_ Yesterday on CSI’s website, skeptic Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick.org) reviewed Syfy’s paranormal investigation show Fact of Faked, whose last few episodes are streaming on Hulu. The program follows a team of paranormal investigators as they attempt to evaluate whether videos shot by amateurs (mostly posted online) could be real by trying to recreate the phenomena captured in the video using standard special effects techniques.
Watson felt that Fact or Faked was a poor-quality program the stretched credulity with some of the pandering toward the supernatural that occurred on the show. She correctly noted, for example, that some of the cases they investigated were so obviously fake that it was almost as if the hosts were “going through the motions to be on television and get free trips to Mexico.”
That said, I found Watson’s review to be rather snarky and surprisingly uninformed. Watson engaged in sarcastic and sardonic attacks on a program that she admitted she knew from watching only a single episode, with no other background information. As good scientists know, replication is essential for coming to a strong conclusion. Watson’s lack of background research meant that she was also unaware of a report on CSI’s own website indicating that Fact or Faked’s producers have falsified footage or asked those who shot the videos under investigation to create fake versions of these videos that would work better on television. (This did not escape CSI’s editors, who appended a link to the article at the end of Watson’s review.)
As it so happens, unlike Watson, I have watched more than a few episodes of Fact or Faked and can give a somewhat more complete judgment on the series. The troubling ethics of recreating original footage without acknowledgment are certainly a strike against the show (not to mention ethically unsupportable), but over the course of its two seasons, the program has more often than not (and certainly more than any other Syfy show) concluded alleged paranormal activity to be the result of hoaxes, mistaken identification, or, well, more hoaxes and fraud. This is a good thing.
The work they put into showing how easily these videos can be faked is certainly padded for television. Many of their attempted recreations, before they hit upon the “right” one, are so obviously unworkable that they are clearly included to stall for time. But that’s not so much a flaw with Fact or Faked as it is with reality TV. Have you tried watching American Idol or Hell’s Kitchen in real time? Even the MythBusters show us a bunch of trials that don’t work before lighting on the one that does. If we skipped ahead to that part, the show would instead be a 3 minute YouTube video. But when Fact or Faked shows how simple things like a balloon and a light bulb can make a convincing UFO, this has to be considered a net positive for critical inquiry. The show also does a good job dismissing obvious fakes in rapid fire style and presenting some historical fakes in brief interstitial segments with explanations for them.
On the other hand, there seems to be a corporate directive (explicitly stated or otherwise) that a certain number of investigations on every Syfy show have to leave the door open to supernatural explanations. On sister show Destination Truth, it is painfully obvious that host Josh Gates is straining to concoct a reason to believe in cryptids or ghosts every third episode or so. On Fact or Faked, to their credit, they don’t declare ghosts or aliens real but instead say they cannot recreate a video’s imagery themselves. (Though the weight they place on useless ghost hunting devices like EMF readers, I can't pretend to justify, not even as "entertainment.")
On the third hand (aliens have three, right?), sometimes they don’t try very hard. On two occasions, for example, they have declared cryptids (El Chupacabra and Britain’s black panthers) a reasonable explanation for animals caught on tape, but their tests left out the animals most likely represented in the videos, instead testing against creatures that were obviously not those depicted. For the black panther, they tested against a lion, which is not even the same color. Obviously, no match. Similarly, the chupacabra in the video was obviously no horse. Testing against a mangy coyote would have been a smarter tactic, but one not likely to please Syfy’s executives, or core audience.
So, Watson is right that Fact or Faked is not “the worst paranormal show on television.” In fact, by the standards of reality TV—both in the informational and entertainment sense—it’s pretty good, though the faking of fake videos (meta-fake?) is ethically unconscionable. I wish Rebecca Watson had devoted more time to thinking critically about Fact or Faked to write a more thoughtful review of the program and its place in the paranormal universe rather than complaining that “we’re all complicit” in promoting fakery “especially me, because I watched this show and then wrote a really long article about it.” It’s that kind of dismissive attitude, with its knee-jerk hostility and uninformed snark that gives skepticism a bad name among those not already part of the skeptical community.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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