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.