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'Miracle' work

A run-in with a show aimed at the incredibly credulous.
Hester_Jeff
I’ve done a lot of television interviews over the years, but maybe the most improbable was for an old TV show called Sightings. To be honest, I had never heard of the show and almost backed out when I discovered its standard fare involved flying saucers, ESP, and things that go bump in the night. But the producer seemed reasonable and insisted that he just wanted to talk to a real scientist for a change.

Ultimately I took the gamble, and they actually did a pretty nice job. I doubt the segment inspired anyone to recommit their life to truth, justice, and the American way, but at least there was one fewer story about how Bigfoot saved Grandma’s ghost from being eaten by the Loch Ness monster. I’ll chalk that up as a win.

The shoot itself was fun because the crew was a hoot! I’d never considered that there are perfectly reasonable, intelligent people who make their living flying all over the country interviewing vocal members of the tinfoil hat crowd. But that’s exactly how this crew spent its working hours.

They had some hilarious stories. One I remember involved a self-professed “world’s leading expert on alien abductions.” During their visit, this guy told the crew, in all earnestness, that he was sure they all had been abducted by aliens at some point. “You see,” he explained, “everybody has! We just don’t remember because they wipe our brains afterwards.”

Feigning shock and suppressing a guffaw, one of the crew asked the obvious question. “If our memories are erased, how can we tell when we’ve been abducted?”

UFO
Mik3812345/Dreamstime
“Simple! Just put your underwear on backwards when you go to bed. Then if you get up in the morning and your underwear is the right way around, you’ll know space aliens took you!” 

Speaking personally, if I roll out of bed wearing disheveled clothes it probably has more to do with tequila than little green men, but that’s just me.

Eventually we stopped laughing and got back to my interview. But that’s not what I want to talk about. The real story is what came next.

After my interview, the cameraman asked if he could show me some footage from a documentary he was working on. This was back when sharing a video meant sending a VHS tape to a TV station and crossing your fingers. The producer of this nascent documentary had gotten hold of a handful of such videos that purported to show “miraculous events.”

I don’t recall the videos in detail. What I do recall is noting that they were so badly faked that Ed Wood’s special effects were photorealistic by comparison. Before long, I was sitting in front of another camera. This time I was going through the “miraculous” videos one by one, pointing out that it didn’t take an expert in astronomy or optics to tell that these things were frauds.

I forgot about the whole business until some months later when I got an email that the documentary was scheduled to air. The program started out with a disclaimer: “We present both sides of controversial topics. We leave it to the viewer what to believe.” What followed was mostly “experts” asserting, “No one could ever fake that,” followed by me saying something like, “There are things we don’t understand.”

After I managed to pick my jaw up off the floor, I called the producer of the “documentary” to say, “Dude!?!” OK. I used more colorful language than that. I got the sense it wasn’t the first time he’d gotten a French lesson from “the talent.”

“You do remember me debunking that nonsense, right?” He said yes, and even complimented me on how effectively I’d torn them to shreds.

“So you know that the program you just aired is a stinking pile of bovine manure?” He seemed insulted. Of course he knew it was bogus! Did I think that he was a complete idiot?

It was then that he unapologetically disabused me of my naiveté.

“Documentaries on stuff like this aren’t meant to educate people. They’re meant to sell soap. My job is to tell the intended audience exactly what it wants to hear. If people want to see miracles and space aliens, I show them miracles and space aliens. That way they tune in, watch to the end, leave happy, and buy the sponsors’ products.”

There it was, bald-faced and direct from the horse’s mouth. It’s not that people who pander to the public’s taste for anti-science have necessarily been taken in. Mostly they’re just plain, old-fashioned carnival hucksters, picking the pockets of gullible people they play for rubes.

There wasn’t much to do at that point but thank him for his time and hang up. At least now I was in on the joke.

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