Reflections on a weekend spent with skeptics
I’ve been sort of out of the loop for three days, as I’ve been in Vegas immersed in the fascinating The Amazing Meeting, a conference dedicated to skepticism, rational thinking, and the advancement of science. So I got to hear all sorts of fascinating lectures on everything from the ethics of magicians to stopping the anti-vaccination movement. (Which is frighteningly big now—I saw at least 4 people walking around airports with Jenny McCarthy’s book this weekend.) Now I’m back and have a lot of catch-up to do, but before that, I thought I’d share a couple observations.
Having a meeting of skeptics at a casino is a great idea. A lot of the energy of skepticism is dedicated to understanding why people believe weird things, and you really couldn’t ask for a better illustration for certain theories than a casino. For instance, slot machines are probably the best example ever of the theory of intermittent rewards as a reinforcement mechanism. But mostly I played craps, and it was really a great illustration of the development of superstitions. The research around superstition indicates that, amongst other things, it tends to develop in situations where people are invested in an outcome they have little to no control over. This seems obvious when you state it, but it’s still amazing to read about research showing superstitious belief rises during economic downturns, etc. Since the whole point of gambling is that you’re using real money to bet on chance, you couldn’t ask for a better situation to observe superstition at its most basic. At one point, I walked up to a craps table where some other TAM attendees were standing, and they said something about a hot hand at the table. And I couldn’t help but give them hell, pointing out that there’s no such thing as a hot hand. Later, one of them observed how mentally straining it was to make the same bet on the same roll you lost on last time, even though the odds are exactly the same whether you’ve won or lost on it in the past. Again, superstition. As craps is a game that’s even more male-dominated than a skepticism convention, I also found over the weekend that male players got a little more excited and even bet a little more when I was rolling, even going so far as to mention lady luck. I’m not sure if there’s a specific term for how a belief in lady luck would have developed, but it was clear that all that was going on was that a woman stood out and this was deemed meaningful even though it wasn’t. There’s also a sense that subterranean and stubborn beliefs that assume that women are more mystical and spiritual than men inform the superstition. All this is really funny, because gambling is one area where the actual chances of winning have been thoroughly researched and established as cold, hard numbers, showing that superstition relates a lot more to someone’s lack of control in a situation than to their lack of knowledge. Regular craps players who have the odds memorized exhibited, as far as I can tell, even more superstitious behaviors than casual players.
The other thing I thought was interesting was how much of the two-day program of lectures was dedicated to the problem of bad science or anti-science stereotyping on television and movies. This isn’t just an idle concern for skeptics—there is research that shows, like it or not, that people’s perceptions of reality are strongly shaped by what they see on TV. There’s a lot of talk in skepticism about better science education, but I realized, listening to all these speakers on the subject of science and rationality on TV, that a little bit of education in literature would have gone a long way to clarify people’s thinking about what they want exactly to happen, especially on shows that actually rely on scientific knowledge to advance the plot, and usually get it wrong.
It’s hard, and it showed, to explain why it’s easy for TV viewers to watch a show about people who don’t exist doing things that didn’t happen and accept that, but then get frustrated when something physically impossible happens, or science is misrepresented, right down to assuming all scientists wear lab coats all the time. And therefore it’s easy to dismiss concerns by saying that it’s fiction, deal with it. People half-understand the theory of willing suspension of disbelief, and it causes them to get confused about what is and isn’t really acceptable to “lie” about in a work of fiction. Coleridge invented the term “willing suspension of disbelief”, and what he basically meant by it was that implausible or magical elements (or really, just fictive ones) were acceptable in fiction as long as the work was telling a greater truth about humanity. Which means that you’re in the right if you’re watching a show like “Lost” where a bunch of magical shit happens, but a character acts out of character and you get mad. They did, in fact, fuck up. I would also add that the willing suspension of disbelief is predicated for audiences on the idea that we know what the “rules” of a particular work are, and so we have a right to act pissy if something’s bullshit outside of the parameters for what bullshit we’re willing to accept. So, for instance, I’ve been watching a lot of “Pushing Daisies” on the plane and waiting for the plane this weekend, and I, the viewer, happily accept that the main character Ned can wake people up from the dead. But if the characters just started flying around without an elaborate and satisfying justification, that would be bullshit. In order to get people to buy the world you’re setting up, it has to make sense by its own rules.
Which is why it’s okay to get pissed off if a show is set in a world that is supposed to obey the basic laws of physics but doesn’t, though I’d caution that this is only a real problem if it’s blatant, instead of minor shit like assuming every glass that falls of a counter will break. On “CSI”, we accept that the investigators wear suits to the scene of a crime (they don’t in real life—they wear uniforms and flak jackets), because in their world, it’s more important for them to stand out from the police, which means they can’t have police-looking uniforms. But if they started to use the basic tools of the trade in ways they can’t be used, that’s offensive, because the premise of the show is that you get a peak into the real science of criminal investigation. We accept on “Law and Order” that there’s a murder rate in New York that’s three times what it is and the same staff of two detectives and two prosecutors work every murder case, but we rightly revolt if the murderer has a motivation that just doesn’t happen in real life.
I think at least knowing that there is a line and what defines it makes it a lot easier to know what is and isn’t acceptable flouting of reality on TV shows. It’s not always clear—are the time travel plots on “Lost” something you can just gloss over, even though they spend an inordinate amount of time wanking over whether or not changing history by traveling through time is possible?—but if you at least grasp the parameters, it’s easier to articulate why this particular plot point or setting detail is offensively false, and that one is just fiction.
For further reading on this issue, check out the lead article at Salon.