The X-Files’ True Skeptic.

Who is the true skeptic of the X-files, that 90s TV series concerning two FBI agents who investigate paranormal activities?
The answer might seem obvious to anyone who has heard of the show. Everybody knows that Agent Fox Mulder is the Believer, driven by an incident from his childhood in which his sister Samantha was taken from the family home. Mulder believes this crime was committed by aliens and as an adult devotes his life to proving the reality of alien abductions, ghosts, ESP, and anything which lies beyond scientific explanation.
His perfect counterpoint is his partner, Dana Scully. A medical scientist, she seeks the more plausible explanation as an alternative to Mulder’s outlandish speculations. It is not a UFO, it is swamp gas. It is not a phenomenon involving the teleportation of some object, it is an ordinary crime made to look extraordinary. In earlier episodes of the series, Scully would typically raise her eyebrow at Mulder’s theories, thereby registering her utter disbelief.
Scully, then, is the skeptic to Mulder’s believer.
But, actually, I would argue that Mulder is the true skeptic.
To be fair to agent Scully, while she is not a true skeptic like Mulder is, it would be unfair to call her a psuedoskeptic. What is a psuedoskeptic? For one thing, it is a term that is much abused by conspiracy theory nuts, who typically level it at anybody who does not take their word for it about what is really going on, or are not persuaded as they are by what evidence has been presented in support of whatever it is they believe. More rational people would counter this attitude by pointing out that the more extraordinary a claim is, the greater the burden of proof needs to be. A real psuedoskeptic is not someone who is yet to be persuaded to accept a radical theory, but rather someone who cannot be persuaded, because they just know it cannot be, and nothing will change their mind.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that there are two ways in which to fool oneself. “One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true”. A real psuedoskeptic is guilty of the latter kind of self-deception, particularly when the truth has been established beyond reasonable doubt.
In that sense, then, Agent Scully is not a psuedoskeptic, because she is quite clearly willing to accept the existence of that which lies beyond the boundaries of current science. In fact, as the series develops she becomes somewhat less the rigid scientist accepting nothing but a materialist explanation and becomes more open to so-called ‘extreme possibilties’ (actually, Dana is a catholic so it is probably not appropriate to call her a strict materialist).
But while she is more open-minded than either a conspiracy theory nut (that would be a person guilty of Kiergegaard’s first kind of self-deception) or a psuedoskeptic, she is not quite the perfect skeptic that Mulder is.
So what makes Mulder a better skeptic than Scully, indeed most people?
It is because he is so rationally open to extreme possibilities. In other words, he has a really fine-tuned ability to judge when the time has come to look beyond conventional, rational thinking. He does not just jump straight to extreme possibilities if the evidence does not justify such a leap. In fact, quite often he is heard to say “I see no evidence of” (insert name of paranormal activity here). And when the evidence supports the more down-to-Earth explanation, Mulder accepts such explanations, even when it means abandoning beliefs central to his whole character (as happens around Season 4-5 when evidence seems to support his sister’s abduction not happening like he always believed).
But when the mundane explanations are unsatisfactory, and fail to account for everything he has witnessed, then (in his own words)
“When convention and science offers us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility”?
Now, I said earlier that Agent Scully does ‘finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility’. But I think it is fair to say she is never quite as comfortable with this as Mulder is. Whereas Mulder will listen to somebody and quite clearly takes them seriously until he has evidence that what this person is claiming cannot be so, Scully tends not to take anybody seriously unless they present evidence that shows what they claim IS so. And she quite often turns her back on folks who approach them with tales of alien abductions, ghostly visitations, psychic abilities, etc. Mulder never does that. He is the perfect agnostic, open to their stories, at least until such time as evidence indicates they are fooling themselves into believing something which is not true.
So that is why Agent Mulder is the perfect skeptic. He is genuinely open to extreme possibilities. He does not prejudge and is willing to abandon former beliefs if the evidence merits such a move, even when the beliefs to be abandoned were very dear to him. He has a great intuition, and is very capable of judging the moment when conventional explanations are not good enough. He knows when the time has come to ‘finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility’.
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4 Responses to The X-Files’ True Skeptic.

  1. I have to say, Extie, this is quite a twist in terms of analysing the implications of what it means to be a ‘skeptic’. I’m converted to your point of view. In fact, looking closely at how Mulder actually works, I have to agree with you: he always questions all possible explanations before actually entering into the real of ‘paranormal’ or ‘paraphysical’ explanations. So he has a more open mind, and to be able to be a true skeptic, you have to question yourself — your own beliefs, your own ideas about certain subjects, your own ability to think ‘outside the box’.

    This is hard. I often participate in discussions (yes, outside Thinkers!) with some skeptics, many of them part of formal skeptic organisations. It’s clear that they are willing to open their minds until they find a limit. It cannot go beyond that limit, ever. And the reason for that is often simply: ‘other skeptics cannot go further, so I won’t, either’.

    The problem is the fine dividing line between both. Should a skeptic accept someone who claims to have magical powers? Magic, in this context, means the ability to manipulate reality beyond a continuum of cause and effect (there are causes, there is an effect, but there is no plausible relationship between both, just narrative gaps which do not convey causality). This is the true problem of the skeptic: establishing cause/effect pairs based on perceived evidence, and decide if the lack of a plausible relationship between cause/effect is merely lack of knowledge (we never know all the causes), lack of environmental conditions (I cannot replicate the experiment because I cannot replicate the conditions), confusion on the part of the experimenters (the causes for the claim are all wrong; but there are other, plausible causes, it’s just that the claims are pointing totally in the wrong direction), and so forth. This is the problem with most issues that true, honest skeptics have to deal with. And they are the foundations of science.

    Let me give you an example. Homeopathy claims that pure, distilled water has positive effects on someone’s health above placebo level (i.e. more than 50% of all people will feel better). A pseudoskeptic, using your definition, would say: ‘Crap. Nothing in science can explain higher-than-placebo effects with pure, distilled water. So the claims have to be false. It’s foolish even to put it to the test, it would be a waste of lab time and research materials.’ A true skeptic would say: ‘The claims are based on alleged “memory effects” of water: once it gets in touch with certain chemical components, the water retains the “memory” of their presence, even if the distillation process will clearly remove everything from pure H2O. Now, can these “memory effects” have a plausible explanation? If yes, how can we measure them? Assuming we devise a method to measure them, then how could it affect someone’s health? Can we see similar “memory effects” in the blood transport system or other fluids inside the human body? Is there a strong correlation between those effects and what we can measure inside the body, and so account for higher-than-placebo results?’

    So this true skeptic is asking a different set of questions. Instead of saying, ‘the cause for homeopathy is pure distilled water; the result is higher-than-placebo health improvements; this is impossible’, they are asking: ‘Maybe the cause is not pure distilled water, or else, the results could not be the ones they claim to work. Maybe we’re looking at completely the wrong causes. Maybe homeopaths don’t even understand how their methods work, and it has nothing to do with water molecules or chemical molecules. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions! Or maybe we just have bad science, and the claims of “higher-than-placebo effects” are just the result of badly done experiments.’ Ultimately, they will — as so many, in fact, did… — come to the same conclusion, i.e. that there is no plausible reason for homeopathy to have higher-than-placebo effects on health (and, in fact, it does not — the reports showing higher-than-placebo effects are, indeed, flawed experiments). But they arrived to that conclusion not by rejecting to analyse the subject at all. Instead, they were open-minded enough to ask different questions, and see if any of the answers would provide some insight. Just because they reached the same conclusion it doesn’t mean that the pseudo-skeptics are ‘right’ in rejecting things from the start. They are not.

    There is also an alternate example. Before the 1990s, the question about meditation inducing different brain states was highly controversial. There were a lot of examples from Japanese research that showed the induction of brain states, but those experiments were hard to duplicate: you needed access to Japanese meditators with a lot of experience, which weren’t available on research labs in the West. So these results were mostly rejected by skeptics, who, for two decades or so, just refused to have anything to do with it.

    Then, thanks to the advances in MRI and PET scans, medical researchers showed that they could even ‘read thoughts’, by looking at brain patterns, and they were really very accurate in predicting what people were thinking about. Similar other experiments and research — like the example of a French civil servant who, due to childhood meningitis and a badly done skull drain, lost 90% of his cerebral mass, but could, with an IQ above 85, still live his life as a husband and father and as a French civil servant, contradicting all that was known about the human brain at the time (since then, we have had several similar examples, who forced neuroscience back to the drawing board) — started to show that everything we knew about the brain had to be discarded. That was true skepticism at work. We started asking completely different sets of questions. The old ones had ‘frozen’ our answers and excluded so many things that we now know that we cannot avoid and sweep under the carpet any longer. Good-bye ‘brain as a computer’ — that analogy served us for a while, but now we need completely new models. And new imaging techniques certainly proved, for example, that the brain of a meditator works in completely different ways, most of which were not even explainable or possible to admit under previous models. But now the images don’t lie. More interesting: you don’t even need to get highly-trained Japanese meditators for that: you can see the difference in brain patterns even with people who have just learned to meditate regularly over a period of a few weeks.

    Thanks to true skeptics, willing to abandon the status quo (in this case, the analog that ‘the brain is a computer’), we started to be able not only to ask more questions, but to answer questions that would have been labeled ‘pseudoscience’ before the 1990s. Humans having functional intelligence with just 10% of the brain mass? Ludicrous. Humans learning techniques to change their mental states, outside the typical classifications of awake/asleep/unconscious, etc.? Absurd. Over-the-counter drugs able to completely rewire the brain and make it think differently forever? Impossible. Adults growing new brain cells? No way!

    All these ‘myths’ from pseudo-skeptics have been debunked, and we have definitely, thanks to true skeptics, been able to ask much more interesting questions and obtain bizarre answers, which, however, are much more useful in a lot of areas. Granted, it might mean that brain downloads are impossible now. But on the other hand we might be able to do way more fantastic things with our brain instead!

  2. I am not converted. Pan-critical rationality, which is as close to true skepticism as I am aware of, does not entail entertaining notions whether one has any rational grounds for giving them any credence or not. Skepticism has no truck with such open-mindedness. Mulder is presented throughout the show as strongly wanting to believe. A true skeptic would not have such a portrait. He is careful to check that he has finally got the grounds for the belief he wants to have yes. But his very wanting it to be a certain way is a bit of flaw in his being any sort of model skeptic. For the majority of people such deeply desired outcomes lead to well known forms of fallacious reasoning such as Confirmation Bias.

  3. Mulder may not be a perfect skeptic but he is arguably a better skeptic than anybody else in the X-Files. I think a lot of people mistake skepticism for plain and simple disbelief. Now, fair enough, if the evidence is such that the likelyhood of X is extremely small or impossible and that evidence applies universally, then X CAN be dismissed as easily as that. But in instances where X should be considered on a case-by-case basis, a true skeptic would not dismiss any particular instance out-of–hand. Alleged UFO encounters would be a good example. Even if you heard a million tales before and they all turned out to be wrong, that does not mean to say the millionth and first alleged UFO encounter is also wrong. Until you investigate it and really see if a more mundane explanation satisfactorily accounts for what happened, your position on the matter should be one of agnosticism.

    Mulder does ‘Want To Believe’ as the poster in his office says, but he does also questions and abandons the one belief that is central to his near obsessive drive when he is presented with evidence strongly suggesting his beliefs are not based on fact, after all. I reckon there are very few people who would be willing to give up a belief which is so deeply personal and central to their very character, even when presented with compelling evidence that it cannot be so. Mulder does that.

  4. valkyrieice says:

    I fit this definition Extie, because I am willing to examine evidence that many others refuse to. I don’t do so because I “want to believe” as Sam put it, but because there is sufficient doubt raised in my mind as to the “Consensus” being correct that I require far more data.

    I have changed my “beliefs” when presented compelling evidence they are incorrect. EU theory is one such case. The body of evidence convinced me to change my belief in the correctness of the consensus theory. That does not mean I am uncritical of EU, because EU does not fit all of the data I have acquired from all of the other sources I have examined.

    As I have often said, First you must question. That includes even yourself.

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