In 1980 I sat in front of the TV to watch a popular talk show of the time, 'The Don Lane Show'. On this particular night one of Don's guests was a visiting skeptic from America, one James Randi. I had never heard of James Randi and to me he was just another guest. I'm sure most of you will now know of this famous interview, it's repeated every year here in Australia and has become a great moment in Australian television history. Don Lane become so angry at James Randi (as Randi dared to suggest that people like Doris Stokes and Uri Geller may not be really using 'psychic' powers) that he swept Randi's props off the table and said, "… and you can piss off!" and stormed off the set. I, like most viewers, sided with Don Lane. How could this little magician come on national TV and say those terrible things? I really thought at the time that ghosts, psychics, monsters, UFOs and such like were all real.
Now almost 30 years later I find myself being the TV Skeptic having appeared on The One. The Search for Australia's most Gifted Psychic. This was one of the top rating shows of 2008 here in Australia and as a result I have become somewhat recognised. The production of the show covered about 6 weeks both in the studio and on various locations. It was hard work and at times stressful as any TV show is. However, one of the reasons the producers asked me to participate is that I come across on TV as being a polite and reasonable man. They did not want some jerk shouting down the 'psychics' on the show. So during the production I tried to be friendly, open minded, funny and smiling. On more than one occasion the giggles got the better of me on set. I got on very well with my co-judge Stacey, made origami for the kids of some of the contestants and had a great time at the party with the entire cast when the last episode went to air. Although I do not think anyone involved with the show had magical powers, I still can act like a civilised man to people I work with.
I have since discovered that all this is as nothing to the believer. "How could you be so mean?" one woman said to me in the street. "Why did you kick my favourite psychic off the show when he was the real one? You were heartless!" Oh dear. I tried to explain to her that I was in fact nice and friendly on the show but simply did not agree our contestants had magical powers. "You destroy people with your negativity." Oh dear again. This is more or less typical of the reactions I get from time to time. Sometimes I am able to talk to the person and assure them I am not a monster hell bent on burning 'psychics' at the stake and sometimes I cannot get through to them at all. I take all this in my stride and I know from long experience that being a skeptic, a heretic to some, is at times extremely unpopular. The worst moment for me was when a school student of about 14 (the same age I was in 1980 watching Don Lane and James Randi) called me a 'meanie'. To her I was the man on TV saying horrible things.
Now, if I had played the part of a heartless bastard then these comments and opinions would be justified. But as anyone can see (The One can be viewed on youtube) I was never mean, never rude but simply put my case and played along with my role on the show. Despite this, to the believer I came across as being rude, arrogant, conceited, foolish, ignorant and evil.
There is a time for us skeptics to shoot from the hip and not to mess about with being polite. A national TV show made for entertainment is not one of those times. But try as we might, to many viewers we can only ever come across as negative or downright evil. It's not a failing on our part, we just have to learn to deal with it. Maybe next time I'll just wear some horns….
Richard Saunders is Vice President of Australian Skeptics and producer of "The Skeptic Zone Podcast" www.skepticzone.tv He delights in teaching critical thinking to children and was a guest speaker at TAM 6 and Dragon*Con 2008.