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Mermaids and demons: science on the box

Date

I have a pretty cool day job — reviewing pay TV for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. One of the best things about it is that I get to watch loads of great science programs. One of the things that drives me up the wall about it is that I have to watch so many bad science programs.

The thing that's got my goat at the moment is a fake documentary on Animal Planet called Mermaids: The Body Found. It has actors playing scientists talking about how they did an autopsy on some mermaid remains, and how the US government swooped and covered the whole thing up. There's grainy fake video of mermen being hauled up in fishing nets, the whole box and dice.

What annoyed me even more about this particular fake doco was the way it misrepresented evolution — not a great idea when nearly half of all Americans deny that evolution is real. 

The version that I saw doesn't even do viewers the courtesy of admitting that it's fake until the credits are about to roll. ''Ah,'' I hear you say ''but the story is obviously bulldust anyway''. Well, yeah, but Discovery (Animal Planet's parent network) puts bulldust to air with a straight face all the time. Whether it's demon hauntings, the chupacabra, Nostradamus's prophecies or James Cameron's ideas about the ''Lost Tomb of Jesus '' *cough*, Discovery is happy to create the impression that such things could be real — or at least that it's up to sceptics to prove that they aren't. (No, Discovery doesn't excel at identifying where the burden of proof lies).

What annoyed me even more about this particular fake doco was the way it misrepresented evolution — not a great idea when nearly half of all Americans deny that evolution is real. It starts off talking up the rather fringe "aquatic ape" notion of human evolution and ends up with some classic-looking CGI mermaids that make zero evolutionary sense. From the waist up they're slender modern humans (no insulating blubber? Brrr!), while from the waist down they're dolphins — and to top it all off they've got a dolphin-like sonar system inside their skulls. Over what period of time is all this supposed to have happened? A few tens of thousands of years? A few hundred thousand years?

The documentary makes much of the fact that whales evolved from terrestrial ancestors, but that took millions of years, not the kind of evolutionary eyeblink that Mermaids seems to be talking about.

It's not that there's anything wrong with a bit of speculative evolution, as long as you make it clear from the outset that you're making stuff up, and as long as you play by the rules of nature. The 2003 series The Future Is Wild (an Animal Planet co-production!) looked at what might evolve on Earth in the absence of humans in 5 million, 50 million and 300 million years' time — and it was brilliant.

And it's not as if Discovery and Animal Planet are on their own in pandering to an audience that's more interested in ghosts and aliens and biblical apocalypses than it is in real science or history. National Geographic has done some seriously cynical stuff about everything from UFOs to the supposed 2012 apocalypse, BBC Knowledge has touted ''new evidence'' that the Shroud of Turin is the real deal, and the History Channel always seems to be happy to have  conspiracy-theorist American preacher Tim LaHaye on to talk about his lurid rapture fantasies.

People love that sort of stuff, I get it. But it belongs on more tabloid channels that don't have any pretensions of scientific or historical credibility. And Discovery, Nat Geo and the rest make plenty of truly great television. They do themselves a disservice by making this sort of junk as well.

What do you think? Are sensational documentaries bad for science, or do they serve a purpose by attracting viewers who wouldn't watch more sober stuff? What are the worst science programs you've come across yourself?

Mermaids: The Body Found airs on Animal Planet on Sunday at 6.30pm

Around the science webs:

ERV looks at how viruses could help fight cancer.

Oceanographer's Choice looks at the effect of navy sonar on whales.

Ed Yong looks at how lunch breaks can affect judges' decisions.

100 comments so far

  • Apart from the mermaid stories, I'd be interested in hearing the views and science out there on the other subjects you mentioned. The only science, and such tv shows, that are annoying are the one based on complete fabrications, and ones that don't offer any decent counter argument. I can't stand being preached to by someone who won't listen to the other side of the argument.

    I thought there was some science about the Turin shroud. It may still not be the real thing but the earlier tests were carried out on a repair (if I remember it correctly).

    Commenter
    Matheus
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 14, 2011, 8:14AM
    • Oh Brad, really? I was right there with you until you cited the last piece-of-crap science program I saw and said it was brilliant. This illustrates the problem I have with certain members of the science cheerleading squad - the possible is too often portayed not only as probable but almost certain. The language used was "this will happen". Even the disclaimer at the end ran "now, we can't be a HUNDRED PERCENT certain that this will DEFINITELY HAPPEN" in a tone of voice that indicated that the margin of error was small and this future should be accepted as pretty much written in stone. That was the point I through my shoe at the TV.

      I do agree that these channels should follow their mandate and show science programs, but we seem to have different ideas about what constitutes a good science program.

      On another note, the best mockumentary I have seen is "When Cars Attack", done with an actor from one of those police shows and footage from traffic and security cameras and with a completely straight face. At the beginning I was dismayed, but it kept getting more and more ridiculous until about halfway through I realised it was a parody and it became hilarious.

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      April 14, 2011, 8:24AM
      • I thought When Cars Attack was brilliant. For a while at the beginning I too thought I was watching an actual documentary. The actor was Richard Belzer who plays Munch on SVU.

        I love pulling apart these bad science shows. Just the other day I saw one on ancient extraterrestrials which kept asking questions like how is it possible that people knew the Pythagorean Theorum millenia before Pythagoras. The theorum is named after Pythagoras because according to the Greeks he was the one who proved it, but we have plenty of evidence it was well known a long time before Pythagoras. Pretty much as soon as our ancestors starting building large monuments they would of discovered it, and it would have allowed them to built still bigger monuments.

        Commenter
        Aditya
        Date and time
        April 14, 2011, 8:58AM
        • I guess it can be very difficult to make good science TV that will appeal to both general audience and those more familiar with science as practiced.

          Cautious and qualified statements don't seem to go down well with most viewers. And for scientifically literate, blanket claims and assertions can often result, as JEQP says, in a bit of Shoe on TV action.

          The language employed by science communicators in all mediums seems to be getting a lot more attention these days - how to communicate complex ideas effectively without misrepresenting science and its methodology is always going to be tough. But the need must obviously be addressed. I mean, *The God Particle*? Seriously?

          *When Cars Attack*

          That was a fake?

          Commenter
          Geoff
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          April 14, 2011, 9:07AM
          • I love your column Brad. I don't always 100% agree with things you write (we're starting to see more and more that evolution can happen in pretty weird rapid bursts - still, the mermaid thing is silly of course), but I like that there is rational, non-hype, non-angry and crazy, interesting science writing in The Age, and that your articles attract nice discussions. Thanks!

            Commenter
            yay
            Date and time
            April 14, 2011, 9:22AM
            • Oh, I didn't remember The Future Is Wild using that kind of language (it's been eight years or so since I saw it). If it does, I'm sure I'd be as annoyed as you if I was to watch it again. 

              "we seem to have different ideas about what constitutes a good science program." We might not. It might just be that I remembered one that I saw eight years ago as being better than it was.

              Commenter
              Brad Newsome
              Date and time
              April 14, 2011, 9:48AM
              • @Brad - I really enjoyed The Future is Wild, and I can't comprehend how anyone could have taken it as anything but speculative fiction (as I'm sure you did as well), as well as some interesting lessons for me about today's biological diversity.

                A friend got cable tv for a while, and I was pretty disgusted by both the Discovery and History channels, and unimpressed by the National Geographic docos I saw either.

                I've never been tempted to pay for that unedifying fare. Suffice to say, re the cancelled Kennedys miniseries History Channel said ""We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling..."

                So that's how they evaluate the merits of a documentary, by its 'storytelling' quality.

                It all goes with the myth that having facts presented to you is inherently unpleasant, and must be laced with fiction to make it palatable.

                @JEQP "best mockumentary I have seen"

                When Cars Attack sounds pretty good. I'll have a look if I come across it.

                The best mockumentary I've seen was All You Need is Cash, aka The Rutles, a spoof on the Beatles documentaries, devised by Eric Idle and Neil Innes.

                I haven't seen the sequel The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch.

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rutles

                http://www.tvsquad.com/2011/01/07/history-channel-cancels-the-kennedys-miniseries/

                Commenter
                tafkao
                Location
                Over the Rainbow
                Date and time
                April 14, 2011, 9:51AM
                • I'm glad you're enjoying it. Feel free to jump into the discussion any time.

                  I agree I was overdoing it by calling tens or hundreds of thousands of years an "evolutionary eyeblink". Do you have any particular examples of rapid evolution in mind?

                  Commenter
                  Brad Newsome
                  Date and time
                  April 14, 2011, 9:51AM
                  • //It all goes with the myth that having facts presented to you is inherently unpleasant, and must be laced with fiction to make it palatable.//

                    But what came first? Did the bright-lights-and-shiny-things method of relating information come about because we became fickle and unable to concentrate? Or did we become fickle because we recieved to much tripe with our facts?

                    The one sets my teeth on edge is the dramatic music and voiceovers.

                    Commenter
                    Dregsy
                    Location
                    Can" 't Keep Left" Berra
                    Date and time
                    April 14, 2011, 10:05AM
                    • @Aditya "how is it possible that people knew the Pythagorean Theorum millenia before Pythagoras."

                      Hilarious. The people that write these things must have a competition to see who could write the dumbest tripe to be believed.

                      I used to buy People magazine just so I could read all about the "half-human, half-sheep" baby, and the guy who can see a picture of Jesus in a dent on his car.

                      ABC and BBC seem to have the least rubbish, although this 'fair and balanced (for wing-nuts)' policy sees some pretty ridiculous offerings, and if I see one more WWII doco, I'm going to annexe Poland myself.

                      SBS 'promo' 30 seconds in, but the 'car' advert is good too:

                      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXePOxmrPuc (1:40)

                      Briefly, I watched early reality tv show "Lie Detector" with numbskulls, or desperate actors, taking lie detector tests on tv to prove/disprove some deed or other.

                      The pinnacle was a complete nobody going on to 'prove' that he hadn't assassinated JFK!

                      @Yay "evolution can happen in pretty weird rapid bursts" every time an offspring is formed and it has even one gene that is a mutated version of a gene from a parent, a little piece of evolution suddenly took place.

                      Sometimes, a rapid change in environment takes place and only a handful of members of a species have the right gene combination to survive - then a whole bunch of evolution has takes place within a few short generations.

                      Commenter
                      tafkao
                      Location
                      Over the Rainbow
                      Date and time
                      April 14, 2011, 10:28AM

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