A Skeptic’s Brief Conversation With a TV Producer
December 20, 2012
The following is a near-verbatim conversation I recently had with a producer who contacted me wanting me to appear on a cable TV show. In its second season, they were looking for an experienced investigator to appear semi-regularly. We exchanged several e-mails and finally arranged a telephone conversation so I could get a better feel for the nature of their show and whether I wanted to participate.
Me: "So what's the show about? How would I fit in?"
Producer: "We feature real-life mysteries, we need interesting and visual cases where people can tell their weird and mysterious stories-especially eyewitness stories."
I tried to be helpful, and described cases I was familiar with. I gave her a few examples, from psychics to ghosts to monsters, of cases I'd investigated, along with cases by Brian Dunning, Karen Stollznow, and Jim Underdown. She really only seemed interested in the original eyewitness claims, not any of the work or conclusions skeptical investigators came to about them.
Producer: "We need living witnesses, so these people can tell us their stories, right?"
Me: "Sure, though that's just the start of the investigation. A lot of times eyewitness testimony and stories isn't very reliable. You can't just take their word for it, they could say anything, or be lying, or mistaken. You need to have other evidence; sometimes that evidence supports their stories, and sometimes it disproves it."
Producer: "Oh, I see. Well, we just want to have the eyewitnesses tell their stories, to describe what they saw and experienced, so the audience gets it. We don't want to discredit them, or make them look bad... They're just telling their side, what they experienced."
Me: "That's fine, I understand that. I'm not trying to disprove or debunk anyone, but if what the eyewitnesses are saying isn't true, or is inaccurate, then we have an obligation to say that. You can't just tell one side of the story."
Producer: "No, we want to tell the whole story, but from their perspective. We want to end the show saying that these things could be real."
Now we were getting to the heart of the matter; anecdote trumps evidence. I tried to be polite and diplomatic: "It seems like you don't really want the cases investigated, and certainly not solved. See, that's what I do: I investigate mysteries to solve them. If I'm going to spend time and effort on a case, maybe days or weeks or months, I'm going to do my best to understand and explain the mystery. It's kind of the opposite of what you want, so I don't really think I can help you. If you just want to get people who saw UFOs or ghosts or Bigfoot on camera telling their stories, you don't need me for that."
She seemed slightly taken aback: "But you're a respected paranormal investigator, you came recommended, and have credentials... I thought you'd be a good fit?"
My mind raced, wondering who had recommended me to this producer, if indeed anyone had: "I appreciate the thought, but we're approaching this from completely opposite points of view, and with opposite goals. It's like if you have a car wreck or problem with a car, instead of taking it to a knowledgeable mechanic to investigate and find out what went wrong, you just want to focus on the driver's scary and dramatic story about how the brakes went out on a highway.... You just want the story, the first part of the mystery, the sensational claim. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with that, but you don't want the second or third parts of the mystery, the investigation and conclusions or explanation. Is that right?"
Producer: "Well, we want the stories, but if you've solved the case, to be honest we're probably not interested... The show is about eyewitnesses to real mysteries." In other words, mysteries which had no plausible skeptical explanation.
I finally realized that what they really were looking for was an incompetent "investigator," someone who would appear on their show and pretend to use science in investigations-someone who would superficially appear smart and entertaining but who in the end would be baffled and stumped by the mysteries they faced.
I was perfectly willing to admit if I was stumped or couldn't fully explain a case, but I was not willing to pretend to be stupid or incompetent: "I see... If I can't solve a case, or if there are real unanswered questions about it, I don't mind admitting that I don't have all the answers. But I'll give it my best shot-I'm not going to pretend I don't have a clue if I have a pretty good idea of the explanation."
Producer: "Okay, I understand," she said, though I don't really think she did. "Well, do you know anyone who might be interested?"
Me: "Honestly, you're not going to find what you're looking for: a credible, successful, knowledgeable skeptical investigator who can't solve a mystery. There are plenty of ‘paranormal investigators' who have web sites and ‘investigation teams' but who couldn't solve a grade school word search puzzle. My best advice is to do a Google search for ‘paranormal investigator,' and pick any of the top three or four; I'm sure they'll fit the bill and be happy to be on your show."
With that, I got back to work.