Island Map

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.

Inspiration
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
(A review)

The Doubter's Companion:
by John Ralston Saul (Excerpts)

Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org

A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Place Where We Are Right


The Meaning of
  the Island of
  Doubt

More Doubtful Blogs
Carl Zimmer
Chris C. Mooney
Chet Raymo
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Rob Cottingham
John Gushue
Derek Raymaker
Author's site:
www.cyamid.net

email:jamesh@cyamid.net

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2005 Archives

Sept. 14
  Death of Decency

Sept. 8
  Problem of Evil

Sept. 2
  Why Katrina?

Aug. 30
  Katrina Degrees

Aug. 23
  Sketchy Argument

Aug. 16
  Is It Getting Hot?

Aug. 9
  To Boldly Go
Aug. 3
  What Miracle?

Aug. 1
  The X Factor

July 26:
  Cool to the Truth

July 19:
  Because I Said So

July 12:
  Confidence vs. Faith

July 5:
  Fusion Confusion

June 28:
  Up Against the Wall
June 21:
  Alarum of the Deep
June 16:
  Castration of
  Public B'casting

June 7:
  History Will
  Teach Us Nothing

May 31:
  Museum Piece

May 24:
  Vector of a Weird
  Disease
May 17:
  Coal-miners'
  Daughters

May 10:
  Repent or Resign

May 3:
  Climate of Bias


Random Douglas Adams quote

By doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
--- Peter Abelard

Undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance.
-- Richard Dawkins

As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.
-- Michael Shermer.

THE SILLY SEASON
Sept. 19, 2005

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.

James Hrynyshyn

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