Recently we happened upon a TV show called Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, which was about Fort Knox and what may or may not be inside it. The idea of the show was to take a critical look at Fort Knox, visit it, and talk to people involved to see if they could figure out what’s inside. They investigated rumours that all the gold that was originally in the vault is now gone, but they maintain the security to make people think it’s still filled with gold because otherwise chaos would erupt. The show was certainly entertaining, and we all enjoyed it.
It turns out that this is a series which just began its second season. Each week they investigate something different, and we’ve watched three or four of them now. As a skeptic, I was excited by this. Perhaps this would be TV’s first show to investigate these kinds of rumours and urban legends from a truly skeptical point of view – a TV version of the Skeptoid podcast. There have been other shows that claimed to investigate these types of things, but they generally sensationalized what they were investigating and ignored the scientific method. I’ve seen a number of shows that start by assuming rumours to be true and then decide that because they failed to disprove them, they must be true. That’s not how it works. A prime example is a show called Ancient Aliens, which Ryan and I watched a few weeks ago. I will have to get to that one in another article, which means I’ll have to watch the show again. It may be difficult to write through the fits of laughter I will undoubtedly have at what they called “evidence”.
Brad Meltzer is an author who writes political thrillers as well as comic books. I had never heard of him until this show – or didn’t think I had. A couple of weeks after we first watched the show, my son was looking over our “bookshelf of books we hope to read someday if we ever find some free time” and found a book of his called The Tenth Justice. I don’t even know where it came from. Anyway, Meltzer only appears in the show in front of a green screen showing weird symbols (including the phrase “U83R L33T H4X3RS”) and on the phone. He has a team of three investigators (a lawyer, a historian, and an engineer) who do the real work, travelling around the country (and across the globe – they were in Germany in one episode) visiting places, doing research, and interviewing people.
They do manage to find people who were really involved in the things they’re investigating. When talking about Edgar Allen Poe’s connection to the Declaration of Independence, they talked to a distant relative of Poe’s. They talked to General George Patton’s granddaughter as well as descendants of both Billy the Kid and the man who killed him, Pat Garrett. They talked to the national head of the KKK (and you could see the discomfort on their faces as they interviewed him). They talked to someone who’s actually been inside the vault at Fort Knox, or at least claimed to have been. They talked to the last living person who helped carve Mount Rushmore. But sometimes their interview choices are less useful, like the head of some fringe conspiracy theory group. One time they interviewed the bartender at a bar near Fort Knox, and another patron happened to overhear and offered up his own theories.
In one or two episodes, I found that Meltzer seemed to be sensationalizing a bit – he’d say something like “We’ve learned that x happened” when we’d learned nothing of the sort. We’d heard someone say that X happened, or we’ve perhaps surmised it, but he seemed to jump to “learned” a little too quickly for my liking. But most of the time, they do a pretty good job of ignoring the rumours and meaningless “evidence” and taking the anecdotal evidence with the appropriate grain of salt. I was impressed that after investigating the death of General George Patton (there have been theories that he was murdered ever since he died in a car accident in 1945), one of the crew basically stated the null hypothesis – that unless we have compelling evidence proving otherwise, we must assume that the accident that killed Patton was just an accident.
Unfortunately, they don’t always find what they set out to find. This is not a failing of the show; sometimes the required information is just not available. We still don’t know what’s inside Fort Knox. We still don’t know where the original Declaration of Independence is. We still don’t know whether Billy the Kid was actually killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner. But some things do seem to have been dug up. For example, General George Patton died in a car accident, but the soldier who was at fault in the accident was never charged and there was no autopsy. This led conspiracy theorists to suspect that he was murdered, and some nutcases extremists even suspected it was done at the command of Dwight Eisenhower. But after the investigation, it was discovered that Patton himself ordered that the man at fault not be court martialled, and that his wife requested that there be no autopsy. The cynic in me wonders if these things were truly “discovered” by Meltzer’s team and weren’t previously known, or if they just set up the episode to make it look like they’d discovered it.
My kids and I are enjoying Decoded, so we’ve set up the PVR to record new episodes. The boys also like to listen to Skeptoid, which I encourage. I’m happy to play my part in raising the next generation of critical thinkers. Unfortunately, the History channel won’t let us watch episodes from season 1 online, though it does give a helpful link so that I can buy them from iTunes. It’d be nice if History would get with the times and let us watch past episodes online like many other channels and networks do. Hey Brad Meltzer – decode that.