A couple weeks ago, film and TV critic Inkoo Kang published a thought-provoking article over at Vulture blaming Fox Mulder for a perceived rise of anti-government, anti-science sentiments in the new millennium. The key, Kang says, is the coolness behind Mulder’s “anti-government paranoia … and skepticism of science.” Furthermore, Kang sees Scully’s knowledge of science as effectively being impotent to Mulder’s own quixoticism.
What was the point, after all, of Scully’s scientific and medical training if none of that knowledge ever proved applicable to (the show’s) reality? That was The X-Files’ sleight of hand: its peppering of scientific jargon gave the show a patina of educated respectability, but scientific knowledge was often derided as a crude and inadequate forensic tool. The greater value lay in Mulder’s leaps of faith — or, to use today’s parlance, his sense of “truthiness.”
Kang has a point here. From the beginning, The X-Files had the suggestion that everything you know is wrong. The very existence of X-files in the FBI was proof positive, in the show’s mythology, that mundane-world scientific understanding does not explain everything, and that most people metaphorically push the things they don’t fully grok into the sub-basement, bunker office of their brains. From shadow governments to shadowless apparitions, Mulder always had a wacky explanation that disregarded Scully’s conventional rational, scientific explanation.
However, in deeming so-called Truthers, Birthers and anti-vaxers to be Mulder’s intellectual heirs, Kang does our diligent special agent a disservice. What she fails to point out is that, within the secondary world created by Chris Carter, Mulder was mostly right. There was a veracity to his “truthiness” that the vast majority of real-world conspiracy activists do not have. This distinction is important.
If Kang gives Mulder short shrift, she’s not the only one. Mulder is frequently seen as someone who eschews reason and embraces radical leaps of faith. But this view does not compare with many of Mulder’s actual actions. Mulder isn’t throwing out science; he’s working with a different set of facts than most people. In the realm of The X-Files, there are aliens who want to invade the earth and there are cabals of puppet masters pulling the strings of an inept government and witless public. These are not in dispute, and as viewers we get to see the facts that prove Mulder’s claims — even when the other characters in the show are left ignorant.
Thus, Mulder is not merely a madman spouting whatever crackpot claim pops into his head. Rather, he is an ardent investigator who actually is seeking the truth. If Mulder’s own actions aren’t convincing enough, the show’s two best-known tag lines back up the idea. As a double entendre, “The Truth Is Out There” suggests that the truth is both crazy and objective, two adjectives that have long historical associations with scientific discovery. The second tagline “I Want To Believe” hints at the fact that Mulder does not believe, but that that belief (at least for him) requires factual evidence. Not only does Mulder seek evidence for the things he wants to believe, but throughout the series he continually refines his theories.
I don’t mean to imply that Mulder has the same rigid, scientific methodology as his partner. That said, as Mulder is chasing after the latest monster of the week, it’s easy to forget that before his time with the X-files, he was a criminal profiler. (Chris Carter’s spin-off Millennium also featured a criminal profiler, Frank Black.) Profiling has a basis in psychology, which some argue isn’t a science much to the chagrin of psychologists, and whether to call Mulder a “scientist” because of his profiling background probably depends which way a person leans in that debate. But even if profiling is more of an art than a science, it is nonetheless a technical discipline that requires looking rigidly at relevant facts and drawing conclusions based on them – science-y, at least, if not quite science.
Returning to Kang’s critique, it’s hard to associate this view of Mulder with the “skeevy, none-too-bright loser[s]” and “gravely misinformed politicians” she dislikes, if only because Mulder himself worked in secret much of the time. He didn’t go around waving signs and yelling epithets in front of courthouses. He spent his time dogging down details and finding out as much as he could, even when it put him and those he loved in danger.
Kang also overlooks a simple fact: There have always been people against science and against government. It’s always fashionable to see one’s own time as being either better or worse, or inexplicably both at the same time, than all prior ages. In reality, however, there isn’t any more or less anti-government or anti-science sentiment than there has been.
It’s true, as Kang says, that “[w]ith the aid of the Internet, birthers, truthers, and vaccine skeptics have joined the UFO believers in establishing their own insular networks of news outlets, social gatherings, political activism.” But if that’s true, then it’s also true that it’s easier than ever to point out how wrong such people are.
Finally, I’d take issue with Kang’s reference only to right-leaning movements. Hey, I can bash conservatives with the best of them, but the anti-vaccine movement is at least as prevalent on the left as the right – for every Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry there’s a Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. And the left has some unique conspiracies of its own which anyone can hear by mentioning “GMO” or “campaign funding.”
Ultimately, though, it’s not the social and political aspects that bother me most, but the denigration of a man who was earnestly seeking the truth. It’s not his fault aliens and spooks did everything they could to silence and discredit him at every turn. Nor should we blame him for weirdos and kooks who wish they could be half the human he was.