Brad Meltzer’s Anomaly Hunting

Recently I was watching the History Channel when a commercial for Brad Meltzer’s Decoded came on. At first I found the commercial enraging and further eroded my lingering embers of hope that the History Channel had a legitimate interested in promoting actual history and not bunk dressed up to look like a Dan Brown book.

In my frothing anger however I failed to notice something about the commercial. Now that some time has set in and I can look at it without the rage, I realize it’s actually a pretty good covertly skeptical commercial for a show that promotes silly conspiracy theories.

For those who aren’t up to speed on the History Channel or Brad Meltzer, allow me to fill you in. The History Channel is a television channel that shows history related programming.

What? It does. Sometimes. Okay it never shows history related programming.

I’m exaggerating. But only a little bit. When the channel was first launched people used to call the Hitler Channel because virtually every show was World War 2 or Hitler. As time passed, other more varied shows began to appear. Frequently there are shows about various wars, medieval history, the 18th century, the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, modern engineering, historical biographies, metaphysical subjects.

Recently the majority of its programming has been devoted to hairy bikers (the actual name of the show no less) mythical creatures, monsters, UFOs, aliens, truck drivers, alligator hunters, pawn stores owners, people who crawl through old barns, angels, disaster scenarios, and the end of the world.

For this reason, its mostly been written off by serious history buffs since the content seems more geared towards the general terminological “history” meaning things that happen in the past, versus the more academic study and analysis of how the past shaped the present and the future.

We should also take great pains to differentiate The History Channel and History Television, which is Canadian. History Television differs greatly as it shows programming about Canadians who crawl through barns.

It should come as no surprise that Brad Meltzer’s Decoded is not exactly going to garner rave reviews from academic historians. His show focuses on conspiracy theories and unraveling hidden secrets and mysteries. The show earned this disclaimer from New York Times reviewer Ginia Bellafante,

“we all know conspiracy theorists come in degrees. On the one hand are the elite squad of paranoids who keep 10 years’ worth of kidney beans in their basements, bite their nails and believe that the North Koreans are lacing our club soda with something dangerously nonnutritive. On the other hand are the languorous crackpots who wonder if codes are embedded in their Home Depot receipts, or if George Washington’s wooden leg hid an alternate Constitution. It is for this group that the series “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” has been conceived.”

Meltzer, according to his Wikipedia page, is a political thriller novelist, non-fiction writer, and comic book author. I’m not entirely sure how he is qualified to investigate the mysteries of history, except perhaps that he has written political themed books and TV shows.

But let’s get back to the commercial in question, perhaps the History Channel has earned back some skeptical cred. I tried to locate a version of it online but could not, basically it’s a short montage of the cast of Decoded looking at various objects and giving the camera looks that seem to say “I knew I was right” meanwhile a voice over says something along the lines of

“If you look hard enough, if you search deep enough, you’ll start to see the clues, just like the Decoders”

Unfortunately I don’t have an exact quote of the commercial. Basically what its advocating is anomaly hunting.

To quote Steven Novella:

“Pseudoscientists – those pretending to do science (maybe even sincerely believing they are doing science) but who get the process profoundly wrong, use anomalies in a different way. They often engage it what we call anomaly hunting – looking for apparent anomalies. They are not, however, looking for clues to a deeper understanding of reality. They are often hunting for anomalies in service to the overarching pseudoscientific process of reverse engineering scientific conclusions.”

The reason I thought that commercial was actually a useful skeptical message was because it actually explains the show Decoded quite well, a bunch of people who are looking for a conspiracy search through old documents pulling out anomalies and rather than allowing the evidence they do find to point them to a conclusion, they use their conclusion to explain the anomalies they find.

It’s rare to see a promo on the History Channel that accurately describes on of its shows.

3 Responses to “Brad Meltzer’s Anomaly Hunting”

  1. David Billo says:

    I’m with you on the demise of History channel(s), which applies to the Canadian History Television equally. I’ve only watched a few episodes of Decoded, but my recollection is that they generally end up debunking the conspiracy theories at the end of the show, or at least seem skeptical to them. The most recent episode I saw was about Harry Houdini, and by the end of that one, they pretty much dismissed the crackpot theories surrounding his death.

    Hey! I like Pawn Stars! It’s very educational! :P

  2. rrpostal says:

    Sorry. this Decoded show is exactly as the commercial described. I watched the UFO episode (or as much as I could take) and immediately started looking for reviews to make sure I’m not the only one who realized how not skeptical it was. I found many in the skeptical community seem to like this show. Bizarre. Just because they may conclude something decent at the end does not mean they used good methods to arrive at the conclusions.

    Several times they used the fact that they could find no evidence as proof that something most likely happened. When interviewing a man about area 51, he did not answer their questions. Again, proof of something. With this same man, they imply his opinion about the secrecy must be very important because… he flies planes well.

    This stuff is even worse than the multitude of ghost/ paranormal fake science shows. It seems that some people are really taking it for a real skeptical show. It only further removes people from being able to critically analyze things using proper methodology. We all may mess up from time to time and need to be corrected. But this show just needs to go away. I’d rather no skeptical show than one that actively harms skeptical thinking.

  3. alan says:

    I am not a conspiracy theorist but I have a very open mind. No one knows everything you know or have learned to be 100% true – do you? There are mysteries all around us and I think the unknown is more interesting than the known. Decoded does bring up some things I’ve never heard of before and I do my own investigation after the show. Although I think it’s funny how the “investigators” look at each other like this is their ah ha moment. Having been a police detective for 32 years I believe I could do as good or better job on my own. But that’s my opinion. So anyway, I enjoy the show and will continue to learn from it if it comes back.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.