Scully: Because sometimes looking for extreme possibilities makes you blind to the probable explanation right in front of you.
A case of Weirdness Censor wherein a character, attempting to offer a so-called "rational" explanation for a supernatural or unlikely situation, ends up offering an explanation that is itself so tortuous, convoluted and/or improbable that it also ceases to be rational. Although it may draw upon things that are seemingly more plausible and 'real' than the supernatural explanation, the way it puts them together is unlikely or full of holes and the Epileptic Trees invoked by the characters (who, ironically, are usually trying to debunk someone else's Epileptic Trees) so ludicrous that the viewers want to bash their heads against the wall and point out that accepting the (super)natural reality would, in fact, be simpler. They also have a tendency to ignore any evidence of the supernatural that they might be presented with, no matter how conclusive, in favour of presenting more 'rational' explanations that are themselves just as (if not more) lacking in supporting evidence.
As a hypothetical example, take the climax of the film Ghostbusters (1984), which involves an ancient evil God from another dimension, which has taken on the form of a 50-foot advertising mascot made entirely out of marshmallow, striding through the streets of Manhattan. In this form, it attacks the roof of an apartment building in full view of the public in an attempt to open a portal to another dimension and destroy the world. That is all, admittedly, a fairly difficult set of events to believe in, and if Agent Scully were investigating it she might explain this as all being just a big hoax. The titular Ghostbusters merely staged the marshmallow man and used a combination of a fancy light show and hallucinogenic substances to fool the credulous people below into believing they were witnessing a supernatural event. Which actually makes sense on the surface...
... But don't pat yourself on the back just yet, Scully. If you think about it for more than five seconds, there's a lot that the seemingly "rational" explanation doesn't actually explain at all, or which itself requires increasingly convoluted and improbable further explanations. For instance, how and where does one even get enough marshmallow to make a 50-foot marshmallow man? How and where does one make said marshmallow man, and hide it away from everyone until the absolute right moment? How do you get it to move and act convincingly — or move at all, for that matter? How do they set up their "light show" at the building without anyone noticing? It steps on a church at one point — how do you stage that? In fact, the opening of the portal creates earthquakes, lightning storms and unseasonal instantaneous storm clouds — how do the Ghostbusters create earthquakes and control the weather? How does one spread enough hallucinogens to dose an an entire city without anyone noticing, and then manage to ensure that everyone has the same hallucination? And ultimately, even if you could do all of this it would all take a lot of effort, and you'd probably need a lot of people to help you do it (all of whom will have to have some kind of motivation to keep quiet — such as as a lot of money), and the Ghostbusters are just four guys — how did they manage to do this all by themselves without involving anyone else whatsoever?
In short, however incredible it may seem, isn't the explanation that this is a god taking on the form of a marshmallow man to destroy the world actually the simpler, more rational and more supported-with-evidence explanation at this point?
It is important to note that, the most common interpretation of Occam's Razornote aside, the simplest explanation isn't always the correct one . Many frauds and con-jobs have relied on people being willing to believe a simple explanation without stopping to consider that someone might actually engage in some highly improbable and unbelievable course of action precisely because they know no one would believe that they would go to such lengths. Contrast this trope with Refuge in Audacity. Sufferers of Scully Syndrome aren't always wrong; the problem lies not so much in their skepticism as their skepticism leading them to believe explanations that are not just unlikely but outright impossible.
See also Arkham's Razor, where the strangest answer to a problem is the correct one.
- Happens to Cilan in Pokémon during the course of the museum episode. He kept suggesting ridiculous things to explain the mysterious circumstances, even though it becomes increasingly clear that there is a ghost, like Iris suggested. Subverted when it's revealed that they're both wrong - it was a Ghost Pokemon.
- This concept was recycled later in XY, this time with a psychic pokemon. Why pokemon aren't the obvious solution is anyone's guess.
- People in Mahou Sensei Negima! seem to have a lot of respect for the capabilities of CGI. Similarly, Chisame goes to great lengths to not accept the existence of magic till everything she's seen effectively forces her to. It is explained that humans have some sort of strong natural tendency to not believe in magic, and high-magic places have spells cast on them to boost this effect. In the Bad Future it ended up taking a global-scale Reverse Polarity to break this skepticism.
- Chisame is interesting because she seems to have no Weirdness Censor (and actually complains whenever someone else comes up with an absurd explanation for magic)—she just really does not want magic to be real.
- Inverted in Ranma ˝, where Kuno— against all evidence, including Ranma actually changing in front of him.— vehemently denies that the pigtailed-girl is really a magically altered Ranma...by coming up with an even more ludicrous and unbelievable explanation (Namely, that Ranma is an evil sorcerer enslaving his precious pigtailed-girl, and can instantly switch places with her via his "foul magic"). Unlike other examples Kuno doesn't even bother to try to convince anyone however.
- Downplayed by L of Death Note fame had the good grace to head off this sort of thing (omnipresent worldwide CIA assassins were suggested) pretty early on. Whenever alternate suggestions are brought up, he explains his reasoning for believing that is not the case. Still, he is only fully believed (and backed) by the world's leaders when he proves his theory that Kira is a serial killer somehow able to cause heart attacks from miles away.
- Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou: Souishirou. Despite his big sister being a mage, and the fact that people arround him get involved in all sorts of magical troubles, he remain firmly skceptical. Even when he see magic performed right in front of his own eyes, he insist that it is just a trick. Magic have absolutely no effect on him, because his sister unknowingly made him invulnerable to it when he was a child.
- In Hellblazer, Dr. Thirteen exemplifies this trope perfectly
- In The Books of Magic, the Hellblazer himself, Jonathan Constantine, has actually mentioned that due to his skepticism, magic really doesn't work for Dr. Thirteen. His disbelief in magic is strong enough that it causes magic around him to fail even when it should work, thus justifying his skepticism further. Ironically enough, his own daughter, Traci Thirteen, is a powerful mage in her own right.
- Another explanation comes from Grant Morrison's Zatanna mini-series. There Dr. Thirteen joins Zatanna and a few other DC universe occultists for a seance/spiritual voyage. He seems to at least in some way experience what his companions experience, but he explains everything through quantum physics, not spiritualism or the occult.
- Mr. Terrific from Justice Society of America is an adamant atheist despite encountering many god like beings and witnessing the use of magic many times; due to this he was unable to communicate with Gog.
- In Cloverfield, Hud suggests several possible origins for the monster. Rob observes that it doesn't really matter right now.
- Graham and Merrill from Signs stubbornly cling to the belief that the Crop Circles on their farm are an elaborate prank courtesy of Lionel Pritchard and the Wolfington Brothers, even as this possibility becomes less and less plausible.
- Red Lights: Tom Buckley is a physicist helping to expose fraudulent paranormal activities, such as mediums or performing miracle workers. In the end, we discover that the strange events revolving around Silver - birds smashing into windows, electronics exploding, rooms shaking - is not Silver's doing, but Buckley's. He himself is a psychic, working to refute the frauds in order to discover another such as himself.
- The police in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) are quick to assume Tina was knifed to death by her boyfriend and nothing out of the ordinary happened- in spite of the fact that she was obviously raked across the ceiling at some point and the blood is there to prove it. The fact that no one offers a "rational" explanation for Glen's insane Overdrawn at the Blood Bank death in the third act shows no one knows what to believe anymore.
- The Dresden Files does this. It hams up the "humanity is just too stupid and frightened to accept magic" message. In parallel, it points out that our capabilities have been growing rapidly, so while hordes of angry muggles was always the equivalent of the nuclear option ... now we come with the literal variant, too.
- The most balanced account of it all is Murphy's, from her POV short story. She's Harry's best friend and always has his back in a fight, but it's hard to not be terrified of the sheer difference in power. Imagine you were a puppy covering a bear's back. Even if the bear is on your side... it's still a bear. Now imagine it's the strength of a bear wrapped in the vulnerability of a puppy. Wouldn't you be frightened of it?
- In one instance, following a rain of toads, Billy says that the news will probably blame it on a freak whirlwind. Harry replies, "You'd think 'It's magic' would be easier to accept than that."
- Similarly, a magic storm and pitched battle in Chicago will fade into memory as Halloween shenanigans and hallucinations from bad food.
- People who do find out about the supernatural and start looking too hard at it can rapidly get into serious trouble in the Dresdenverse. Examples would include Harry's former girlfriend Susan and his current apprentice, Molly Carpenter.
- At one point he even says that most people's subconscious has a kind of built-in Weirdness Censor, because if they were to acknowledge some of the strange things they saw as magical or supernatural, it might well drive them insane. Their minds automatically search for a mundane explanation, without their necessarily even being aware of it.
- The series has the three swords, each with a nail of the Cross worked in; Faith, Hope, and Love, wielded by Knights of the Cross, who take their marching orders directly from archangels and tend to have minor Deus ex Machinas happen when convenient. The Knight with the most presence in the series is a devout Catholic. The second is an agnostic, who insists that Michael the Archangel, who personally gave him the Sword, could be some sort of extraterrestrial being rather than an actual representative of the Almighty. As long as he can come up with any alternative explanations, he's not committing one way or another.
- The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul has a lengthy bit about this, justifying Dirk's conviction that the impossible is more likely than the improbable.
- Parodied in Jingo, when religious nut Constable Visit-the-Infidel-with-Explanatory-Pamphlets is talking about deity-invoked rains of objects to the skeptical Constable Shoe. He runs down a list, and Shoe's rebuttals get weirder and weirder, until eventually Visit mentions a "Sudden and miraculous rain of rain." Shoe replies in exactly the same sort of wording he used before: "Probably solar energy caused water to evaporate from the surface of a body of water, which then condensed into clouds that wind carried across the country, where cold air currents caused the droplets to recondense and fall as liquid water." In other words, the precise scientific explanation for rain. In the same exchange, was a "miraculous rain of elephants." When pressed, Visit concedes, "Well, it was just one elephant, but it made quite a splash."
- In Left Behind—no one except main characters ever thinks of the mass disappearances as being caused by the Rapture, even though premillennialism is a well-known theological concept. Some possible explanations are rational enough, but everyone believes the Antichrist's bizarre "nuclear warheads-electromagnetism-Negative Space Wedgie" theory. (Main characters, on the other hand, act as if they've read the book jacket.)
- In Inferno, Allen Carpentier's attempts to interpret his experiences as a product of super-advanced technology may be more unreasonable than accepting the reality that Hell exists and he's in it.
- A major element in the works of G. K. Chesterton:
- Discussed in The Hole In The Wall, where it forms the key to the story's plot. As a main character puts it, if you go into a town which has an inn by the name of St. George and the Dragon, and tell everyone that it's a corruption of King George and the Dragoon, a lot of people will believe you on no evidence just because it sounds mundane. Similarly, when someone decided to say that Prior's Park (the estate where the mystery takes place) was not a priory, but the dwelling of a Mr. Prior, nobody ever asked whether anyone had heard of Mr. Prior or whether there were any records of him. In actual fact, the place was a priory. Finally, and most importantly, the district is spelt Holinwall on the maps, and the educated mock the peasantry for pronouncing it Holiwell. But it is spelt wrong and pronounced right. There was a holy well, and a certain corpse was dumped down that well earlier.
- In one of the episodes of The Poet And The Lunatics, the Villain of the Week suffers from a horrifyingly virulent strain of this and grows increasingly obsessed with reversing and breaking superstitions, until he slits a man's throat in sheer terror when the man threatens to act even once in accord with superstition.
- Morris Carleon in Magic: A Fantastic Comedy, suffers from very nearly as nasty a strain. In his case, when he proves unable to explain how a conjuror pulled off one of his tricks, he collapses into gibbering madness within minutes.
- While Squire Vane's strain of the Syndrome in The Trees Of Pride is not as virulent, the consequences are even nastier. There happened to be a myth that certain oddly-colored trees on the Squire's lands, called the peacock trees, gave forth poisonous fumes and caused fevers if you came near them. A local doctor soon realized that a certain disease rampant in that neighborhood struck everyone who came near the trees, and only those who came near the trees. In short, the peacock trees were poisonous. But the Squire was adamant in his refusal to accept that the legends might have any grain of truth, no matter how many hundreds and thousands of deaths the doctor could point to as evidence.
- Discussed in The Hound of the Baskervilles; at several points, Dr. Watson hears a horrible baying noise over the mires which can only be a massive dog, and which the superstitious locals attribute to the titular Hound, a fearsome and murderous Hell Hound supposedly haunting a nearby wealthy family. Watson scoffs at the supernatural explanation, but admits that he's currently hard-pressed to offer a more rational explanation because there are several gaping holes in any explanation that he can think of which seemingly can't be answered away. Of course, this is a Sherlock Holmes story, so those logical and rational explanations actually are there; it just takes Sherlock Holmes himself to put them together and fill in the gaps.
- Named after Dana Scully of The X-Files, who was particularly adamant in her denial of the supernatural. As their encounters with fairly obvious supernatural cases grew this got quite ridiculous. As cracked.com put it: "After personally witnessing aliens, a cannibal mutant, psychic children, vengeful ghosts, mind-controlling insects, the ghost of an alien, pyrokinesis, the ghost of her father, shape-shifters, body-switching, reverse-ageing, faith-healing, a telepathic frozen human head, a radioactive leech-man, subliminal mind control, vampires, Native American sorcery, precognition, astrology, gargoyles, telekinesis, Chinese sorcery, a sea monster, a golem, past life regression, Frankenstein's Monster, a demon-possessed doll, a giant intelligent shape-shifting beetle monster, time travel, demonic possession, psychic weather control, the Grim reaper, time loops, zombies, doppelgangers, a giant human bat, voodoo, alternate dimensions, transmogrification, a kid that can command insects, another golem, a genie and an ancient piece of potter inscribed with the words of Jesus that can raise the dead, Scully continues to mock Mulder for believing in the paranormal." In Dana Scully's and the series defense, this trope did get downplayed as the series went on and she got used to the supernatural being the usual suspect.
- Averted in Coprophages which has, for the first half of the show, Scully sitting back at home cooking up one naturalistic explanation after another for the peculiar deaths and the cockroach infestation... and being right on all counts.
- Inverted when Agent John Doggett is introduced later in the series. At this point, with her history, Scully is more apt to jump to outlandish theories, with Doggett continually Scullying HER.
- The main characters of Supernatural, although aware of the supernatural, argue frequently about whether the case of the week is up their alley. It always is.
- T'Pol from Star Trek: Enterprise continued repeating that "The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined time-travel to be impossible" long after any vaguely logical person should have at least started thinking of it as a real possibility. She actually used this as a mantra to defeat interrogation by someone who asked what she knew about specific time travellers she'd had contact with.
- And after that, she time-travelled.
- Some of the main characters on Lost remain in denial of the island's supernatural attributes. In the season 4 finale, despite having just seen the island vanish, Jack denies Hurley's assertion that the island has been moved. The shock at this and a subsequent breakdown lead to a total 180 in terms of ease of belief.
- The Muggles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer can come up with various wacky explanations for supernatural events, at some points simply blocking out the memories entirely. (In one episode, when everyone in town lost their voices, the news blamed it on laryngitis.)
- Buffy herself lampshades it in "The Pack", when she tells Giles (i.e. the guy who convinced her to believe in all sorts of demonic/supernatural weirdness) "I cannot believe that you, of all people, are trying to Scully me."
- In Medium, Allision's husband, Joe, will greet 90% of his wife's prophecies with skepticism, despite the fact that they will always prove to be meaningful if not completely true. This is justified because Allison's visions appear as metaphors (mostly in her dreams) that she rarely correctly interprets the first time around. Allison also has a tendency to believe that her visions give her the moral obligation to take illegal action. For instance, there was one time that she kidnapped a baby from his mother in order to save the baby from a death she foresaw in a vision..
- Discussed and inverted in Jonathan Creek — Jonathan, who makes a living designing magic tricks, points out that his whole profession revolves around people accepting that something occurred by "magic" rather than believing that someone actually would undertake a convoluted, unlikely and complicated series of events just to make something look like it occurred by magic. Furthermore, that no matter how much people claim to want to know how it happened they're inevitability disappointed when it's revealed to them just how mundane the events were.
- One of Castle's Running Gags is having Castle come up with flatly silly theories to explain unusual crime scenes, often involving things like ninjas or the CIA.
- Fortean Times delights in calling out skeptics and rationalists for this sort of thinking, arguing that it is no sort of explanation for anomalous phenomena when the "explanation" is more laboured, tortuous and convoluted than a simple acceptance that something strange has happened, which is inexplicable by accepted science. Of course, skeptics and rationalists in turn often point out that something not yet having a credible explanation is not the same as something being completely without an explanation. And that in many cases, their explanations involve either flawed recollections of events or deliberate attempts at fraud.
- Calvin and Hobbes. One-half of the title duo is subject to Scullying by everyone except the other half. (Nobody but Calvin and Hobbes see Hobbes for what he is.)
- Human beings are literally forced to do this sort of thing to themselves in Mage: The Awakening, as their minds are mystically warped to deny the presence of magic due to the Lie. Should a human's mind not be able to take the strain of denial, the human will either go insane or Awaken and become a mage him-or-herself.
- The Hindrance "Doubting Thomas" in Deadlands is exactly this. The character does not believe in the supernatural, and even after being dragged kicking and screaming into admitting that supernatural things exist (i.e. even after encountering something that can't be explained rationally), they still insist to try to explain everything "rationally" first. This in the setting where the supernatural is pretty much commonplace, including player characters.
- The World of Darkness universe uses this to explain why humanity as a whole does not believe in magic or supernatural creatures. As a player in the Mage universe you need to shape the magic to be "realistic" to a bystander i.e. The guy wasn't blasted by a wizard with a lightning bolt, he was killed by a power surge through the TV he was standing next too. To stretch reality to far as a Mage brings about Paradox which will force you to pay for violating reality around normal people. Werewolves invoke a form of mass hysteria where onlookers believe they are seeing a junkie or some such throwing people around like ragdolls. Vampires require the Masquerade to be maintained to prevent humanity from realizing there is a threat in their midst and stamping out vampire kind en masse. These mechanics are supposed to make playing characters reign in their more destructive nature until they can really let loose in private or secluded areas. Then the fun times begin with the yelling and the screaming and the wanton bloodshed.
- In Warhammer Fantasy the Empire is this to the Skaven, they can accept magic in most forms but not the existence of a race of ratmen, explaining them away as beast men or madness. This view is kept even though they have been at war with them.
- Nearly every character in the Chzo Mythos series apart from the main characters.
- Invoked by Yukari in Persona 3 while solving the mystery behind the hospitalization of three girls at the school. Somewhat justified in that Yukari was looking into ridiculous things to prove that it wasn't ghosts, which was Junpei's (joking) suggestion. Why the cast didn't just assume it was the work of the Shadows to begin with is still ridiculous, however.
- Umineko: When They Cry has a very... special version of this trope: All murders are shown using unreliable narration where the characters are murdered using magic, and the protagonist has to come up with (often bizarre) explanations for the mysterious murders in order to deny witches (as magic does not actually exist unless people accept it exists). It is IMPLIED there is a much simpler solution...but Battler is Incompetent.
- A major Running Gag of The Unspeakable Vault (of Doom) is that the human characters, when faced with the lampooned Lovecraftian star of the series, give an even more ludicrous explanation for what they saw or heard than the obvious alien-gods-of-madness explanation.
- Besides of its blatant parody of the original character and her opposite counterpart, Sluggy Freelance has Kent, who after being attacked by vampires and among other things seeing one turn to dust before his eyes spoke of having been attacked by "Vampire LARPers"; Dr. Lorna, whose reaction to seeing her coworker turn into a demon was "You must be on drugs, because drugs cause hallucinations and I must be hallucinating"; and the "Nifty News 50" broadcast, which explained a brief epidemic of zombies (well, deadels) as mass hysteria caused by Marilyn Manson (somehow).
- Parodied in Homestuck when John texts his suspicion that there's monsters in his house.
TG: dude monsters arent real
TG: thats stupid kids stuff for stupid babies
EB: maybe. yeah you're right.
TG: what are you an idiot
TG: of course there are monsters in your house
TG: youre in some weird evil monster dimension come on
- Stand Still, Stay Silent: In the comic's world, Flat-Earth Atheist is the default mindset in Sweden and Denmark and the head of the expedition's Mission Control is Swedish. The story reaches a point where the Finnish mage staying at headquarters has to help the expedition crew long-distance in the middle of the night, which results in a Power-Strain Blackout and huge burn marks on the floor of the room in which he was casting. The following chapter reveals the mission control head to have come to the conclusion that the mage got hit by lightning while inside the house, on a night giving no indication of being stormy.
- In the Family Guy episode "Petergeist", Lois tells Brian there's no such things as ghosts, after seeing supernatural occurrences. When she sees chairs and the refrigerator upside down on the kitchen table, she concludes that she must have accidentally stacked all those thing upside down and then just forgot about it.
- The tables are turned later thanks to Flanderization, where Brian is still an atheist after meeting Jesus and seeing him preform miracles.
- In an episode of King of the Hill, Peggy is involved in a magic trick in which she seemingly disappears from a flaming pinata and reappears at her table. Hank, who does not believe in magic, attempts to come of with increasingly ludicrous ways in which she escaped, while Peggy insists it was just magic. Subverted in The Stinger, which reveals the perfectly rational way the trick was performed, but was never considered by Hank.
- After a red rain in India, a local "scientist" decided to come up with a "scientific" explanation to counter the peoples' supernatural explanations for the "blood." It was a convoluted and downright-silly explanation involving bats killed at high altitude by a meteor. (The actual cause was red algae - not paranormal, but nowhere near as ridiculous as the bat blood.)
- Any and every attempt to scientifically justify the existence of real-life vampires. "Explanations" include diabetes and porphyria, both of which actually fail miserably. Aside from the diseases not doing what they think they do (you can't treat porphyria by drinking blood), the vampires they're usually trying to explain were the product of Hollywood and 20th century literature. Older vampire myths are much more like walking dead, revenant or ghost stories.
- Some scientists now think that rabies may be at the root of the vampire myth.
- Young Earth creationists like Kent Hovind who try to "scientifically" explain miracles in the Bible, and let's just leave it at that.
- Many fundamentalists of all religions do this. Which is, come to think of it, counterproductive - miracle is simply God deciding to override the rules of the Universe for a moment, and a "scientific explanation" requires these rules to bend in weird, improbable ways on their own accord.
- Many a Conspiracy Theorist falls victim to this. In many cases, the "alternate" explanation is so convoluted that, if it was even possible to pull off in the first place, it would be impossible to keep hidden; either conscious whistleblowing or sheer incompetence would lead to the truth being revealed sooner or later.
- "Adding epicycles" is an expression for adding ad-hoc and unreasonable complexities to a theory in order to make it consistent new observations. The basis of the phrase is historical attempts to make geocentrism consistent with the observed movements of the planets by proposing that they orbit around Earth in paths with inner loops or "epicycles". Heliocentrism is a much simpler explanation.