Skepticism and Talk Shows

January 1996
by Robert Novella

In the past decade, daytime talk shows have become increasingly popular, and sensationalistic. People are fascinated by the unusual and sometimes bizarre problems and lifestyles of the guests. These shows are adequate, although perhaps distasteful, as entertainment, and some even manage to be informative on many different topics. Where they are consistently lacking, however, is in their treatment of any subject which requires more than a casual examination, such as anything dealing with paranormal claims. Talk shows have proven to be a hostile environment to skeptics wishing to combat the seemingly endless supply of such claims.

This hostility was made very clear to me when I was asked to be on the Sally Jessy Rafael Show. The topic for that day dealt with a family claiming that their house had been haunted for six years by a ghost that had made sexual advances to some of the young girls in the family. The family also brought with them Peter James, a self-proclaimed psychic, who was sent by the show “Sightings” to examine their problem. On the skeptical side of the debate were Arthur Harris, a representative of the New York Area Skeptics, and Robert Ian, a magician and hypnotist. I was seated in the audience knowing beforehand that Sally would get to me when I raised my hand. There was one other plant in the audience representing the other side. Apparently, planting people in the audience who are familiar with the show’s topic is common practice, although certainly not commonly known.
During the first half of the show, Sally interviewed each person in the family asking them to describe some of their experiences. The accounts ranged from things they “heard,” like pounding, breathing, and voices; to things they “saw,” like dark figures with long arms and moving black shadows; to things they “felt,” like a tongue on the back of the neck and a hand squeezing parts of their bodies.

Once the tale of horror was told, Peter James was invited on the stage to offer his sage opinion. He calls himself a psychic spiritualist and claims to be clairvoyant (ability to perform remote viewing) and clairaudient (remote hearing). He had no evidence to offer to document this family’s experiences, but he did bring with him a tape said to be proof of the existence of ghosts. His “proof” consisted of a video tape taken on the Queen Mary which included a barely intelligible voice of a very young girl that Peter James claimed was a ghost looking for her parents. James then offered the explanation that the experiences the family was having were the result of either a forceful entity or the ghost of the previous owner of the house. The previous owner, while alive, was allegedly guilty of sodomy and child molestation and was obviously continuing these activities after death, argued James.
The host and audience seemed very pleased with the family’s exciting tale, complete with the wise hero who had come to be their savior. But alas, not all were content. Arthur Harris next came on stage to challenge and ridicule the show’s honored guests. Not having any solid evidence to examine, he was resigned to speculation that the sounds were probably the result of the house settling, but he believed that the molestations described by the girls were a psycho-sexual manifestation of their repressed desires.

Robert Ian, the magician turned skeptic , then joined the others on stage. He stated his belief that ghosts and psychics are not real. Psychics are entertainers, and it is their job to make us suspend our disbelief so that we can have a good time and be amazed by their tricks. The problem, Robert continued, occurs when psychics step outside the sphere of entertainment and offer their divined knowledge as truth, to the emotional and financial ruin of many.

At last I had my opportunity to add to the unfolding debate. I suggested that one likely explanation for some of these events was a waking dream or hypnogogic hallucination. They can occur as we are dozing off or just waking up from sleep. These hallucinations can involve all our senses or just one and are extremely realistic. Paralysis is a common feature of the hypnogogic state. The family used the word “paralyzed” four separate times during the show while describing eight different “visitations,” six of which occurred at night and in bed.

Frequently during the show a family member or the psychic made a point in defense of their claims, usually met by enthusiastic clapping from the audience. I noticed, however, that when a few people started clapping in agreement, someone working behind the scenes immediately began encouraging the applause by waving her arms. We were told earlier that whenever this was done, we should all begin applauding. Interestingly, this was never done for any of the comments made by the skeptics.

My personal experience is, unfortunately, all too typical of the format in which talk shows deal with paranormal subjects. On those occasions when skeptics are invited to such shows, they are rarely given direct evidence to examine, or the opportunity to examine claims prior to the show. They are cast in the role of doubter, calling their fellow guests liars or lunatics. They are never given sufficient time to explain the skeptical approach or elucidate the flaws in logic or evidence used by those whom they challenge.

The studio audience is a conspirator in this apparent design, meant to influence the larger viewing audience. Certainly it is easier, and emotionally more appealing, to believe the fantastic story of brave people facing a supernatural disaster, than it is to accept the alternate more mundane explanation provided by logic and reason.