***WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUT A SHOW THAT AIRED 50 YEARS AGO***
In my current short-session summer class about the rhetoric of the Cold War, I showed the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960). The story: A strange flash of light is seen over Maple Street, USA on a lazy summer day. The entire neighborhood soon discovers that the electricity is out and that their cars, telephones, and portable radios no longer work. As two men of the neighborhood, Steve and Charlie, are about to set off on foot to look for help, one of the neighborhood teenagers, Tommy, warns them not to leave because “they,” the ones who were in that thing that flew overhead, don’t want them to. Tommy says that’s how it always is in the science fiction that he’s ever read. And anyway, if the stories are true, the only ones who could leave the block would be “the ones they sent ahead,” the ones who just look like humans. The neighbors are inclined to laugh until Steve, who seems to have some authority on the block, tells Tommy to go ahead and finish his story, planting the idea that a family of alien imposters may be living among them. The families start suspecting one another of being aliens and interpret all sorts of otherwise meaningless observations about one another--one man’s car starts when the others’ don’t, another man is known to stay up at night talking on some sort of “radio” (a ham radio, it turns out)—as evidence of their neighbors’ extraterrestrial origins. (Of course, in the end it turns out that real aliens have been messing with the lights in order to illustrate what irrational ninnies humans become when they face uncertainty.)
The purpose of showing this episode is not to suggest that it is a realistic depiction of what something that is likely to happen over the course of an evening on Main Street, USA. Nonetheless, one can use “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” to give memorable (if unrealistic) examples of the types of mental habits that can lead to irrational beliefs and behavior, as well as the concrete examples of logical fallacies students are likely to encounter in and out of class. For instance, I use the neighborhood’s acceptance of Tommy’s highly improbable hypothesis that aliens are living among them to illustrate that people often prefer to embrace any explanation for unfamiliar phenomena over no explanation at all and that first explanations, no matter how improbable, are often very difficult to dislodge even when they are wrong. One might also look to the example of the block “leader” Steve to illustrate the point that authority often has undue persuasive weight, even in matters of the absurd.
Once the idea that there might be aliens on Maple Street has taken root, we start to see conclusion-driven anomaly hunting leading to ever-shifting accusations. When Les Goodman’s car starts by itself, the crowd starts hunting for evidence that would suggest Les is an alien. “He never did come out to look at that thing that flew overhead,” notes one man, Don, which may or may not be true, but he then makes the dangerous leap into making a factual assertion about Les’ motivation: “He wasn’t even interested.” “He always was an oddball,” remarks Charlie, “him and his whole family. A real oddball.” One woman demands to know why Les sometimes, late at night, goes out and stares at the sky, “as if he were waiting for something.”
Later when Charlie’s wife asserts that they have been good friends with the Goodmans ever since they moved in, Charlie replies: “That don’t prove a thing. Any guy who would spend his time looking up in the sky early in the morning--there’s something wrong with that kind of a person, something that ain’t legitimate.” One might use that statement as an example of the “bald assertion,” one that conveniently serves to confirm his view that Les Goodman and his family are oddballs. Charlie is perhaps the worst critical thinker on the block, besides his persecution of the Goodmans, when Steve goes over to Les to make peace, Charlie shouts: “You best watch who you are seen with, Steve. Until we get this all straightened out you ain’t exactly above suspicion yourself!” This would be an appropriate time to point of the fallacy of assigning guilt by association. Soon, the neighbors turn their attention to Steve and start picking out any little quirk of behavior as evidence that he might be the traitor they are now committed to finding. Soon the neighborhood tears itself apart and bursts into a riot as new suspects are identified on the basis of spurious evidence and are persecuted. Of course, here we are looking at confirmation bias run amok.
Other fallacies appear in the episode. For instance, you might point out that there is no good reason, really, to suspect that the unidentified light in the sky is the cause of the loss of power. This would be the post hoc fallacy. One could even look to the fact that the residents of Maple Street can’t explain what the thing in the sky was, and therefore it becomes to them an alien spaceship--an appeal to ignorance. This episode can also lead to discussions of several other topics interesting to skeptics, including the effect of fear on our critical faculties, the evaluation of evidence and the burden of proof, outbreaks of mass hysteria and witch hunts, conspiracy theories, and alien visitation. And these are important lessons, for as Rod Serling says in his closing voiceover, “The pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
Bob Blaskiewicz is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he teaches writing and research courses that take extraordinary claims as their topic. He is co-editor of the site SkepticalHumanities.com and writes “The Conspiracy Guy” column on the CSI website.