A Shark Week hoax about long extinct monsters of the deep says a lot about our diminishing ability to discern fact from opinion and science from fantasy.
So there I am watching the Discovery Channel, and there's a program about a prehistoric shark, much much larger than even the Great White Shark. We are talking eighteen wheeler size big.
This species used to roam the seas millions of years ago and then went extinct long before man came along. Thank Goodness for that, because it is quite possible that humanity would never have been able to cross the oceans with a monster like that, ready to gulp us down like a slices of pizza at a frat party.
Shark Week has always been a big draw for the Discovery Channel. The problem is after spending years talking about a particular animal, inevitably there comes a time when you run out of new things to say. It's big. It swims. It's fast. And it will eat you. That's really all you need to know. People can only remained scared for so long before they get bored. Then it's "Shark, shmark."
But after racking their brains, the executives came up with a new angle.
According to experts on the show (aptly named “Megalodon: The Monster That Lives”), there is strong evidence that Megalodon is not extinct at all. The show spent quite some time reviewing photos, videos and eyewitness accounts showing that this monster was actually still out there. Waiting on me to pluck up the courage to dip my big toe into the high seas.
Gradually, however, it dawned on me that there was something wrong here. There was something unnatural about the interviews. The lighting too perfect. the words too precisely chosen and descriptive for an average person. The rhythm of the speech was more like the delivery of a stage actor. The shark expert was a little too photogenic and well-spoken. In addition, the camera work for the video evidence was a little too polished.
That's when it hit me.
The whole show and all of the evidence were a well-orchestrated hoax. Ten minutes of being made a fool was my limit before I continued my search for something to watch.
Unless one was aware of the facts, it might well have been convincing. It is quite possible a credulous member of the audience would walk away, vowing never to swim in the ocean again for fear of becoming something like a Megalodon appetizer.
Apparently Discovery Channel did make it clear at the very end of the two-hour special that it was a hoax. I didn't bother watch the whole thing. Probably a lot of people also turned the channel.
A notice flashed on the screen, explaining that the Megalodon was "a film" about "a legend." According to one source, the message read
Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of [the giant creature] continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they might be.”
So, it was not supposed to be considered a a science documentary. It was a debate. It was a drama.
However, the viewers weren't buying that. The deception begins with the title, "the Monster that lives." That's quite untrue.The Megalodon, after all, lived approximately 28 to 1.5 million years ago, The oceans became too cold for them apparently. To put that in its proper perspective, humanity discovered fire only about 1 million years ago. (And lucky for them, since there was a world-wide freeze over about that time.)
The format of the Discovery Channel show was purposefully designed to mislead, imitating all of the conventions of a documentary style, (rather than a film style.) Furthermore, the show was not a discussion of a legend but a possible discovery of a very real animal.
Another objection is the placing of a convincing fiction in the midst of other fact-based documentaries. That's just dishonest and to claim otherwise compounds that dishonesty.
The other problem is the disclaimer. The majority of people no longer watch TV shows from beginning to end like they used to. They jump around like frogs on a hot frying pan, darting from this show to that show. Twenty minutes can spent watch a very familiar film, ten minutes watching a singing contest and thirty minutes watching tales of prehistoric sharks biting off whales' tails.
Polluting Science with Fantasy
"It's just harmless entertainment" is the predictable defense from TV executives of this kind of programming. "An exploration of the imagination."
Michael Sorensen, executive producer of Shark Week, dodged the criticism in a shockingly dishonest way.
“With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon. It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, can Megalodon exist today? It’s Ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95% of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”
A Gee-Whiz-and Golly defense.
The flaw in that argument is that the show was not a discussion based on facts. He is correct only in calling it a fantasy.
To answer Sorensen's rhetorical question, "who knows?" isn't all that difficult. Contrary to what Sorensen has alleged, among scientists in the field there isn't any real question about the continued existence of this species. Dead is dead and extinct means extinct.
If there is any debate is only among the wishful thinkers, and the uninformed. Oh, and the publicity department of the Discovery Channel.
In any case, "who knows? as a basis for making a scientific claim like this isn't science at all. (What if" is much better,)
"Who knows if it is true or not true" can equally apply for any quack science trying to pass itself off as legit. Does astrology foretell the future? Who knows? Do fairies and elves steal newborn babies and bewitch them? Who knows? Are witches real and should we burn them? Who knows? Fantasizing that these things are real and trying to make other people believe them might be a fun prank but that is not what science is.
Clearly a person who thinks in the way should not be producing any kind of science program since he doesn't seem to have a clue what science actually is.
The Discovery channel, supposedly devoted to science, should be about facts, not fantasy. The show wasn't about exploration; it was about There was no exploration, there were only slick lies designed at fooling the trusting viewers.
Within minutes of the show's closing credits, social media allowed Discovery channel viewers to vet there rage and disappointment.
“Why does the description on [the Discovery Channel Facebook page] say you are dedicated to producing high quality NON-FICTION shows when you kicked off Shark Week with a 100% fictional story???? Please explain. Shark Week just died a little for me.
Another viewer wrote:
“Why watch what you can't trust as education? I don't want to have to sort through what is real [and] what is fake on this channel.
And yet another pointed out how this decision damaged the overall credibility of all of the shows.
“Thanks discovery for making me doubt anything and everything you've ever done."
The Stuff Fills a Vacuum
Sharks will be sharks but beyond this particular incident of deceptive programming by an unscrupulous TV executive, there is a very serious matter here. Doubt in science is becoming more and more of a problem. The lines between fact and fiction or facts and opinions have become so disturbingly blurred that people have started to lose the ability to discern one from the other.
(Admittedly this blog post could be an example of that. At least there is a rational approach and a reasoned opinion, I hope.)
This dismissal of science and the introduction of illegitimate doubt in the expert opinion has led to all kind of unnecessary problems. The biggest problem is that once you begin doubting science and scientists, once you interchange critical thinking with fantasy, it leaves a vacuum in many people's minds which are filled all sorts of nonsense.
Like Mayan predictions for the end of the world, Blood Moon omens and blaming disaster victims by calling it God's punishment. Real or unreal. Who knows?
Recently during the Ebola hysteria, we saw another example of how doubt in science can be used to manipulate the masses. Because ignorance and doubt and fear tend all march together hand in hand, people like Governor Christie, a non-expert in most things, was able to imply that the experts at the CDC cannot be trusted when he ordered a quarantine. The decision was equating opinion with the known facts and not unexpectedly reached a wrong conclusion. The facts were there but for the sake of political advantage, they were dismissed.
The other day, a discussion about Ebola highlighted another example. Iowan Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for the Senate, spoke about President Obama's "apathetic" response to Ebola.
When a reporter asked Iowa candidate what she expected Obama to have done differently about Ebola since only one person in America actually has Ebola.
OK, you’re the press and you’re giving me your opinion."As the reporter tried to point out, it was not an opinion. It was a fact. There were no other cases.
Her spokesman later claimed that what the candidate was trying to say (a phrase that's always a bad sign) was that the press showing a bias and therefore, I suppose, she didn't need to make any sense.
We have now come to a point in America where pointing out facts to counter false information, to oppose superstition and to set the record straight, is now considered a form of prejudice.
Fewer and fewer news channels are bothering to contradict even the most fraudulent statements. They seem to be fearful of being charged of political bias. Without facts, there can be no investigative reporting. And why bother to investigate anything, when an opinion is equal in importance as fact?
That kind of stubborn faith in false information and doubt in science is something even more dangerous than a monster shark, Like a shark, ignorance strikes the unprepared. It can make a logical plan nearly impossible to put in place. Believing in fantasies can make people into victims of the unscrupulous.
Like a Great White Shark, this kind of ignorance usually stays below the surface but is often just as deadly to human beings.