It’s no secret that the Harry Potter series is a work of fantastical fiction. It’s an odd irony that I would be sifting through elaborate stories of noble centaurs, love potions, and magic spells to find lessons in skepticism, but I believe J.K. Rowling revealed her respect for critical thinking in her stories. Sure, she also respects mythology, fantasy, and the ark of the hero, but within that world of magic and wonder, she reveals a subversive anti-authoritarian streak tinged with a healthy dose of practical skepticism…
1. There’s no better example of an “argument from authority” than that of the wizard Gilderoy Lockhart, a narcissistic blowhard renown for his many autobiographical novels. Of course, Rowling likely meant for the main message behind Lockhart to be directed against the idea of fame, but in that message, we can find some skeptical lessons. Here is a man whose only proof of his claims are his own anecdotes, and when called upon by his believers to display his wizarding skills, he completely fails at every magical task. He’s the Jenny McCarthy of the wizarding world.
2. An excellent example of the “placebo effect” can be seen in the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Harry wins a vial of Felix Felicis, or “liquid luck”, from Professor Slughorn. Rather than drink the potion himself, Harry gives the dose to his best friend Ron on the day of the big Quidditch match. It’s not until later that Harry reveals that he only pretended to give Ron the luck potion. It was the placebo effect that brought a victory for Ron and the Gryffindor team, not the Liquid Luck. It’s nice to see Rowling introduce the muggle concept of the placebo effect to a world where nearly any magical thing can happen.
3. Hermione, the shaggy maned skepchick of Hogwarts, is perhaps Rowling’s best example of classic skepticism. In the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she is debating with Xenophilius Lovegood about the existence of the legendary “Deathly Hallows”, weapons that make a wizard powerful enough that he can cheat death. This is how the conversation plays out when Hermione puts the “burden of proof” on Lovegood, the claimant, to prove that the mysterious “Deathly Hallows” are real:
“Prove that it is not,” said Xenophilius.
Hermione looked outraged.
“But that’s – I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? … I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”
“Yes, you could,” said Xenophilius. “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little.”
I’m sure that skeptics will see the humor in the “open your mind” comment at the end. We do have open minds if we’re provided with adequate evidence. In the case of the “Deathly Hallows”, Harry and his friends did eventually find evidence for the legend. In fact, Harry’s invisibility cloak was one of the infamous objects that Hermione had previously doubted, but the “reality” of the Hallows does not invalidate Hermione’s skepticism.
Even if UFO researcher, Stanton Friedman, could some day provide physical evidence for his claims, perhaps flying saucer wreckage or alien bodies, it wouldn’t invalidate previous skepticism of those claims. We have a right to demand evidence until the person making the claim produces the evidence.
There’s plenty of other examples of skepticism in Harry Potter, such as the conspiracy theories of Luna Lovegood or the phony psychic predictions of Professor Trelawney. Somehow, even in a world where the craziest things happen, J.K. Rowling can make someone look crazier than crazy. That’s quite an accomplishment!