‘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.

Parking Wars Reality Show with an Avowed Agnostic

Here’s a little Freethunk fluff on Parking Wars, the A&E reality TV series. Whenever I get sick I eat junk food and watch junk TV and this time I found Parking Wars on Netflix and watched the entire first season as snot dribbled out my nose. I’m always fascinated by other people’s jobs, especially the crappy ones. While I’m sure the benefits and pay are good, working for the parking authority is filled with abuse. I would say the abuse is ill-aimed and that the people who should get an earful are the ones who have the power to change how the streets are run. Simply put, too many cars and too few spaces creates high demand and the city knows how to make money off of it instead of creating solutions.

Two of the featured parking authority officers for Philadelphia are Garfield and Sherry. They are booters. You get 3 tickets and you’re likely to find an ugly, yellow contraption on your wheel. Garfield, per the profile notes displayed during the show, is an avowed agnostic who loves to listen to Bad Religion. His partner, on the other hand, is a Christian married to a deacon. So what you have is an interfaith team on the streets nailing violators. It was somewhat humorous to see bumperstickers praising Jesus getting the boot or a brother’s sister being booted despite the fact she was a missionary (I guess missionaries don’t pay tickets when they know they may be leaving for another country).

Most of the people being booted, while upset, treat Garfield and Sherry much better than the officers who issue the original parking tickets. The booting pair does genuinely take the time to help the people being booted and are not unsympathetic–yet it is their job, as unpleasant as it may be, and they will not run away from an argument.

It’s hard to take sides in this show, but Garfield and Sherry are my favorite Philly Parking Authorities. Sometimes it is B.S. to get a ticket, but often it is so obvious that a person is full of B.S. when they’re trying to get out of a ticket. As long as it ain’t you it’s hard not to laugh.

SIDENOTE: The freedom given to A&E to profile all of the Parking Authorities is interesting. Garfield lets us know he’s an avowed agnostic while a tow truck driver is seen hitting on women shamelessly and another parking authority plays a pretend violin at whining victims–do the supervisors watch this show and say, “Whoa! We gotta uphold a professional reputation here.”  But without these kinds of personality traits that might not openly be allowed at other jobs, I don’t think these guys could survive their daily grind. The reality show has probably been good for Parking Authorities everywhere because even if you don’t like ticketing, you can definitely see the people who deserve it (handicapped spaces, double parking) and what jerks they can be to these government employees. I’m not saying I might not argue a ticket but I’m going to be civil about it.

The Amazing Racist, Humor Gone Too Far?

The Amazing Racist scopes out a mosque for a Bar Mitzvah

I caught The Amazing Racist on Netflix as a part of a series called Lost Reality from 2004, a collection of reality show pilots that never got bought. Believe you me, there’s a reason these pilots were never purchased for TV.  However, be forewarned, this is from National Lampoon so are some of these staged or were they done to be outrageous for this collection only? Not quite sure as I don’t see the cleverness of some of the pilots which seem like ideas coming out of a frat house–oh wait, that’s where National Lampoon gets its scripts… I suspect while the pilots may have been thought up for this collection, some of the participants or bystanders may have still been people off the street. Hmm, that hooker one though….can’t imagine not staging that one due to the legal concerns, but I am constantly amazed at the stupid things people will do to get on camera.

I’m torn on the bits for The Amazing Racist, which are all over YouTube, because obviously it’s  a Jewish guy trying to see what kind of reactions he can provoke by donning a KKK hood and entering a black neighborhood and nothing more. No social satire, nothing particularly inventive; the scenes are more like car accidents you stare at. If this was staged then fine, but if it wasn’t the unwilling participants reacted in a reasonable but angry manner. This really wasn’t what I personally considered to be funny. However, I’m more interested in the reaction of YouTube viewers with the videos posted below.

The Amazing Racist also set up shop at a mosque dressed to be blatantly Jewish and trying to sell offensive T-shirts and calendars. This is one of the reasons I wasn’t sure if it was all  rehearsed as what mosque would allow for such a parody? Unless it wasn’t a real mosque.  Also the T-shirts he was selling weren’t funny, they were just offensive and lame. After unsuccessfully pushing his wares outside he brings them inside the mosque. It takes some time but finally a group of Muslim men come for him and carry him out. If it was all an act–good acting! If these Muslims were being punked I think they deserve an apology as this was a private religious affair and not meant for the general public. I may make fun of Allah but I don’t believe in personally disrespecting people of faith by barging in on their prayers.

Interestingly enough, someone posted the end clip of the Mosque punking on YouTube and they added: “This is not racist but it’s funny, and im muslim too so chill.”

There seems to be a general acceptance of almost meanspirited race and religion parody in America amongst primarily young people and I guess that’s why I’m posting this. The eternal optimist in me always seems to find the glass half full. See the original KKK punking video below and then the response to it by an African American man who thought it was funny. It’s similar to what guys do to each other with insults–it brings them together. YouTube viewer comments are vicious too but people argue everything out–even hurl more racial insults and jokes or make fun of someone for not knowing what a turban is. Now maybe that is strictly a guy thing but even as I can’t say I personally approve of this race parody (I’ve never cared much for punk’d-style humor), it is refreshing to see reactions like this. We seem to be able to offend each other and laugh it off rather than blowing up a hotel or putting out a death warrant for someone. It shows how much more peaceful American thinking is when it comes to humor–even vicious humor. Middle East clerics can’t even ignore the simplest jokes and blow everything  all out of proportion (no pun intended).

Now I’m sure there’s more to this discussion as we know Muslims are a media target and a political target since we Americans have short memories on freedom of religion when it comes to building new mosques, but seeing how American youth can let a joke slide or respond with a video of their own instead of resorting to violence is a sign of good social health. Let’s hope it continues and we can abate American right fears of a Muslim takeover.

Here’s the original KKK Amazing Racist…

And here’s a filmed response…

And lastly here’s an end clip of The Amazing Racist at a mosque which was posted by a Muslim (unless they were lying) who found it funny…

SIDENOTE: I would say the biggest clue as to The Amazing Racist being staged is the cameraman. I’d have to rewatch it but the cameraman doesn’t seem to be affected by the scenes and has some quality shots as if he’s not even there or we’re supposed to forget he’s there. The participants are not even aware of his presence. If a guy with a video camera entered into a mosque I would think there would be a bigger reaction towards him/her or the cameraman might be addressed somehow like, “You! Get out too!” Good hoaxing job by National Lampoon it seems, but you’ll notice that YouTube youth is very wary of staged videos. Dare I say, YouTube is creating genuine skeptics?