Today I’d like to discuss Matthew Nisbet’s article in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 2016), which is keyed to the upcoming X-Files revival and claims that skeptics shouldn’t worry that the X-Files is having a negative effect on popular perceptions of science. According to Nisbet, research shows that fans of science fiction have an overall positive view of science and therefore science fiction shouldn’t be condemned for promoting a belief in alien abductions, monsters, and other paranormal phenomena. But when we drill down into the evidence Nisbet provides, we can see how scientists’ own biases toward science fiction have shaped their investigations and, by leaving out key elements of how the public engages with paranormal material, developed an incomplete understanding of popular reception of paranormal claims.
Nisbet, for example, has himself studied the relationship between science fiction viewing and perceptions of science. He concludes that “somewhat counterintuitively, heavier viewers of science fiction programs … tend to be more positive in their views” of science. This, he says, is because “the science fiction audience is by nature strongly enthusiastic about science, meaning that their viewing habits may capture an underlying latent support for science.” He therefore blames paranormal-themed reality programs for fostering paranormal beliefs and concludes that we do not need to fear The X-Files specifically and may enjoy the program without concern that it is helping to create new believers in the paranormal. This is in contrast to Richard Dawkins, who in his 1996 Dimbleby Lecture warned, without empirical support, that the program was inculcating a belief in the paranormal because “week after week, the rational explanation loses” to the supernatural one.
This is not a new concern, and we find evidence of it going back centuries, at least to the time when Matthew Lewis had to defend his ghost play The Castle Spectre (1797) against claims that it was dangerous to the public to depict spirits on stage. Indeed, all of Gothic literature came under attack for allegedly promoting belief in the paranormal, and similar concerns have occurred at regular intervals ever since without ever establishing with certainty whether fictional depictions of the paranormal lead to increased belief in its reality.
The Skeptical Inquirer article follows closely a 2013 chapter Nisbet wrote for the book Hollywood Chemistry, which also was interested in the X-Files, but the research in both articles tends to be from the 1990s or early 2000s, which was all prior to the modern wave of paranormal belief that launched in the mid-2000s with ghost hunting and psychic shows and took off in this decade thanks to ancient astronaut and cryptozoology programs.
Nisbet, of course, recognizes that pseudo-documentaries play a far greater role in shaping beliefs than fiction programs, though he has no data to quantify it. The trouble is that in praising science fiction viewers for their positive attitudes toward science, he mistakes science fiction (and closely related mainstream dramas such as CSI, which are all but science fiction in their use of fantasy technology) for a representative sample of (a) science in media and (b) audience understandings of science. As a result, Nisbet becomes confused in trying to explain why science fiction in general produces positive attitudes toward science while The X-Files in particular “may have only a limited, and often difficult-to-discern, influence on beliefs in the paranormal.”
I would suggest that one of the key reasons that Nisbet wasn’t able to see a clear a correlation between X-Files viewers and the paranormal is because of the problem of genre. Nisbet’s research—and all of the studies he cites—focuses on science fiction, which is only a part of the X-Files’s DNA. The X-Files is, arguably, a horror show at heart, and as I argued in my 2008 book Knowing Fear, the horror genre is, more than science fiction, the fictional genre that explores the costs and consequences of knowledge, manifesting in the form of monsters of various types. The horror genre rests on the uncertainty of knowledge and the dangers of pushing beyond acceptable limits. By contrast, science fiction tends to use science as a framework for exploring moral issues rather than epistemological issues. The audience for science fiction is, undoubtedly, largely drawn from fans of science, but on the other hand the audience for horror is more likely to draw from people who are more inclined to supernatural beliefs, though as I laid out in my book, scholarly research into the reasons people choose various genres finds that the reasons tend to be highly individual and not easily generalizable. The X-Files, having fans from both camps, will produce ambiguous results.
The question, ultimately, is whether we are able to conclude that there is a clear effect of fictional depictions of the paranormal on viewers, or whether people who already hold these beliefs are drawn to fictional depictions of what they already believe. This can’t be easily teased out, but what we do know is that there is a feedback loop between fiction and belief. To take one example: Over a period of three weeks in 1964, The Outer Limits depicted specific types of aliens who engaged in abductions of human beings. A few days later Barney Hill told his hypnotist that he had participated in the same scenario with the same aliens. Afterward, NBC made a TV movie based on Hill’s account, and Travis Walton watched this movie and claimed he had been abducted in the same way depicted in the movie. Similarly, the modern image of the chupacabra is borrowed wholesale from the 1995 movie Species, but married to preexisting folk belief in the demonic powers of the goat-sucker (night jar).
What would have been interesting is to look at what self-described believers in the paranormal watch and how that either reflects or shapes their views. What limited evidence there is suggests that UFO believers in 1990s were often fans of the X-Files, and that the X-Files in particular helped to increase the number of people who believed in what had previously been fringe conspiracies by “mainstreaming” them to a much larger audience. Michael Barkun says as much in A Culture of Conspiracy (2006/2013), but he doesn’t have specific statistical data to prove it. Earlier research that surveyed X-Files viewers who claimed paranormal experiences of their own found that they were more likely to recall pseudoscience from the show and believe it, according to Christopher Henry Whittle’s On Learning Science and Pseudoscience from Prime-Time Television Programming (2003).
Because Nisbet focused narrowly on the depiction of scientists and the genre of science fiction, his research necessarily left out broader questions of the depiction of the paranormal, particularly in the horror genre. Audiences are not likely to distinguish as neatly between science, pseudoscience, and the occult as Nisbet might like (witness Ancient Aliens as “science” for example), and by restricting inquiry only to the genre that best aligns with researchers’ own feelings about science, they are likely to miss out on the broader story of how fictional works wrestle with questions of how we know, what we know, and why we know it—the essential questions that underlie science but aren’t always explicitly depicted with Bunsen burners and Van der Graff generators.
It’s great that Nisbet was able to relieve his (and the magazine’s) audience’s anxiety that their favorite shows are somehow working against science, but he shouldn’t forget that in fiction “science” isn’t confined to science fiction and CSI.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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