The Discovery Channel kicked off their annual Shark Week week last night with Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives. The last two words of that title were particularly telling. See, Carcharocles megalodon was a giant shark -but it is extinct. The show was a "mockumentary" that raised the possibility that C. megalodon may still be alive. Brian Switek at Laelaps puts that idea to rest:
The fossil record for C. megalodon peters out in sediments about 2 million years old. The only teeth so far found in younger deposits have been reworked from older strata. Furthermore, there are no giant, fresh teeth littering the seafloor, no whale carcasses with distinctive bite marks washing up on shore, and no tangible evidence whatsoever that the shark exists. And all the stories… are just stories. Tales such as those Stead shared are not evidence that C. megalodon or other monster shark lives.
Christie Wilcox at Science Sushi is angry.
Here’s what I don’t get, Discovery: Megalodons were real, incredible, fascinating sharks. There’s a ton of actual science about them that is well worth a two hour special. We’ve discovered their nursery grounds off the coast of Panama, for example. Their bite is thought to be the strongest of all time—strong enough to smash an automobile—beating out even the most monstrous dinosaurs. The real science of these animals should have been more than enough to inspire Discovery Channel viewers. But it’s as if you don’t care anymore about presenting the truth or reality. You chose, instead, to mislead your viewers with 120 minutes of bullshit. And the sad part is, you are so well trusted by your audience that you actually convinced them: according to your poll, upwards of 70% of your viewing public fell for the ruse and now believes that Megalodon isn’t extinct.
And Wil Wheaton thinks Discovery should apologize to its audience.
And then I realized why I was (and am) so angry: I care about education. I care about science. I care about inspiring people to learn about the world and universe around us. Sharks are fascinating, and megalodon was an absolutely incredible creature! Discovery had a chance to get its audience thinking about what the oceans were like when megalodon roamed and hunted in them. It had a chance to even show what could possibly happen if there were something that large and predatory in the ocean today … but Discovery Channel did not do that. In a cynical ploy for ratings, the network deliberately lied to its audience and presented fiction as fact. Discovery Channel betrayed its audience.
Facebook users are upset. In fact, the whole internet is mad about the fake documentary. Some people are calling for a boycott of Shark Week. Did you watch the show? Is this reason to believe that Shark Week has jumped the shark?
But I have noticed in the past that it is amazing how much trust people will put into what they see in a documentary. I grew up with adults constantly reminding kids, "You can't trust what you see on TV," yet as it has gotten much, much easier to produce your own documentary, on TV or not, it seems such advice has dwindled. And it doesn't help that the confidence instilled in the viewer sticks even if the viewer doesn't actually remember what they saw all that well (a given show might have been right, even if they remember it wrong).
What this all comes down to is that I've gotten stuck in situations where people insist they are right about something because they've seen it on a documentary. "Oh, I wrote my thesis on that topic, do you want to see any citations out of a long list that agree with me?", "No need, I'm sure I'm right." "Oh, that is something that can easily be setup with lecture demo equipment we have, do you want to see it?", "No need, I've already seen it doesn't work on some video."