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A Skeptic Among Postmodernists? A Tale of Outreach Through Comics

December 31, 2018

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I like to bring skeptical ideas and practices to people who might not ordinarily be exposed to them. That’s usually done through my role as Science Editor for the entertainment website AiPT! Comics, where I bring contributors together to point out examples of good science and skepticism in pop culture, but also to provide ways to be skeptical of pop culture.

So I was excited to learn of the annual Comics Arts Conference (CAC) at Comic-Con International (formerly and better known as San Diego Comic-Con). I attended the smaller-scale version at WonderCon 2017 in Anaheim, California, where I was treated to three days of academic examinations of comic book and genre media, including looks at the Mexican history comics of Eduardo del Río, the role of gender in superhero narratives, and the psychology of team dynamics.

This seemed like a perfect avenue for continuing to reach “beyond the echo chamber.” I polished and updated an article I’d previously written on how pseudoscience trends can be tracked by observing shifts in superhero origins (more on that later) and submitted it for consideration for 2018’s conference. Needless to say, when the rejection came, I was disappointed.

But I found something similar, the Comics and Popular Arts Conference (CPAC), at Atlanta, Georgia’s, Dragon Con. I quickly applied, but I wasn’t hopeful. Past conferences seemed to focus even more on social issues than the CAC did. It wasn’t until later that I started looking more into the sole supporting organization of CPAC, the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology (CVMST): “Our overarching mission is to understand, evaluate, and improve the ethical and cultural influences on and implications of science and technology,” the “About Us” section of the CVMST website begins, in bold, italicized letters. The next paragraph states the organization wants to make the world a better place through “innovations led by the heart as well as the head,” and “science that is ethically and socially responsible.”

The CVMST holds another, more scholarly annual meeting, the Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology Conference. The 2018 edition featured a talk on how the expertise of obstetricians should be matched by the expertise of their patients (I think, anyway; it’s difficult to parse the language in the abstract) and one skeptical of the “disease model” of addiction, and an entire day each devoted to “the role of racism in the emergence of science as a distinct pursuit,” and to the ideas of the late (maybe) postmodernist philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who pushed back on Karl Popper’s falsifiability and was once called “science’s worst enemy” (Theocharis and Psimopoulos 1987).

“I think ‘postmodernism’ is kind of a nebulous term; I’m not sure what it means in most contexts,” says University of Texas at Dallas professor Matthew Brown, Director of the CVMST and of CPAC, who holds a doctorate in philosophy of science. “It’s mainly now just a term of abuse,” says Brown, who’s actually defended scientific expertise against Feyerabend’s ideas in the past.

Brown thinks truth should not be the only goal of science, but that working scientists should also consider the ramifications their research may have on human health, convenience, economics, and social progress. That includes thinking carefully about what’s okay to do to test subjects and what level of efficacy a drug should have, but Brown believes it should go deeper than that.

“I think scientists need to be more sensitive to and reflective about the ethical consequences of the work they do, in every aspect of the work they do,” Brown says. It’s hard to know where your research might lead—particle physicists weren’t trying to bring about nuclear weapons, and atmospheric scientists in the 1940s didn’t know how important their work would become for climate change policy. “I don’t think there’s an easy way to mark off pure research and applied research,” Brown says.

Maybe certain research just shouldn’t be done at all. Many studies on cognitive differences are flawed or done poorly, Brown says, and they can thus be used as “fuel” for racists and sexists. “Think hard about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and maybe just give it a break on the cognitive differences research,” Brown says, after mentioning that “no significant differences” have been found in the past 100 years. “I’m a little sympathetic to that [argument],” he says.

Imagine my surprise when my talk was accepted.

But then it might not be so shocking, as Brown’s path to founding CPAC was similar to how I got there. After presenting talks on philosophy in comic books at Comic-Con International’s CAC, he proposed the same kind of conference within a conference for Dragon Con, and got it, in 2008. It started with just discussions on comics, but grew to include manga, anime, and everything else.

Regardless, I knew this would be a different kind of audience for this type of outreach, so I’d have to tailor my talk. I was going to lead with how the late Stan Lee used radiation as a cause of superpowers for nearly every 1960s Marvel Comics character, including the Hulk, Spider-Man, and even Daredevil. Everyone had heard of radiation but few really knew how it worked, so it could be used as an excuse for just about any effect. More modern stories of superhero origins often update the scary, “sciencey” sounding culprit to generic “toxins” or even genetic modification.

Clearly, there’s a way to present those current issues from a socially responsible perspective. Hucksters use fear of “toxins” to bilk the uneducated out of their money in the hope they’ll become healthier. Rejection of GMO food creates needless starvation and malnutrition throughout the world, especially in developing nations. These are things I thought everyone could unite in anger over.

My first encounter with the CPAC folks was actually at a regular meeting of the presenters at a Chinese restaurant near the four Atlanta hotels that host Dragon Con, on Sunday, after most of the talks had already been given. I met Brown there, as well as Jonathan Flowers, who I’d seen at WonderCon, speaking on how Brian Michael Bendis, the white cocreator of Miles Morales (as seen in the recently released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse animated film), putting words about racial identity into the black character’s mouth was problematic. We talked about the pedagogical nightmare that is the X-Men’s Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters.

I chatted with Durf Humphries about his presentation, “Drain the Swamp Thing: A Comparative Analysis of the Political Careers of Lex Luthor and Donald Trump,” and we chuckled over a tongue-in-cheek piece I’d written that claimed time travel had to be real, and time-travelers are obviously jerks out for their own amusement, because their interference was the only way Trump could have been elected president. Science and Technology Studies PhD student Damien Williams remarked on how a non-CPAC panel that weekend had discussed ethics without an actual ethicist on stage, and we all shook our heads at the disrespect of expertise.

My talk wasn’t until 1 pm on Monday, the day that past attendees had warned me to avoid, as by then it was like everyone was hung over from a three-day bender and just ready to go home. About fifteen people or so (not including moderator Brown) showed up to the small room off the hall of vendors/artists. I was paired on a panel with fine art photographer Erin Gordon, and we both agreed her presentation, “Rabbit in a Snowstorm: The Role of Art in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” would have been better suited for a different, earlier panel. Nevertheless, I told her I was intrigued by her topic title and was curious about what it meant. “It’s literally the role of art in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Gordon said. I stopped talking until it was my turn to present.

I scanned the room as I gave my talk, which now included a section on the misuses of the word “quantum,” as in the self-help franchise The Secret, since the Ant-Man and the Wasp film had recently been a big hit. Humphries was the only other speaker I recognized in the audience, and his attention seemed to wane as time went on.

But others looked more engaged, and there was a lively (as it could be) discussion of both talks afterward. Audience members came up with their own examples of how fiction can utilize fears of new things, as seen with the evil AI robot Ultron, or even the Marvel duo Cloak and Dagger, who got their powers from tainted street drugs in 1982.

And that was that. Sorry there’s no climax to this story; I was hoping for one, too! Yet I was neither run out on a rail nor raised up on the crowd’s shoulders as they exclaimed in unison, “We love skepticism now!” I did get to stick around to see the story of a sweet, older gentlemen who donated nearly 10,000 comics to a local college, the officials of which then had to figure out how to catalog the books and what they could learn from them. That was neat.

Is there a lesson here? Did I waste my time and airfare? Who knows? But nobody tried to shank me and everyone’s ideas were considered on their merits. Maybe no minds were changed on that day, but I guess if nothing else, the experience goes to show that people with evidently very different outlooks can discuss things civilly with benefits (or at least no detriments) for all involved. Ideas don’t spread if you completely cut a group of people off before trying to engage with them.

Reference

Theocharis, Theo, Psimopoulos, Mihalis. 1986. “Where science has gone wrong.” Nature 329: 595–598.

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