Adventures in television, part 438, the full account

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Previously in wg's TV adventures...Marc Wootton, presenting himself as "Shirley Ghostman".

A guy named Jonathan Levene (@jjlevene on Twitter) called me and asked if I'd do an interview with some guy for a pilot for a TV series getting people to talk about religious beliefs and science. I said sure. They didn't really tell me much - said it would be an interview/discussion and that it was as much a screen test for the interviewer as...I don't know what.

He said they're hoping to sell the show to HBO, but the company's website says it's developing a show for PBS. Since the website consists of a single page, I presume it's only there to show prospective participants *something*. The show as described to me *might* sell to PBS - I can see it running a religious/science discussion show; it didn't and doesn't seem like HBO's kind of thing - though an "edgy" British comedy show might be.

On arrival at Grange Park (we were filming at Denmark Studios in Enfield), Jonathan met me and asked me to wait with a cup of tea in the local cafe while he went to make sure they were ready. The studio was very small and cramped, he said. On arrival there, though, I noticed a large, empty couch...

In the cafe, Jonathan explained I would be discussing science and religion with someone he called (I think) "Dr Dave". He had me sign a one-page contract/release, which I read. I remember the jurisdiction was New York (which is the address All of the Above Media gives on its one-page website), but Jonathan didn't offer, and I didn't think to ask for, a copy. In future, my rule will be never to sign releases until recording has completed.

The studio itself was (weirdly?) empty of people except for Jonathan, who brought me in, someone who asked if I'd turned off my mobile phone, a tech who clipped on a radio mic, checked levels, adjusted the mic, and then vanished, the three cameramen, and then the guy himself, who said barely anything when he arrived bearing a clipboard with what appeared to be two pages filled with lines of small type, which he kept in his lap behind the desk and frequently consulted. The fact that there was a monitor behind us with "YOU DECIDE" displayed on it, gold on royal blue, with a Christian cross between the two words hinted that either HBO was going into religious broadcasting (*so* unlikely), the producers were delusional (a possibility I seriously considered), or I'd been set up in some unknown way for some kind of comedy skit....because you really could imagine that backdrop for an SNL segment or something. I had been told we'd be filming in front of a green screen, and indeed the backdrop and side drops were all featureless bright green - which means, of course, that there will be some kind of projected background. That could be *anything*.

"Dr Dave" (assuming I've remembered the name I was given correctly) was *very* far removed from not only my sense of reality but anyone else's, which meant he was either in need of medical treatment or attempting a send-up, like Shirley.

All the above little points which I didn't fully note consciously at the time, are my best attempt at explaining why the possibility of a set-up never left my mind all day. Even in the cafe I found myself telling Jonathan the Shirley Ghostman story, and that makes me think I already sensed something off, but I don't know what.

The following is what I remember of the ensuing conversation, though they may not be in the order in which they occurred and are not a complete account (we talked for nearly two very long hours...); they're what I can remember. I'm posting this as a contemporaneous record just in case of...I'm not sure what.

The director (I guess) said we were recording as live, counted down from five, and we were off. He immediately vanished, leaving the set with Dave, me, and the three mute cameraman.

- His mostly bald head kind of bulged toward the back, which made me wonder if it was makeup/prosthetic/a bald cap. He had been thoroughly powdered to avoid shine, and I thought it was interesting no one had suggested doing the same to me, since they often do. I was wearing no makeup at all (since I never do).

- He began by introducing the segment so diffidently and hesitantly that I thought they'd ask him to stop and restart, and when they didn't, I thought OK, they said it was a screen test for him, but if that's true this guy is already obviously too incompetent to use, so why are they continuing?

- I was unsure about his accent; it seemed to me American but I thought I heard some non-native fuzziness around the edges, which could be the result of living in England for a long time or a British person putting on an American accent. Or...not.

- He said he was a cardiologist and also had a PhD in history, so the "Dr" was earned (twice). What were my qualifications? "I'm a dilettante," I said cheerfully. He demanded that I explain this word. (A guy with two degrees, including one in history, who doesn't know "dilettante"? Sure...or maybe he thinks the audience won't understand it). I said, "It means I'm an amateur."

- We briefly discussed my founding of The Skeptic and why I did it, and explained that "skepticism is inquiry" and that skeptics ask for evidence and that we don't tackle matters of faith.

- He asked about my religious beliefs, and I said I had grown up without any. Well, what did I call myself? I said I usually said I was an "agnostic". He asked what that meant and how it was different from other terms. I said, Well, to me an atheist is someone who denies the existence of God and an agnostic is someone to whom it's not important.

- He started talking about God, "He", "His"... For some reason I tried a joke: "Surely, She's black". Huh? What was that about? I explained the old 1970s joke where someone says he's been to Heaven and the person he's talking to says, "Did you meet God? What's He like?" "Well, first of all, She's black..." He seemed confused by this explanation.

- At some point, maybe 20-30 minutes in (I think; I'd forgotten my watch, which was a pity), it was bizarre enough and had gone on long enough that I turned to the room at large and said, "What are we really doing here?" The cameramen remained silent, like one of those scenes in a Gothic novel where the heroine, discovering that her host is a monster, finds herself alone except for servants whose mouths, eyes, and ears have been sewn shut.

- He began talking about creation "science". Did I believe in it. I said the scientific evidence provided pretty strong support for evolution. He seemed to feel it was just obvious that everything must have been designed. "Who designed the designer?" I asked. Apparently the designer just *was*. "Oh,", I said, "So it's turtles all the way down?" I had to explain this joke to him. He then said that the big bang theory didn't really explain where the universe came from, either - what was before the explosion? Well, he had me there.

- At some point I explained that as a skeptic I'm prepared to simply say that I don't know the explanation for things rather than pick on something easy just to have an explanation. Later, he used this to characterize me/skeptics as ignorant and offer viewers the choice promised on the monitor (You Decide) - presumably between our ignorance and his knowledge.

- He kept citing some science institute in Kansas whose name I don't fully remember and can't look up because it was utterly bland as the source of various "scientific" claims. In fact, all the names connected with this operation are too non-distinctive for successful online searches, which seems like a useful design if you're trying to play people. I did note that he stressed the Kansas the three or four times he mentioned it, which made me wonder if he was trying to get me to comment on that (I didn't), but he didn't generally leave space if I'd wanted to. I feel bad for Kansans; most of them don't deserve to be the butt of random people's potshots.

- A couple of times at the beginning I giggled. Why was I laughing, he asked. Since I can't now remember what I found funny, I can't explain it now either. Most of the experience was pretty tedious.

- He repeatedly accused me of flirting with and/or being attracted to him (as IF).

- At some point - I can't remember why now - I mentioned being 10 in 1964. "I'd have thought it was earlier," he said. I went on with whatever I was saying and thought it was lucky I don't have that particular insecurity. (It was, too, because see below. Before you ask, my Twitter picture is from 2008. I need a new one)

- Several times he made comments indicating I look older than my actual age (62); he asked me to guess his (because he lives on this super-healthy Adam and Eve diet, see, about which he said he wrote a book (which - there is such a book, but he's not the author) ) and after trying to get out of it because I'm crap at guessing ages I decided to make sure I'd hit an age high enough to fend off any claim he might make of unexpected youthfulness and said, "72". He said he was indeed 72 and then kept saying how much younger he looked (not if I guessed right, surely?) than not only *his* age, but *me* and that he wouldn't have believed I was ten years younger. I told him I wasn't lying, and that my age is correctly displayed on my Wikipedia page, which he replied (granted, correctly) that I could have edited (but I didn't!). He embedded several comments about my looking older in other statements - not leaving space for me to argue. If it was meant to make me mad...meh. I have a little too much ego for that. If he intentionally wanted to look like a jackass, well, I guess he succeeded, if you think saying someone looks older is insulting. Is breaking that taboo funny? It was stupid of me to bother arguing with him about this at all.

- He apologized to his wife, "Jean", on camera several times for my "inappropriate flirting" with him. Almost at the end, after the last such apology, I turned to the camera, and said, "Yes. Jean, I also apologize." He sharply objected: "Don't talk to my wife" and then quickly muttered, "She's been through enough." No, I did not say, "Well, married to you, I'm not surprised."

- He used first his hand ("Guess how many hand surgeons there are at the Mayo Clinic." "I don't know." "Seven." Because the hand is the most complicated part of the human body...) and then a banana he had ready to explain why there had to be a divine designer. The banana, he said, is perfect ("it's non-slip..."; it's color-coded to show when it's unripe (green), ready to eat (yellow), and dangerous (black - although actually black doesn't mean they're dangerous, just that they're overripe, and ick), and challenged me to explain how evolution could possibly have produced it. He partially peeled it ("the top snaps like a Coke can", another part of its perfect packaging) and suggestively slid the unsheathed portion into his mouth several times to show how perfectly it "fits into a MAN's mouth". I longed to joke about this, but said nothing. The banana led to his saying that this is what Adam and Eve ate - fruit, and he mentioned some fruits and the bit about having written the book, and I asked about apples. Well, no, they're not on the list. They only ate *one* apple, and that caused the Fall. This led directly to...

- ...He "cried" about his past as a "chronic masturbator", which he was able to end by stopping eating apples, which are, of course, the fruit of sin. I noticed no moisture around the eyes or nose. This led to...

- The society-wide level of masturbation before the flood hit 99% and the *next day* God issued his instructions to Noah. He's basing this on, apparently, semen found in clay pots in Jerusalem. I said, "Well, they probably didn't have socks," a joke that he asked me to *explain*. I sort of tried; I wasn't embarrassed, if that's what he hoped. (Come on, I wanted to say, We've all seen Friends. Chandler's sock was a whole plot.) And...

- Masturbation level is now nearly 8% (which I queried on the basis that it was insanely low). For men, since there are no statistics for women (I guess we don't spill seed), and that if everyone stopped climate change would reverse. He had a colored world map for each set of statistics ready and cued-up (another indicator of a set-up, I think - what genuine program would have put this guy on once they'd seen them?). "Have you ever met a masturbator?" he asked. "I've met you," I said reasonably...which led to more of the weeping-in-shame routine.

- He claimed that "Onanism" caused billions of lost souls; I stupidly argued this, pointing out that even in a pregnancy-causing ejaculation millions of sperm were still wasted. "Ah," he said, "but those are not viable. They're retarded, or..." I forget what, but I went on to make the point that therefore he could only reasonably argue that 1 to 10 of the spilled seed were lost souls. I "won" that one.

- He said he had seven kids. I remember feeling sorry for them (if they actually exist).

- At some point, he began passing off the jokes I did make with a line like "I suppose that's humor". I guess he got tired of claiming he didn't understand them and asking me to explain.

- How, he wanted to know, did I explain the picture he'd found online of a duck with tiny human feet? "Was it Photoshopped?" I asked. No, it was verified by that same institute in KANSAS. What did I intuitively think? "I don't know - I haven't seen it or the evidence." Women are supposed to be intuitive: what's your intuition. Ignoring the women are intuitive stupidity: "Probably what I asked first: is it a hoax?" I did look for such a picture when I got home and found one in a joke thread in a Christian forum alongside some other wacky pictures of ducks. It is *obviously* composited; that may be where they got the idea. (It's here:

- This led to my using an analogy of Randi's to try to get across "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". If you claim you have a horse in your backyard, I might believe you and not bother to check. "Unless I live in New York City." Yes. I had been about to say "Unless your backyard is in Brooklyn." (There is actually a current TV series in which the TWO BROKE GIRLS were supposedly keeping a horse in their Brooklyn backyard at the beginning of season 1; one of the many reasons I watched only one episode - they have no space, and they're *broke*. How are they feeding it and where do they put the droppings?) But, I went on to say, if you tell me you have a unicorn in your backyard - at which point Randi usually talks about getting samples of the horn and checking for glue. He interrupted and said, "That's impossible. Unicorns don't exist." I wish I'd had the wit to suggest they may be living in those unexplored parts of China, but I didn't think of it.

- At some point he talked about how he saw the Lord in everything and asked if I didn't, too. "No." I tried another analogy (yes, I know I should have learned by then), and asked if when he went outdoors on a beautiful day and saw the blue sky and green in the landscape he saw purple. "Yes." "In everything?" "Yes." So much for that idea.

- He talked about how the Lord gives meaning to everything in his life, and that's impossible without God and His guidance/moral code. I said that many of the things I do - and I named as an example serving on the advisory council of the Open Rights Group to help promote civil liberties on the internet - are meaningful to me without worrying about a God. (Now, unlike most of the rest of this discussion, *this* part of the conversation I have had before, with a very conservative Christian I knew when I lived in Ireland; I think every agnostic or atheist has had it at least once. It never leads anywhere because it's extremely hard to convey *why* something gives meaning to your life. But at least it was a short break from the surrealism.)

- It was pretty infuriating that he kept taking things I'd said and misconstruing them and then repeating them. eg, he said something about longevity, and I commented that although the *average* lifespan has been increasing for some decades the *maximum* known lifespan hasn't really budged. Ah, he said but there are some people living in "unexplored parts of China" (where are those? where on this planet is unexplored?) who are 150 years old, and I said, well, the birth records aren't always accurate from that long ago - so he accused me of racism and said his business manager is Chinese and they can keep records perfectly well. (Saying I'd had a Chinese accountant didn't seem to help this.)

- At the end, he asked me to pray with him. I refused, and simply watched him while he said some things, ending with a prayer for the "Reverend Trump". "Reverend?" I asked. "As in revered," he said. I indicated that I thought he'd been implying that Trump was some sort of minister. Apparently not. He also told me he loved everything and everyone, including me - but not in a sexual way because that would be inappropriate because he's married. "No, you don't," I said. "You really don't." (And I believe that's true not only of his "Christian" persona but whatever his real one is.)

Afterwards, Jonathan seemed shocked and asked why I didn't slap him (I don't slap people of any age - I took it as an expression of sympathy, but perhaps he was disappointed), and promised me that either it's not a setup or they set *him* up too. I have since learned that he asked another skeptic he approached to appear on the show what kind of comedy he liked. Ah: he and I also talked about comedy, which at the time I put down to my rambling conversational style. Learning that it was on the list of topics for discussion (whether Jonathan made the list or the producers did), as far as I was concerned, clinched the set-up theory. I also noticed that a) the guy disappeared the instant the cameras went off and they got me out of there and into a waiting car PDQ so I didn't talk to anyone afterwards except Jonathan. I also note that Jonathan told me he'd gotten me a car because it had gone on so long - but the cab driver told me he'd been waiting for two hours, and the time he said they called him was right about when recording started. So in fact, the car was probably to avoid risking having to wait with - and therefore talk to - me for any length of time while we walked to the station and waited for a train. (It was annoying: the car took twice as long as the train would have.)

The thing was that through the whole thing I kept thinking about the Shirley Ghostman experience, and this felt very much like that - bizarre, surreal, inconsistent with my prior experience (in Shirley's case, of psychics; in this case, of Christian fundamentalists), and that actually tempered my reactions. If it was a set-up, I thought anything dramatic would be yay! for them. Also, because it went on so long eventually it was obvious that at most they'd only ever use two chopped-up minutes of it. At the time, I wasn't as sure as I later became that it was a set-up, so my reasoning was: if the guy is meant to be real he's too lunatic and too incompetent to use, so none of this will ever appear, and if it's a set-up I'm not sure what kind, but they've lied to me and I don't need to help them. At some point it went on so long (they'd said recording would take an hour and it went on for two), I just let myself get bored and skipped responding to anything I didn't feel like bothering with.

Of course, I *also* never asked him point-blank if he was a fake, and although I think that's what this type of set-up relies on (that you, the butt of the joke, will try to work with the other person rather than shoot to kill), I also don't think I would have gotten anywhere doing that. One reason I think skeptics are vulnerable to becoming the butts of other people's jokes - aside from the "oh, look at the pointy-eared people with glasses" thing - is that skeptics who do much TV tend tread gently with other people's beliefs. Many are genuinely deeply held; many of the people who hold them have had terrible things happen in their lives. Even the people who are selling something - their capabilities as a medium, for example - require polite treatment because if you aren't what the viewing public will see is a nice, kindly person who just wants to help people, and an elitist smart-ass telling them off. So I will ask what the evidence is or talk generally about cases where the evidence is known and shows an alternative explanation, and Chris French will talk about the psychology of belief, and generally none of us will break on-screen and call people idiots, delusional, or whatever no matter how apparently absurd their statements are because it makes both us personally and skepticism in general look bad. I guess that's what happens when you have meaning in your life.

On the way to the car, when I marveled at the guy's obvious impossibility Jonathan said, "that's why we do these screen tests."


Whois says the domain is registered via GoDaddy, so I can't get any more information that way. I suppose all will be revealed someday (or not). Anyway, I'm posting this account to have a contemporaneous record. And yes, I don't like being someone else's plaything, and I *really* don't like having the skeptics made to look stupid. If that's their game. Forty-eight hours later, no one has bothered to tell me.


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This page contains a single entry by Wendy M. Grossman published on May 20, 2016 11:04 AM.

News digest | Open Society Information Program | Week ending 13 May 2016 was the previous entry in this blog.

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