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Scientists in the Movies

Science in the Movies

 

I grow tired of our evil archetypes. Particularly the mad, or arrogant scientist, and the pseudo-darwinian, successful businessman. Of course, defending a successful businessman in a such liberal forum would result in me being beaten to death by a large bag of hemp underwear, so I’ll refrain from elaborating on those points. (I kid, I kid!) Many movies portray the fundamental human urge to discover and understand as a diabolical force. They play off of our current, if legitimate, concerns for our habitat and somehow manage to blame science for the mistakes of all humankind.

For instance, Stephen Spielberg seems to resent the scientists of Jurassic Park, because they have tried to understand and manipulate nature. For example Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) says in objection to the creation of dinosaurs for the sake of discovery “What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” Rape? Trying to understand nature is the same as raping nature? Imagine if we applied this logic to romance: “Hey, how many siblings did you say you have? OH MY GOD, MY EYES.” Before that he claimed nature had “selected” dinosaurs “for extinction.” Like we are dabbling with the work of some kind of pantheistic God, and how dare we? Meanwhile I’m thinking, given the ability, I would totally create Jurassic Park. And why shouldn’t I? Spielberg’s revered Nature also “selected” almost all other species for extinction (99 percent of them), is he about to argue that we should not contest that as well? Then why should we protect the environment at all, evolution is selecting only the life that can survive human pollution. So it goes. But I’d much prefer to see some dinosaurs, thank you.

Also pursuing this big-screen zeitgeist is Gene Roddenberry’s Straw Vulcan*, more commonly known as Spock. Apparently, his logic means ignoring all emotion. Even regarding decisions where emotions are an extremely important factor. Julia Galef did a good job at pointing out the problems with this at Skepticon 4.** She played a clip that is an excellent example for just this sort of thinking. In it, Spock is stranded near some irritated locals, but he is baffled when they still appear aggressive, even after his spectacular show of force. Clearly, he thinks, these people should realize an attack is illogical. Clearly, I think, Spock thinks everyone is Spock. And this foolishness is not limited to fiction. In fact, I think of this type of thinking as the German mistake, that is, assuming other people think like us. In 1940 Nazi Germany’s prestigious general Gerd von Rundstedt planned to invade Great Britain over the narrowest part of the English Channel. So later, in 1943, in light of the impending Allied invasion, he prepared his defense in the same area that you’ve probably never heard of because it’s not where we landed.***

Most recently of all though, what is this nonsense coming out of the mouth of the “archaeologist” from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus? Now, I’ve studied under an archaeologist, and she was the most professional intellectual I’ve met in college thus far. Not at all the kind of person to conclude that aliens created us because several ancient peoples carved the same motifs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), on the other hand, believes not only in this ethereal creationism, but also that the sentient life she has discovered has created humankind literally because that’s what she “chooses to believe.” And this was in response to the biologist aboard, who later dies from a serious case of horror-movie logic. (A scarily fast alien penis-snake! I should definitely pet it.) He actually asks our squid-incubating protagonist on what grounds she neglects the now ancient law of Darwinism. What she chooses to believe indeed.

My plan is to mock these depictions as much as possible, until enough people find them intolerable that the writers will catch on. I mean, it mostly worked for colored people dying in the first three seconds of the action… didn’t it?


*Not my term: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StrawVulcan
** Julia Galef’s presentation at Skepticon 4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLgNZ9aTEwc
*** From Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle for Europe, Prelude to Overlord.

Conferences Opinion

Skepticon and the True Believer

My trip to Skepticon was delightful. Good friends, great presentations, and lots of thought provoking discussions with the attendees. The only cloud on the whole experience, speaking for myself, was the brouhaha over a local restaurant refusing to serve the convention’s participants on the grounds of their non-religious status. While the owner of this “Christian Business” did eventually apologize, the episode left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.  But what struck me the most was my own reaction.

To paraphrase Greta Christina, many religious people, especially Christians, have a nasty habit when confronted with injustice enacted by members of their faith. This habit is to brush the incident aside with an, “Oh, that’s not the True Faith,” and leave the matter there. What this says to their conversational partner is that they’re far more concerned about their own reputation than the injustice innocent people have suffered.

I have to admit that I also have this habit. When I heard about this incident, my first internal reaction was: “That man calls himself a Christian?  Hardly, a real Christian wouldn’t do that.” A moment of reflection (and Ms. Christina’s timely words) suggested to me that I was being just as dismissive of this man as he was towards my friends. “True Faith” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but it hasn’t been since this year that I’ve given any serious thought to what that means. Apart from the fact that there are thousands (upon thousands) of versions of my own religion, you can find plenty of discord and descent within almost any of those versions. What level of arrogance does it take to sate that my own interpretation is ‘the’ correct one? Or that my “True Faith” makes me more of a human being, entitled to greater privilege, than the rest of the population?

Additionally, using a term like “True Faith” usually only serves as a disavowal of responsibility. It’s very comforting to believe oneself an enlightened individual immune to prejudice or flawed reasoning. It’s also egotistical and apathetic towards the plight of others. The world we live in is a far cry from heaven on earth. What’s worse, many horrific acts are carried out every day in heaven’s name. The victims of these acts aren’t concerned with whether or not they’re representative of our own belief system, or the history of doctrinal divergence. We need to stop trying to absolve ourselves, god, and the Church of the charge of moral depravity through empty words and complacent behavior. We have a responsibility, not as the few, lucky, chosen of god, but as human beings, to fight discrimination and and injustice wherever we find it.  So many Christians ask themselves what they’ll say about their life when they stand before god, what can we say to our fellow human beings if we ignore their suffering? What can we possibly say in defense of ourselves for tolerating bigotry and ignorance? “It’s not the True Faith,” isn’t good enough.

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Jaime Wise is a devoted member of Center for Inquiry on Campus at Grand Valley State University where she is studying Writing and English and continues to be a model of rationality and tolerance from within the Christian faith. She has defined herself as a Christian Humanist and has started a theology sub-committee of CFI GVSU to discuss matters of Theology from outside the usual Christian context.