We have exchanged e-mail before on a different subject, one in which I disagreed with your opinion. So I would like to preface my thoughts by saying I know your job is difficult and I don’t have a fundamental problem with your work as a whole.
That said, I would like to voice my dissent for your ”The Phantom Menace of Superstition in Film and Television” in the SI Digest of May 27, 1999. I take issue with several aspects of your remarks and outline them below.
Beginning at the end. In the final sentence of your article you say, in part, “…our democracy will be tested if we continue to live in fantasy, and lack an appreciation for science and reason.” Is there a compelling reason to suppose we can not enjoy a rich fantasy life and still appreciate science and reason? I believe there is a middle ground, where movie fantasy entertainments are starting points for lessons in science, where suspension of reality leads to in roads to reality. I saw “Star Wars” before becoming a skeptic and even then various friends, teenagers like myself, talked about “the Force” as though it were real, while I argued that it was simply a plot device in a movie. In these discussions many of my future skeptical views were shaped. The dialogue would not have been open for me without the movie.
One of my top ten movies of all time is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not that I buy the conspiracy of the government, the visitation of the aliens, or even the reality of the space ships. I enjoy it so much because it is a consummate work of movie making, story telling, and exciting narrative. Outside the viewing experience I don’t buy a single precept of the movie. If I thought of it as a documentary it wouldn’t be because of the movie, but because of a desire to confirm my beliefs. Both of us know that confirmation of this kind is pointless, but those who don’t have beliefs so deeply imbedded the movie is not going to make a difference one way or the other. Should we deny this entertainment to the rest of us based on the fact that a few may misconstrue it?
Alienation. Education is the answer, not overt or covert censorship. Skeptics have a hard time persuading people we are just ordinary people with methods for assessing the world around us. Too often those who run in skeptic circles don’t do trench work with the real day-to-day believers. One of the biggest complaints about skeptics is that we lack soul, that we are humorless, lifeless, science drones. In all my discussions with UFOlogy supporters (and I have them everyday) not once have I heard the “X-FILES” referred to as anything more than a television show. The impact is merely one of entertainment that speaks to their concerns, but does not raise their concerns. Should we then embark on an alienating campaign that verifies the worst suspicions about skeptics? Are the results equal or greater than the price?
Hypocrisy. So far as I know the extraordinary claim that movies and television fiction elicit direct philosophical and intellectual responses is unproved. I know there are some studies that suggest that paranormal documentary and news shows influence thinking, but do we have any reason to belittle the reasoning of vast movie audiences enough to suggest they don’t know the difference between documentary-style shows and entertainment?
Mythology. I have been involved with skeptics of and adherents to work by Sitchen, Hancock, van Daniken and other “lost civilizations and lost history” type authors. The skeptical view is that mythology is metaphor not history. Why then should movie mythology become greater other mythology in the popular mind? Certainly we can look at the abuses of these authors and say, “See? There’s the danger,” but even then we have to confront the idea that it is a movie, not some old mythological story and faces carved in stone.
Elitism. It is all well and good to speak of concern for the common man and to fight for science literacy. But in the end, the discussion breaks down to, “I understand it’s just a movie, but THEY obviously must be protected.” In order for anyone to become science literate certain basic criteria must be understood. One may well be that they know the difference between an entertainment and a text book. Will deconstructing the work of George Lucas further the understanding of science further, or is this a case of eliminating the opposition with rhetoric then providing the one true alternative? This is, in the field of philosophy and world view, the equal to political mudslinging. And worse, another example of elite skeptical snobbery. How would you feel, as a human being, if someone hinted that you don’t know the difference between movies and reality? Then sneered, “I do”.
Rather than making the case AGAINST the ideas we combat, we should make the case FOR our side. Pointing out insignifigant areas of concern doesn’t further the skeptical cause, it hinders it. While I have always enjoyed your writing style, I have often been at odds with your message. If you want to reach the general public (and by you I mean the organization you represent), stop approaching them like they are fellow professors or scientists, and start writing TO them. The last thing you need to do is preach to the choir about pitfalls and possible dangers in popular culture. Use popular culture to reach the audience of popular culture.
Two days ago my daughter came home from school complaining that her class had read a story about manta rays, and the pictures of the rays had disturbed her. I used the opportunity to examine the beauty of evolution, making it interesting by supposing that a creature on another planet could look like this ray and fly in the air hunting silicon creatures for food. I got the idea from an article by the same Carl Sagan you quoted. Mr. Sagan had an imagination and understood the inherent power of it to lead to new ideas and lessons about the real world. I urge you and your organization to follow his example.