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Sci Fi Investigates, Finds Only Pseudoscience

Special Report

Ben Radford

Volume 31.2, March / April 2007

Sci Fi Investigates is a recent entry into the paranormal-themed TV lineup. Like others of its ilk such as Ghost Hunters, it is a reality show (albeit notably lacking reality) that features investigations into mysterious phenomena. The program, which airs on the Sci Fi (Science Fiction) Channel, tries to distinguish itself as an investigative series: “For the first time ever, a series that doesn’t just ponder the questions, it hunts for the answers. From cryptozoology to government conspiracies, Sci Fi Investigates will launch a new expedition every episode to aggressively investigate the unexplained phenomena. . . . We will uncover new evidence and subject old evidence to the newest forensic investigative technology for fresh analysis. We will interview eyewitnesses for new insights and recruit the foremost scientists and historians, skeptics and believers to uncover new clues and reveal new perspectives of legendary mysteries.”

Despite such breathless claims, the series provides little science and few answers but a lot of unintended skeptical laughs. The program’s inability to find explanations is not so mysterious given the lack of scientists and investigators on the show.

The Sci Fi Investigates team consists of four principal cast members. A young, attractive blonde named Debbie Dobrydney is identified as “a technician in the identification bureau (Crime Scene/Forensic Unit) of a municipal police department.” The paranormal investigator of the bunch is a man named Richard Dolan, who holds degrees in history and writes UFO books. Archaeologist Bill Doleman is the only one in the group who comes close to being a working scientist; he is director of New Mexico’s statewide archaeological archive and database, and his research specialties include environmental analysis, prehistoric hunter-gatherers, geological methods in archaeology, computer database design, and statistical analysis. The token skeptic of the group is Rob Mariano, a man with no apparent qualifications beyond having appeared on the reality TV shows Survivor and The Amazing Race.

Throughout the series, the team’s actions bear little resemblance to any sort of real scientific investigation. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, investigate means “to study by close examination and systematic inquiry.” Judging by the episodes that have aired, the examination is not close, nor is the inquiry systematic. It is instead a hodgepodge of half-baked, unscientific experiments and studies with no clear strategy, purpose, or protocol. It is, in short, pseudoscience.

The team desperately needs the assistance of an actual, working scientist or investigator. With all due respect to the team members, the show’s producers can’t just assemble a team with little or no investigative experience and expect them to come up with scientifically valid answers to such mysteries.

Their lack of investigation experience is compounded by their overall ignorance of the actual scientific and skeptical investigations into the subjects they examine. Since they don’t have years of experience in these subjects, they should at least consult those who do. Yet, with a few ad hoc exceptions, skeptical investigators are notably absent in Sci Fi Investigates. To be fair, this is not really the team’s fault. If the show’s producers had wanted to actually “recruit the foremost scientists and . . . skeptics,” they certainly could have done so. Joe Nickell, an expert on several of the topics including Mothman, is nowhere to be found. David E. Thomas, an expert on the Roswell crash, is also absent. And so on.

What’s worse, the team members often seem to approach each mystery with a clean slate, apparently having done little or no background research on the subjects they are investigating. This may be done to enhance the appearance of objectivity, but the effect is that they often don’t know what to look for.

In one episode, for no apparent reason, the team tries (and fails) to make a convincing fake Bigfoot film. There is no investigative value whatsoever in creating a fake Bigfoot film; even if the team was successful in making a hoax that convinced some people (a difficult and expensive proposition), all it would prove is that that particular film was faked. It says nothing about the various extant films; it was a pointless exercise dreamed up by a TV producer instead of an investigator.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Sci Fi Investigates is how little scientific investigation is actually done. As a scientific paranormal investigator with years of experience looking into just such mysteries, I was amused that the team didn’t seem to know where to begin.

For example, many of their “investigations” consist of simply listening to second- or third-hand stories and anecdotes: Yvonne Brazel tells what her grandfather Mac told her about what crashed on his Roswell, New Mexico, ranch in 1947; Gabe Valdez, a former police officer, tells the team about what he says were animal mutilations many years earlier and a conspiracy to cover them up.

Incredibly, the team seems to think that simply listening to Valdez’s story while looking at photographs of the alleged mutilations is “aggressively investigating the phenomenon,” sufficient to come to a conclusion about the mystery. Instead of consulting a veterinarian or pathologist to understand how cattle may appear to be mutilated when they in fact aren’t, the team decides that the answers may lie in a secret military base which may or may not exist nearby. The team never checked for themselves Valdez’s claim that there were no tracks around the carcasses. Nor did they verify assertions that there were no signs of predation. The investigative team never researched how the “mutilation” marks Valdez reported and photographed can be explained by natural processes.

Without doing any actual investigation, the team concluded that something unexplained was clearly afoot. In a humorous and bizarre non sequitur based entirely on imaginative speculation, team member Rich Dolan states, “What I found most compelling were the photographs of the mutilated animals. No tracks around the carcasses, no signs of predators; they must have been dropped from the air. But who would do such a gruesome thing, and why? Could it be connected to a secret military base?”

But the real skeptical howler comes a little later when Dolan demonstrates his understanding of investigative principles: “Occam’s Razor states that the correct explanation of the phenomenon is the least complicated. If I apply that to mutilations, the UFO connection makes some sense.”

Despite the show’s premise and promise of professionals hunting for answers, this is amateur armchair investigation at its worst. The show’s real danger is that it gives the impression that science and real investigation are being brought to bear on these topics—and failing to explain them.

Some parts of Sci Fi Investigates seem to be tongue-in-cheek satire, such as when Rich Dolan and Bill Doleman, searching for the secret military base in a mountain, fly overhead in a small plane looking for heat signatures. Why the pair would use a thermal imaging camera to detect a hidden installation is never explained. Dolan seems baffled by “quite a lot of hot thermal signal” readings, a genuine mystery except for the fact that he is flying over a hot, sunny desert. Of all the ways to find out whether a military base exists in a mountain, this must surely be the most contrived. And what does all this have to do with the cattle mutilations? Who knows? The team’s “investigations” are guided not by any logic, systematic strategy, or investigative acumen but instead by what the TV producers think might look interesting.

As a final example, the program’s Web site states that “Rob concludes the final group discussion by pointing out that the eyewitness testimony of Bigfoot sightings, something all the team members agree is sincere, can’t be explained.” The idea that eyewitness testimony regarding Bigfoot, Mothman, or other topics can’t be explained is patently false, as I or any number of other experts could have told the Sci Fi Investigates team. Ultimately, of course, the program is about entertainment instead of investigation or answers. Which is a shame, because these topics deserve real skeptical inquiry.

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.