Education, Humor, Science

The “Real” World

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

My friends and I often dig at each other over the differences in our knowledge of popular culture.  I fall firmly in the geek category–able to recite lines from Monty Python and Star Wars–more so than most of my chums.  I catch some heat for knowing the name of the ThinkGeek monkey (Timmy) or for knowing what PCMCIA stands for (it’s not People Can’t Remember Computer Industry Acronyms).

Where my interests stray from others, and #Murica in general, is my lack of fascination with reality TV.  It’s not just that I don’t enjoy watching others doing things that normal human beings would find disgusting/reprehensible/disturbing.  It’s not even the ridiculous situations that the producers of many of these shows create as fishbowls for the rest of us to watch.  I just hate the entire genre.

For me, the problem is related to physics.  No, really, stay with me and I’ll explain.  As a young scientist (before climbing the ivory tower of public education–#sarcasm), especially studying natural processes, the principle of the Observer Effect was drilled into me.  From Wikipedia,

 “[T]he term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.”

We are taught that just by observing a process we are affecting it.  There is no such thing as observing how something behaves in the “real world”.  We can never know with a high level of certainty that we aren’t changing the way something would normally act.  This is an important idea for a few reasons.  First, it reinforces that all observations are potentially tainted by our presence and we work to minimize this interference.  Second, it forces us to acknowledge that our conclusions are not perfect.  This probabilistic nature of science is one of its most critical tenets and I find myself repeating it in my classroom all the time.

So, back to reality television.  The reason that I can never seem to get through ten minutes of a reality TV show is that I get hung up on the idea that it’s a lie.  Even the most private interactions between two people include at least one other person and a video camera.  Every frame of video that we see is filmed and the participants are (usually) aware of this.  These are not, for the most part, hidden cameras.  Picture a big guy with the camera and bunch of wires hanging off of it, and another person holding a boom mike up in the air out of the frame.  Would you behave in a normal way if these people were right next to you?  No.

photo from Flickr user edmundyeo
photo from Flickr user edmundyeo

The entire interaction that we are witnessing is artificial.  It’s forced and manipulated and not real.  While the words being spoken might not be scripted down to the word, they are not the result of normal thinking and behavior.  The way the characters conduct themselves is not how they would behave if there was no camera crew present.

This may seem nit-picky or whiny, but the fact is that if I want to see how people behave in a candid situation, I’ll sit on a bench at the mall with an Orange Julius in my hand and people-watch.  If I want to see how people act with a camera pointed at them, I’ll watch The Office or Arrested Development.  Because even a mockumentary is honest about its dishonesty.

What do you see as the entertainment value of reality television?

5 thoughts on “The “Real” World

  1. You didn’t think I believed that reality television was a genuine picture of reality, did you Paul? I was just writing about a few leadership lessons and wanted to wrap it in a new envelope — and Tasha’s mama WAS brilliant, at least as far as the mothers of reality stars go.

    As for why I watch reality television, my reply would be why not. In the end, whether I am watching Bridezillas and you are watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica, we are both just wasting time, right? They don’t call it the “boob tube” for nothing.

    Now when you turn in your remote control completely and start spending your cognitive surplus over at Code Academy while I’m watching Ice Road Truckers and eating Cosmic Brownies, you’ll be the winner.


    1. Bill,

      Thanks for pushback. My issue is definitely not with you enjoying reality TV, or even with your use of pop culture references to make a point. Your post just forced me to consider why I cringe at all reality shows. Maybe it’s my anal-retentive nature, but I bristle at the dishonesty of it more than anything else. I can even stand the voyeurism, but it’s the Beavis and Butthead Effect that irritates me. The fact that kids confuse being respected with being popular.

      I hate how much that statement makes me sound like an old man.



    1. Jason,

      Thanks so much for digging up that reference. I’m a big TAL fan, and I had this nagging feeling that there was a thing about reality TV out there I had heard on the show. Thanks for helping me scratch that itch… and thanks for visiting the blog.



  2. Paul,

    For what it’s worth, I personally also hate the genre. While I’d never attributed it to physics before, I agree much of my distaste is the fake showmanship of it all. Very similar to my loathing for “professional wrestling”.

    I also can’t sit through a reality TV program for the following two reasons:

    #1- I can’t understand how anyone – but especially a middle school educator – isn’t already “full up” on exhausting drama. And I do find the Reality TV drama exhausting, rather than engaging.

    #2 – and I don’t know how to say this without sounding pretty elitist- but honestly, can’t you just feel the IQ points leaving your head as you watch?

    To Bill’s point that it’s all just entertainment anyway – I dunno. To me, it’s like saying a Big Mac and a home cooked meal are just 550 calories either way. While that may be true, some choices just feel more cheap and empty.



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