In Praise of Catfish: The TV Show

Ask any group of skeptics what their favorite TV show is and I guarantee you Mythbusters will be in the mix 97% of the time. There’s good reason for that: The hosts are entertaining and the show finds amusing ways to test extraordinary claims with the power of science. (Also: explosions.) Other shows on the Favorites list include Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, The Big Bang Theory, and the upcoming reboot of Cosmos (sight unseen).

What I haven’t heard from the skeptic community over the past year is any mention of Catfish: The TV Show. I don’t know why. Because it’s MTV? Because it’s a pseudo-reality show? Because it’s not “science”? Who knows. But this should be right up there in our pantheon of shows that extol the virtues of skepticism.

Nev Schulman (left) and Max Joseph (via MTV)

If you haven’t seen it, the show works something like this: You fall in love with someone over the Internet. You’ve never met them in person, but you’ve exchanged countless texts and emails. You begin to doubt whether that other person is who they say they are. You call the hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph and tell them your story. They do all the research you should’ve done. They get to the bottom of what’s really happening. Finally, both sides meet in person for the first time.

In nearly every episode, it turns out you’ve fallen in love with someone who doesn’t actually exist. Someone created a fake online profile for shits and giggles and managed to lure you in.

The best part of the show, though, isn’t the reveal at the end. It’s the way the hosts figure out whether the person you’re talking to is legit. Turns out it’s not that hard. It usually just takes a combination of putting the person’s picture into Google Image Search and looking at all aspects of the person’s Facebook profile page (how many friends they have, who those friends are, what messages they put on their wall, etc). It’s pretty much takes the bare minimum in Internet sleuthing. It’s as if you had an email forwarded to you and you’re not sure if it’s true… and the guys visit Snopes on your behalf.

That’s the intersection of skepticism and pop culture right there.

As critical thinkers, we always want to teach people the fundamental rules of skepticism:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Don’t believe everything you hear.

Question everything.

And unlike most of the science shows on television that try to educate viewers about the power of skepticism, people are actually watching this one. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that there’s about a two-person overlap between the people who watch Catfish and Cosmos (someone turn that into a Venn Diagram).

Catfish is teaching the value of questioning and skepticism to a huge group of people who probably couldn’t care less about science. That’s fantastic. Let’s not act like the show is beneath us. Let’s embrace it.

(Obviously, what you see on Catfish isn’t actually how things go down in real life, but that’s a separate discussion…)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Blacksheep

    “Ask any group of skeptics what their favorite TV show is and I guarantee youMythbusters will be in the mix 97% of the time.”

    …I’m a Christian, and Mythbusters is at the top of my viewing list too. (lately it’s been “Naked and Afraid”).

  • Tainda

    I’ve seen it once because my daughter was at my parents house and she had it on. It wasn’t bad I suppose. It’s a lot easier to investigate someone on the internet these days. Back in my day… *shakes cane*

  • HollowGolem

    You can be skeptical without being irreligious, and vice versa.

  • GubbaBumpkin
  • Richard Tingley

    While Catfish is not a show like Mythbusters or Cosmos that every episode should be taken in at least once if not more, we should all check out at least an episode or two. Once you have seen a few episodes you have basically seen them all. Sure the details of each relationship are different, but the lesson learned is the same. This is especially true if you have kids. Online relationships are incredibly common now and they should all be approached with a healthy helping of skepticism.

  • Gus

    Another good skeptical show is Shark Tank. It’s pretty interesting to see how skeptical people with lots of money can be when asked to put their money on the line. It’s almost as if they didn’t get rich by just believing whatever they were told about an investment. And Mark Cuban is pretty much a card carrying skeptic, from what I’ve seen of the show, which is an admittedly small sample as I don’t watch a lot of TV of any kind.

  • Katarn

    “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” That’s how I feel about the show. I am skeptical that anything they show you on the show is as it seems, its like a double catfish.

  • newenglandbob

    It sounds to me to just be yet another reality show where viewers are looking to see others suffer. It like gauking at a car wreck while passing by.

  • Gerry Mooney

    This show is based on the movie “Catfish” by the same guys. We saw it a couple of years ago with a Q&A with the creators afterward. The movie was an unexpected and unplanned hit that only “revealed” itself to be an actual movie after it was shot, if that makes sense. I can appreciate the aim of this show though I haven’t seen it, but see the movie if at all possible, it is easily the most unexpected, twisty documentary movie I’ve ever seen.

  • Katarn

    Yeah the link in the last sentence appears to sum it up. I can’t feel good about embracing a show that so obviously deceives its audience. Selling fiction as reality is not skeptical just because its fictitious characters pretend they are being skeptical. Its just more garbage TV. I have seen a couple episodes and the critical thinking they are said to display is not useful or impressive. They do Google searches and talk to numerous people on the phone who seem to corroborate a story, and then surprise, its not who you thought it was.

  • Feminerd

    I love Sherlock. I guess I’m probably late to the party, but I love, love, love the focus on analytics and detail-oriented analysis. There isn’t even much (if any) magic-science 100% DNA match BS.

    Yeah, ok, the situations are ridiculous. But so were the original books, and they’ve done some great homages to the books in the series.

  • Bitter Lizard

    (Obviously, what you see on Catfish isn’t actually how things go down in real life, but that’s a separate discussion…)

    If it is a staged show masquerading as reality, it’s doing the same thing the supposed “Catfishers” are doing, which makes it a fake passing itself off as a critique of fakery, which in turn makes it somehow even more fake. Sounds like it should be one of the top shows for skeptics to avoid.

  • raerants

    Nerd moment here: Catfish is the name of a search utility used on some Linux systems.

  • RuBall

    Catfish has great entertainment value because it’s fun to guess within the first 5 minutes what the outcome is going to be. “Place your bets now!” A great skeptic can call out bullshit and then also reveal the actual truth in the same bet. I did see one episode where the online romance turned out to be totally legit and I loved that I was proven wrong. They lived happily ever 6 months from now.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Because “skepticism” on its own isn’t enough. There are Holocaust skeptics, climate change skeptics, skeptics of the “official” account of 9/11 and so on. People should aspire to be consistently rational, not merely skeptical. Religious people can be skeptical, but the tenets of their religious worldviews are wildly irrational.

    A lot of times “skeptic” seems to be used as a euphemism for “atheist”, and I’m not nuts about that. I don’t like “freethinker” either.

  • The Captain

    “Because it’s MTV?” Yes. for years either living with someone or even alone I have always drunkenly locked MTV out with a parental code that my sober (and drunk again) self could never remember on purpose. That network has done more harm to both TV and music than I can bare to see.

    But on this note I recently was thinking of writing up a long review for Joe Rogan Question Everything, as possibly being the best new skeptic shows on TV (guest post?). Yes, it’s Bigfoot people. Yes it’s alien conspiracies, BUT in the end he always comes to the conclusions that there just isn’t evidence for this crap. Even when he wants to believe in something, he will in the end say that there is not evidence. And while he entertains the people he’s talking too and gives them the benefit of doubt, he’ll call them out of bullshit to their face. Hell it’s 20 times more skeptical than most stuff on the history channel!

  • Mario Strada

    I stopped watching MTV when they were still showing videos all day.

  • martinrc

    I was wondering why I actually watch this show besides the fact its something my wife likes to watch with me and she’s a Christian.

  • quickshot

    It’s all fun and games until we have a list of “Atheist-approved TV Shows”

  • mikespeir

    Fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist? Rings a bell vaguely, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. ;-)

  • islandbrewer

    And the word “skeptical” doesn’t mean “refuse to believe,” as it’s used by climate-”skeptics” or Holocaust-”skeptics.”

  • baal

    You have an astoundingly negative and hostile worldview. Your favorite coffee is straight black and bitter as the day is long.

  • quickshot

    Fair enough, I can see the negativity. But to think that skeptics should be more drawn to a certain TV show? On MTV?

    Maybe I am just bitter about the golden-era of music videos being over (aka, the 90s)

  • LutherW

    I like The Good Wife. It is great drama, and the lead character has said she was atheist in answer to a reporter in the middle of her husband’s campaign for Governor. He still got elected – just to remind us it is fiction.

  • Bitter Lizard

    It’s true that one side of being overly “skeptical” of something is often just being overly dogmatic about its opposite. But “skeptical” by the definition of being “marked by or given to doubt” can be irrational if it is applied to some things to a disproportionate degree. And with regards to climate change skeptics, for example, that really isn’t a totally inaccurate description of what they’re doing.

    Rationalism in part means having a consistent degree of skepticism for all claims. “Faith” is irrational in part because it requires consciously applying much less scrutiny to certain things than one would to others. Consistency of skepticism is more important than quantity of skepticism when it comes to maintaining a rational view of the world. Having the greatest possible degree of doubt for all claims is basically epistemological relativism, which is a hard point of view to maintain with logical consistency, and one the vast majority of atheists reject.

    Hope I cleared up what I was trying to say in the initial post instead of just making it more convoluted.

  • LesterBallard

    “They do all the research you should’ve done” That’s enough of a reason for me to not watch. The person should have been doing it. I’d rather read The Demon Haunted World for the umpteenth time.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Yet sadly, all of them except Cuban have been taken in once or twice by what we consider obvious scams.

  • GloomCookie613

    Yep. I got to give my niece the “people lie on the internet… a lot” talk when she first started going online. We figured I was the best candidate because, unlike my sister, I’ve met many online friends IRL and could back it all up with a few personal experiences with people misrepresenting themselves. She’s gotten pretty good at spotting creepers and fakes.

  • CanadianNihilist

    The only way I could hate The Big Bang Theory more is it were somehow also three and a half men.

  • Jim Jones

    It’s TELEVISION!There are lights and cameras and assistants and all the other crap. Did you think they were really stuck on Gilligan’s Island too?

  • Jim Jones

    But with those it isn’t about what they don’t believe. It’s about what they do believe – that a Kenyan named Obama became a Muslim and staged the moon landings.

  • Jim Jones

    I like Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Impossible. The takeaway from those is that many people are really, really incompetent and a good few are barking mad.

  • Sinfanti

    Ah, but it looks like he won the election by rigging the vote. So maybe more real that we give it credit for.

  • Brian

    I dont find it very entertaining because a healthy dose of skepticism (especially on the internet) would eliminate 90% of the issues these people run into, so ultimately it is their own faults for where they are. I get that they are trying to send a message of “be more careful with your interactions online,” but i dont need a plethora of sob stories from people not smart enough to see through bullshit to remind of that.

  • EvolutionKills

    Holy shit, people actually watch MTV?

    Is that even a thing?

  • Anna

    Is MTV really that bad? I can think of worse networks. MTV used to be known for groundbreaking social and political documentaries. They still air them sometimes, although I admit such shows are rarer than they used to be.

  • Randay

    Is that the same Joe Rogan who promotes isolation tanks for better understanding of yourself and the world? In that case, tanks but no tanks.

    MTV, if memory serves, had the great “Beavis and Butt-Head” satire of the ignorance of their own audience. “This clip sucks a lot, even more than the cilp we saw last week which really sucked.”(approximative). It was the only program that actually criticized new music coming out.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Fuck are you dumb. Fox News is television, too. Are people who criticize it for getting shit wrong incapable of telling the difference between fiction and reality? You are the one too stupid to make a distinction, here. There is an obvious difference between something that purports to be factual and isn’t and straight-up fictional television that doesn’t pretend to be something else. It’s depressing that I should have to be explaining this shit to you. Grow the fuck up.

  • The Captain

    Yes, it’s the same Joe Rogan but like I said it needs a much longer post to explain but the show really is a great example of skepticism in action especially because he wants to believe in these crazy ass things, but stays true to needing evidence for that belief. Which he never gets. Also the use of isolation tanks doesn’t particularly violate skepticism (they are just tools to help focus ones thinking, nothing magical there).

  • The Captain

    Oh my MTV rant… no I don’t have time. But yes, they are that bad now. Sort version, (leaving aside the whole music part!)MTV used to be a network that brought to the front the outcast kids. The odd balls, the people who where not the cool kids or the in crowd still had a place to be cool on MTV. They used to feature and promote a counter to the elites that we all deal with in society, be it school, work, politics
    (and yes, even music, do they remember music?). Now they have fallen to the point of being nothing but a 24 hour version of Entertainment Tonight mixed with Real Housewives. Trading in the calls for youth political involvement for celebrity gossip and rich people worship.

  • UWIR

    You can’t be skeptical and still be devoutly religious. I guess you can be religious in the sense of going to church, but if you actually believe in religion, then you’re not skeptical.

  • UWIR

    “There are Holocaust skeptics, climate change skeptics, skeptics of the “official” account of 9/11 and so on.”

    And what’s wrong with that? You seem to be confusing denialism and skepticism. And relativism with solipsism.

    “It’s true that one side of being overly “skeptical” of something is often just being overly dogmatic about its opposite.”
    No, being overly dogmatic about the opposite might be called “skeptical”, but that doesn’t mean it is skepticism.

    “But “skeptical” by the definition of being “marked by or given to doubt” can be irrational if it is applied to some things to a disproportionate degree. And with regards to climate change skeptics, for example, that really isn’t a totally inaccurate description of what they’re doing.”
    The people you are thinking of are likely deniers, not skeptics.

  • UWIR

    Who is “we”? Most of the ideas are pretty silly (and repetitive; how many “we’ve come up with a new use for magnets” and “we’ve developed an article of clothing that you can mix and match” do we need to see?), but as far as the sharks getting rich, the question isn’t whether it’s a scam, but whether they’re the victims. There was a guy with some bracelets that he claimed helped athletic performance, and I was thinking “Yeah, riiiiiight”, and was bracing myself for a segment full of nonsense, but then Cuban went after him, and rather brutally, too. But if you put aside the ethical issues, that’s probably a reasonably profitable business. The sharks occasionally call out BS, but not consistently, and they are often just as harsh for petty reasons.

    “Shark Tank” is really an extremely misleading show. People don’t just give a 2-minute speech and the sharks throw money at them. In reality, business people aren’t going to just take what a entrepreneur says about their business for granted. The sharks check the companies after the taping, and a lot of the “deals” don’t actually go through: There was one episode where one shark offered the contestant a check on the spot, and the other sharks mentioned how much of an exception that was.

  • midnight rambler

    Sorry, but I can’t say I would like the Cosmos reboot sight unseen, especially after the horrible mess that Nova made of “Fabric of the Cosmos”.

  • HollowGolem

    You can be skeptical without being intellectually honest about every facet of your life.

    There is a lot of cultural pressure to be religious. I know plenty of people who still identify with the church where they were raised, though they personally have confided in me that they think the Bible is just a bunch of mythology. When I asked them why they were still a member, they couldn’t really give me an answer. But they’re pretty healthy in their dealings with new information.

    Everyone has their preconceptions and hang-ups. For some people, it’s a religion that helped them through tough times or something similar.