Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Got a ghost? Who ya gonna call? The plumber - WTF?

It is a worry to see on several channels now, programmes devoted to pulling the wool over people's eyes and spreading woo. We had the happy go lucky Medium, the ghost hunter plumbers and then seemingly endless number of Psychic talk shows.

Medium is a TV show on NBC, and was screened on TV3 in New Zealand. Patricia Arquette plays a medium who tries to use her special powers to help the cops solve murders and other such mysteries. She would have done better if she had used her special powers from stopping me being bored to death, but that's another matter. I have a big problem with this show not because of its content but because of what it's based on and what it tells people.

Now before you say "it's only TV man - let it go", let me say I don't have a problem with TV shows that have a supernatural theme. It's when they say these shows purport to be based on some real life fact that it becomes something to focus the bullshit-o-meter on. Medium is apparently based on the real life of Allison DuBois, a self proclaimed psychic and profiler who claims to have helped several Law Departments in multiple cases. Said Law Departments have denied all knowledge of ever working with her. This is a common ploy of your garden variety mystic - claim something, watch it get denied, but then say something along the lines of "They have to deny it because the establishment (read THE MAN) set a policy dictating they can't use our services. Secretly, we still work for them [wink wink]." By claiming something that is only strengthened in the minds of believers by the denial of government employees, they get away with all sorts of shit.

Our man James Randi says she is a fraud, and she uses cold reading to work her scam, along with many other tricks of the "psychic" trade. I think former FBI profiler, and behavioural science expert Clint Van Zandt said it best - "If psychics were truly successful and if their results were not simply the consequence of trickery (at worse [sic]) or good interviewing skills (at best), then why don't law enforcement agencies have psychic detective squads, a real X-Files Unit, or other ways to integrate these paranormal investigative capabilities?"

Another show I saw recently on the tube was a reality TV show called Ghost Hunter, although "reality TV" is the opposite of what it really was. A couple of plumbers (yes plumbers) who unblock drains and pull oversized turds out of toilets by day, become an intrepid Ghost Hunting duo by night, and charge people to investigate their houses for the paranormal. After walking round houses where the owners claim to hear, see or feel unexplained things, and sometimes spending the night, these two review the tapes with the owner. They come up with all sorts of freaky explanation’s about what could "possibly" be causing the aforementioned activity, but completely fail to investigate the mundane or Verynormal(sic) possible causes. If you read any number of article written by rational, skeptical minded paranormal investigators, its very quickly obvious that a majority of unexplained events are caused by such mundane things, that it wouldn't make for interesting viewing. I can see it now - "We heard a creaking stair and found that it was, in fact, a stair that was creaky due to it being very old. We also heard strange noises in the wall, and to our surprise it was bad plumbing."

You'd think that if they were plumbers they'd quickly pick up on the fact that houses make noises when people are there or not, and its always some natural force like the house settling, warming up or cooling down that creates the phantoms that plague the inhabitants. Our minds are a fertile plain for any number of weird ideas and I have even myself sat in bed wondering if the noises of the floor creaking was some psycho with an axe coming to murder us in our beds. But whenever I get up to investigate, and stand in the hall silently, it is always a case of wind, rain, heat or cold causing the house to make these strange sounds.

These sorts of shows piss me off frankly, because they play on the popular belief of the non-skepitcal to believe in LAD, hocus pocus and magic. They also play straight into the hands of the exploiters and charlatans who prey on the gullible for money.

Thankfully there are plenty of people out there willing to debunk this tide of crap, and although they may never make a TV show about it, its still published for all to read. Penn and Teller do a good show called Bullshit, and the first episode was called Talking to the Dead where they nailed most of these charlatans for what they are. James Randi runs the JREF dedicated to pointing out the woo and using his Million Dollar Challenge to slap down woo-merchants wherever he can. Also check Karen Stollznow's site Bad Language for some long and interesting discussions of famous haunted houses and the CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) for more literature on the subject.

I am thankful that these people do a lot of good work in debunking the woo, and can only hope it becomes more prevalent, and there are less shows made in the format of Medium or Ghost Hunters.

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