Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Media, hype, and the Bermuda Triangle

Why does popular media have such a love affair with woo-woo nonsense?

Isn't science cool enough?  Can't the History Channel just be about history, and the Discovery Channel about discoveries?  Is it really necessary to boost the ratings with idiocy about the prophecies of Nostradamus, hunting the Loch Ness Monster, and searching for Noah's Ark?  What, you couldn't find any real stuff from science and history to tell us about?

Of course, the problem doesn't just apply to television.  Newspapers and magazines, especially the online versions, are just as bad.  Take the article I just ran across last week, from Huffington Post, entitled, "Vittorio Missoni's Disappearance Gives Rise to New Fears of Bermuda Triangles Worldwide."  In this stunning piece of investigative journalism by Lee Speigel, we hear first about the mysterious disappearance of fashion designer Missoni and five others, who were on a small airplane from an island in the Los Roques chain, bound for Caracas.  The plane vanished on January 4, and no remains of the airplane or its passengers has thus far been found.

So far, makes for kind of a blah story.  I mean, it's tragic enough for the family and friends of the missing six, but as far as evidence of any kind to show what happened, there isn't much.  One piece of luggage that was on the plane turned up in Curaçao, and two of Missoni's bags on Bonaire, leading to speculation that the plane might have been diverted (or hijacked) to the Netherlands Antilles.  Authorities are still looking into the case.

But Speigel couldn't let it sit there, because that makes for kind of a short article, not nearly enough to make his required word count.  "This guy and five others disappeared, and some luggage turned up elsewhere, and we don't know why."  No, can't just say that.  We have to take the slim facts we have, and leap right off the cliff with them.

The plane vanished "into thin air."  (I'll bet you my next year's salary it didn't.  The Law of Conservation of Mass is strictly enforced, even in Venezuela.)  Speigel points out that the plane was near the Bermuda Triangle, where "people, planes, and ships have vanished for decades."  (No, they haven't.  Hundreds of airplanes and ships, carrying tens of thousands of people, cross the Bermuda Triangle daily, and damn near all of them make it.  A thorough statistical analysis of the records -- i.e., actual facts -- show that there is no higher rate of planes or ships going down in the Bermuda Triangle than any other place on Earth.  In fact, Lawrence Kusche, who authored the study, said, "...The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle is a manufactured mystery. It began because of careless research and was elaborated upon and perpetuated by writers who either purposely or unknowingly made use of misconceptions, faulty reasoning, and sensationalism. It was repeated so many times that it began to take on the aura of truth.")

Then, Speigel goes even further out into hyperspace.  The Bermuda Triangle isn't the only Mysterious Triangle of Death, he tells us.  We have the "Michigan Triangle."  We have the Pacific version, the "Devil's Sea."  Then he starts blathering on about "time portals" and "mysterious vortexes."

And I'm thinking: this is journalism?

It's only near the end that Speigel gives a reluctant nod to some skeptics.  He quotes prominent science writers Benjamin Radford and Brian Dunning, and includes a statement from the United States Coast Guard:
The Coast Guard does not recognize the existence of the so-called Bermuda Triangle as a geographic area of specific hazard to ships or planes.  In a review of many aircraft and vessel losses in the area over the years there has been nothing discovered that would indicate that casualties were the result of anything other than physical causes.  No extraordinary factors have ever been identified.
Sounds pretty unequivocal, doesn't it?  But take a look at how Speigel introduces the quotes from the token skeptics and the Coast Guard; he has a lot of vague, woo-woo hand-waving, and then says that the doubters still aren't convinced.  He introduces the bits of science and rationality with the phrase, "And yet..."  In other words, "Despite the highly convincing argument I've just given you, some willfully blind so-called scientists still don't believe."

And he ends the article with a clip from a documentary about the "Devil's Sea..."

... from a documentary on The Learning Channel.

How did we get here?  I mean, I know it's about money; the television stations who prefer showing Monster Quest over Cosmos are doing so because it gets sponsors.  But it's a self-feeding thing, you know?  By putting this foolishness on the public airwaves and into what we would hope are legitimate news sources, we not only give it undeserved credibility, we create interest.  After that, when you've (1) generated curiosity in a subject, and (2) placed a seed in people's minds that it could be real, you've given them a thirst to find out more.  Which makes it more lucrative to do it again, only bigger and better this time.  And pretty soon you're in positive feedback mode, a woo-woo snowball effect that creates a big old avalanche of bullshit.

Explaining, I think, what has happened to the History Channel, Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, and others... and also why Huffington Post has a regular "Weird News" feature in which writers like Lee Speigel regularly treat this nonsense as if it were real.

The whole thing is especially maddening, because let's face it: the world as it is is pretty freakin' amazing.  There are so many things in science and history that are drop-dead fascinating -- you could make a documentary a week and not run out in your lifetime.  After all, there are people who devote their lives to studying this stuff, and virtually all of them do it for one reason -- it's cool.  So, to Speigel and the others who are fostering this hunger for the supernatural in place of reality, I'd like to make a request:  stop making shit up.  Learn some actual science.  Find a way to make that interesting to your readers and viewers.  And if you can't figure out how to do it, find a new job.

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