Extraordinary Sightings of the Hidden Mystery

-- by Tom Napier

I've lost count of all the copycat TV programs which tout the paranormal; a new one seems to crop up every week or two. A quick browse through a recent TV Guide turned up Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings, Encounters: the Hidden Truth and The Extraordinary, not to mention the X-Files. Of course these programs are mostly rehashing the same tired old stories, by now there must be a lot of rich pensioners in Roswell.

What I would love to see is a series along the lines of a program I saw in Britain some years ago. A passenger had filmed a UFO while on a daylight flight from New Zealand to Australia. The film (this was in the days when people still carried cine cameras, not camcorders) clearly showed a disk-shaped object with a central bulge. It flew alongside the plane for a while then receded into the distance and vanished. This very impressive film was given to some UFOlogists. They made models of the putative UFO, showed how it must have turned, and computed the velocity with which it departed. The program showed us the film followed by interviews with the pundits showing off their models and discussing the characteristics of the visiting spacecraft.

Then we heard that the show's producer had put a cameraman in the same seat of the same plane on an identical flight just to see what he would see. Surprisingly, he too filmed the UFO. He had noticed that the edge of the plane window was curved and that, at certain angles, one saw the tip of the plane's tail detached from the tail but joined to a reversed image of itself. The image on film had bilateral symmetry. Its size, and hence apparent distance, varied with the exact viewing angle. As the camera moved the image shrank and disappeared. Eventually one saw a normal image of the plane's tailplane.

The pundits had been so in love with their alien spacecraft theory that it had not occurred to them that the film might merely show an optical illusion. As far as I remember, the producer was not so unkind as to show the disconcerted experts having the true explanation revealed to them. However, I would not be surprised to find the original film still being circulated as evidence for alien spacecraft.

My point is that one can create a fascinating TV show about the paranormal without pandering to it. While one could produce a "debunking" program and poke fun at those who are fooled, this would probably be self-defeating. Would many people want to appear on it? A better line might be to discuss a phenomenon, show how easily ordinary people might be (or were) fooled by it, then to show both the real conclusion and the arduous and expert research which was needed to arrive at that conclusion. The theme then becomes, "Look how tough it is to find the true explanation, people can't be faulted for settling for simpler, if less likely, answers." This would show the scientific method, research and critical thinking in action. If, along the way, a dumb belief bit the dust then more power to the producer.

The drama of scientific research and the exultation of finding a solution are rarely exposed on TV but there is no reason why they should not make a gripping story. It might take two production teams to do a proper job, a run-of-the-mill "hype" team to do the initial story and to interview the proponents then a documentary team to show the research being done and to report the conclusion. What might doom such a program is something which has been mentioned before in this context. Ultimately, TV programming is paid for by advertisers who have a vested interest in encouraging viewers in fantasy thinking. Even if a program for skeptics gained great ratings, who would dare advertise on it?

Go to the PhACT Home Page

Return to the PhACT article archive