This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 8th, 2007.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the Sunni buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. Every week on this show, we try to look at some big questions with some really interesting people through the lens of scientific naturalism. We focused mostly on pseudoscience and the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on SIFIs relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and other interesting people. Before we get to this week’s guest, Chris Wistia, the creator of the new skeptical comic book. Dr. Delbanco, here is a word from this week’s sponsor.
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This episode of Point of Inquiry is going to be really fun for me, for years I’ve been into comic books. I have thousands at home. I’m especially keen on comics in the Marvel Universe and Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer’s Supreme’s specifically. Well, today’s guest will have something to say about this and also about the relationship of comics to skepticism. I’m joined by Chris Wiznitzer, creator of the celebrated new comic book. Dr. Delbanco, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Chris Wiznitzer. Thanks, T.J.. Let’s start the ball rolling, Chris, by just talking about what inspired you to do, Doctor to Bunko. Seems like these days there are more and more books out there critical of various supernatural and paranormal beliefs. But yours is one of the only comic books to really take the issues head on. So where did you get the ideas he based on anyone in real life, or did he just spring out of your head?
Originally, he sprung out of my head. I’d been reading some skeptic tech literature and I wasn’t aware there were any organizations or anything. I had read an Encyclopedia of Witch Craft and Demonology from 1959 by Russell Hope. Robbins and I had read Vampires Burial and Death by Paul Barber, and I was always more interested in the macabre side of the skepticism. Since I’m a comics fan as well, that subject matter just appealed to me. And so reading through these different accounts of basically historical incidences of people’s beliefs in these supernatural creatures and things, I just thought these stories are already written and ready to go. All they need is a debunker character to come across these beliefs and point out these are kind of silly beliefs. So initially these these were, you know, ancient or older belief in, you know, a werewolf and vampires and things. And I just thought the absurdity of that was was lighthearted enough that people could have fun with it.
It sounds like you’re into comic books and maybe the comic book industry before you were into skepticism.
Yes, that’s true. I think I was a skeptic at heart. I just didn’t know the word to say what I was yet.
I learned about skepticism from National Public Radio. My my wife gave me a call one day and said, honey, you’ve got to turn on the radio and listen to this. I think this would really appeal to you. And Michael Shermer was on talking about UFOs and different things. And I felt like I had been an orphan all my life.
You know, my heritage and had found my home.
That’s really funny. We get that aha moment from a lot of people when they first come to a talk or first bump into one of the magazines or the podcast or something, they say, now I know what I am. Where have you been all my life? Yeah. Give our listeners an idea of who Dr. de Bunko is, who this character is that you’ve created. And I’m especially interested in you talking about what he does.
OK. There have been a couple debunker characters in comics and cartoons, and the big one that comes to mind is Scooby Doo.
And then another one that’s much less known as DR 13 for DC Comics. And both of these characters, they they investigate paranormal instances and find out that there is some act of malice and definitely trying to trick people by using a ghost so that their cousin thinks that the mansion that they’re going to inherit is haunted or, you know, writing like this.
It’s always a hoax for profit. It’s always a hoax for personal gain.
Right. And so I had that in my mind. And I thought to myself, well, that’s that’s nice that they’re being skeptical. But I’d like to get a little more deep into these ideas. So I’d like to explore the range a little bit more of things that people believe in that that can be debunked.
Right at the beginning, you were kind of contrasting your character that you’re creating doctor to bunko with Scooby Doo, those meddling kids. He’s not just a nuisance.
Right. Right. I wanted I wanted to take skepticism a little farther in these these kind of playful mediums of comics. And so I created Dr. de Bunko.
And as I say, I read these different accounts of beliefs in, you know, demons, which is. And then I started expanding into things like spontaneous combustion and cattle mutilations and basically just have him find towns that believe in these things in. Kind of the stereotypical belief of what those things are. And just talk with these people and say, well, did you consider this?
And in my story, I’m pretty slanted. I make the people look like it’s pretty obvious that what they believe in is nonsensical.
Right. In some sense, it’s easy for doctor to bunko to be a debunker because the believers are so obviously overly credulous.
There’s very much parody. Right.
And that the point for me in doing that is that even though he’s using reason and sanity and these people’s beliefs are way out there, he can’t convince anyone to use logic in their situation.
What’s the Take-Home message of that here? You’ve created Doctor to Bunco and he’s going around in these hamlets, these villages, city after city, maybe not even investigating these paranormal supernatural claims, but kind of poking around a little. And he’s telling people, be logical, be rational, and no one ever does. Is that kind of one of the messages of the of the book?
I think in a cynical way it is. Yeah, I think of our societies is that way in a lot of ways. And so I want to be true to that.
Right. Right. Do you think the stories that you’re telling in the book, in the comic book are going to reach an audience that’s different than the audience the skeptics are normally trying to reach?
Yeah. I don’t think too many skeptics are aware of my book. Well, I don’t think too many comics readers who have a book.
Yeah, most most comics readers, you know, that they’re into fantasy and sci fi and make believe and.
Well, I’m all for that as long as they know it’s make believe.
I think it’s nice to have an alternative to, you know, and just point out. Yeah. That that stuff is all make believe. And so I’m just when I first contacted Michael Shermer and let him know what I was doing, I told them, I think that both of us can get something from the other group.
I think if intellectuals and doctors and scientists and things can appreciate comic books, which is generally scoffed at as a medium, you know, and can say, hey, there is artistic merit to this, then that’s great.
And on the flipside, I think if comics readers who are maybe just in, you know, reading books for fun and for kicks, if they can use their head a little and think skeptically and think critically and just examine matters and their beliefs and how they came to these beliefs, then I think that’s helpful, too.
So if you look at the history of comic books and back to their origins, there’s always been an intersection of comic books and sci fi and therefore the science appreciation community, you know, people who were far out in sci fi. And you’re you’re trying to kind of bring that science and rationality back to this pop culture medium.
Yeah, that sounds like a little higher endeavor than I think I’ve gone for. Because because I assume you’ve read the stories and you can see there’s not a lot of intellectual ism in there.
They’re just kind of fun.
Right. Right. And in fact, that that brings me to the next question. They are a lot of fun to read, and I enjoyed them. But it seems to me that Dr. Vanco is not your ordinary skeptical investigator. He’s something he’s kind of a sour puss, a misanthrope. He doesn’t suffer fools well. He’s he’s a debunker. He is. So let’s talk about debunking right now as opposed to say, you know, if debunking is on the one hand, then on the other hand is open minded inquiry, whatever. So there’s one school of thought within the organized skeptical movement that says after 30 years of really being serious, looking into these kind of supernatural and paranormal claims and never finding any compelling evidence to support them that, well, doggone it, right now, it’s all right to go out and debunk them, to go out and try to prove these claims wrong, even without an investigation. Other people, other kind of paragons of the skeptical movement like Joe Niccolò, argue kind of the opposite position. They say that we should not begin with our conclusions in mind. We shouldn’t reject any claim out of hand that we should just look it at the evidence and follow wherever the evidence leads. What do you think Dr. de Bunko would say to Joe Niccolò? That’s the question.
I would say Dr. de Bunko probably leans toward the first that he’s probably starting to get kind of tired of doing doing the same explanations over and over. No, no.
Look, it’s different than mine, of course, but I just have to say, based on the character I’ve created of him, he’s probably going to continue going out and saying it over and over again. But I think just by his attitude in the stories that he he is starting to grow tired of it. It reminds me of a radio deejay who’s there for self-help, you know, and they’re really popular, their first five years. But they get to a point in their show where you can hear that the callers are starting to really great on their nerves.
Perfect word picture. I see exactly what you’re getting it. Do you think that the model of skepticism, if there is a model that Dr. Debunker represents, is that the ideal?
Well, you have to admit that the adventures he’s gotten himself into are of the dismissive variety. So I think if I had to deal with the more sensitive or tricky issues, it would just be a different adventure for him.
You know, maybe it take some of the fun out of it. It’d be less of a comic book and more of. Well, it’d be something else.
Yeah, but that kind of handling of the subject matter is done by experts in the field, not by funny books.
I get a kick out of reading the bullpen section of various Marvel books and you have something like that. You have this letter section. And I’ve found it especially thought provoking. One of the letters in your first issue last November, I went something like what right do you have to be doing out there and putting down other people’s beliefs when in fact you’re just putting your faith in science. Like others are in the supernatural. So here’s the question. Do you think Dr. Delbanco is putting down other people’s beliefs?
We live in America. Don’t we have a right to believe whatever we want to believe? Who are you to be, you know, telling in this public way? People are wrong, even implying they’re dumb for believing what they believe.
I want to stress again that his his beliefs are not mine, but the attitude of doctor to Bunco and the editors in my magazine would answer, yes, they these people have a right to believe any idiotic belief that they have, basically. So so in other words, yes, people can believe whatever they want. But in in the opinion of Doctor de Bunko, they’re morons.
The last part of that letter was about your faith in science. Do you have faith in science? Would you say, like others, have faith in the supernatural?
Yeah, I would say I do. I’m no scientist by any means, but I. I believe in the scientific method.
You believe in the scientific method. But it’s right. I think when people talk about religion, they talk about having faith despite contrary evidence. You know, faith is something. What, Hebrews 11 one. I’m going to sound like a Bible college kid like I was years ago. But it says Faith is believing in things not yet seen. You know, or as Mark Twain said, Faith is believing what you know ain’t. So it seems to me you are proposing scientific rationality as an alternative to the supernatural because it has more going for it. It’s not an article of faith.
Well, I do believe that there are things that science can’t answer or can’t answer yet.
You know, if you look at things like life after death, we don’t know a way to scientifically prove that. But personally, I don’t believe in it.
Right. So. Well, there is a faith to my belief in science or at least a lack of faith in that.
Right. You know, lack faith in the afterlife. Another thing I’m curious about is here you’ve done this comic book about skepticism. And it’s funny and it’s interesting and it’s macabre. What’s the reaction been from the skeptical community?
It’s been positive. I think they’ve been supportive. The Skeptics Society featured me on a podcast and they sent out notices of my comics and their mailers, things like that.
You do hear from a lot of skeptics.
Oh, oh. A few, a few.
Most often people writing in are just, you know, the doctor debunkers is just one character I have that happens to be skeptic. And so, you know, I do get get some bleed off of skeptic’s from him.
But but they’re they’re just a portion of my readership.
I would say I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Dr. de Bunco debunker of the supernatural through our website. Point of inquiry, dawg. Chris, before we finish up, tell me what’s next for Dr. de Bunko? What’s what’s he up to?
Doctor, the bunker was originally just a backup feature in some of my other comics. And I have some other ideas for him, some some pretty big ideas. But I think before I jump back into him again, I’m going to be working on a 200 page comic project called Limbo Cafe, which is about an atheist who dies and finds himself in a fundamentalist afterlife and finds himself kind of critiquing the problems with literal interpretations of scripture as he goes through heaven and hell, as he goes through heaven and hell.
How funny is that? That’s gonna be a blast. I asked you earlier what doctor to Bunko does, and we talked about him being a debunker and, you know, maybe a debunker as opposed to a skeptical investigator. But give me an idea as to some of his adventures. What are some of the kind of hijinx that you get? And given his personality, maybe you wouldn’t call them hijinx, but what are some of this storylines that you’ve gotten him involved in?
Sure. I can just read you the titles. I think that’ll give you an idea. Attack of the Corpse Eating Werewolf, the sex crazed succubi. I’m just flipping through my book, reading the titles here. Devil’s Laps at midnight. If the corpse shall bleed. No Brick Board nor bar shall stop. The Incubus is attack of lust. My wife is a werewolf. That’s one of a hairy creature double feature.
The other is the elusive yeti. I love it. Well, I’ll give you my favorite here.
Who killed my cow and stole her eyeballs, tongue and sex organs.
Alien abduction. Fun, right?
Yeah. Well, the the different townspeople discuss different possibilities. So one says use common sense. It can only be laser’s from another world. No. The Secret Service has a branch of medically trained laser specialists. No, it’s a cow hating, laser wielding Satanists.
You know, if you’re not careful, you’re going to just create a lot of believers in bovine abduction theory.
That’s the plan with this story.
So last question. There seems to be more popular avenues for people to get their doses of skepticism of science these days than ever before. There’s the biting social satire of South Park. There’s Penn and Teller on Showtime. Myth Busters on Discovery Channel. There are magazines you mentioned at the top of devoted to skepticism. There’s now even skeptic comic books. With all this chatter in the public sphere about our issues, here’s the question. Are you more optimistic about the script? Prize. Now, you said Dr. de Bunko is kind of, you know, pessimistic. He has a low view of whether or not it’s actually making a difference. You said he’s kind of getting tired. So are you optimistic?
Yeah. Very much. As you say, I’m noticing it more and more in public circles. And I’ve said it. I think earlier in the interview, if people can just use some common sense in their everyday lives, then I think that’s better for everybody.
I can’t let you go with talking to you about your involvement in the comic book industry. You know, I’m into comics. And yet here you have your various books of yours out there. Are you think you’re going to stay in comics? Is this the best medium for you to say what you have to say to the world?
I’ve still got a lot of stories to tell, and I’m I’m really enjoying myself creating comics. So I imagine I’ll be doing it for a while still. Yeah.
Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Chris was Nia. Yeah. Thanks a lot. It’s a lot of fun.
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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe.