to escape some kind of religious indoctrination or any other kind of mental rut need just read very widely. Even if some of what you read is junk, if you read enough and think about what you read, and then read more, you will most likely eventually come to good conclusions.

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