If you’re at all interested in paranormal and historical mysteries, you almost certainly know the work of Joe Nickell, the resident investigator at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and one of the most frequent correspondents for Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Briefs. On his blog last week, Nickell related his experience with a television producer who had asked him to appear on TV to investigate an unnamed fringe mystery. According to Nickell, the producer complained that another skeptic he had contacted by phone was too negative and dismissive.
He said that as he would bring up a new topic, the skeptic would sigh loudly and then launch into a diatribe about why the subject was too silly for words. In fact, he said, the skeptic did not seem to have much to offer on the various topics and cases. Consequently, of course, the person was not being invited to appear on any of the shows.
Just to make clear: I am not the skeptic in question. Although I have spoken with TV producers, I’ve never sighed into the phone, nor have I ever told a producer a subject was too silly for words. However, as we shall see, Nickell (perhaps unintentionally) seems to assume that television is the highest form of celebrity and therefore the producer’s erstwhile interviewee failed at some level by refusing to flatter the producer’s interest in fringe topics.
I disagree with this on many levels. Without more specific details about who was interviewed and why I am of course limited in my comments, but in my experience I’ve found that TV producers are singularly uninformed on many levels. Each time I’ve had one contact me, that producer had no idea who I am or what areas I consider myself competent to discuss. To wit: The first time a TV producer ever contacted me it was to ask me to comment on a rash of sightings of flying pig men in central Mexico. Since I don’t typically cover modern material or cryptozoology, I had rather little to say about it, and I wasn’t afraid to say so. Similarly, I’ve had more than one producer call me under the impression that I am an ancient astronaut theorist.
But beyond this, I don’t consider being on TV a life goal, and I’m not afraid to tell producers that their ideas are unworthy of air time. My goal isn’t to appear on TV but to promote the truth, and therefore when one producer from a well-known cable channel wanted to present a conspiracy theory about the Smithsonian Institution and its alleged cover-up of the truth as though it had some foundation in fact, I felt no compunction about telling him that the story was a fraud and explaining exactly where it came from. To kill the segment is, in the end, more of a victory for truth than me appearing for 10 seconds to say no in a 20-minute segment that gives the impression of yes. It is entirely possible that the producer was describing a similarly-inclined skeptic who felt that participation in a show would only serve to legitimize whatever the unnamed fringe topic was. I know, for example, that Mike Heiser feels much like I do and is happy to tell producers no at the first sign that they plan to promote fringe material.
…it appears the skeptic has tired of certain subjects (if ever interested in them in the first place)—i.e., is suffering from skeptical burnout. This eventually happens to debunkers—not real investigators, who are willing endlessly to seek explanations for mysteries and use them to teach science and the scientific method.
Nickell’s logic is flawed in the above quotation, and it bothers me somewhat. He’s right that investigators have a passion for their subjects—heaven knows I’ve spent enough time endlessly reviewing ancient texts—but how many times are we supposed to repeat ourselves? I know Nickell doesn’t quite mean what he said, but once you’ve reached a conclusion supported by all the evidence, why should you want to “endlessly” repeat the same work to reach the same conclusions? Nickell seems to see each new claim as a new adventure, but he has conflated specific claims with general subjects and inadvertently created a straw man pseudo-debunker whose alleged activities he next outlines:
This brings me to the other issue, that the skeptic seemed to have little to offer about the topics the producer posed. Again, it is the investigator rather than the debunker who is apt to know something. Debunkers are quick to be dismissive, or to suggest (antecedent to inquiry) that a claim is a hoax or to offer one or more off-the-shelf explanations (usually based on some investigator’s work—certainly not the debunker’s).
Here again I think it behooves us to recall that TV producers aren’t gods to be appeased, and it isn’t clear at all that the skeptic necessarily had anything to say about the subject, as I did not when asked to discuss flying pig people. Some extra details might have helped for us to understand whether there really are people who simply stand athwart mysteries yelling “stop!” or whether this was the case of someone who was not an expert being asked to speak beyond his or her expertise.
The fact that the producer mentioned bringing up topic after topic suggests the latter, since no one can be an expert in every subject, nor can every skeptic afford to be a professional investigator with the time or the resources to gain expertise, as Nickell has, in ghosts, monsters, religious mysteries, forgery, demons, etc. It must be nice to get paid to do that full time, as Nickell is, but expertise takes time and if you have a full-time job, it’s hard to be an expert in more than one or two fringe areas if you hope to maintain that job.
I am, however, interested in Nickell’s notion that there are “debunkers” who are simply hangers-on to the work of the true heroes, the “investigators.” I do not doubt that there are such people (fringe history has enough of their mirror-images), but surely this theoretical distinction bears some further development; what, precisely, differentiates the investigator from the debunker? Nickell doesn’t say (the implication is that debunkers assume while investigators prove), but he offers one key indicator of his criteria in his last paragraph, where he explains how the debunker is trying to usurp Nickell’s rightful place on television, recalling one such individual who told him “I have as much right to be famous as you!”
So, if I read this correctly, Nickell is upset that other people are trying to steal his television time by describing the results of investigations he would like to receive on-air credit for originating.
Joe Nickell does great work, and his investigations are almost always enlightening and informative (I look forward to each new one), but in this blog post he shows a surprising lapse of investigative zeal in questioning the values and priorities of television—in fact, he takes TV to be a reflection of public interest rather than a medium through which such interest is created. In discussing the seemingly-permanent popularity of fringe claims, he says that “the number of cable TV shows devoted to such is living proof of that.” No, it isn’t. Cable TV shows program for a small but loyal audience for such topics (typically around one or two million viewers per show in a country of 315 million) and in so doing legitimize the topic and therefore create popularity through exposure, with the intent of capturing more market share. In communication theory, this is called agenda-setting, and it is one of the key concepts for understanding how mass communication works—a topic that appears in the media becomes the subject for discussion, and the media essentially create an audience for fringe material.
This can be best seen in Ancient Aliens, which surprised even the History Channel by resurrecting the ancient astronaut theory—which prior to the show’s launch had been virtually dead in mainstream media—through a canny combination of mystery-mongering and colorful personalities. Ancient astronaut beliefs track with media attention; the first peak came in the 1970s during the heyday of Chariots of the Gods and its ilk, but a lack of media attention in the 1980s drove belief in ancient aliens down; Ken Feder found about 1in 4 college students believed in ancient aliens in 1984, according to a survey—and college students are more likely than any other cohort to believe. However, a 2012 National Geographic poll found that 36% of respondents, which included all adults, not just college students, now suspect that aliens built ancient monuments like Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid. And where did they get these ideas? The mass media, including cable TV and the internet, are largely responsible because they—and only they—can reach audiences of millions, whereas lectures, newsletters, and small-press or self-published books reach only hundreds or at most thousands.
The point is that TV isn’t just the apotheosis of the investigator but also a highly influential tool that shapes the notion of what is and is not part of the public discourse. Sometimes saying “no” to television, or telling a producer that his or her mystery isn’t worth the air time, is the better choice, since even the heartiest of on-screen denials might unintentionally reinforce the idea that there is a true mystery worth investigating.
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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