Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reality check

fiction (n.) /fik-shin/ Something invented by the imagination; something feigned; esp. an invented story.

That, courtesy of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, because it is becoming increasingly apparent that more than a few people need a refresher course in the distinction.

A recent survey, conducted in Britain (and I hasten to add that I strongly suspect that the Brits are far from unique in this regard), shows that we're having some difficulty, as a species, in remembering that movies aren't real.  Some of the results:
  • 20% of the people surveyed thought that light sabers exist.
  • 1 in 4 believe in human teleportation.
  • Almost 50% believe that there is currently technology that can selectively erase memory.
  • 40% think that hoverboards exist.
All of which come from obvious sources in movies, and none of which explain one additional one, which is just bizarre:
  • 1/5 of the respondents believe that they can see gravity.
It's a constant source of trouble, to me personally as a science teacher, that as movies (and specifically CGI effects) become more and more skilfully done, people become more and more convinced that what they're seeing is real.  People seem to vanish, fly, levitate, shoot electricity from their hands, walk through walls, and so on.  It all looks pretty convincing -- and in a really good movie, you should buy into the world you're in while you're sitting there.  One of my most common criticisms of movies is that I wasn't able to make that suspension of disbelief, that I couldn't get my mind to stay put in the movie's world -- that I kept saying, "Oh, come on.  That couldn't happen."

Of course, what's supposed to occur when the lights come up is you stand up, shake the popcorn crumbs off your clothing, and say, "Back to the real world."  Which can be jarring, sometimes.  I still remember one of my smartest and best students sitting down in my class and declaring, "Whenever I watch Harry Potter movies, I can barely stand to come to this place."  I get that -- it's hard for me to compete with rotating staircases, talking paintings, and teachers who can do magic.  But as hard as it is, you have to come back eventually.

Evidently, though, some people never do.  It's hard for me to fathom, but then I think about all of the fictions that people believe wholeheartedly, and it becomes more apparent that it's the truth, if not substantially more comprehensible.  Young-earth creationism, for example, is as much a fictional account of the universe as the one in Star Wars -- sorry to put it that bluntly, but the science is incontrovertible -- and yet people hang on to that one with a vehemence that astonishes me.  I've gotten death threats for teaching evolution, and after the immediate fear-reaction diminishes, I sit back and think, "Really?  You're threatening me because I don't take a mythological creation story and pretend that it's science?"

Why do people believe weird things?  One of my heroes, the prominent skeptic Michael Shermer, has written a book about it, called, appropriately enough, Why People Believe Weird Things.  It should be required reading in every science curriculum, world-wide.  It analyzes the origins of pseudoscientific thought, and then takes a look at a number of specific examples (and yes, young-earth creationism is one of them).  If you haven't read this book, you should.  Everyone should.

Now, what to do about it?  Well, one solution to believing that what happens in movies, novels, and plays is real is to go see the current musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, in which you will have no problem disbelieving everything that goes on, because none of the technology works right, resulting in Spidey using his superhuman powers to fly straight into walls, miss his landings, fall off stage sets, and, in one real case, hang upside down from the rigging wires for fifteen minutes while the tech crew tried to figure out how to get him down.

Failing that, the only answer is education.  We have to be taught to discern real from unreal; it certainly isn't something we're born to.  Without the skills of critical thinking, we not only get hoodwinked by plausible fictions, we fall prey to every charlatan and flim-flam artist out there.  If we don't start putting more emphasis on thinking, in every discipline, every classroom, and every school, we've no one but ourselves to blame if kids grow up thinking that hoverboards are real and that gravity is visible - and believing in other bizarre, non-scientific views of the universe.

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