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.