TV Can Teach Critical Thinking as Well as Entertain

When I look back on the (admittedly ridiculous) amount of television I’ve watched over the years, I realize that there were some shows that subtly provided some lessons in thinking critically. There were some shows that either implicitly or explicitly got across the message that rationally considering the evidence before making conclusions is a good thing. And they were/are entertaining as well.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You!

The classic show that popularized the Hanna-Barbera formula of kids and some strange companions like a talking dog, shark, car, etc. for decades, Scooby Doo, Where Are You! had Fred, Daphne, Wilma, Shaggy and Scooby finding themselves seemingly at the heart of supernatural mysteries week after week. However, it was always clear that despite the comical cowardice of Shaggy and Scooby, the mystery would be solved by putting together the various clues to unravel a perfectly natural explanation for the frightful phenomena, concluding in the unmasking of each ghoul as some would-be crook. Unapologetically, the three other sleuths, Fred, Daphne and Velma, go about without a preconception of the superstitious nonsense and using their keen eyes for detection get to the bottom of what would otherwise be “mundane” crimes.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

This series dealt with overcoming superstition and irrationality effectively in a couple of episodes.

In “The Devil’s Due“, the U.S.S. Enterprise receive a distress signal from a terrified planet where the populace are all under the impression that a mythical figure named Ardra, similar to the Western world’s “Satan”, has come to collect upon a legendary bargain made a millenia ago. Captain Picard and his crew are confounded by the apparent power of this Ardra woman, but refuse to take her story for granted. Correctly applying Arthur C. Clarke’s “third law”:  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic … especially to the peaceful inhabitants of Ventax II. By delaying Ardra’s takeover of the planet with a legal maneuver, the Enterprise crew is able to discover the technological source of her supposed magical abilities and expose her for the con-artist (wanted on many worlds) she really was.

Again illustrating Clarke’s third law, in “Who Watches the Watchers“, the Enterprise arrives at the world of Mintaka III where scientists observe the Mintakan people surreptitiously to avoid contaminating the technologically primitive culture. Unfortunately an accident in the hidden blind exposes the research outpost to a native, and a native population that seemed to be on the verge of an enlightened age was now in danger of regressing into superstition and fear. Captain Picard is mistaken for a supernatural, god-like being, and he has to painstakingly undo the damage his very appearance caused among the Mintakans by describing Earth’s own history with evolving from primitive cultures and humanity’s own pervasive fear of death.

Stargate SG-1

One of the longest running science fiction shows on television, Stargate SG-1 had myriad themes weaving throughout its many plots. However, the overarching theme of the decade of shows was the conflict against “false gods” and the struggle to expose them for the frauds and tyrants they were. Whether it was the Goa’uld or the Ori, pretenders to omnipotence were taken down down by human ingenuity and the refusal to accept (once again) technologically advanced beings as supernatural or mythical figures. In fact, the Goa’uld’s history is that they were the origin of humanity’s myths about gods such as Ra or Apophis as they enslaved humanity for centuries spreading us throughout their galactic fiefdoms. The SG-1 team starts by convincing one doubting Jaffa (a race of humanoids who worship and fight for the Goa’uld) and from there begin an insurgency that liberates thousands of slaves from each of the controlled star systems. The clip above demonstrates the consequences of freeing oneself of blind faith in such monstrous overlords such as the Goa’uld and the later villains of the show, the Ori.

Leverage

A more recent series, Leverage follows the exploits of a former insurance investigator and his team of reformed criminals as they use extra-legal methods to get justice for the little guy. In the episode “The Future Job”, the crew has to take down a “phony psychic” (redundant, I know) to prevent a grieving widow from emptying out her life’s savings.  The show does a decent job of explaining “cold reading”, the technique of using vague statements and verbal flim-flammery in order to lead potential marks into assuming that the cold reader’s psychic powers are real.  When asked if he thinks psychic abilities are real on the blog Show Patrol, Luke Perry (who portrays the charlatan) responded succinctly: “You know, it’s one of those things. I just don’t think it’s there. I don’t buy into it.”

If the teevee isn’t your thing, I’d recommend a book I’m currently reading on my Kindle titled “Paranormality” by Richard Wiseman.

Paranormality

It’s an amusing breakdown of what so-called supernatural phenomena teaches us about the human brain and our cognitive processes. It also has tests and activities you can use to better illustrate his points, and it’s pretty damn funny so far.

 

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