This one’s kind of all over the place, but bear with me for a little, okay? I promise it will all come together.
First, a couple of anecdotes.
A few weeks ago, the Decades TV network was running a bunch of episodes of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, a show I’ve never seen. Julie used to adore it so we were watching it, and I have to admit it’s a cute show (though I had a brief dizzy moment of oh-shit-people-will-think-I-stole-this when I discovered she is from Boston and is out of place in the West and a single mom, much as Lisbet in Silver Riders, but Julie assures me they are nothing alike.)
I enjoyed very much the recurring bits when Dr. Mike tries to teach the cowpokes about, you know, actual medicine. There was a great one about a barber who is careless about sterilizing his tools and one of his customers dies from septicemia.
But then in the VERY NEXT EPISODE there is a story about her oldest child going on a vision quest involving four days without food and water. At first I thought, at last! Dr. Mike is going to let these woo-woo idiots have it and save her kid.
But the momentum of American culture is too strong. In spite of her record in the community of being RIGHT about pretty much EVERY medical and scientific problem to date, Dr. Mike is derided by the Manly Man Indians as being hysterical and silly and sure enough, the vision quest imparts needed wisdom to this dehydrated hallucinating kid about Being A Man.
No. Just no. The kid would be dead or a hospital case. Four days in the sun without water?? Horseshit. But I told Julie, “You watch. The mystics will win and Dr. Mike will be baffled. It doesn’t matter that she knows more science and biology than everyone else in that hick town combined. She will be shown that her book learning is inadequate. That’s the rhythm. This stupid cliche story, they are ticking all the boxes.”
And indeed, that’s how it played out. As predictable as the sunrise.
I hate this trope but writer Adam-Troy Castro (whose books you should all check out) has pointed out an even more irritating version. Most often seen on cop shows, it goes something like this….
In pursuit of a villain, the heroes must consult an Expert. They visit the Expert’s office or place of business, and the Expert launches into an explanation that involves establishing context, using technical terms and complex language. About two sentences in, the hero makes a contemptuous noise and snarls, “In English, Doc!”
Adam points out that this really is a dickish thing to say, and wishes that just ONCE, the hero’s sidekick would immediately say to the hero, “Why are you being such a jerk to this guy? We came here because he has knowledge we need. He worked hard to get to be this level of expert. Respect it.”
I think the first time I saw this scene enacted was on the original Star Trek, where it was a running joke. Even Mr. Spock, arguably the coolest guy on any Star Trek series, was not allowed to escape the anti-intellectual taunting.
As a rule it wasn’t too demeaning because Spock was shown to be awesome in so many other ways, but nevertheless, the efforts to undercut his rationalism and make him more human — less competent, less of a genius, less scientific and rigorously logical, more like us — were constant.
Spock’s primary issue, and this has carried over into the new movies, was that he is forever an outcast, not at home on Earth or Vulcan… but the reason for this is because everybody around him is an ass.
How is that Spock‘s problem? Why does he have to be the one to change?
It doesn’t really jump out at you because Spock is allowed to win so often, but if you scrape the paint off, you realize the entire Enterprise crew is due for some hardcore enforced sensitivity training, and McCoy, particularly, would have to be characterized as an anti-intellectual bigot.
Here’s another tangentially-related example. Isaac Asimov is generally thought of as a science-fiction writer, but I’ve always liked his mysteries. In particular, his Black Widowers stories.
The Black Widowers are a club that hosts a dinner once a month, and each month a guest at the dinner presents a mystery to be solved. Usually a bloodless sort of fair-play puzzle. They were a staple in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for years and years. I’m going to spoil one, but it’s relevant to the topic at hand, I think.
One time, the mystery involved psychics and ESP. The Widowers wrestled with this seemingly insoluble conundrum for pages and pages, until it is revealed that the guest was lying. He made it up to show that even a rigorously rational group like the Black Widowers could be fooled into believing in the supernatural.
Readers threw a fit and complained that it wasn’t a fair solution to have the guy just be a liar. Asimov stuck to his guns and pointed out that it was right in line with Sherlock Holmes’ axiom of eliminating the impossible. If you accept that the supernatural is a load of horse hockey, then the witness lying is the only solution left. I confess I felt stung myself when I first read this one as a teenager. but rereading it recently I realized that Asimov was completely fair in constructing the mystery, even foreshadowing the solution in the introductory passages. I just hadn’t seen it. And for the reason Asimov gives his characters — because, subconsciously, everyone is ROOTING for the irrational solution. People WANT life to be magical.
That’s an embarrassing realization. No wonder Ellery Queen readers were so pissed off.
And finally– I was not aware of this but it seems oddly appropriate for it to be happening on the same weekend I’m writing this — yesterday downtown Seattle had the March For Science.
A rally to protest the same anti-intellectual, magical thinking I’ve been talking about. Because it is getting further and further entrenched into American life and culture.
Think about it. The only time we see scientists and people of knowledge on TV these days is if the show also gets to make fun of their awkwardness and social ineptitude. Not just on The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, though I suppose Sheldon Cooper is kind of the Platonic ideal of this particular cliche.
Or Scorpion, which is basically Big Bang Theory as an action show.
But it’s been creeping in long before that. You had Marshall on Alias…
Topher on Dollhouse…
Max on Hawaii Five-0…
All socially awkward. All shown to be basically incompetent outside of their nerd specialty. All constantly told to “Say it in ENGLISH!”
More recently DC’s Mr. Terrific, a total stud in the comics…
…had to be diminished and nerdified before the character was allowed on television.
Even Sherlock Holmes is not immune. The international symbol for logic and a rigorously scientific approach to everything….
…has been updated for television and movies. And in every case the biggest change has been that he is shown to be a fucking socially-inept weirdo that Watson has to constantly apologize for.
Sure, taken on a case-by-case basis, you can defend most of these examples. I thought the first Robert Downey Holmes movie was terrific and the BBC’s Sherlock hits more than it misses. Elementary has its good points. Echo Kellum has done great things with his character on Arrow and really, with Ollie and Diggle, adding another supermacho character would be redundant. Most of the nerd characters like Marshall and Topher and Max got to show heroism at some point on their respective TV shows. And Sheldon Cooper makes us laugh every so often around here.
But cumulatively, the effect is very different.
Cumulatively, the message is the same as it was on the playground when I was a kid. Science and thinking are for losers. It’s all-encompassing. And it makes me sad.
See, here’s the thing. I remember when– at least in pop culture if not on the playground– knowledge was cool.
Growing up, I adored Sherlock Holmes, but even more than that, I loved the Three Investigators.
They were Pete Crenshaw, an athlete who was quick with a quip; Bob Andrews, a bookish sort who volunteered at the local library; and Jupiter Jones, boy genius. Jupiter was overweight and had to endure a certain amount of say-it-in-English teasing from Pete, but he was unquestionably the HERO, he was never penalized socially for being smart. He was always relentlessly rational, never accepting the supernatural as an explanation. In the wonderful illustrations by Harry Kane, even if Pete and Bob are freaking out over the Green Ghost or the Whispering Mummy or whatever, Jupe isn’t.
He’s always shown leaning forward, going after the solution, ready to unmask the culprit and reveal the villain’s masquerade.
In the first adventure, The Secret of Terror Castle, Robert Arthur constructed a brilliant and wonderful mystery that climaxes with Jupiter Jones getting perhaps the greatest fist-pumping fuck-yeah solution reveal in any juvenile mystery ever. I won’t spoil it, but trust me, he turned the tables so beautifully on the smug adults in the room that I am grinning just thinking about it now, some fifty years later.
In short, Jupiter Jones was cool. Of the three, he was the investigator kids aspired to emulate.
That’s because when I was growing up, it was all about the race for the moon and the wonders of technological achievement. Scientific advances were seen as just another manifestation of that good old American can-do pioneer spirit.
The school library had the Three Investigators and many other juvenile sleuths, along with lots of Heinlein juveniles where smart guys armed with just their wits and a slide rule (always referred to as a “slipstick,” which served to sort of weaponize the term; it was used the way a cowboy talks about wearing a “hogleg”) built rockets to the moon and voyaged to the stars.
On TV we had Jonny Quest, as well as all Irwin Allen’s macho scientists on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants, and of course the aforementioned Mr. Spock.
In comics there were Reed Richards and the Challengers and Adam Strange… and even Batman, once Gardner Fox got hold of him.
And right next to those on the paperback spinner rack we had science badasses like Doc Savage and the Avenger, who occasionally crossed over into comics as well.
But it didn’t last. As Asimov warned, magical thinking and mysticism is the default setting for the human brain… and our society is ruled largely by anti-intellectual former frat boys. For those people, science is usually seen as dull and textbooky, which makes woo-woo mysticism that much more seductive. Plus writers like to go there because you can just make stuff up instead of researching. It’s a deadly combination.
You can see the decline of rationalist thinking all over pop culture. Star Trek sought to champion rationalism but didn’t really stay the course; even the original was very weirdly anti-computer and anti-technology, and by the time we got to Deep Space Nine we saw a left turn into out-and-out mysticism where Captain Sisko becomes the messiah for an alien religion. Cop shows like CSI and Criminal Minds started as super-rationalist crime procedurals but they got pretty mystical, pretty quickly. Reed Richards is often derided for his science knowledge, even by his own family.
The new Sherlocks have all dabbled in magical thinking at some point, even if it’s just hallucinatory interludes not unlike the vision quest shown on Dr. Quinn. Granted, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a gullible true believer who squandered thousands on spiritualist quackery, but I think even he might have hesitated at the idea of Sherlock Holmes inducing hallucinations in himself just to try to remember something. Batman is still reputedly the world’s greatest detective but it’s been decades since I saw him do any lab work or use straight-up ratiocination to solve a crime. Mostly he just poses and hits people.
There are glimmers of hope here and there, stories where rationalism and intelligence are something to be celebrated and encouraged. Apollo 13. Hidden Figures. (I don’t think it’s coincidence that both of those films were based on true stories about the race to the moon in the 1960s, probably the peak era for the science hero.) The recent Dr. Strange movie was a remarkably rationalist and thoughtful approach to Marvel’s most mystic hero, and none of the brilliant characters in it were particularly nerdy.
But I am still hoping for the return of the no-compromise rationalist science hero, the character whose superpower is basically just being smart and knowing stuff. (Yes, yes, I know, Dana Scully from The X-Files is awesome… but she never gets to be RIGHT, and in the end she becomes as mystical as Mulder. The power of woo is strong with TV producers.)
Upon further consideration, I don’t think we’ve really had an uncompromised, hardcore science hero on TV since Juliet Parrish on the original V.
That, to me, is a terrible shame.
Because in a country where people march in the streets just to get out the message that knowledge is better than ignorance, we sure could use a couple of those heroes now.
Back next week with something cool.