I feel like I have successfully negotiated a Hollywood rite of passage. I was being interviewed on camera for a TV pilot, when I took off my microphone, tossed it aside, and stormed off. How awesome is that??
Not so awesome at all, actually, but it did happen. I much prefer a low-drama lifestyle, and it takes a certain kind of talent to get me that annoyed. Nothing to be proud of; I should have been more careful in learning what the show was about in the first place.
The backstory is that I was called on the phone by producers at a company I had never heard of, but that means nothing, as I haven’t heard of the vast majority of TV production companies. [Update: name of the company removed because I signed a non-disclosure agreement. They didn’t complain, just being cautious.] They wanted to come to campus to interview me for a pilot they were producing. I’ve done the drill before, for respectable outlets like the History Channel, Science Channel, and National Geographic. It’s a couple of hours of work, no heavy lifting, and hopefully you get to explain some cool science that will be seen by a much larger audience than I could possibly reach by giving a thousand public lectures. And it’s fun — I get to be on TV, which growing up wasn’t the kind of thing I ever thought I’d get to do.
They explained that they wanted me to talk about quantum teleportation. I countered by mentioning that there were surely better experts that they could talk to. But they really just needed some background information about quantum mechanics and relativity, and were comforted by the fact I had appeared on camera before. And the producer emphasized that they knew perfectly well that teleportation wasn’t realistic right now, but thought it was interesting to speculate about what might ultimately be consistent with the laws of physics. So I agreed. There was a slight hint of sketchiness about the operation — they seemed to be unable to come to an agreement with Caltech in regards to consent forms, which National Geographic or the History Channel never had trouble with. But my antennae weren’t sensitive enough to set off any alarm bells.
So the taping was this afternoon, and it consisted of me chatting informally with the show’s two hosts, while taking a leisurely walk around Caltech’s quite lovely campus. But as soon as we started talking, things went rapidly downhill. The first question was what I thought about claims that people had actually built successful teleportation devices. When I expressed skepticism, one of the hosts challenged me by asking whether I would just be repeating the “party line” of the scientific establishment. I admitted that I probably would, as I think the party line is mostly right. And that we have very good reasons for thinking so.
They next asked whether it wasn’t possible that people had built teleporters by taking advantage of extra dimensions. I explained why this wasn’t possible — extra dimensions are things that physicists take very seriously, but if they are macroscopically accessible they would have shown up in experiments long ago. From there, the downhill spiral just continued. They asked whether I was familiar with the “black projects” conducted by the CIA and the military? What about eyewitness testimony of people who had been to Mars and back? Was it possible that ghosts and/or extraterrestrials used quantum mechanics to travel through walls?
It sounds even worse in retrospect than it did at the time, because they would intersperse the craziness with relatively straightforward questions about physics. But I think that even the straightforward questions were just an accident — they were trying to be goofy, but didn’t understand the difference between what is possible and what is just crazy. (“Do you think it’s possible to travel into the future at a faster rate than normal?”) The producer would occasionally interrupt with some sort of suggestion that they actually say something about quantum teleportation. “I don’t really know anything about that,” replied the host to which I was speaking.
Eventually one of the hosts mentioned psychic remote viewing, and smirked when I tried to explain that it’s easier to disbelieve a few eyewitness reports than to imagine a complete breakdown of the laws of physics. With that, after having resisted the temptation for a good fifteen minutes, I cut it off and walked away. The producers tried to get me to come back, but there was no way. I don’t know whether they will go ahead and use any of the footage from my interview; I don’t think I said anything I would later regret, but I did sign a consent form. Hopefully they will try to salvage a shred of their own respectability, and not use me on the show.
The problem for me wasn’t primarily the credulous attitude toward craziness — although there was that. The real problem was dishonesty. In their last-ditch effort to get me to come back, the producers tried to explain that they really were interested in quantum teleportation, and the hosts had simply wandered off-script. The show wouldn’t be biased in favor of the paranormal, they assured me. The problem is, nowhere in talking to me about the show was the word “paranormal” ever mentioned. I was given the impression that it was a straightforward science show, and that was simply untrue.
There is a perfectly reasonable debate to be had, concerning the extent to which respectable scientists should publicly engage with pseudoscientific craziness. Under the right circumstances I could conceivably be willing to participate in a show that discussed paranormal phenomena, as long as I could be convinced that it was done in a sensible way and my views would be fairly represented. This was nothing like that — all of my pre-interview communication with the producers was strictly about quantum mechanics and teleportation, with no mention of pseudoscience at all. Once the cameras started rolling, it was all ghosts and remote viewing. Completely unprofessional; hopefully next time I’ll be more careful.
Also, for future reference: no brown M&M’s in the green room!