|[Insert Lord of the Rings “walking
around Middle-Earth” music here.]
It’s February 11, 2011. Bruno Mars’ Grenade is back on top song duty, and I think I already said everything I have to say about it. The top movie this weekend is Just Go With It, a romantic comedy and remake starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, so that’s four strikes against it out of the gate. I haven’t seen it–hadn’t even heard of it prior to writing this article–and feel absolutely no regret for that.
In real news, social media-organized protests in Tunisia and Egypt lead to the dissolution of the ruling party and resignation of the president, respectively, and a new protest begins in Serbia. Activision Blizzard announces they’re done making Guitar Hero sequels, provoking a resounding cry of “meh,” and George W. Bush cancels a trip to Switzerland amid calls by Swiss and international activists to arrest him for war crimes as soon as he steps off the plane.
On TV we have one of the more controversial episodes, Dave Polsky’s debut effort “Feeling Pinkie Keen.” It’s a fairly straightforward premise: Pinkie Pie is being weird, and Twilight Sparkle puts on her scientist hat to investigate. She is deeply skeptical about Pinkie’s claim to predict the future with various twinges and twitches, and sets out to test it. Her efforts are repeatedly frustrated, however, by successful predictions on Pinkie’s part that seem to inevitably result in Twilight suffering comedic injury, from getting flattened behind doors to taking an anvil to the head.
This is unquestionably a deeply flawed episode. Structurally, it suffers from the essentially random hydra attack in the third act. It’s set up in terms of establishing that Fluttershy is in the swamp and that Pinkie Pie has premonitions of “a doozy” happening there, but it doesn’t have any particular resonance with the main conflict of the story; there’s no thematic reason to have a hydra attack as opposed to any other kind of crisis. Twilight is also badly out of character throughout the episode–she has her moments of being Ms. Know-It-All, but nowhere else in the series is she this outright and openly contemptuous of one of her friends. From a story perspective, it’s necessary for her to act this way. Cartoon slapstick only works if the victim is unsympathetic: Wile E. Coyote’s injuries are only funny because he’s an arrogant bully who wants to kill and eat the innocent Road Runner. It’s a general rule, however, that if your story requires a lot of out of character behavior, it’s the story that needs changing.
More to the point, cartoon slapstick falls well on the cynical side of the cynicism-sincerity binary we’ve been developing. It requires that there exist people who deserve to have anvils dropped on their heads, which is quite a bit harsher than most people’s views on real life, let alone the cleaner, brighter world of My Little Pony.
So, given a structurally flawed, out of character, and tonally inappropriate episode, what’s the main complaint in the fandom? Why, that it’s anti-science, of course!
To be fair, that’s a legitimate complaint. Pinkie’s claims have all the trappings of the usual claims of “psychics” in real life–broad, vague terms like “something” and “soon,” “you don’t believe because you don’t understand,” and the way her abilities evaporate the moment she’s put in controlled, laboratory conditions. There’s a spectrum of such claimants, from outright frauds and con artists to people whose need to feel special leads them to mistake everyday coincidences for special powers, but regardless, their claims can and do cause real harm by leading people to base their decisions on unreliable information, because in real life, psychic powers have repeatedly failed to work after repeated attempts (particularly throughout the latter half of the twentieth century) to prove their existence.
Thus, if the episode were honest, well-constructed, and actually trying to make Pinkie Sense an equivalent to real-world psychic claims, it should have ended either with Pinkie learning a lesson about coincidences and Occam’s razor, or ambiguously, with both Pinkie and Twilight satisfied with their position and agreeing to disagree.
The episode can also be read as anti-atheist, both insofar as the atheist and skeptic movements are allied, and also because Twilight’s final embrace of “belief” results in a literal visit from God–Pinkie Pie predicts again that “something” will fall, and Celestia herself descends onto their balcony without explanation to accept Spike’s letter. Given that the episode already quotes the “Derpy Hooves” meme in the form of having a wall-eyed Ditzy Doo working as a clumsy deliverypony, it seems quite likely that this is a deliberate reference to the “Celestia is God” meme. Twilight’s out-of-character depiction is also typical for a fictional atheist: angry, contemptuous of believers, and self-deluding; once she embraces Pinkie’s abilities, she becomes happier, friendlier, and more fun.
This is an obnoxious stereotype, which unfortunately has not been helped by the existence of a minority of atheists who are angry, contemptuous of belief and believers, and motivated by a delusional belief that belief without evidence is inherently harmful and morally wrong (a claim for which they provide no evidence, so we can add hypocrisy to the list, too). Most of us are, of course, no better or worse than anyone else, aware of the fact, and willing to live and let live, but for precisely that reason we’re far less noticeable than the shouty minority. Converting a dogmatist isn’t likely to change them much–they’ll just obnoxiously demand everyone around them conform to their new dogma–so, if it wanted to be critical of specifically the New Atheists or what Philip Sandifer calls Big-Ass Science, as opposed to throwing around tired stereotypes bordering on religious bigotry, the resolution really ought to be either the ambiguous one I described above, or for Twilight to accept that Pinkie Pie is wrong, but having fun and not actually hurting anyone, so why not let her just be weird?
The problem with both reads, and the proposed fixes to the episode that result from them, is that they all require Twilight to be right. Pinkie Sense needs to demonstrably not work, just as psychic powers in the real world don’t work; otherwise, Twilight is a caricature of a skeptic. In the episode, however, Pinkie Sense is real, which results in the episode coming across as a wish-fulfilment fantasy by someone who believes in psychic powers or something similar, and dreams of a world where they actually and obviously work, so all those meanie-pants skeptics and scientists get beaten over the head with anvils because of their unbelief. Read that way–which, again, seems the most natural read–the episode is even more mean-spirited than it already appeared, and even less of a fit for the series as a whole.
All of this assumes, however, that we read it as straightforwardly taking one side or the other in a simple, two-sided conflict between Team Skepticism and Team Woo. The episode can be partially redeemed if we consider the possibility of taking an intermediate position–alas, I can do nothing for the characterization, structure, and tone, but perhaps the theme can be salvaged. There’s good reason to try–first, because there’s not enough good or even mediocre art in the world, so any approach that gives us more is a good approach, and second, because Polsky’s next episode is all about finding middle ground in a seemingly polarized, two-sided conflict, so it’s possible there’s grounds for doing so here.
First, if we are going to attempt a redemptive reading we can start by rejecting the assertion that Twilight represents an atheist position. The issue there is simple: all ponies are atheists. There has never been the slightest hint of there being any form of religion in Equestria, fan memes notwithstanding; Celestia and Luna are immensely powerful entities, but they are the physically present heads of state and government, not gods, and the reactions of other ponies toward them are not worship or any kind of spiritual experience, but typical rituals toward a monarch. The key here is their physical presence; you can’t just walk up to a god and say hello. At the very least you need to undertake some arduous quest to reach a remote physical location like Mt. Olympus or Kadath in the Cold Wastes; more often, communication with the gods is only possible by spiritual means.
If all ponies are atheists, then this is really an episode about doubt regarding physical phenomena. The most obvious comparison is of course to psychic powers, but as I said, the single most important fact about real-world psychic powers is that they don’t actually exist. The episode gives us every reason, however, to believe that Pinkie Sense does work. While they do contain a lot of vague terms, Pinkie’s predictions are actually fairly specific in terms of time frame–the events she predicts occur within hours of the prediction, and frequently within seconds. “Something is going to fall in the next day” is a very vague prediction–lots of things fall in a day, so it’s a very safe bet. “Something is going to fall in my presence in the next ten seconds” is a much more specific prediction, and one Pinkie successfully repeats enough times in the course of this episode to suggest that something is going on.
Of course, that something is not necessarily what Pinkie thinks it is. Twilight is right to investigate cautiously, because the fact that Pinkie’s tail-twitches correlate closely with falling objects is not in and of itself proof of anything. However, rejecting outright the possibility of any connection and insisting that it’s all coincidence, repetition after repetition, is neither science nor skepticism. To give a real-world example: Psychic powers don’t exist. You can’t predict the future. On the other hand, it’s fairly well-documented for people to get odd tinges and pains, especially joint pain, shortly before a storm. There’s no magic at work here, simply a physiological response to a change in air pressure, temperature, and moisture, but the only reason we know that is because somebody saw the correlation and looked for a connection, which we now understand well enough that you can get an “aches and pains” forecast at most weather sites. If, however, the response of scientists had been to insist that the correlation must be coincidence and to refuse to look for any kind of connection, we still wouldn’t understand what causes those twinges, and we wouldn’t be able to warn sufferers that there’s probably going to be a storm tomorrow, so they should keep painkillers handy.
In the real world, scientists investigated claims of psychic phenomena. Some of those scientists believed the phenomena were or might be legitimate; others were actively trying to disprove them. The results of their collective effort was that we now know that, for instance, people who claim psychic powers are no better than random chance at guessing symbols on hidden cards or predicting which of several random colors a computer will flash next. Pinkie, on the other hand, repeatedly performs succesfully. A good scientist would respond by noting that something unusual is happening in the data, and seek for a reason why, which Twilight almost spends all of three seconds doing in her basement lab (which lab is, credit where credit is due, completely awesome).
Throughout this episode, Twilight is consistently a terrible scientist and a terrible skeptic, to the point that she really doesn’t qualify as either. She has a strong preference going in for what she wants the outcome to be, and repeatedly ignores or discounts data that doesn’t fit her desired outcome. In short, she behaves less like a skeptic and more like a conspiracy theorist pretending to skepticism, also called a denialist after the most prominent examples in the English-speaking world, who deny the overwhelming evidence for global warming, evolution, or the effectiveness and safety of childhood vaccination. Twilight is a pitch-perfect denialist, ignoring the evidence in front of her face even when it would require absurd amounts of planning and coordination to fake (this particular conspiracy would require, at a minimum, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Ditzy Doo, and a hydra to cooperate), treating everyone who doesn’t share her delusion as a weak-minded fool for buying into the lies of the imaginary conspiracy, and generally being a hostile jerk to everyone around her. Read as a conspiracy theorist, even her out-of-character jerkassery makes sense; a lot of real-life conspiracy theorists are perfectly nice people until you dare to question the Secret Knowledge they have built their identity around. (The similarity to the way geeks respond when you criticize their favorite media is no accident; most people respond with hostility if you challenge a fundamental element of their self-image.)
Twilight’s letter at the end, if we read her as a recovering conspiracy theorist, again makes sense. The common element between the conspiracy theorist and the scientist is the need for life to make sense and be understandable, the need for organizing principles under which all knowledge can be filed. Unfortunately, there are limits to this approach. Some things really do have to be believed in, at the very least those things which stop existing if not believed in, like money, laws, and morals. (In the business, we call these social constructs.) Her letter thus does take a stand against an extremist pro-science position that all of everything is most easily understood by means of Science! (this position pretty much always regards science as having both capital S and exclamation point), but it is hardly equivalent to a call to abandon reason and embrace superstition and woo. It is simply acknowledgment that not every phenomenon that occurs is necessarily going to be within her personal scope of understanding, and sometimes she just has to let it go and leave it for other people to study with other tools.
Is this the intended or even the most likely reading of the episode? No. The most likely reading remains the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a frustrated believer in whatever it is that Polsky believes, and a bit of a revenge fantasy directed toward whichever skeptics pointed out that his beliefs aren’t objective facts. But this is ponies, and we’re bronies; it’s worth at least trying to read the episode in a more positive way and get what good out of it we can.
Next week: Pride, performance anxiety, Icarus, and varicolored explosions.