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Reality of the fantastic: What does it mean to be skeptical in the Marvel Universe?

Different world, different results … same rules?

You probably have an expectation of what you’ll see when clicking on the Science dropdown menu of AiPT! Comics — “science of superheroes” stuff, like how the X-Gene works, whether Booster Gold really suffers from PTSD, and what all that quantum business in Ant-Man is about.

Yeah, there’s a whole category for that, but we also like the methods of science, not just the facts. That’s why there’s another whole section for skepticism, science’s loud-mouthed little brother. Researcher Sharon Hill has defined skepticism as “an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies tools of science.” Every time you ask for an accident history when buying a used car, or question how well the latest fad diet actually works, you’re exercising skepticism.

It’s something that can be applied to just about everything in your daily life — and probably should be, especially when judging if Uncle Ron’s Facebook post about basement Burger King sex cults is true — but skepticism is most often associated with claims of the paranormal, and other things highly unlikely to exist in the real world. Science has rigorously high standards of evidence, and the more extraordinary a claim, the bigger and better the evidence needs to be to take it seriously.

With that in mind, imagine what it would be like to live in the Marvel Universe, at the very beginning of the age of superheroes. Thankfully, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross have done just that, and beautifully put it to paper in the now-classic 1990s mini-series, Marvels (newly-annotated single issues of which begin publication this week).

Reporter Phil Sheldon was there when Phineas Horton first turned on his Human Torch android, and the reaction of the press was … appropriately skeptical.

The ratio of cranks to geniuses is pretty high (in any world), so questioning that a 1930s scientist could create a synthetic human that also happens to catch on fire when activated is probably the smart thing to do. Even if the reporters could have been a little less snarky about it.

Still, you can see that well-honed, journalistic sense at work in first considering simpler, more mundane and understood explanations.

Adding another, different weird thing doesn’t give any credence to the first (or the whole idea in general), as the Marvel citizenry is right to initially doubt the arrival of a pointy-eared merman from Atlantis.

Of course, as extraordinary as those things were, eventually the hard evidence rose to meet the eyewitness reports, superhumans were everywhere, and the age of Marvels had begun. But the initial skepticism of seemingly impossible things was still warranted. Science isn’t usually done by press conference, and not every shirtless guy in a Speedo diving into the ocean is a Submariner.

The citizens of Earth-616 were right to question the Marvels, and equally correct in accepting their existence when the evidence became overwhelming. Sadly, a great preponderance of proof isn’t enough for some, and that’s when healthy skepticism can become misguided denial.

That’s the premise of Frank Tieri’s 2009 overlooked gem of a one-shot, Marvel TV:  Galactus – The Real Story, which lampoons conspiracy belief in the Marvel Universe. After seeing him live and in-person, stomping around New York City, who could deny that Galactus exists?

Conspiracy theorists and deniers often focus on a few, relatively inconsequential questions that could easily be explained if they understood the science a little better — like why you can’t see stars in Moon landing photos, or that “jet fuel couldn’t melt the steel beams” of the World Trade Center — while overlooking the mountain of confirmatory evidence that’s otherwise incontrovertible. Even if the “power cosmic” did short out videos when Galactus attacked, there should still be plenty of seismic records, scorch marks, and just where the hell did all that rubble come from?

This of course ignores that the actual event is not as unlikely as the giant, multi-pronged, elaborate conspiracy needed to keep the cover story afloat. Loose lips sink ships, so if climate change were really a global hoax of monumental proportions, surely someone would have slipped up by now. Unless, of course, all that money keeps them silent. Research grants are more than fossil fuel profits, right?

So what does it mean to be skeptical in the Marvel Universe? Same thing it does here, really. You apply the most rigorous standards of evidence you can, and if the phenomenon still comes out unscathed, however improbable it may seem, you might have to accept it (contingently, always with the caveat that further, currently unknown evidence could change things). If you’ve ever read up on quantum entanglement, or what relativistic speeds really do to an object, you know there are  batsh*t crazy things with tons of evidence in the real world that are plenty hard to swallow.

Scientist, spy, and overall bad-ass Bobbi Morse, AKA Mockingbird, gives maybe the best example of this in the recent groundbreaking, eponymous series written by Chelsea Cain. Something strange has happened to her, and S.H.I.E.L.D. thinks she’s become psychic. Psychics do exist in the Marvel Universe, so it’s not too out there an idea, but Bobbi’s unconvinced — she wants to run more tests.

When she can’t guess the Zener cards right (like in the beginning of Ghostbusters), or move anything else with her mind, Mockingbird knows it’s not psychic abilities making the ping pong balls disappear. She has an alternate hypothesis, and experimental data seems to support it.

It still might not seem natural, but then again, neither does what happens in the realm of the very small or the very fast. Re-animated virus cadavers fit the evidence better than psychic powers. Or, as it was put in our review of Mockingbird #1,

I guess that’s the form skepticism takes in the Marvel Universe. Eliminate the WRONG weird thing to identify the RIGHT weird thing! Good enough!

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

All image credits:  Marvel Comics


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