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Sufficient proof: Look to television for the answer?

  • Q: “What would it take to make you believe in a supernatural event?”
  • A: The same degree of proof that we see portrayed on television or in movies.

Art distills our ideas. Television and movies distill them further so as to appeal to the most people.

Photo Credit: ABC

I’ve started watching ABC’s The River, a TV show about supernatural happenings on the Amazon. It’s no Lost, I’d call it ‘Lost Lite’, but so far it’s generally entertaining, in a TV sort of way, and has enough shocks and bangs to keep me going. But I’m only half-way in to the 2-hour premier, so we’ll see. At any rate, I enjoy a good horror movie or supernatural thriller and, I dare say, so do most skeptics I’m acquainted with. Just because you don’t actually believe in ghosts doesn’t mean you can’t still get a good primal spook from watching one on TV. A structural engineer who understands the construction of a roller coaster is still just as likely to scream their head off riding it as is the next person. We’re all sort of wired the same, and most of us enjoy a good scare now and then.

But when we walk out of the theatre or turn off the TV, removed from the realm of primal emotions and lizard-brain reactions, we skeptics are often confronted with a world which begs to re-write our understandings of proof and evidence, to make a special pleading for the allowance of less-than-adequate evidence. The level of supernatural occurrence out in the real world is claimed as being on par with the TV show, but the burden of proof for backing this up is then begged to be lowered. And, frankly, that’s a load of crap.

Photo credit:

In the average supernatural thriller, we’re not asked to rely on Ghost Hunters-like scratchy audio recordings or “did you feel that?” moments to scare us. It’s not barely-audible whispers or a cooler spot on a Flir camera that the [un-trained in the first place] ghost hunter points out. In TV shows and movies we get the full monty, so to speak. And if there’s a skeptic in the cast, it’s enough to change their mind. The movie may start off with some tale from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend that can’t be backed up, but it can’t leave off there because the audience, oddly enough, now requires the proof as well, no matter if they believe in ghosts or not. They need to see something really happen.

And we all, collectively, know this. Which is why on TV the evidence required to sway the skeptical is required to be, not squishy anecdotes, but unequivocal. And yes, this is generally the part of the show where you take a pot-shot at the skeptic by having them say something like “it was just the wind”. But that’s cool. That’s fine in that context. Why? Because in the TV show or movie, there _is_ some evidence of a supernatural or paranormal event.  But in real life, there’s no Magus (the ship in The River) covered in unnatural claw marks or dents from a flying ghost-like entity. There are no tapes of shadowy-but-visible beasts chasing people down gangways or killing anyone. In the real world the best you get is a funny noise, a cool breeze in a room or an anomaly on a thermal camera. In other words, ‘just the wind’.

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

So when asked “What would it take to make you believe?”, the answer is simple; The same sort of and degree of proof that you see in any TV show or movie about the supernatural. It’s all right there. It’s agreed on by the collective viewing audience, having been honed over decades of horror and suspense films, exactly what degree of evidence constitutes real proof for the audience. If it were more or if it were less, that would be reflected in these shows and movies because that’s part of the telling of the story. They are a barometer for what the general public considers ‘proof’. And the measurement they’ve settled on is pretty much the same one any skeptic will ask for. Verifiable evidence, not equivocal noises or blurry photos of dubious provenance .

Enjoying a good scare, be it on TV or on that roller coaster, is just a part of being human for most people. The existence of horror movies and amusement parks proves that. But, oddly, in the real world outside those amusements, we’re often expected to accept less proof than our on-screen counterparts for supposed paranormal happenings. We’re presented with the banging shutters and flickering lights of the first act  (just the wind?) as though these are somehow equal to the incontrovertible second act where the monster has actually appeared. In a weird twist of logic, this seems to make TV, in some ways, more reality-based than… well, reality.  Even when presenting the un-real. And that is sort of scary in its own right.

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What do you think? Why do the believers in the supernatural expect you to accept less proof than your TV counterparts?


I'm a technology nerd, sometimes artist and a science geek. I work at [redacted Ivy League university] where I run the Physics computing group. I'm also an organizer for the Boston Skeptics, a video nerd and I draw and read comics; mostly read these days. I like my beer like I like my science. That is, if science were pulled from a Guinness tap, which it is not. So... yeah. That last bit's wrong. You can find out more about me at and read my webcomic

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