When I was a kid my friends and I did lots of camping. We’d sit around the campfire late into the night, talking. Without fail, my friend John would capture our interest with some really engaging story. It would go on and on, getting wilder and wilder until we’d all eventually realize we’d been had. He was just messing with us again, having fun seeing just how gullible we could be. And somehow we all fell for it at least once on every trip.
In the 1970’s author and anthropology student Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books detailing his tutelage under the a mystic Yaqui Indian shaman named don Juan Matus. The first books were fascinating and compelling. But as the books progressed, they became increasingly more fantastic. Eventually these supposedly true accounts escalated into complete and utter fantasy. Despite this, or because of it, hundreds of thousands of people reportedly made trips to into the desert in hopes of finding this fictional don Juan Matus. In fact, Castaneda was awarded a doctoral degree based on this obviously fictional writing.
Castaneda never admitted that his stories were made-up. We once had “mentalist” Yuri Geller who refused to admit that his fork-bending trick was only just a trick. We have long had horror films that purport to be “based on actual events.” These sort of claims were once only amusing. But now these kind of paranormal con jobs have escalated, like one of John’s campfire stories, to a ridiculous and frankly embarrassing and even dangerous level in our society. This kind of storytelling has become normalized in the prolific genre of “paranormal investigations” reality television shows.
We need to say – enough already.
Sadly, we see dozens of these shows on networks that call themselves “Discovery” or “Learning” or “History” or (most gallingly) “Science.” There are hundreds of shows and series on YouTube and elsewhere that purport to investigate the paranormal. These shows do us no service. In fact they are highly corrosive to our intellectual fabric, both individually and socially.
They all follow the same basic formula. They find some “unexplained” situation. They bring in experts to legitimize their investigations. They interview people about how they feel apprehensive or fearful about whatever it is. They spend a lot of time setting up “scientific” equipment and flashing shots of needles on gauges jumping around. They speculate about a wide range of possible explanations, most of them implausibly fantastic. They use a lot of suggestive language, horror-film style cinematography, and cuts to scary produced clips. And they end up determining that while they can’t say anything for sure but they can say that there is indeed something very mysterious going on.
These shows do tremendous harm. They legitimize the paranormal and trivialize real science. They turn the tools and trappings of science into cheap carnival show props.
Some of these shows are better than others. They do conclude that the flicker on a video is merely a reflection. But in the process, in order to produce an engaging show, they entertain all sorts of crazy nonsense as legitimately plausible explanations. In doing so, they suggest that while it may not have been the cause in this particular case, aliens or ghosts might be legitimately be considered as possible causes in other cases. By entertaining those possibilities as legitimate, they legitimize crazy ideas.
There would be a way to do this responsibly. These shows could investigate unexplained reports and dispense with all the paranormal theatrics and refuse to even consider paranormal explanations. They could provide actual explanations rather than merely open the door to paranormal ones.
MythBusters proved that a show that sticks to reality can be entertaining.
I am not sure what is worse, that this is the quality of diet that we are fed, or that we as a society lap it up and find it so addictively delicious.