Pseudo-science, total fiction
`The X-Files' demonstrates the continuing public fondness for the oddball, the obscure and the occult
Friday 21 August 1998
The X-Files was the cult TV series teenagers and twentysomethings loved (for a while, anyway - already, it seems like the day-before-yesterday's fashion) and scientists loathed. The twin attractions of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, the allure of beautiful people doing brave things in deep shadows, the threat of conspiracies plotted somewhere between the Pentagon and Proxima Centauri; for a season, these were a fatally attractive combination.
Of course, The X-Files made no kind of sense. Scully and Mulder studded their detective talk with pseudo-scientific gibberish which would embarrass any self-respecting science-fiction writer. But this was all part of the deal. The series pandered to a particular interest in the unorthodox and the unknown; it suited the tastes of an audience many of whom were struggling reluctantly in the classroom with real science - which is difficult, not least because it has to make sense.
Life would be so much easier if only knowledge and wisdom came, not from the hard work of achieving genuine understanding, but rather from spontaneous intuitions and direct wire transfers into one's subconscious.
But already, I am beginning to betray my prejudices. Scientists tend to hate The X-Files. In its popularity, they see evidence of a continuing public fondness for the oddball, the obscure and the occult. As custodians of genuine knowledge, many scientists are offended by the cheap imitation which is offered here; by the parody of understanding that is willing to borrow scientific terminology (Scully and Mulder are forever talking about forces and fields and DNA and all the rest) as mere window-dressing for personal prejudice and superstition - or, which is worse, as verbal wallpaper to hide the cracks in crumbling plots.
It is easy, then, for scientists to be offended by this sort of stuff. But are they missing the point? Does anyone except indignant scientists really take seriously the pseudo-scientific pretensions of The X-Files?
Maybe the point is not to argue the case for the universe being weirder and more wonderful than is generally supposed; maybe the point is simply to spin a good yarn with the help of a little scientific make-believe? Maybe The X-Files is nothing more than Star Trek for people with better dress sense?
There is, I think, some truth to this. Zealous people are apt to take things a bit too seriously, and zealous scientists are no exception. Sophisticated and carefully controlled research with my teenage children reveals that they liked The X-Files for a while, but never for a moment took its mysterious parapsychological undertones for more than mere entertainment. Crucially, they were never even remotely tempted to believe any of it. Given the extraordinary diet of other stuff my kids watch on TV, I suppose this is just as well. The miracle is that they can be persuaded to believe anything at all.
This point applies more generally. It is well-known, for example, that many newspapers - even middle-brow ones - carry daily horoscopes. In social surveys, a majority of British people report that they read a personal horoscope in the newspapers at least once a week.
Superficially, this would seem to be cause for grave concern. Can it possibly be that, 300 years after the Scientific Revolution, a majority of the British public are still wedded to a medieval world-view in which personal destinies are bound up with birth dates and star signs?
Well no, actually. The same social surveys which report a majority of British people regularly reading a personal horoscope also report that almost all of these people do not take seriously the contents of what they read. Surprise, surprise; it seems that for most people personal horoscopes are a source of mild entertainment rather than useful information.
This is surely the very principle upon which entire tabloid "newspapers" remain in business. Applying the standards of serious journalism to some of the tabloids would seem to be the same sort of category mistake as applying the standards of serious science to horoscopes and The X-Files.
This is fine as far as it goes. In a multi-media world, most of us are capable of attending to different kinds of message in different ways - ignoring some things as "boring", using and filing others as "important information for future reference", and using and dumping yet others as "entertaining but of no consequence". But this does not mean that pseudo- science has no foothold in our society.
Typically, high street bookshops devote more space to New Age mysticism, parapsychology and alternative therapies than they do to popular science and medicine; and on TV, for every fictional episode of The X-Files there is at least one supposedly factual programme about the same sort of mumbo- jumbo.
Once again, we should not be too surprised by this. Ours is, after all, a market society. The market is not confined to conventional goods and services; it embraces ideas and beliefs as well. At least since the Protestant Reformation in western Europe, increasing numbers of people have felt free to pick and choose what they believe in pretty much the same way that they pick and choose what they buy.
Selling ideas can be as profitable as selling goods and services, and for this reason the marketplace in ideas can be pretty fiercely contested. What we need, perhaps, is a new kind of consumer organisation, dedicated to checking out the performance of ideas and beliefs.
Today, science is in the difficult (and, historically speaking, unaccustomed) position of being the dominant system of knowledge around the world. In part, science won this position for itself by challenging the credentials of older knowledge systems. What it put in their place was an ideology of organised scepticism - the principle that nothing should be believed unless it could be shown to be justified by publicly verifiable observation and experiment.
Paradoxically, however, the sheer success of such organised scepticism has created a knowledge base so large and so complex that, for practical purposes, most people are obliged to take most of what it tells us about the world around us on trust. This situation creates the possibility for new, "post-scientific" forms of scepticism; that is, for doubts about the adequacy and/or the completeness of scientific knowledge itself. Such scepticism is one of the hallmarks of Our age.
Well-qualified scientists have always disagreed about important questions of fact or theory. But now, with so many scientific achievements under our belt and science itself in the ascendancy, such disagreement can easily be viewed as a symptom of decay or even terminal decline.
There have always been attractions to Hamlet's stricture: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Today, this idea tends to feed on discontent with a scientific world- view that can appear cold, calculating and even a little heartless.
We should not assume that every claim about alien visitations, the reality of para-normal influences or the beneficial effects of sitting under crystal pyramids is a serious proposition deserving detailed scientific study. What we should assume, however, is that the existence of so many claims of this kind is evidence of an interest in going beyond what people take to be the limitations of a purely scientific view of the world.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, it is vitally important that scientists themselves continue to debate with the rest of society about the scope, the strengths and the weaknesses of scientific knowledge. If they fail to do so, they will simply leave the field open to the non- fictional Scullys and Mulders of this world; that is, to the people who populate the true twilight zone of serious pseudo-science.
John Durant is Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College London
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