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Not Skeptical Enough

by Brian Dunning, Jun 11 2009

So now to follow up on last week’s post about this alleged TV show that Michael Shermer and I were allegedly “guests” on. I was supposed to be the host and was giving some tests to three psychics, one of which turned out to be a character (“Shirley Ghostman”) of a UK comic named Marc Wootton, but of course I didn’t know that. For his final bit of zaniness, he channeled the spirit of actor Lee Majors who told of the afterlife (Lee Majors is not dead).

Later in the show, after “Shirley” had been “thrown out and escorted from the grounds” (so I believed), Michael and I were having our discussion, on camera, about my findings with the psychics. Suddenly the studio doors slammed open, and in ran Shirley, pushing a cart holding a bodybag! I knew that Shirley was unbalanced and belligerent, so I stood the hell back and expected that security was going to tackle him and get him out of there. No such thing happened. In fact, the film crew hardly reacted at all. Michael had not had my previous experience with Shirley, so he stepped up cheerfully and asked to see what was in the bag. After some tussling, they got it open, and there’s some guy with a desk calculator or something taped to his chest, and another to his arm: The Six Million Dollar Man. Shirley was right: Lee Majors had died, and here was the body to prove it.

At this point, Michael (clearly less naive than I) asked if he was being punked, if this whole day was a setup and a joke on him. I told him no, this was real, and this guy was just a nut. This is why Michael is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and I’m just some guy.

I was aware the crew was short on time, and I know that time costs money, nowhere more than on a production set. So I had no patience for Shirley’s hijinks, and refused to play, standing over against the wall like a curmudgeon. I damn near called the police, because Shirley was as belligerent as ever demanding that I give him the $50,000 he claimed to have just won, and nobody on set seemed to take any interest in getting him out of there or in calling security. Michael was much more fun than I.

Long story short, they eventually put on a show that looked like they were wrestling him and his Six Million Dollar Man out the door, and Michael and I gave a brief 5-minute conclusion and wrap-up for their show.

So I would like to take this opportunity to illuminate for you just how big of an idiot I am. All day long I noticed red flags about the production, but it never occurred to me to heed them.

  • The first red flag came when they told me I was going to be the host of the segment for their big show on Showtime. This is without ever meeting me, or having any conversation about the format of the show, or anything. But I hadn’t met them yet either, so I just figured they must really know what they’re doing. Pretty much always a bad assumption to make, class.
  • Their web site was a default iWeb template. Perhaps 10 minutes of work had gone into it.
  • The next red flag waved when I arrived at the studio. One of the producers, a friendly guy calling himself Steve, told me they’d secured a $50,000 prize to award to any psychics who could pass my tests today. That’s a fair amount of money to fool away, given that they’d paid very little attention to the tests, and hadn’t really even asked what I was going to do. It was extraordinarily half-assed.
  • Next, I saw the set. They’d told me this was for Showtime, but the set looked like it was made from whatever random crap furniture happened to be in the adjoining office. Most pitiful was the show’s logo, “Versus”, which appeared to be hand drawn with a Magic Marker on foamcore. Steve probably noticed that I practically fell over when I saw the set. But, trusting fellow that I am, I just figured, well, their show is really going to suck; but they’d paid me so I resolved to give them the benefit of the doubt and do my best as their host.
  • The makeup girl was the most lackadaisical person I’ve ever met, and I even brought an assortment of extremely obvious pimples with which to challenge her. She left me to mop sweat off my face by the gallon all day long — it was about 120 degrees under the lights, with no A/C, and I was there all day. I’m sure they got plenty of footage of that.
  • Throughout the day, the director, Misha, couldn’t have cared less what happened. He never gave me any meaningful direction, he never spoke to me or to the psychics about what he wanted to see, and he was completely unfazed by the absurd direction Shirley took his show. (Like all these red flags, this one makes perfect sense in retrospect – but at the time I took it as merely sad, rather than as a tipoff.)
  • Part of what they wanted me to do was have a conversation with Michael Shermer. Two skeptics chatting away like old pals? Makes for some real wild television. I even brought that up to Misha and Steve, but they shrugged and acted like they didn’t care.
  • All day long, the crew and a few extra random guys sat around like wooden statues. They were completely uninterested in Shirley and his Six Million Dollar Man, as if they’d seen it all a hundred times before. Even when I asked them for help, they might as well have been asleep.

So, obviously something was wrong. It was painfully obvious from the minute I got there. But, fool that I am, I never caught on. I will publicly admit here and now that it never occurred to me that the show was a setup, and I could not possibly have been given more obvious hints. You’d think I would have been at least slightly skeptical. Nope. They got me good: hook, line, and sinker.

But even though I knew something wasn’t right, they’d paid me to “host their show”, so I gave it my level best all day long. Even when I stood off set being a curmudgeon, it was because I did not wish to contribute to their time being wasted.

After the fact, Michael searched online and found that for some weeks, people had been Twittering and posting warnings about their production company, saying that it’s fake, and to stay away. Even Daryl Hannah was sucked in by them within the past couple of weeks, though we’re not certain if it’s for the same show or not (probably, given the time frame and the same ambush format). We’ll never know, because she saw the fake right away and dumped them.

And, as more than one person has already emailed me, anyone who attended The Amazing Meeting 6 in Las Vegas last year even watched Shirley Ghostman do the same sort of ambush to Chris French in the UK. Chris played the YouTube video on the big screen. How did Michael and I miss that? Well, I spoke right after Chris, so I was probably out of the room preparing my talk. Anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So I’ll conclude by giving a simple word of advice, and as always, do as I say and not as I do. Be skeptical.

18 Responses to “Not Skeptical Enough”

  1. TonyaK says:

    In part, you are a good skeptic because you (1) publicly acknowledged your lack of skepticism during the production to help others avoid the same pitfalls and (2) will likely use this experience to guide your own decision making in the future. It will be interesting to see how the piece gets edited!

  2. Ryan Quick says:

    I’m not familiar with Shirley Ghostman other than just now watching a few clips on YouTube (which I found really funny actually), but from what I’ve seen, he appears to be on our side, doesn’t he? His act seems to be based on making psychics look silly. There are even clips where he has skeptics on and acts the fool in front of them. I’ve never been a fan of this ambush style of comedy, but it seems to me that even if he managed to somewhat embarrass Brian, it’s at least partly in the name of skepticism.

    Credit to Brian for the above post. There’s no shame in it from where I stand. It’s actually quite a valuable lesson about how you can explain things away to yourself to arrive at a desired conclusion. I think we’ve all been there!

    Update: I just looked at the above podblack link and it seems like my assessment of Shirley Ghostman is correct.

  3. Richard says:

    I agree with Ryan….The Ghostman is on our side. For that reason I think you need to approach the actor (not the character) for a interview or even better see if you can get they guy to come to TAM.

  4. Joe L says:

    ok, maybe I’m being a little dense here….. but what was the joke, again?

    Was the whole thing a setup by Marc Wootton? Where you and Shermer the dupes? If so, to what end – simply to catch your reactions to Crazy Shirley? What about the other 2 “psychics”? Did they think they were actually being tested, or were they part of the set up too?

  5. BillDarryl says:

    I’m skeptical of your classifying Marc Wootton as a “comic.”

  6. Robert says:

    Oh, c’mon, guys. The joke is that earnestly debating the stupidity of the obviously stupid can, in fact, be ridiculous. Wootton has been doing this shtick for years, much the same as Sascha Baron Cohen has been doing Borat. And regardless of whether you find the Shirley Ghostman act funny or not, it really is an excellent parody of paranormal idiocy.

  7. UPDATE – Message from Michael Shermer on Twitter:

    Ah, Brian Dunning just got a note from the producer of the Marc Wootton show saying that the point is to make psychics look like idiots……and that in fact the producers are skeptics in support of our work. Shirley Ghostman is punking psychics, not skeptics. Good to know……but now I’m mad at myself for not realizing who was punking whom. Alas, I think I need to apply my own philosophy of using humor here.So, Wootton/Little Duke Productions, if you’re all skeptics making fun of TV psychics…GO FOR IT because if anyone needs punking it’s them!

  8. Great job admitting you got tricked. Honesty is so important for skeptics. (And so is a good sense of humor.)

    I hope in the end this is (a) funny to me and (b) funny to you. (Honestly, your descriptions amused me greatly – but I didn’t want to make you feel bad.)

  9. W. Scott says:

    Call me frumpy, but the humor in the “punk” escapes me. To me, the punkers almost always come off as jerks taking advantage of some personality’s good nature. Unfortunately I can forsee the day when one of these uber-pranks has a disasterous outcome. Someone will have a heart attack or result to serious violence out of fear.

    Don’t feel bad Brian. As far as I’m concerned you earned a day’s wages. On the character front, I’m betting that you also probably displayed your honesty and earnestness to a bunch of assholes.

  10. I’d never heard of Shirley Ghostman. I’ve been watching YouTube vids all morning. I find him pretty funny.

  11. Anonymous Coward says:

    In my time people were decent. And now just look at the world. It makes me sad.

  12. Shawn S. says:

    It was done all in fun and for a good cause, as odd their methods may be. It’s important for us to not lose our sense of humor here and start attacking people who are obviously allies. Yes Brian got taken in, as did Michael (for a bit), but they both laughed it off and realized that it was just a joke (and kind of funny… I mean bringing in the dead 6 million dollar man?) and at the expense of psychics. So let’s lighten up. I spend enough time grinding my teeth at night after answering and reading alt med questions on Yahoo answers… I need a good chuckle.