Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Paranormal Reality Television: A Lesson in Critical Thinking

This bit of light seems to be floating in the center of the room.  Is it a ghost?
Ghostly Orb? by spectrefloat
The nature of paranormal research reality television lends itself well to the discussion of critical thinking, and what we should, or should not, believe.

Since the early 2000’s, the number of paranormal reality television shows has skyrocketed. Just to name a few, there’s The Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, Biography’s Celebrity Ghost Stories, SyFy’s Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International, A&E’s Paranormal State, and The Discovery Channel’s Ghost Lab. Many of these shows' teams, however, use pseudo-scientific methods to make conclusions, and the producers sometimes forego logic and reason to make for more exciting episodes. Whether or not we believe in ghosts, we can use these shows to our advantage when teaching students good critical thinking skills.

Ghost Hunting or Paranormal Television Assignment 

The format for all of these shows is generally similar, so showing any one of them can help us meet our learning objectives. A team of investigators attempt to gather scientific evidence that either proves or disproves paranormal occurrences, sometimes equivocating on the term “hauntings.” The teams conduct historical research, record audio, video, electric, electromagnetic, or atmospheric changes at a location, interview witnesses, and at times, rely on information given by mediums or psychics. The investigators, among others, claim there is truth behind every piece of evidence gathered while investigating. However, there are thousands of skeptics who make counter claims, daily, and post debunked pieces of evidence all across the Internet. Some teams are even made up of skeptics, or they do not believe in the methods or evidence of other teams.  Just like with all controversial topics, an overabundance of competing evidence can confuse viewers, who may choose, in the face of such uncertainty, passive acceptance over engaged thinking.

Goal of the Paranormal Television Assignment

The main goal of this assignment is to help students realize the power of persuasive techniques used in reality television, which requires a look at the nature of television in general. Paranormal television episodes work well in this context because they use terms directly related to reason, logic, and argumentation. Some of their evidence is extremely convincing, and some of the team members have years of experience as investigators and critical eyes when it comes to their own data. This assignment asks students to think critically while avoiding both dualistic and relativistic thinking; students should not dismiss evidence based on only faith-based value or reality assumptions. Students must study and evaluate the evidence as it has been presented by the team investigators, then choose and support a position on the issue, “Can I believe the conclusions made by this team of paranormal investigators?”

Sample Learning Objectives

Teachers can use this assignment to meet learning objectives from any level of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.
  • Students will evaluate the authority and credentials of paranormal investigators.
  • Students will identify errors in inductive and deductive reasoning.
  • Students will summarize the role of television in our construction of positions on issues.


Follow-Up and Assessment

After watching an episode of one of the paranormal reality television shows, students should discuss the answers to the following questions in order to help them take a position on the issue, “Can I believe the conclusions made by this team of paranormal investigators?” Faculty can assess the students, during discussion or with written assignments, based on the following basic questions.
  1. Do these investigators have a profession that warrants the title of “expert” in paranormal research or investigation?
  2. Do these investigators have higher education in science or paranormal investigation?
  3. Do these investigators have adequate experience conducting paranormal investigations?
  4. Do these investigators have a vested interest in the results of their investigations? Do these investigators charge money to prove or disprove paranormal activity?
  5. Based on your previous four answers, do you think these investigators are “experts” in the field of paranormal investigation?
  6. What methodology do these investigators use to collect evidence when conducting a paranormal investigation? Do they use representative sampling, scientific experimentation, observation, research, or a combination of techniques?
  7. How does this team define “good evidence?” Do you agree with their definition of “good evidence?”
  8. Are there any errors in reasoning or logical fallacies demonstrated by the team throughout the course of this investigation?
  9. Do you find that the team’s premises support their conclusions?
  10. Do the researchers present inductive arguments as statements of probability, and do they present valid and sound deductive arguments as statements of certainty?
  11. What evidence or information, if any, would you like to have in order to make a better decision about what to believe and what not to believe?
  12. How does the nature of television affect your decision on which position to take on this issue?

Whether or not students are believers in ghosts, demons, or other paranormal phenomena, they need to think critically about the nature of reality television, the rules of true scientific investigation, and the definition of an “expert” when watching paranormal reality television. Thinking critically about television evidence and the nature of television can help viewers make better decisions when it comes to what to believe and what not to believe - no matter the topic.

Have You Tried This Critical Thinking Assignment?

Are you a teacher who has tried this assignment or a student who's completed this assignment?  I'd really love to know what you think.  Please leave a comment!

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
Originally published Feb 10, 2012 by Amy Lynn Hess.

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