Don't Get Me Started: The Truth is Not There

Most of the content on this Web site concerns how to get the most out of watching movies in a home theater. However, I readily admit that I spend most of my tube time watching television programming, both HD and SD. Now, don't get me wrong—I love watching a fine film from a high-quality DVD on a big screen with surround sound in cozy comfort. But I also love to watch TV, and a quality home theater system enhances this pastime as well.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of broadcast television is the way in which it both reflects and impacts our society. Among the most significant examples of this inter-relationship is the growing appearance of pseudoscience (UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, etc.) in series such as Unexplained Mysteries as well as various TV movies and specials. These programs offer intriguing premises and dramatic re-creations of alleged paranormal incidents without the hard evidence to qualify them as credible news sources. In addition, undeniably fictional shows that focus on these themes are gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds. Yet increasing numbers of viewers unquestioningly accept these shows as fact, finding them as believable as CNN.

If you think this is preposterous, think again. Wayne Anderson, a physics professor at Sacramento City College in California, asked his students to write a paper on whether or not they believed that the U.S. government is engaged in a UFO cover-up and to cite evidence in support of their position. He was shocked to find that most of the "evidence" cited to support a cover-up came from television programs such as The Roswell Incident, Alien Autopsy, and even The X Files.

What's wrong with this picture? Why did college students think it reasonable to use television-entertainment programming as scientific evidence? One important reason might be the apparent decline of scientific competence among American students. This was demonstrated a few years ago in a test administered to 120,000 primary and secondary students around the country as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Shockingly, over 40 percent of high-school seniors and 33 percent of fourth and eighth graders did not meet the minimum academic requirements established for the test.

These anecdotes seem to indicate that basic education in this country simply does not prepare people to think critically about scientific issues. As a result, they have no reason to doubt unsubstantiated pseudoscience, which thus flourishes and becomes even more pervasive. People might want the truth, but without a decent education that includes a conceptual grasp of the scientific method and logical thought, they tend to accept any answer that's fed to them between commercials for Burger King and McDonald's.

Even worse, seeing is no longer believing, despite what some promos for The X Files have proclaimed. The technology of digital image manipulation is now so advanced that it's difficult or impossible for most people to distinguish between genuine photographic images and computer-contrived counterfeits. (Forrest Gump was both hailed and reviled for its innovative use of computer-based historical revision.) This technology can easily be used to conjure "evidence" to support any cockamamie contention, not to mention more ominous applications such as electronic avatars of political leaders that can be manipulated by those who hold the real power (whoever they may be).

This frightening notion was explored in the final episode of the fourth season of sci-fi saga Babylon 5, one of the best series ever to grace the television landscape and now available on DVD. This episode includes several segments that "flash forward" to various points in the far future of the show's primary story (which is set about 250 years into our future).

During the segment set in the year 2762, an EarthGov propagandist is programming holographic simulations of people from the show's main story to create a false historical record of the plotlines viewers have already seen. As this character reports to his superiors at PolitDivision, "The purpose of this simulation is to provide reverse correct infospeak as support for changes in Earth policy...Intent is to deconstruct historical figures revered by polsector, thereby legitimizing current government policies."

In this chilling segment, the propagandist also refers to "realfacts," which reflect actual reality, and "goodfacts," which the government generates and disseminates to the general public to further its own goals. This episode is fictional, of course, but writer J. Michael Straczynski offers a prophetic vision of what could happen if we abandon our skeptical scrutiny of television shows that promote pseudoscience and other questionable agendas.

On the other hand, maybe the shows about government conspiracies are right. After all, I've seen plenty of reports about dwindling government funding for public education—"no child left behind" can't possibly work if there's no money to pay for it. Maybe this is a deliberate plan to reduce the educational level of the population so that we will accept whatever we see on TV, which, like the government, is obviously controlled by the corporate/media elite (or aliens, which could be the same thing). Maybe Mulder and Scully should look into it... (Cue whistle theme; fade to black.)