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19.7.04

People Who Believe The X-Files

Development of Beliefs in Paranormal And Supernatural Phenomena

Two important findings emerged from a recent study I conducted on learning scientific information from prime-time television programming (Whittle 2003). The study used an Internet-based survey questionnaire posted to Internet chat groups for three popular television programs, The X-Files, ER, and Friends. Scientific (and pseudoscientific) dialogue from ER and The X-Files collected in a nine-month-long content analysis created two scales, ER science content and The X-Files pseudoscience content. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements from each program (such as, "Rene Laennec used a rolled-up newspaper as the first stethoscope" [ER], and "The Wanshang Dhole, an Asian dog thought to be extinct, has pre-evolutionary features including a fifth toe pad, a dew claw, and a prehensile thumb" [The X-Files].

My first finding, that ER viewers learned specific ER science content, is an indicator that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from their favorite television programs. The second finding was spooky. There was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files. This finding does not seem surprising in light of Gallup and Harris polls demonstrating high levels of paranormal belief in the United States, but the beliefs assessed in the study were fictional paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs created by the writers of The X-Files. Paranormal researchers ask questions such as, "Do you believe in astral projection, or the leaving of the body by one's spirit?" My research asked, [Do you believe] "[d]uring astral projection, or the leaving of the body for short periods of time, a person could commit a murder?" A homicidal astral projector was the plot of an X-Files episode, but ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!


I think the author is being a little too skeptical. In light of the example he gives*, it doesn't surprise me that ER viewers would profess beliefs in the kind of paraparanormal things that appear on The X-Files. "Homicidal astral projector" seems like a perfectly plausible extension of "astral projector," given that what's being astrally projected -- a person -- is something we're familiar with seeing as potentially homicidal. It's not something so bizarre that it requires The X-Files to make you think of it. The ER viewers probably never thought much about homicidal astral projectors, but when they saw the survey question, they thought "yeah, I suppose that makes sense." Indeed, it would seem like these kind of plausible extensions are exactly what the writers for The X-Files are trying to create, as they enhance the spooky "what if" vibe that makes the show successful. So all he's discovered is that The X-Files is well-written.

*I'm not sure if I've ever watched a full episode of The X-Files, so I'm not an expert on the types of things they show.

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