THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is
easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it
happened. Deal with it.
THE SILLY SEASON
To begin this week's pontification on the decline of modern civilization, a snippet of what might appear at first glance to be unremarkable meaningless trivia from the entertainment press:
Although CSI and other crime dramas remained ratings heavyweights last season, hints of viewer fatigue with procedurals have begun to emerge from online chatter and elsewhere, said Stacey Lynn Koerner of the Initiative media agency." (MSNBC, Aug. 29)The news that American television audiences may be growing weary of stories rooted in empiricism and the scientific method is not in of itself cause for concern. TV trends come and go faster than a roadrunner on the backroads of New Mexico. Allow me to dwell for a moment, however, on what viewers' attentions are being drawn to, rather than away from. I refer to the dark arts.
Now, there's nothing wrong with a little fantasy every now and then. There's also nothing new about supernatural TV. Producers of my parents' generation made millions from "Bewitched," "I Dream of Jeannie" and "The Twilight Zone." My contemporaries raked in the big bucks by cranking out the weekly adventures of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Xena the Warrior Princess" (both of which for some reason captured the hearts of feminist critics) and the three witches of "Charmed" (which induced the opposite effect).
There's also little to mourn in the pending demise, if that's what it is, of the C.S.I. franchise. I, for one, am not going to miss redundant dialogue, wooden acting and repetitive storylines. But I do appreciate the solid science that drives each episode. Cases were solved by relying on facts derived from scientific tests, even if they were carried out in a fantastically rapid fashion.
Sadly, and if the fall 2005 broadcast television season is any indication, the new hot thing is the old hot thing. Rapists, murders and other criminal types with no respect for the laws of civil society are on the way out. Ghosts, goblins and other scary things with no respect for the laws of physics are in.
Look what's happening on CBS. Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer" replaces Amber Tamblyn's "Joan of Arcadia." For those with only a passing familiarity with the latter program, this may seem like a wash -- what's the difference between a girl who talks with the dead and a girl who talks with the supreme being?
But "Joan of Arcadia" was one of the rare examples of network television that dared not provide easy answers. With the unfortunate exception of the final episode, the writers refused to resolve the nature of Joan's relationship with God. Was she hallucinating, or was she divinely inspired? "Joan" succeeded for the same reason the early seasons of the "X-Files" did. One could never be sure which was justified -- Mulder's need to believe or Scully's refusal to do so.
Over on NBC, there's another silly season of "Medium," the show that provided the template for "Ghost Whisperer," only with Patricia Arquette as the one with the dirt on the departed. She even picked up an Emmy over the weekend for that. Joining her on NBC is Amy Grant (Amy Grant?) whose new show, "Three Wishes," is about someone who actualizes exactly that.
Meanwhile the WB, which sucked bloodily for several years with "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel," appears to have run out of clever titles for its latest foray into the netherworld, "Supernatural." One TV columnist summarizes the premise thusly: "Two lock-picking, karate-chopping, scythe-wielding brothers cut a swath through inhuman villains as they search for the evil creature that murdered their mother." Yee-hah.
ABC is raiding the vaults with a revived The Night Stalker: "Join investigative reporter Carl Kolchak and his co-workers as they search for who or what killed his wife." No thanks.
Other new entries with various degrees of conformity with reality include "Invasion" (aliens are among us), "Surface" (aliens are beneath us) and "Threshold" (in which first contact isn't going quite so well as it did in "Star Trek"). Based as it is on the tools of science, "Threshold" may yet prove worthwhile, but the hackneyed writing of the premiere episode suggests otherwise. Like the hapless crime-fighting math geek in "Numbers," most network writers seem incapable of combining intellectually challenging themes with dramatically compelling scripts.
All is not lost, though. The SciFi channel is sticking with the uncompromising "Battlestar Galactica," which outshines just about everything on the tube these days. It offers perhaps the most complex array of competing philosophies: monotheist androids, polytheist politicians and atheist soldiers. Wow. But only on cable.
The one good piece of doubt-worthy news from the broadcast networks is another year of ABC's "Lost," a dark version of Gilligan's Island that so far has managed to tread the fine line between fantasy and psychological thriller. Four dozen survivors find themselves trapped on a simulacrum of Hawai'i that may, or may not, be populated by dinosaurs, polar bears and other assorted apparitions drawn straight from their worst nightmares. Are they in limbo? Or are they just paranoid? Is it real, or is it Memorex?
Like "Joan," "Lost" maintains interest because the fundamental premise eschews certainty. That and some solid performances. One can only hope the series wraps up (I would suggest after this season) before succumbing to the pressure to provide answers. Otherwise it will descend into the self-parody of "Twin Peaks." Anyone who thought "who killed Laura Palmer?" was important missed the point.
In case you were wondering, there wasn't one.