I recently had the audacity to comment on a YouTube video that supposedly showed footage of a famous prehistoric animal. I didn’t expect much from the footage, and I soon realized that I did indeed recognize the discreditable source of the video. To many people in the scientific world – specifically the area of that world which deals closely with animals and their prehistoric counterparts – this video footage was known to be part of a fictionalized “documentary” put on by the Discovery Channel for their famed and much-loved Shark Week in August of last year. In the film, which ran about two hours, a team of scientists supposedly discovers footage of a Megalodon from a seafloor camera that they are monitoring. The Megalodon is a prehistoric shark believed to have grown in excess of sixty feet. This apex predator of the ancient oceans has fascinated zoologists and paleontologists alike for years, and much speculation in the non-scientific community has been voiced about whether or not the oceans could still hide something as large as Megalodon.
Another YouTube viewer had watched the video and briefly commented that it had been proved that the video was a fake. The backlash against his comment was eye-opening. Some people made reasonable statements saying that he really couldn’t make that comment without producing some sort of evidence to support his claims (evidence which I later supplied by linking to external articles from CNN and Snopes in my replies to the post); but others came back at him with something akin to ferocity. They didn’t want to hear this video, which some of them took to be gospel truth, gainsaid by someone who was apparently not a scientist.
You Actually Convinced Them
I tried to calm some of these reactions by supplying articles as the requested evidence. In one of the articles, Snopes cited Christie Wilcox, a woman who had written a blog post for Discover (the online counterpart to the magazine Discover, not to be confused with the Discovery Channel), in which she detailed the scientific support for the theory that Megalodon still exists in modern oceans. By the end, she had discovered that none of the prominent scientists who study sharks, either extant or extinct, even considered it a possibility that Megalodon could still exist without our knowing about it. She concluded with this thought:
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 ********. 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.
Ms. Wilcox is terrifyingly correct. Children watch these shows, and they are both easily excited and easily disappointed. I remember growing up watching Discovery and Animal Planet and thinking how cool it would be to become a scientist so that I could live and work with amazing creatures like the ones shown on the programs. The animals portrayed in my youth had one very important thing in common, however: They were real. I was never under the impression that I could work with some creature that no longer existed.
Disappointed in Science
I still remember the first moment I realized that Animal Planet – my favorite channel at that time – was changing, and not for the better. They were airing a special on dragons, which I was unlucky enough to discover after it had already started. As such, I missed the disclaimer at the beginning that told people that the show was fictional, and I was taking the whole thing in hook, line, and sinker. I couldn’t have been more than a gullible ten years old, and I had no idea that people would try to fictionalize a documentary. I had never even heard the term “mockumentary.” Instead, I thought that a dragon had actually been discovered and they were explaining how they thought it had lived. After all, the mummified remains of the dragon they were examining on camera were very convincing! Since genetic research was becoming a passion of mine, I was excited to think that we might be able to bring some of these extinct dragons back to life. How neat would that be?
It was only towards the end of the show that I realized that they were merely surmising what it might have been like had dragons ever existed on this planet. I was crushed. Being a fantasy lover from an early age, dragons had always held a fascination for me. It was a cruel blow to find that the people whom I trusted most to show me those fascinating animals had fed me a lie. A few years later, they aired a special on mermaids using many of the same stunts as they had for the dragon special. I immediately turned it off, saddened that other children might be influenced into thinking that mermaid remains had actually been discovered.
By airing shows like these, channels such as Animal Planet and Discovery do not help science. If anything, they harm it. Young minds are easily impressed, and when they are shown something in their early years which they later discover is false or fictionalized, they are disappointed in science because it is not as amazing as they thought it would be. I was one of the lucky ones who persisted in my goals of working with animals and came out with a Bachelor’s degree in biology. There are others who are so fascinated with the falsehoods woven by these channels that real science seems boring. If they can’t work with dragons and mermaids, then why pursue it at all? Why not read or write about them instead? If all that science can offer them is the study of everyday phenomena, then they aren’t interested in spending their time studying it. That is the most damaging blow, because their disappointment might cost us the great scientific minds of the future.