Ever since starting my blog nearly seven (!) years ago, I've concentrated mainly on skepticism in medicine, in particular examining various implausible medical claims that proliferate on the Internet and in our media like so much kudzu choking out science and reason. I've done this at my original blog and over the last four years as the managing editor at Science-Based Medicine, where I work with Steve Novella and a crew of skeptical medical bloggers to discuss the science behind highly implausible medical claims, such as homeopathy. The reasons I do this are two-fold. First, it's what I'm interested in. Second, it was at the time an "underserved" blogging niche that allowed me to align my skeptical interests with a niche that allowed me to establish myself as a blogger early on. Ultimately, I became interested in the anti-vaccine movement and somehow found myself becoming one of the "go-to" bloggers for all things vaccine and anti-vaccine, which further solidified my niche. That's not to say that I didn't write about general skeptical topics. In fact, I used to do that a lot more often back in those days, when I'd cover topics such as creationism, Holocaust denial, 9/11 "Truth," and the like. (I still can't resist a good bit of pareidolia.) It's just that I don't seem to do that as much these days.
When I saw the following news report, I was disturbed enough to abandon my current "comfort zone" a bit. It also made me think of a post on the recent JREF blog by Sharon Hill pointing out the pernicious effect of the proliferation of "ghost hunting" shows on television. In this case, what bothered me is how these shows affect young people who are just learning science and who should be learning critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, although there is a contingent of the audience of these shows who watch them just for the entertainment value and openly scoff at credulous view of the paranormal promoted by them, a lot of the audience of these shows believe they're real, just as many viewers of The Dr. Oz Show believe that he usually gives good medical advice, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
There are two huge things wrong with this news report, one on the news side and one on the topic side. On the news side, it's obvious that the reporter is treating this as a fun, harmless bit of Halloween fluff. He begins the report by showing up in a trench coat stepping out of fake fog, the better to produce a suitably "spooky" atmosphere. A voiceover introduces four teenaged boys, who are described as "focused on abandoned buildings and haunted woods, all in search of spirits." The reporter then starts the story by intoning, "Lights, cameras, apparitions." The problem is that, while treating the subject matter as a light human interest story about four ghost hunting high school kids who shamelessly steal every trick in the book from the paranormal shows currently on the air, the reporter also treats the subject matter, namely the existence of the paranormal, with a high degree of credulity.
On the topic side, what's wrong with this story is that it presents a story of kids being influenced by paranormal beliefs as a good thing. Michigan Uncovered is all about four high school kids who do a video series on YouTube called Michigan Uncovered. In the WDIV news report, they're first shown wandering around an old graveyard asking things like, "I wonder if we can get an EMF reading off grave stones that are broken into pieces." The teens are led by Cruce Grammatico and include Cruce's friends Jake, Colton, Delo, and Cruce's mother, who for some reason is willing to drive them hundreds of miles all over Michigan given that none of the teens is yet old enough to drive.
Here's an example of Cruce's work from one of his more recent "ghost hunting" expeditions to an old hotel in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan known as the Blue Pelican Inn:
As you can see, all the elements are there, EMF meters with readings that mean nothing. Lighting effects that will be recognizable to anyone who's ever watched one of the now ubiquitous "ghost hunting" shows on cable channels ranging from SyFy to the Travel Channel to A&E and more. A lot of these elements are also shown in the news report as well, as the teens clamber around an old cemetery looking for ghosts and one of them claims to have seen an apparition. Too bad it wasn't caught on camera. In the report, at one point the reporter's voiceover intones that "Cruse admits when he started Michigan Uncovered he was a skeptic," to which Cruse adds, "Due to all the things I've seen I definitely believe in the paranormal."
Unfortunately, it shows.
In the three or four Michigan Uncovered videos that I've viewed thus far, credulity is the order of the day (or night, given that most of these videos are shot at night). Basically, Michigan Uncovered looks like the work of talented amateurs aping the professionals doing any one of a number of the paranormal "ghost hunting" shows that currently populate basic cable. That's not an insult, nor am I denigrating Cruse. He's actually very talented and shows a high degree of production savvy for a 14-year-old. With a bit of guidance and training, he could very likely develop his skills to the point where he could make a living in television or movies. Unfortunately, his success at Michigan Uncovered is teaching him the wrong lessons, namely credulity about the paranormal, the same dubious and scientifically risible methods that TV "ghost hunters" use to try to prove that ghosts exist, and that the paranormal is very popular and brings him attention and approval. Indeed, at the very end of the report, the reporter points out that the kids are in talks with a production company to do a reality show.
The sad thing is, Cruse and his buddies are capable of showing a hint of skepticism, as they did in their most recent Halloween episode about Ouija boards, although you have to wait until near the very end of the video to see it:
They even include a disclaimer on the page itself:
We understand a lot of people will comment telling us NOT to use Ouija boards and that they're very dangerous and that's EXACTLY why we made this video. We wanted to show that Ouija boards are nothing but silly toys you can pick up at Target.
True, in the video there's a whole lot of nonsense about "Satanic worshiping grounds," how "we already know this area is haunted," camera problems being represented as evidence that ghosts (or something) was not happy they were there, and shaky, Blair Witch Project-style camera work, but in the end they conclude that Ouija boards aren't real.
Watching the Michigan Uncovered videos, I can't help but wonder what these kids would be capable of, if only they had a mentor, someone who could teach them how really to do paranormal investigations, someone who understands the relevant science, someone who could teach them what skepticism really is. I realize that making real skepticism and real investigations of the paranormal interesting is far more difficult than making the sort of "ghost hunting" these kids are doing entertaining, but with a bit of guidance I bet these kids could do it.
Unfortunately, what is far more likely to happen is that they'll get their reality show deal and be rewarded for representing the paranormal as though it's real, the same as the rest of the "ghost hunters" are. It's the reason why so many others are taking up "ghost hunting." It's just that when it's teens who are being influenced, the chance is high that credulity, rather than skepticism and critical thinking, will become their default way of life.
David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS, is breast cancer surgeon interested in applying science and skepticism to implausible medical claims. He is the managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, and serves on the advisory board of the James Randi Educational Foundation.