Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Reaping: another awful anti-skeptic movie

I just watched The Reaping, another tedious horror movie that goes something like this:

Act 1, scene 1

Skeptic: "Hi, I'm an atheist and I think supernatural stuff is all bunk!"
Believer: "An atheist, eh? Why, you must have had some tragic experience in your life that made you mad at God."
Skeptic: "Why yes, as a matter of fact I did!"

Act 1, scene 2

Messenger: "Hey skeptic, some weird supernatural events are happening in this out-of-the-way location, and I think you should check it out."
Skeptic: "Supernatural events? Nonsense! There is a perfectly logical scientific explanation! Therefore, I will drop everything else in my life and go check it out."
Messenger: "I thought you'd say that. Car's ready, let's go."

Act 2

(Obviously supernatural events happen.)
Skeptic: "Nonsense, there is a perfectly rational scientific explanation for all of this. Give me a minute and I'll make some up."

Act 3

Skeptic: "Holy cow, it turns out that these events were supernatural all along! I have certainly learned many things and grown as a person. So much for my vaunted 'scientific method.'"

In this case, the skeptic is Hillary Swank, eventually revealed by the exposition to be a former preacher who lost her faith in God when religious whackjobs in some third world country killed her family. Now she apparently gives lectures on why there are no miracles and no God.

As I mentioned when I talked about Evan Almighty, these kinds of movies really work hard to undermine skepticism by establishing a fictional world where the magic stuff is real. The skeptic winds up looking like a fool by clinging on to "rational explanations" long after a real person, employing the observation and deduction skills possessed by a warthog, would have recognized the existence of magic. None of this applies in the real world, though; the takeaway message of the movie is "Don't be so skeptical of magic!" when it should qualify that with "...if you're a person who lives in a fictional magical universe."

You understand, of course, that I'm not complaining because a fictional story has fictional elements in it. I'm complaining about the really bad way that the skeptical main character is portrayed, in that she is confronted with an unprecedented level of real, concrete evidence... which she blithely ignores right up until the very end.

And "ignore the evidence" seems to be the only thing that Hillary Swank ever does in her capacity as a skeptic. For somebody with such a supposedly scientific mind, she certainly doesn't bother doing any of the obvious tests that I, who am not a scientist, think of immediately. For instance, the first thing she goes to investigate is a river that has turned red like blood. (The plot of this movie involves a recreation of the ten Biblical Plagues, in order.) Naturally, she starts pontificating on the possible reasons why the river could have turned blood-red. At this point I said to Ginny: "Surely the very FIRST thing that she should do when she gets there is run some kind of test to verify whether that stuff is actually blood or not. I sure do hope that occurs to her."

Guess what she doesn't do.

Oh, she has it tested for SOMETHING, but it's not whether it matches the chemical composition of blood. After she's been in the little town fooling around for several days, some other character refers to all the dead fish in the blood river, and she snaps at the guy "Look, those fish all died because the pH balance of that water is off the charts!" So apparently, she took the time to analyze the pH balance of the stuff, but never bothered to take a little extra effort to find out if it is actually, you know, blood. (Spoiler: It's blood.)

It gets worse. When the requisite priest starts yammering about the original Biblical plagues, Hillary Swank again begins ranting about how there's a simple scientific explanation for all ten plagues. You see, first this uncommon species of algae grew in the rivers, turning them red, and then all the fish died because of the algae, which caused some disease that killed the livestock and attracted frogs and locusts, and so on, in this hilariously elaborate Rube Goldberg sequence that handily explains all ten plagues.

This explanation struck me as so patently ridiculous that it could only be dreamed up by some nitwit in Hollywood, but it turns out I'm wrong. Since I googled some stuff to see if I got her "theory" correct, I found this page at Answers In Genesis arguing against a very similar explanation written by one Greta Hort in 1957. So I guess SOMEBODY really took this stuff seriously.

It's not that this stuff with the algae and the diseases and the frogs couldn't have happened in Egypt, or even been a very common occurrence. It's just that I'm floored by the absolute cocksure way that Hillary Swank declares that This Is How It Really Happened. Much simpler explanation: it's just a story. It's loosely based on things the authors had real experience with, or on local legends. There is no need for a scientific explanation, until such time as any evidence is presented to show that it happened at all.

This whole idea that you can just make up a "logical, scientific explanation" by ad libbing stuff off the top of your head, without taking any data or evidence into account, is what bugs me about this and many other movies in the way they portray skeptics. It's quite similar to cargo cult science, because it's clearly somebody who has no idea what science is, writing a script showing what sciency people sound like.

Similarly, the whole "I'm an atheist because something terrible happened to me and now I'm mad at God" angle is a theistic fantasy of how an atheist talks. Theists ALWAYS seem to jump to the assumption that this is how people become atheists. It's the default explanation. Yet among all the atheists I know, not one has ever told me that their story was anything remotely like that.


  1. and they complain about the Atheist sentiment in the Golden Compass puhlease.

    I have been avoiding this movie, I'd rather watch Jackass then this schlock.

  2. I saw The Reaping recently too, and I must say that your review nailed it. Anti-skeptic garbage masquerading as horror.

  3. Hasn't this premise been used before. Demi Moore's Seventh sign or something?

    Reminds me of the cringe factor in the X-files where sceptic Scully looked like an idiot with her scientific convolutions to explain the fantasy world she lived in.

  4. Anonymous6:52 PM

    I'm also bothered by the "mad at God" theory of how someone becomes an atheist. I had a psychologist use that on me, whereupon I asked if I disbelieved in unicorns because I was mad at them as well.

  5. Anonymous10:51 PM

    By sheer coincidence I happened across another prime example of the "ha ha ha, those stupid skeptics!" genre today, on the wonderful site -
    Ridiculously over the top, but pretty much the same thing.

  6. Anonymous10:57 PM

    Sorry, I seem to have cut off the address. (My apologies for not making it a link, not sure how.)

  7. Anonymous10:59 PM

    Oh for Pete's sake. Well, it's the newest comic under the site's 'bad comics' section. Looks like the address will not cooperate.

  8. Read this article on "Taking Science On Faith"...nice piece for thought.

  9. I already read that, and wasn't terribly impressed. You can find a long discussion of that editorial here.

  10. Have there been any mainstream movies that showed skeptics in a positive light? Contact wasn't overly polemic, but it did have the "atheist because of a tragedy" thing.

  11. Well, for what it's worth, The Reaping bombed.

  12. Also: Better, longer response to that NY Times editorial at Pharyngula.

  13. I can't really think of many skeptic-positive movies or shows, Den, although House MD is pretty good on that front.

    Sign of the changing times: Scooby Doo, which used to routinely end in exposing "ghosts" and other supernatural phenomena as an old guy in a mask using special effects, now has real magical elements in it. Kind of sad, really.

  14. have you seen this nut on youtoube


  15. a good example of a skeptic-positive
    movie is Contact

  16. I can't really think of many skeptic-positive movies or shows...

    There was a UK show called Jonathan Creek about a guy who's an illusionist and stage magician who's called in to investigate what appear to be paranormal incidents, and which — in direct 180° contravention to the way a similarly-themed American show would climax — always turn out to have a natural explanation. At least, they always did in the episodes I saw.

  17. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Hmm... I didn't become an atheist because I was mad at god... I became a satanist because I was mad at god... then I realized that satanism was as, if not more, apologetic and preachy. Then I was unsure about the whole god thing and thought I was agnostic, then I really started to work on my reasoning abilities and the idea of god just kind of faded into my fiction section.