The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Discovery Channel’s “The Supernaturalist” is Super Stupid

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 7, 2011

There was a time when I had really high hopes for cable channels like the Discovery Channel – I had hoped that they would be bastions that would promote sound science amidst a sea of sensationalistic cable TV docudrama and crapola (can you tell I don’t watch TV or cable?)  Sadly, the more time that passes, the more and more I shake my head in shame for what has happened to the Discovery Channel.  Case in point: the newest show on this “science” network, “The Supernaturalist”.

The show just launched a few days ago, and the Discovery Channel was promoting it as the Next Big Thing on their network.  Here’s the press release:

Mind-blowing Magic in The Supernaturalist

06/14/2011

MAGICIAN USES HIS OWN SKILLS TO FIND ELUSIVE MAGICAL MONK IN NEW
DISCOVERY SPECIAL ‘THE SUPERNATURALIST

Dan White performs mind-blowing magic: manipulating physical objects, performing surprising card tricks and making items appear from seemingly thin air. All of this, he admits, is merely an illusion. White has a mission: to find REAL magic. In Discovery Channel’s THE SUPERNATURALIST, premiering Wednesday, June 29th at 10PM et/pt, White travels to a remote corner of the planet and finds himself in a place where magic isn’t just tricks. It is believed to be very real… and even dangerous.

Locals in the Himalayan country of Nepal believe there are monks within its borders who use their powers to harm anyone who crosses their path. White relies on his talents as an illusionist to open doors normally closed to outsiders in an attempt to find one of these feared monks and – hopefully – witness his true magic. White’s mission will introduce him to many people, each getting him one step closer to the men in the mountains.

Unfortunately, in Dan White’s quest to “find REAL magic” – and the Discovery Channel’s quest to continue catering to the lowest common denominator (remember their stupid ghost-hunting show?) – it seems that everyone involved has left their basic critical thinking skills at the door.  For example, check out this footage of when Dan White “discovers” the levitating powers of the monk he has sought for so long…

The overly credulous nature of this clip, and how Dan White – the supposed skeptic – plays it up as legitimate (honest!) is downright pathetic.  There are some very basic questions to ask regarding a scenario like this:

1. Why isn’t the filming done in one continuous shot?  Note all the breaks in the clip between the time the monk sits down and when he “levitates”.

2. Why does the monk have to sit where he does, in front of a wall full of curtains that can easily obscure a device which can lift him?

3. Why doesn’t Dan White ask the obvious question as outlined in #2 above, instead of standing there looking like an idiot with his mouth agape?

4. Why doesn’t Dan White, our token “skeptic”, take a moment to simply walk over to the side to make sure there isn’t a mechanical arm or similar contraption connecting the monk to something behind the curtain.  On a related note, why isn’t this camera angle shown?

A simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to slice through what is very clearly a bullshit display put together to get ratings.  Folks, this is a big joke, and if anyone takes it seriously the only one’s laughing will be the executives at the Discovery Channel who are guffawing at having one over on gullible viewers.  Fortunately, there is a silver lining: I have been inspired to incorporate this footage and a critical analysis of it into my upcoming talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas next week – it will make a good lesson for my students :)

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51 Responses to “Discovery Channel’s “The Supernaturalist” is Super Stupid”

  1. Steve Muscarella said

    I was going to post this on Facebook, but it was just too long. Re: The Supernaturalist levitating monk clip

    This also illustrates a pet topic of mine based on a lot of experience producing reality shows about the supernatural over the years. People need to understand just HOW shows like these are shot and produced, what happens in the heat of production, how participants are either constrained or manipulated or lured into conspiring with the producer-mandated shenanigans. Is this guy Dan White a true “skeptic”? I don’t know. But it also, sadly, doesn’t much matter either. Skeptics signing up to appear in shows like this are taking a huge chance. It’s tempting to think you’re going to somehow present the skeptical viewpoint, but that’s simply naive. In the case of this program, for all we know many things (like camera angles, additional questions/challenges from the resident skeptic) have been simply left out in the editing. It’s important to also appreciate that with a show like this, the host is “talent” first and a skeptic second. He is contractually constrained from revealing details about the production. If he were to complain about the ethics of the show, HE could be sued. For all we know Dan White is at home right now bitching just like the rest of us. Or, perhaps, rationalizing the whole thing and enjoying the uptick in bookings he’s gotten with his magic act. It’s a slippery slope, the deck is stacked and unless debunking is the stated purpose and premise of the show (like Mythbusters) even the most well-meaning skeptic is going to find him/herself being used for, perversely, add credence to the fantastic claims by their presence. “Dan’s a magician. Surely, if it’s a trick, he would know that and tell us how it was done!” When he doesn’t do so (or doesn’t appear to do so in the aired version), what is a viewer to think? It’s a tough call, to be sure. But unless it’s a talk show (and even those get edited) a skeptic is likely to do more harm then good. “Mythbusters” is remarkable, having found a formula for debunking that has the audience rooting for the hosts. And, most important, Mythbusters makes the debunking just as much fun to watch as the phenomenon in question. A large part of their success revolves around the fact that they’re usually not embarrassing anyone. Nobody is exposing a monk to be a trickster, telling someone their photo of a ghost or UFO is total crap, calling someone a fool or liar or scam artist.

    Won’t be at TAM to see your talk, but congratulations and good luck.

    Steve

  2. mike said

    I believe that the audio was cut during the ‘levitation’ and replaced by voice over in editing. You don’t see him speak to camera apart from a couple of muffled words. Whether this is because the noise of the motor lifting the ‘monk’ was too audible or not I don’t know. The monks chanting does not appear to be matched by his lips movements either. White must have been in on it.

    • mattusmaximus said

      I think Steve’s comments above are particularly important to bear in mind – perhaps White was in on it, perhaps he wasn’t (but I have a hard time believing he didn’t know the plan was to intentionally deceive viewers). Selective editing can, pardon the pun, work miracles on the TV screen. What isn’t in doubt is that the Discovery Channel has slid another notch further down the rabbit hole of stupidity, in my opinion.

  3. Leo said

    I enjoyed the slight of hand, but the WHOLE special seemed contrived and/or staged. ‘Nuff said.

  4. Jay said

    Looking at the video on Discovery channel the levitation trick can easily been seen as a trick. The shadow underneath the raised monk has a very irregular shape… like one of his legs are depicted while the rest of this bottom is hidden by some platform. Also near the end when they show a close up of him landing back to ground you can see the curtains move in a collapsing fashion, suggesting as the device lifting him lowered the opening in the curtains also relaxed.

  5. Mike said

    Shows like this make me think there should be laws against stuff like this. I undersand it’s freedom of speech but when you run a network that is based on being a mostly credible source of science and overall knowlegde to a huge amount of not only adults, but a very impressionable and confused younger generation. They have been over exposed to the idea that 2012 will be the apocalypse thanks to the paranoid history channel and hollywood, and a whole heep of other shit from the rest of tv(I.e. Jersey shore, taps, decoded, sons of guns), and the constant need for a more realistic war based simulation game I mean what the fuck people have we gone mad? This kinda shit is what motivates me to go to law school when I graduate and become the best damn attorney I can. Were breeding psychopaths and people that won’t be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction anymore when it’s too late, not everyone but itll start small and those people will have children, and they’ll raise their children on the same ideologies and so on. Fast forward a few generations and you’ve either got a more divided nation or a nation of brainwashed sheeple. This is obviously all just my opinion and maybe im being irrational but this show just got my adrenaline pumping.

  6. Johnlhemmings said

    I appreciate your common sense I thought I was the only sane person out there you seem to have you a bullshitter meter also thank you and godbless .

  7. Daniel said

    I agree there should be some laws/rules/limits…especially in a world where “reality TV” is king… at least there should be some sort of rating before the show… TV-BS perhaps??

  8. CharlesP said

    I had that on in the background last night while messing around. I was hopeful as things went along that he would end up OK, as the build-up did a fair bit of busting of the *magic* people were doing… alas in the end, while he did point out the fact that the guy wouldn’t let him be near him when he was levitating being suspicious, he ended up with a “I don’t know if that was real or not, but it was impressive” (or something like that).

    I would love it if after a few episodes of that show (if it is going to get more than that one episode) that the Mythbusters would bring in a handful of professional magicians and show how each of his “real” magic bits could be done (but better than those “Magic Secrets finally revealed” shows were).

  9. jay said

    you people all just rant about bullshit, t.v. has been a source of mans manipulation since its inception, yah people are dumb , regardless of whether this video is fact or faked it is just the same shit thats on every channel, are you goona sit her and bitch about this one show you may as well blog about every channel in every country ,and every show thats on. I think its obvious the monk is doing the same thing other religious figures have done through out history to sway believers into there pockets the same way tv execs and media advertisers do . case closed

  10. Paul said

    Levitation was exposed in a BBC series called supernatural science.. it uses real science to expose stuff – google secrets of levitation its a must watch :)

  11. Brett said

    Just wathced this show today after being interested by the commercial for it as I am a Buddhist.It had to be the most stupid show I have ever seen on Discovery.Dan White’s magic tricks were so over the top that the locals he performs in front of would have to be in on the act.But easy to perform in front of the cameras and an editing process to make it look impressive(eg. the card outside the window of the bus)which makes me wonder how good of an illusionist he actually is if he has to resort to such cheap tricks.I assume the monk was supposed to be a tibetan lama judging by his apperance.A lot of what is said about what the monk goes against the fundamentals of Buddhist teaching,like harming people,seeking revenge,and the purpose of Buddhist meditation can be put into two categories,to develop concentration or wisdom.Both used as part of a philosophy to erradicate suffering, not to develop powers of levitation.This program is an insult to peoples intelligence if they expect people to believe everything that happens in it to be the truth.Telling the truth is another Buddhist practice which makes me wonder if the monk was just an actor, as a genuine monk wouldn’t be involved in such a fraudulant television program or he is a very bad Buddhist.Nepal being such a poor country wouldn’t have been any trouble for the producers to get people to act in front of the camera for a fee, eg. the shaman.If this program ever makes it to DVD, it should be sold in the fiction section,not as a documentary that should be factual.

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  13. travis said

    Yep. Discovery fucked this one.

    It looked like they are trying to get viewers of other channels to watch their “magic show”. They ended up copying the other show’s format which had little magic tricks leading to a climax magic trick and then nothing happens. These types of show leaves viewers with the nagging question, “why did I just waste my dang gum time with this monkey and the box?”

    No magicians is elusive .. just show him/her the prospect of getting some much needed green bucks to support this unemployed, broke ass life and they’ll come crawling out.

    Real magicians never perform in public.

  14. Anam said

    I’ve seen a man flying in the air, but this one is just not good enough. Come down to Malaysia or Indonesia. The people here has powers that you only see in the movies. The problem is that outsiders don’t usually get to see it.

  15. Tnach said

    Lol, whats up with ruining the moment. It looked cool, why does it always have to be facts. Wheres your imagination? Dan even said, real or not that was fantastic.
    It was the whole setting that made it a great trick. Real or not we may never know but wheres the fun in revealing everything? Stop hating on the show, i really liked it. They put alot of effort into this and it paid off. Great entertainment!

  16. aditya said

    I don’t know whether it was real or just a fake story……but if you doubt it why don’t you try to find that monk and let everyone know what the real truth is?

  17. [...] Titled “Discovery Channel’s “The Supernaturalist” is Super Stupid « The Skeptical Teacher”: http://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/discovery-channels-the-supernaturalist-is-super-stu… [...]

  18. El Gitano said

    The whole episode was so obviously, and more to the point, so very badly staged that it is almost pathetic. We have the story of a supposedly genuine Buddhist monk, who everyone knows of but who everyone, for some inexplicable reason, fears ! The “search” for the monk was pitifully contrived. And when he is finally located (no surprise at all) he turns out to be a smiling, sweet and gentle soul – the polar opposite of fearsome. But what really put icing on the poorly executed make-believe cake was the sight of two hundred or so burning candles – (for what simple-minded reason?) – that must have taken an hour or so just to merely light, not to mention the expense. But of course, that would be a trivial matter to the Discovery producers..

    The shadowy, obscure and inept “levitation” was the finishing touch. YouTube has any number of amateur “levitations” that leave Discovery’s completely in the shade. For those interested in the subject, check the aforesaid YouTube for something along the line of “levitation in Lisbon”. There are a number of clips of an individual who stands about a foot and one half in the air, in broad daylight, and completely surrounded by people. Sort of mind-boggling. It must (I believe) be some sort of trick, but as to how it is done? – I have no real clue. I would be interested in your comments.

  19. El Gitano said

    A further comment. Check YouTube for “staticman levitation”. There a few clips that you will find interesting. Form your own opinion as to “how”.

  20. Rey said

    I’ve Levitated Before! Whoever reads this…. You don’t have any reason to believe a strangers word. So all I can ask is that you keep your minds open.
    I achieved this in the same way the monk did. Thru meditation and working out the mind. This physical word we live in is an illusion, once u can truly see that your mind becomes more powerful than anything in this world.
    In my opinion Quantum Physics is the closes science we have to proving all of this.
    So a healthy research into spirituality and Quantum Physics is the way to go if you truly want to gain an understanding on how this is possible.

    p.s. Neo becomes the one only after truly realizing he’s in a fake world.
    Do You Think That’s Air You’re Breathing?

    platinumrayj@gmail.com

    • Gabriel of Philippines said

      you got it right… many people are very close minded thats why they dont believed.. i did not yet achieved levitation but for my master in meditation she achieved it… it takes time, it requires focus… we chant the OM MANI PADME HUM as what the monk did…… NA MASTE

    • K.S said

      you levitated??!! Wow could you post a youtube video??

  21. Rishi said

    If you close your eyes, even the sun is not visible on a bright sunny day. So is the sun in the sky or within our eyes ( or us) ?
    Can science answer this question clearly ? Without any prejudice and assumptions !
    The act of levitation performed is a yogic technique (also science) and it requires immense practice of meditative procedures
    One should not dis credit things because that is not in the realms of their understanding.
    Keep the spirit of seeking open until one experiences it. Else it will be like the story where greatest of scientists explain the color of blue sky to a blind man where the subject (blind man) has heard the word blue but not experienced it the way the scientist have (seeing) .

  22. Hien said

    I have evidence, Could anyone tell me how to post image.

  23. Kenneth said

    I realised Dan White is a real magician when he does one of the most impossible…make the moon vanish. :)

  24. Hey one more thing…. Real Buddhist Monks don’t hold the Mala like that ( over their forefinger ) it goes against all traditions regarding the counting of the mala beeds,
    They count the beads over their second finger, and also buddhists usually hold it in their left hand ( although some sects and also hindu’s hold it in their right ).

    Levitation I do believe is possible from highly trained buddhists as it’s one of the Iddhi’s on the path to enlightenment…

    But at the time one can do such a thing, one would know that it’s too destructive to show to laymen. They are seen as undesirable abilities rather than cool tricks to show people.
    No buddhist monk would agree to something like this.

    Ego is the enemy to enlightenment and to demonstrate such an ability is to increase your ego beyond bounds.

    Peace and Love people :)
    Although this is something that exists in our world… This video is merely a trick employed by the magician to make a entertaining show.

    • j j said

      I believe it to be an old skills trick I used to watch masked magician as a kid the props are the same a curtain behind and some mechanical arm but yeah I do believe there should be some sort of laws against things like this same as video games my nephew ones said to me if someone shot me I’d get up and beat them up I explained you would not just get up you would be seriously hurt my point is he had no grasp on reality is this what we want for our future generation I think not.

  25. suresh said

    Dear Skeptic,

    Instead of spending time and money on this topic(not important to any one), you can put your dollars in to charity.
    That will be more useful than making this type of comments.
    Maybe you already doing so, if so apologies.

    I really see the religious fanatics and some scientists (these reject any new science, even it proved through maths) on the same line.

    These scientific fanatics reject even Homoeopahty which is science.

  26. suresh said

    Please invest your money in charity, rather than wasting time discussing whether God exist or who is doing tricks etc.
    No one really cares whether God exists or not. Many dumb heads are wasting their time for this.

  27. Fake Fake Fkae said

    Just saw this show on discovery… BS. Here is what made it fake even before the levitation “trick” which was obviously a platform from the curtain behind him…. why after going so far to find this secret monk would you violate the sacred place by simply knocking and walking in the door like you owned the place.. I have lived in Southeast Asia for quite some time, and you don’t just walk into a buddhist temple with a camera crew in the dead of night. Not taking off your shoes… is EXTREMELY disrespectful and no monk would even talk to you after defiling his temple in this way. Suprised if he even was in buddhist temple.. more likely a set in hollywood. What a disgrace that Discovery Channel can brand this as anything but a staged show for ratings… fact is… America and the western world in general are oblivious to anything outside their own little box and believe this crap whole heartedly.. I know because I am American.

    • Raman said

      I agree to your words that no monks would allow stranger to enter their holy place …………….but these things are for real(may not be in the video of discovery but are for real). I havent seen the others shown in the show but …………………..the part where the people run over the coil of fire(hot as you have seen ) they dont feel any pain………………..except when it burns your hair in your legs .hey can only do that when they are in sub conscious state.and there exists another part of the ritual………where only the caste people can enter……..happens the other part of the ritual ……………..and this ritual is called “Kul Puja”

  28. BS said

    Fake Fake Fkae or SkepticalTeacher,

    “America and the western world in general are oblivious to anything outside their own little box” – This is in my opinion, entirely wrong. If this is correct, there won’t be any scientist from US or Europe or Australia.
    If someone does not believe something, then only they will try to find answers.

    I read about some scientists who don’t believe Hoemeopathy works – because they don’t have the theory and knowledge to understand how it works.

    Religious fanatics and these scientists are same; 1. If someone says that God does not exist, these religious fanatics say – “Kill these guys because they rejected our God”

    2. Some scientists also behave similarly by rejecting any realities that don’t fit into their defined framework (though those new ideas/innovations does work / have basis / show results )

    So, these sort of skeptics / scientists = Religious fanatics who kill people.

    • JGC said

      Neither levitation nor homeophathy are scientific practices. Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions. It is therefore expected that all scientists, -regardless of their beliefs- would reject them as being scientific. Anyone can truly believe that levitation and homeopathy are real, and they could be right. They can be called magic, alternate medicine or any other suitable labelling, but certainly NOT science, at least not for the time being. In a nutshell: if you bring a round ball to play american football everybody will tell you that you are in the wrong place, simply because this sport has certain rules, including the shape of the ball. You can insist and get angry because yours is a beautiful ball and you could use it to play many other sports, but not american football. It does not meet the rules of the game.

      • babi said

        respected JGC, i don’t know what u are, but it is very clear that you know very little about homeopathy & metaphysics.
        so, it will be better if you acquire some knowledge first & pass comments second.

  29. Tulku Nanjig said

    levitation is possible in someway by who are extremely meditating for 1 weeks without any losing on focus.. But this monk is rely a fake he is not rely a monk this old one is Nepali who are one of those fake monk. Who payed that monk I m one Tibetan monk I can say this that way he chanting a mantra prove that he was payed..

  30. Sagr said

    Dear brother, come to India you will make out your all [?].

  31. Sagar said

    Science just can discover and explane the low of nature but can not creat any thing. Isn’t it?

  32. AVIIIN BHTRRAI said

    i belive in Buddha boy of nepal(Ram Bahadur Bomjon) wid gr8 respct n also in levitation bt i cant bet dis true.. My ancestor told levitation was posible bt nt nw,bt (balguru sadananda) teacher of my gr8 grandfather usd to cross arun river sitting on his scaff doing namastey n chanting..my own grndpa was eyewitnes n he never spek false.. He also told dat levitation can be done floating in lake. I dnt thing.nepali sherpa helps in prank.video..it may be pissible..

  33. Kurving Law said

    Why didn’t they tell us the monk’s name? Which order of Tibetan Buddhism did he belong to? Why did he have so many candles just waiting for the cameramen? Why no butter lamps? One man sitting in a house does not constitute a monastery. If chanting OM MANI PADME HUM enabled one to levitate half of Tibet would be flying around.

  34. Pat said

    A supposedly accomplished magician, got all goosebumps and gushing with praise over a trick that Special Ed performed on Americans Got Talent last season! It’s the exact same magical monk trick…holy cripes!~ Levitating tricks go back to Houdini in American culture. Except Special Eds had far better showmanship! This is low rent by comparison.

  35. In order to meditate you need to concentrate your energy. As you can notice the monk sits in a semicircle of candles. Candles emit light, a form of energy, basically what he does is to concentrate all his energy and that available in surroundings and direct it according to his wish. Any problem understanding d stuff tell me or just leave a reply

  36. babi said

    guyz, it seems that all u have made intense research to prove it “fake” (levitation). I would say as like the monk- “always keep your mind open & keep learning”.

  37. Muhuzin said

    The Monk on THE
    SUPERNATURALIST everthing (A to Z) shooted like a movie .I think this program only telecast through India and Nepal maybe Srilanka Bhutan etc..Because they know how to catch these peoples minds.A Big Drama script behind this and in this program all of them are good Artists.This is Wonderful Cheating creativity program to fool Indians Nepalis bhutanis etc

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