‘Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files,’ a Skeptical Babystep on SyFy

I honestly don’t bother to watch the SyFy Channel on my own unless I’m in the mood for a bad “made-for SyFy” movie with poorly done CGI (newest one is Ice Road Terror inspired by Ice Road Truckers–ha! Great title!), but I finally did catch a mini-marathon of Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files and was hooked. Now I know this show has gotten some criticism from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) for coming to some erroneous conclusions and even producer tampering, but then scientific investigations are filled with erroneous conclusions and we should feel free to point out the errors in what is more of an entertainment show than an educational video series. I can’t even say that Fact or Faked uses the scientific method appropriately, but it tries.  The other issue is that the show is ambiguous–it may be a real haunting even though we showed we could fake the footage, that sort of thing.  What I think is important about this show is that it is a baby step in the right direction on a mainstream cable channel which hosts other supernatural shows. It is a compromise between skepticism and entertainment. That’s tough for some skeptics to accept–I do get it. But as a result we may see better and better versions of skeptic oriented shows. Shows where the skeptics don’t have to look so apologetic for exposing nonsense.

You have to understand that my wife and I are polar opposites on the supernatural and therefore I have watched Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Travel Channel’s  haunted specials and Celebrity Ghost Stories due to her flipping them on and enticing me with a shoulder rub. They all annoy me, especially the stooges in Ghost Adventures who seem to think they are doing an actual scientific investigation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a paranormal investigation, though I think it is wasted effort at this point in time due to modern scientific progress. The main problem is usually the people doing supposed paranormal investigations do not have the required scientific backgrounds and it is more about entertainment value than serious research (thus the spooky music, video effects and editing). The Fact or Faked researchers, while young (and attractive for the sake of the camera) are more competent than usual because you see them duplicating each scenario like Mythbusters and ruling out the obvious at first and then trying to come to a logical conclusion.

One of the best examples was an episode with a swing that wouldn’t stop swinging in Argentina. A very perplexing scene for sure since you could stop it and it would start again and it was out in open daylight. The teenager who filmed it thought it was a ghost child. The researchers didn’t just examine his cell phone footage–they went to Argentina to the actual swingset!

First they tested whether the swing would move the same way with a line pulling the swing back and forth. It was possible but not logical since you could see the line on camera. Then they built another duplicate swing set (which impressed me due to the amount of labor) and set it side by side. That didn’t work as their duplicate swingset stopped moving. Lastly they tested whether it could be wind–and mind you it was not blowing hard and only the middle swing was moving–by covering the swingset with an inflatable dome. Even as they started testing this theory you could see the middle swing became still under the dome. They then used a fan to create an 11 mile to 14 mile wind and tested different angles. Bingo! Worked and the supernatural suddenly became natural.

The Fact or Faked researchers do go out of their way to say just because they can duplicate a scene, such as alien footage or a haunting, that it does not necessarily mean the original footage was faked. This is the view that some people feel they have to take so they look unbiased or fair minded. I understand that even as I’m watching a knucklehead local saying he did in fact film an alien in his home and he will swear on a Bible (which don’t mean shit to me) who obviously faked it. Or he’s so crazy he believes his own faking.

You might wonder why all these ghost shows and people who report ghosts annoy me? Because I’ve already been on the supernatural believing side and it is just a bunch of empty, disappointing nonsense in an effort to make our lives more exciting. And frankly, much like televangelism, most psychics and ghost hunters are looking for fame and/or fortune (TV shows and book sales) and long to be well-paid experts while the rest of us work our day jobs and don’t make shit up. Fame and fortune is fine, but I want to see such rewards bestowed on real experts who earned it. It’s the difference between  Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan making a music album and oh, let’s say Christina Aguilera or Shakira making a music album. We can’t always put it into words but we know the latter deserves our respect and dollars.

In fact, what is exciting about the natural requires dedicated study and hard work to understand–the mechanics of the universe and of life itself. I don’t even discount the possibility of alien life, I just think it is more likely we’ll find alien bacteria than intelligent life (but you never know). I’m tired of the term supernatural, however, because it just seems flawed. If it is super or above nature than how are we to perceive it by natural means (our eyes, physical instruments, etc)? Truly, if there is a supernatural realm it is imperceptible in this natural realm. If anything we are dealing with the “supernormal,” a term introduced to me when I read  Legend of Hell House (a classic haunted house story I like even as an atheist). If ghosts are energy then they’re not ghosts by the usual definition of disembodied spirits stuck between heaven and hell–they’re natural because energy is natural. Ghosts could just be natural phenomena completely separate from superstition and religious tradition. When it comes down to it, ghosts are just the unexplained waiting to be explained surrounded by mythology.

Even with its flaws, Fact or Faked:Paranormal Files can start to create more informed viewers because as I’ve said about YouTube and young people, the next generation is not going to be as gullible about faked videos as the last generation. They have more experience with making videos and all of the problems associated with it from lighting to audio to just oddball stuff that pops up on your footage. And they call each other out on trying to spot YouTube hoaxes.

I say critque Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, but also support it. Hardcore skeptics are choking on that I know, but nothing ever happens overnight. Encourage the series to get smarter and show there is an audience for it just like Mythbusters. The show started in 2010 and is now in its second season. It doesn’t have the momentum that Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures has. Why? Because it is not confrontational. The real flaw is that maybe Fact or Faked needs a researcher who is a hardcore skeptic and creates some drama between the cast. Unfortunately, while I can’t disapprove of the casts intelligent demeanors, I have to say for the sake of a reality show we need people confronting people and at least one guy saying “Bullshit! These people are liars!” It would be kind of like good cop versus bad cop when going after the farmer who says his cow was probed by a little green guy.

Maybe I’m wrong on Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files or maybe I just think it will lead to the next incarnation of  skeptical entertainment if enthusiasm is shown for it. Feel free to comment and come down on me. I may change my mind.

SIDENOTE: If you want to read more about the producer tampering check out Randi’s site with an article by Karen Stollznow. Producers are under enormous pressure to make their shows as exciting as possible and if this is what the Fact or Faked producer does for what we might call a “nearly skeptical” show then think what the producers of ghost shows are willing to do.

SIDENOTE 2: My wife is always saying that Ghost Hunters is using skepticism and I call bullshit on that. Again, a lot of ambiguity and poor scientific investigation and possibly outright lying and deception from what is posted online. Trying going to YouTube and type in “Ghost Hunters Faked” and see what you get–a whole lot of videos filled with enlightening tidbits. Houdini would have been proud.