Trials of a Teenage Skeptic (part 1 of 3)

Much of The Perpetual Now has to do with skepticism, and like my central character, Justin Lambert, I owe mine to my family. I certainly didn’t learn it in school. I’m what you’d call a born skeptic; call it a genetic predisposition. Since before I entered high school I had already begun to assemble what Carl Sagan politely dubbed a Baloney Detection Kit, also known as a bullshit meter. In my family, all manner of sensationalist claims (be they UFOs, mythical monsters, astrology, the paranormal, etc., etc.), old wives’ tales, superstition, shameless propaganda, outrageous conspiracy theories, and flat-out nonsense were met with a firewall of reason and almost draconian scrutiny. I picked it up through osmosis and it became instinctual. It also did nothing to improve my popularity at school. Throughout middle especially, I was a poorly dressed introverted version of Ross Gellar living an endless teen episode of Friends 20 years before it came out.

[Before I go further, a caution. As a writer, I love to let my imagination take flight, and it regularly transports me to wild and wonderful places, places that defy description. It’s how my novel was born. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and speculative fiction make for fabulous stories, and telling stories is one of the things humans do best. It is fundamental to our nature. But stories are just that: stories. They have purpose, they teach us, they inspire us to reach beyond, but they are in the end just stories. I know enough not to get them confused with reality. I can write a wonderful fable about a unicorn, and if I do my job right, the story can touch people, inspire people, make people wonder and laugh and cry and think, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to launch an expedition to find one.]

It’s one thing to be a nerd; it’s a whole other to be a skeptic. A skeptic is a nerd who doesn’t believe in little green men. The skeptic is seen by many as the embodiment of a bucket of cold water. In popular culture, the skeptic is portrayed as the naysayer, the “so-called” expert, the nerdy know-it-all who’s trotted out to tell the hero that what they saw is impossible, what they believe is nonsense, and what they plan to do is futile, until that moment when the skeptic himself is proven wrong, usually as he’s being eaten or otherwise undone by the very object of his skepticism. Ironically, the reason the skeptic is included in the story in the first place is as a perfunctory nod to science, providing the story with a much-needed element of credibility that only science can provide, right up until the moment when science and reason become inconvenient to the narrative.

Of course feature dramas are one thing: they’re pretty easy to write off, especially when they’re badly done. “It’s just a movie! No one is trying to convince you it’s real. Don’t take it so seriously!” Hell, even a skeptic can suspend disbelief once in a while. Documentaries, on the other hand, are different: there’s a tacit acceptance that the filmmakers have done their homework, that what they have to say is important and can be supported by evidence, and that they have at least some measure of integrity.

Alas, they don’t always.

 

[Coming up in Part 2: A case in point]

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