Midway through the first episode of the X-Files revival, which aired Jan. 24 after a 14-year hiatus, FBI Agent Fox Mulder reels off a dizzying, slightly nauseating right-wing conspiracy theory montage purporting to explain a half-century of global political history.
His narrative of war profiteering, the curation of alien technology by sinister conspirators, manufactured political crisis and duplicity deep within the government would seem to cry out for a Monkey Cage debunking. The sober political scientist would explain the evidence for why that’s not what really happened, preferably while stroking a slightly menacing beard and gazing out from behind overly thick glasses.
But that’s not the best way for the political scientist to respond to the X-Files — which is political science to its core. The entire series is an extended master class in methodology, field investigation and hypothesis testing. The pursuit of material evidence of UFOs is only one step in a larger research process. The series revolves around the mobilization of multiple methods and converging data streams to answer a single research question: Is the government covering up evidence of extraterrestrial life? The investigation of this question then leads to a second research question: If so, to what end?
This seems like a legitimate question for political science. In a 2008 article, Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall asked pointedly why we should begin with the premise that UFOs do not exist, when in fact there is no conclusive evidence either way. Why should political scientists not be interested in the question of the government’s role in investigating and possibly concealing contact with extraterrestrial life?
It is therefore a pity that Agents Mulder and Dana Scully are never shown consulting with a political scientist. Throughout the series, Mulder and Scully routinely consult physical scientists of all varieties. But they never reach out to the type of scholar who might shed light on the operation of governments, the role of conspiracy theory in shaping public opinion, or alternative explanations for seemingly connected global political crises. While physical scientists are best placed to explore alien DNA, we shouldn’t expect them to have special insights into such fundamentally political dynamics.
If Mulder and Scully really want to find the truth that matters to them, they should perhaps pay more attention to the political scientists.
The X-Files has never really been about aliens or UFOs. The X-Files has always been an exercise in epistemology, a relentless series of pointed examinations of how we can know anything and what would count as proof. This is not a carefully concealed conceit. The tagline for the series, after all, is “The Truth is Out There.”
The very opening scene of the 1993 pilot sets up the methodological focus of the series. On being assigned to Mulder’s office, Scully directly asks Section Chief Blevins, “Am I to understand that you want me to debunk the X-Files project, sir?” Blevins, later revealed to be the conspiracy’s agent inside the FBI and very much aware of at least some of the realities behind Mulder’s quest, responds, “Agent Scully, we trust you’ll make the proper scientific analysis.”
But what kind of scientific analysis could answer Mulder and Scully’s question? Nearly every episode featured banter between Mulder and Scully over alternative explanations, until even the agents began to recognize it had become formulaic.
As Mulder put it during one investigation, “Scully, in six years, how often have I been wrong? No, seriously. I mean, every time I bring a new case we go through this perfunctory dance, you tell me I’m not being scientifically rigorous and that I’m off my nut; and in the end who turns out to be right like 98.9 percent of the time? I just think I’ve earned the benefit of the doubt here.”
But Scully’s empiricism increasingly pulls her into the role of believer as the empirical evidence mounts of some form of alien activity, while Mulder’s intuition leads him to erratically embrace wildly different interpretations veering from absolute faith in aliens to a cyncial dismissal of aliens.
Mulder and Scully’s relentless testing of competing hypotheses, openness to alternative explanations and entertaining of extreme possibilities provided a model of empirical political science for a generation of graduate students. In the series pilot, Scully asks Mulder, “Do you have a theory?” Mulder’s response should warm the heart of even the most jaded political scientist: “I have plenty of theories.”
Mulder did not come to his research questions with a blank slate any more than do most political scientists. His working hypothesis, based upon his memory of his sister’s abduction and on his investigations into a remarkable number of paranormal occurrences, was that extraterrestrials did exist.
But this starting premise, amply plausible based on the experiences we have seen during the series, never leaves him overly credulous. When one character grows frustrated with Mulder’s questioning by noting that “you believe,” Mulder responds pointedly, “I want to believe.”
What would be convincing evidence, then? It is fundamental to the show that material evidence can never provide a smoking gun. The agents routinely see UFOs, aliens and other obviously paranormal phenomenon. But that alone does not let them conclusively demonstrate a causal narrative linking their evidence to the claim of a governmental conspiracy. Their questions are not simply physical ones about whether aliens exist, but fundamentally political: What are the intentions of the conspirators? How high does the conspiracy go?
Again and again, Mulder and Scully directly experience obviously extraterrestrial or supernatural activity. But the physical evidence always disappears or is destroyed, leaving them unable to validate their analysis to others. As the second season opens, Scully attempts to re-energize a dejected Mulder by reminding him of everything that he has seen and found. But Mulder is not reassured: “That’s just the point. Seeing is not enough, I should have something to hold onto. Some solid evidence. I learned that from you.”
Solid evidence is never enough, though. Even when Mulder and Scully discover implanted tracking chips in abductees, extraterrestrial DNA, intelligent oil or alien bodies, they still need to interpret what they have found. The seemingly delusional abductee Duane Barry turned out to really have holes drilled in molars and a tracking chip implanted. But there was no way to know whether this had been done to him by aliens or by the government. Throughout the series, the agents wrestle with whether the bizarre discoveries should be interpreted as evidence of alien life, governmental conspiracy or natural causes.
Mulder and Scully’s field investigations consistently evoke the sort of research frustrations familiar to any working political scientist. In my field work, I have never been possessed by intelligent black oil or stalked by an alien bounty hunter. But trying to piece together government efforts to suppress knowledge about clandestine activities through documentary research, witness and participant interviews, and forensic video analysis? Been there, done that.
Mulder, like any good political scientist, constantly challenges his sources to explain the basis of their knowledge. The appeal to authority is rarely any more decisive than physical evidence. At the end of the fourth season, a source from within the conspiracy, Michael Kritschgau, comes to Mulder to convince him that in fact the government had manufactured evidence of aliens to distract attention from their own malfeasance. “The lie you believe, that they have cleverly led you to believe, Agent Mulder, is that there is intelligent life, other than our own, and that we have had contact with these life forms.”
A skeptical Mulder asks, “You come by this knowledge how?” Kritschgau responds: “Working for the DOD. Watching a military industrial complex that operated unbridled and unchecked during the Cold War, create a diversion of attention from itself and its continued misdeeds by confabulating enough believable evidence to convince passionate adepts like yourself … that it really could be true.” He facilitates Mulder’s entry into a secret government warehouse full of tantalizing artifacts which seem to provide support for the new narrative.
But within two episodes, an even better-placed source, the uber-conspirator the Cigarette Smoking Man, offers a competing account: “This man you spoke to, Michael Kritschgau, he has deceived you with beautiful lies.” How is an FBI agent to know who to trust?
This dance of skepticism, faith and belief should resonate with every empirical political scientist. In the fourth season, Mulder confronts his former partner and Russian conspiracy fixer Alex Krycek. “Just tell me the truth! The truth!” demands Mulder. Krycek responds with a despairing laugh, spitting out the real truth: “Truth? Truth? There is no truth. These men, they just make it up as they go along.”