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Harry Potter and Skeptical Thinking

I already talked a bit about why it’s okay to like fantasy stories like Harry Potter even when you’re a skeptic. But I’ll go one step further – Harry Potter has a lot of great skepticism in it.
Think about it. Even though their world is based on magic, they have their own version of supernatural, pseudoscience crap – basically everything that Luna Lovegood and her dad believe in. Most magical people easily accept unicorns and dragons and nifflers, but Crumple Horned Snorkaks? Ridiculous.

And Hermione is a wonderful skeptic. Just look at this quote from the 7th book about the Deathly Hallows:

“But that’s – I’m sorry but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of – of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody proved it
doesn’t exist!”

Hermione just destroyed all Christian apologetics. …Too bad the Deathly Hallows actually existed. *cough*

…I know I originally had more examples, but my memory is starting to go. If anyone has any other skeptical Harry Potter examples, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    Loving your Harry Potter posts. It does drive me nuts when people simply don’t understand fiction. I once had someone explain to me how impossible some of the things in Avatar were. Avatar, really? Shit, good thing I wasn’t taking it seriously!

  2. says

    Obligatory “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” fanfic reference. I didn’t get terribly far in reading it, because it’s  the only possible alternate reality where Harry is even *more* annoying to everyone else than his normal self, but it’s basically an extremely long alternate history fanfic where Harry was raised by a professor and attacks the magical world armed with logic and an iron will to figure out how the heck it’s supposed to work.edit: and of course someone else posted it while I was writing this!

  3. Chris Harper says

    Very cool post.  Some truth there about fiction and those that don’t “get it.”

  4. Jeremy Carroll says

    As fantastical as the Potterverse may be, not many characters believe anything on faith. All the wild creatures, the crazy magically objects, the actual magic itself, can be quantified and measured. All the books have an internal rationality in my opinion. There aren’t any crackpots saying that there is an invisible benevolent bearded man living the the sky who takes care of everyone; there is no need since there is a visible benevolent bearded man living in Hogswart who takes care of everyone (students at least!)

  5. says

    Wow – I just checked in after watching a movie (Agora – there’s a happy film), and am delighted to see that you haven’t yet descended into delirium! I’m still with ya, Jen! Only 17 more to go!

  6. says

    I have to protest at your treatment of the Lovegoods! (Luna was my chosen character for dressing up and attending the midnight opening, so I may be over-identifying here). Sure, the Lovegoods are a little, um, quirky.  But the Quibbler also published independent journalism that was sceptical of the Ministry’s and the mainstream media’s agenda, so you’ve got to give them props for that.Now, if you want to target supernatural crap in Harry Potter, surely your target should be Prof. Trelawney. ;)

  7. Tony says

    If I recall correctly, Luna being absolutely correct in the face of all rationality and academic consensus is a major plot point at least two or three times over the course of the books. 

  8. says

    Also, the Lovegood’s  happened to be right about some of their “woo” – they just didn’t *yet* have good evidence to prove it. And I second calling BS on Prof Trelawney and Divination.

  9. Patrick says

    Yeah, the problem with Potter-Skepticism is that it proves to be wrong. The Lovegoods are right, the Deathly Hallows exist – so in effect Hermione is going through “skeptical noise” to be proven wrong.

  10. Tony says

    That happens in real life as well  but she’s right to be skeptical, and makes the case for skepticism extremely succinctly and  well. When it does turn out to be true she doesn’t hang onto irrational skepticism once new evidence presents a good reason to accept it.  She’s the strongest character in the series by a long shot, and is easily the best role model in childrens/youg adult literature, skeptical, female or otherwise.

  11. Skepgineer says

    The first book is an illustration of confirmation bias as they build a faulty narrative in which Snape is the villain.   Then Malfoy and Harry are each wrongfully accused in the 2nd book, and Sirius in the 3rd book…  The series is full of misconceptions and overcoming them.   The tragedy in the 3rd book is that Snape won’t even listen because everything he knows fits nicely into his narrative where Sirius is the villain.  Then in the 4th Winky is framed and B. Crouch Jr’s trial is not what it seems at first.  In the 5th, the establishment is in denial about the return of Voldemort and Harry is tortured for telling the truth.  Rita Skeeter is a caricature of mainstream journalists who distort anything to sensationalize it.  Then in book 6 Morfin is framed, Hepziba Smith is deceived, etc.  Then in book 7 there’s a struggle between official propaganda and resistance radio.  And of course Snape is finally vindicated after being wrongfully suspected through most of the series.There’s similarity between the Mirror of Erised chapter and Carl Sagan’s quote “It is far better to see the world as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying or reassuring.”

  12. says

    The most important example is fortune-telling.  Hermione is skeptical of prophecy, and it turns out that her skepticism is warranted.  The teacher who teaches it has two prophecies in her time that are for-real, and even then, there’s a sort of willing-it-into existence aspect, where the prophecy only becomes true because Voldemort believes it.  If Voldemort had ignored the prophecy that Harry would kill him, he wouldn’t have turned Harry into the person who would kill him.

  13. says

    You know, in the films, Luna isn’t portrayed as necessarily wrong. Instead of being a practitioner of pseudoscience, she turns out to be right about some really weird stuff, including Thestrals and wrackspurts. She’s more known as looney for her weird behavior and knowledge in the films rather than for practicing pseudoscience.Neither is the divination professor Sybil Trelawney wrong despite Hermione’s skepticism that Trelawney is full of crap. The biggest liar I can remember in the films is Gilderoy Lockhart, who most of the adults believed. But he was flat out lying and so it really wasn’t pseudoscience.One of the more skeptical moments in the films is when Harry Potter sees Peter Pettigrew wandering the corridors at Hogwart’s on the Marauder’s Map and goes out to investigate. After watching Peter walk right by him on the map but seeing no one there, Harry concludes that the map is wrong. (Of course, it wasn’t wrong, it’s just that Peter Pettigrew was in his animagus form–a rat–as Wormtail, one of the creators of the Marauder’s Map.)And, of course, destroying several of the horcruxes requires one to maintain a strictly skeptical composure while the horcrux tries to trick you.

  14. vernonlee says

    Ah, well, much as I’d like to focus on how Rowling supports skepticism, there is that but far more evidence that she supports faith as an answer to uncertainty.That’s what Deathly Hallows is about: Harry was given instruction by Dumbledore to find and destroy the Horcruxes… but hang on here, what’s up with these Hallows? Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to go after! But after the sacrificial death of Dobby, Harry decides to commit to Dumbledore’s plan even though he doesn’t have any more knowledge about Dumbledore than he did when he began. Then after he sees how Dumbledore anticipated Ron’s need to return with the gift of the Deluminator, Harry asks himself, But what did Dumbledore know about me? That I should know but not seek? Harry spends half of Book 7 wrestling with having insufficient knowledge about Dumbledore’s plan for him and finally lets that go and chooses faith instead. And then the rest of the book plays out with its obvious Christian symbolism.Oh well! They were fun though, right? If not exactly advocating skepticism in the face of the supernatural.

  15. says

    I don’t think you got that right. The reason Harry doesn’t really know what is going on is because the plot in all the Harry Potter films is driven by the mystery, including the last two films. I presume the books share that characteristic. Little by little the details unfold and we come to a satisfying conclusion each time until another wrinkle shows up at the beginning of the next film or book. The process of revelation is a big part of the fun in the Harry Potter series.***Possible Spoilers***I know a lot of people say that the ending is symbolic of the Gospels’ ending, but I don’t think it matches very well actually, either. I mean, why not make the more apt comparison of Christ to Voldemort? He was the only character to truly be resurrected. Which reminds me, in the last film while Harry is speaking with Dumbledore, Dumbledore throws a monkey wrench in all of the soul folklore that had gone on since the beginning by telling Harry that of course it is all happening in his head–that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.So, I think that Harry Potter really has nothing to do with Christianity and has no underlying Christian narrative. It just happens to be that Christianity itself lies on tales of magic and heroic comeback which it shares in common with Harry Potter.

  16. Keith Harwood says

    The magic in the Potterverse is lawful as is science. Real science has exercises that can be performed by children in school; it’s a long way from pulleys and levers to the LHC, but the subject matter is the same. Pseudo-science has no such exercises, only the experts can do it. Magic does have those introductory exercises and they form a large part of the early books. In short, the magic is not supernatural, it’s as natural as physics and chemistry and as consistent in its application and it doesn’t take a big stretch to imagine the eventual discovery of laws of nature that incorporate both science and magic.

  17. vernonlee says

    I think you really need to read the books to get the Christian symbolism and the point I make above about Harry coming to have faith in Dumbledore rather than continuing to question his essential nature, the relationship they had, etc. It’s a major feature of Book 7 and the movies of Deathly Hallows not only diverge plot-wise, they also couldn’t possibly capture the internal wrestling and questing from first-person perspective. Unless you have voice-over narration in a film, it’s hard to show what a character is thinking unless he says it. And in Book 7, Harry keeps this restless questioning mostly to himself.

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