Whether we are talking evolution, climate change, vaccines, or the shape of the earth, there is a proliferation of groups who assertively forward beliefs contrary to expert opinion. If you have had the joy of debating these people, one thing quickly becomes apparent. Instead of ignoring reason and logic, they often rely on complex arguments and rationality developed by people they consider experts. Though this evidence may be flawed or incomplete, it is often sophisticated enough that it is difficult for a layperson to debunk. Let’s call this phenomenon pseudo-science.
How did we arrive at this point where society’s acceptance of scientific doctrine has fragmented? How is it laypeople come to feel they have insights to which our most highly trained researchers are blind? I suspect many factors contribute to this. While I was watching Avengers: Endgame this past weekend, I came to see a factor I have yet to see discussed.
To present this idea, I will first introduce the concept of “intertextuality.” I will then show how intertextuality pertains to the Marvel cinematic universe (the MCU). Then, I’ll present intertextuality in the MCU as an analogy to explain the rise of pseudo-science. This is gonna be fun, so let’s get into it.
What is intertextuality?
Intertextuality is a relationship between separate stories (or texts, if you will).
So, what does that mean? Let’s look at an example. Way back in ancient Greece, this fellow Homer wrote a story called the Odyssey. It was about this guy who has trouble getting home after the Trojan War because he pissed off Poseidon, the god of the sea.
That premise had meaning to ancient Greeks because they all knew who Poseidon was and how he acted when he was angry. Ancient Greeks knew this because Poseidon was a significant figure in numerous stories, plays, songs, and poems. A variety of artists through independent texts created a mythos about Poseidon that permeated ancient Greek culture. New artists could then use their audience’s shared knowledge about Poseidon to build new stories that added to the mythos.
What does intertextuality have to do with the MCU?
The MCU currently consists of twenty-two movies, all of which have shared characters, plot points, and settings. The MCU is intertextual. The experience an individual has watching Avengers: Endgame depends on how steeped they are in the MCU’s intertextuality. That is, someone who has never seen a single movie in the MCU will experience Avengers: Endgame differently than a Marvel freak/nerd/expert (like me) who has seen all of them.
For example, those steeped in the MCU’s lore understand the importance of Antman showing up at the Avenger’s door (that’s not a spoiler—it’s in one of the trailers, for crying out loud). They know who Antman is, why he is there, and what he might have to offer the Avengers in their quest to defeat Thanos. Those unfamiliar with the MCU, however, wonder who this guy is. He—literally—showed up out of nowhere with the key to victory. Those steeped in the MCU see this as the culmination of years of well-thought-out storytelling. Those unfamiliar with the MCU, conversely, may see this as a cheap plot device where the writers hand-waved themselves out of a corner into which they had written themselves.
What does this have to do with pseudo-science in the real world?
Imagine someone who has never seen a single movie in the MCU. They have, however, seen the trailers for several of the films and read a few reviews created by people who were familiar with the MCU. Then, imagine them forwarding an opinion on the significance of Captain Marvel’s new hairstyle or Captain America’s beard. Imagine them engaging in an aggressive, sometimes nasty, debate with someone else who has also never watched a single movie in the MCU but saw different trailers and read different reviews. Considering neither of them had seen a film in the MCU, you might wonder what business these people have possessing such strong opinions on any aspect of these movies.
Scientific research also has intertextuality. Whereas the MCU consists of twenty-two movies, the body of literature required to master a field of study may consist of hundreds to thousands of documents. My doctoral thesis, for example, was premised on over three-hundred references. That is three-hundred documents I had to gain mastery of before I was considered “expert” enough to have anything meaningful to contribute to my field. That does not include the background education in statistics, research methods, and my general area of study I needed to simply understand those three-hundred references.
Most laypeople have never read a research paper, let alone the hundreds of articles they need to read to understand a scientific field. They, instead, refer to commentary created by reporters and bloggers. This, to my mind, is the equivalent of reading an online review of Avengers: Endgame and believing that gives you an understanding of the MCU despite having never watched a movie in the franchise.
Many people, it seems, underestimate the sheer volume of knowledge one must possess to master a field enough to have a credible opinion. They read a blog. They understand the blog. They, therefore, conclude they understand the area of knowledge the blog discussed.
So, should we blindly follow experts?
Well … why not? Should I spend years studying structural engineering to assess whether a building is safe before taking an elevator to the top floor of an impossibly high skyscraper? Or, am I better off trusting the systems our society has created to train and regulate engineers and architects who build buildings? Why would we invest resources to create schools and repositories of knowledge and then ask people to devote years of their life and portions of their wealth to acquire mastery in an area only to second-guess every decision they make?
We can be curious. We can learn about the world. We can question authority. I think, however, we need to recognize that not all opinions are equal, including our own. Perhaps we need to humble ourselves and accept the views we have in fields outside of our expertise may be unreliable.
If you are going to have strong views about Avengers: Endgame, consider watching it first.
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