Last Sunday I sat down at the bustling Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan with my good friend Luis Alfonso Gámez, science journalist extraordinaire, founder of the Spanish Círculo Escéptico, consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and prolific blogger. He posts for CSI a series called ¡Paparruchas! (Stuff and nonsense!) as well as his own, world famous Magonia, the largest skeptic blog in the Spanish language.
We chatted about his new project, which promises to be a blockbuster. It's series for ETB2, Basque public TV in Spain. Called “Escépticos” (Skeptics), it's directed by filmmaker Jose Pérez, and stars Gámez. It consists of thirteen episodes, the pilot of which aired last January. The other twelve were filmed over 34 days last spring, by a team of eleven with another nine in post-production. They will be televised between September 26th and the end of December, one episode per week. Each will be 38 minutes long, aired without commercial interruptions at around 9:45 pm on Monday nights. Gámez told me they were filmed in a high definition format and should be HDTV ready.
The January, 2011 pilot dealt with claims that the Moon-landings were a hoax, a theory that smolders at the edges of reasonable society. The other twelve paint a broader brush:
- Alternative Medicine (Acupuncture, reiki, reflexology)
- Electromagnetism and Health (Cellphones and antennas)
- Genetically Modified Organisms
- The Occult (Tarot, palmistry)
- Miracle Products (Cosmetics, tonics)
- Anti-Aging Treatments
- Religion and Science
- Climate Change
Gámez said their intent is to investigate a range of topics, with some being ‘hard’, such as climate change, religion and GMOs, and others being ‘soft’, such as UFOs, the occult and miracle products. Viewers will easily grasp how science-based critical thinking deals with light topics, which should help clarify how it works with the more profound.
Gámez said he hoped Escépticos would be made available in schools for free. Meanwhile, each episode should be streamable soon after airtime. The internet was a great boon for the pilot: it had more viewers over the internet than on air, the most ever online for ETB, perhaps for all of Spanish TV, with over 80,000 downloads to date.
Making clear their interest, ETB2 won't be running ads during the show, but it is running ads to publicize each episode. It has contracted with an advertising firm which Gámez believes to be pre-eminent in Basque Country. They will run new ads as each comes out, highlighting the issue raised in that episode.
The first ad is already available, on alternative medicine. (In Spanish, but generally understandable since "Placebo" is a word in both English and Spanish):
Escépticos is a show designed for viewing by all ages from ten on up, with rapid pacing. The longest scene is perhaps a minute and a half. Gámez felt the show was livened up by Jose’s brilliant use of footage from old movies and background popular music.
It’s a show first and foremost about science. For interview subjects, Gámez decided to focus on scientists local to the audience, within about a 150km radius of Bilbao, both to make it easier for the team, and to give viewers a sense of local ownership. But this created its own problems. Gámez told me that not all the locals were happy with the show's approach.
There is a significant anti-antenna lobby in Basque Country, one that believes that cellphone antennas cause illness, and that scientists and skeptics such as Gámez have been bought by multinational corporations. Members of the lobby sent messages threatening him and put threatening notes in the home mailboxes of several local university scientists. This made it nearly impossible for Gámez to find an expert willing to talk on camera about the issue: five leading researchers either refused to appear altogether, or refused to answer questions that dealt with cellphone antennas.
Representatives from the anti-antenna lobby themselves also refused to appear on camera. Gámez told me that he had agreement from their lawyer to do an interview, however it fell apart after the lawyer noticed one of Gámez’s skeptical blog posts on the topic.
At one point Gámez felt the program on electromagnetism might not be filmable, but fortunately deep contacts among local scientists eventually bore fruit.
With luck, this thirteen-part series won’t be the end of Gámez's skeptical forays on TV. In future, he said he hoped they could deal with issues such as nuclear energy and life beyond death, as well as investigate more deeply topics that could only be touched upon in the present series. The fountain of skeptical material is nearly bottomless.
“I’ve had the good fortune to participate in this project since its inception. It’s been a privilege because the team is extraordinary, and Basque television hasn’t vetoed a single thing we’ve done. To be able to speak about God, cellphone antennas and miracle products is difficult. Fortunately, Jose and I have complemented each other in the project; we have the same point of view. The program is intended for all the public to watch and learn from, not only skeptics.” -- Luis Alfonso Gámez
The Trailer (in Spanish):
• Escépticos is the first program on Basque public TV to have been unanimously approved by all members of the station’s review board. They felt that it was a program that had to be done. It will be the first skeptical program in the over fifty year history of Spanish TV.