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Aug 06 2013

For shame, Discovery Channel

It’s shark week. I’m not going to watch a bit of it; I’m actually boycotting the Discovery Channel for the indefinite future. The reason: An appalling violation of media ethics and outright scientific dishonesty. They opened the week with a special “documentary” on Megalodon, the awesome 60 foot long shark that went extinct a few million years ago…or at least, that’s what the science says. The show outright lied to suggest that Megalodon might still exist somewhere in the ocean.

None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.

Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of “Submarine” continue to this day.

Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.

There is no evidence of this species’ persistence, nor did they present any. They just made it all up; reality isn’t awesome enough, so they had to gild the giant shark story. They’ve gone the way of our other so-called “documentary” channels dedicated to fact-based education — the History channel, Animal Planet, TLC. Garbage rules.

This also makes me sad because I already have to deal with irrational loons telling me that since coelacanths exist, scientists are wrong and humans walked with dinosaurs. I await with gritted teeth the first creationist who tries to argue that the survival of the Megalodon to modern times means it’s perfectly plausible that medieval knights hunted dragons/dinosaurs.

Thanks, Discovery Channel. And screw you.

50 comments

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  1. 1
    Dunc

    Shame? They have no shame.

  2. 2
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.

    I like how they didn’t outright say Megalodon still exists… merely suggested it, with some very clever wording that means they can avoid any accusations of dishonesty. I mean, technically, they haven’t actually said anything inaccurate there. Touche, Discovery Channel… touche.

  3. 3
    Roy G

    *sigh*

    I remember when you could watch real science on TV… :(

  4. 4
    tfkreference

    That’s too bad. In past years, they’d interview people with anti-science perspectives (e.g., “sharks are killers that must be killed”) and then brush them with a subtle jab and them get back to the science.

    How disappointing, because I agree that sharks are impressive enough without mythology.

  5. 5
    Raging Bee

    Which channel gave us that asinine show about how scientists were all agreed on how to respond to a zombie apocalypse? Was that Discovery too? For some strange reason I’m thinking it may have been NatGeo. If that’s true, then the rot is deeper than just one channel.

    I guess we can’t count on Megalodons eating zombies for us, can we?

  6. 6
    shelldigger

    I tried to watch part of an episode of Shark Week last night. I caught it in progress, don’t know what I missed, but there were some dumb ass redneck types trailing a shrimp boat, then redneck boat bumped shrimp boat, fat redneck fell down…and I changed the channel. That wraps up my Shark Week experience.

    You are correct, garbage rules, and it is depressing. I second the motion, Fuck You Discovery Channel! Along with the History Channel, and SYFY. What used to be at least sometimes decent television, has become idiot television. I have been seeing ads for new reality series that I won’t be watching either, it seems every year these cable companies are vying to capture the lowest possible IQ market.

  7. 7
    AndrewD

    Darren Naish at Tet. Zoo has things to say about Megalodon here:-
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2013/08/05/cryptozoologicon-megalodon-teaser/

  8. 8
    Thomas Holtz

    Raging Bee: it is one thing to do a fun show about a zombie apocalypse and talk about ways that we might respond. That kind of speculation is fun.

    It is another to do a show that demonstrates no pretense of being speculative, that shows only a brief flash of disclaimer during the closing credits (and even these don’t say “this is a fictitious story”), with no warning to the uninformed viewer that this is supposed to be a fake.

    All you need to do is go to Discovery’s Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to see that a substantial fraction of the public think this was a legitimate documentary.

    And the sad thing is, there are real interesting stories about the biology of C. megalodon they could have discussed and brought to life, and could easily have had a fantasy segment saying “what would it be like if they WERE still alive?”. But no, that isn’t what they did.

    This is Ancient Aliens and Mermaids and ghost hunting shows all over again.

  9. 9
    Thomas Holtz

    You can be the judge of the utility and accuracy of their “disclaimer” here. Be prepared to freeze frame in order to read. And contrast it with the words being spoken at the same time.

  10. 10
    twas brillig (stevem)

    blockquote>I like how they didn’t outright say Megalodon still exists… merely suggested it, with some very clever wording that means they can avoid any accusations of dishonesty. I mean, technically, they haven’t actually said anything inaccurate there. Touche, Discovery Channel… touche.

    clearly an affiliate of History2 Channel, whose “Ancient Aliens” show never says “aliens did it”, they just ask, repeatedly, “could it have been aliens?” Never does the program ever “say” anything, it is only “questions”. Like “how could ancient people know about pi? maybe aliens taught them?” The “trope” now is to only “say” what you want with a question mark. And almost all their questions demand a “yes” answer, like “is it possible that yada yada yad”. Yes it is possible, but very improbable. So is it possible they are just trying to hide their lies with weird questions? Of course it is possible, but also seems to be the actual case. They’ll just say they are just trying to get us to “think outside the box”, maybe true, but if the box is “sanity(rationality)”, I don’t want to get outside that box. It seems (to me) that they don’t want to “push the truth”, but “explore all the possibilities” instead. Is that what we should expect from “The Learning Channel” or “Discovery”, or “History” or “The Science Channel”, etc.? All these channels have turned into entertainment, not education of facts. And that’s why I watch them, for entertainment only, to test myself, that I can pick out all the flaws in their presentations.

  11. 11
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    What Thomas Holtz said.

    Why go with a crappy mockumentary when you can actually talk about real science? It’s like people are afraid to do or talk about science unless there’s some flashy thing attached to it anymore.

  12. 12
    Raging Bee

    … it is one thing to do a fun show about a zombie apocalypse and talk about ways that we might respond. That kind of speculation is fun.

    When the “speculation” includes assertions that real (unspecified) scientists “agree” on the physical properties of zombies, then it’s just as bogus as that Megalodon show. Calling it “fun” dosen’t make it any less reprehensible (Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh use the sam excuse).

  13. 13
    Thomas Wright

    Fox News has helpfully shared the Discovery Channel’s response. I remain unimpressed:

    “With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon,” Michael Sorensen, executive producer of Shark Week, told FOX411 in a statement. “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?”

    With 95% of the ocean unexplored, who really knows if there’s a dodo swimming around out there?

    That’s from here: http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2013/08/06/discovery-channel-defends-it-decision-to-air-dramatized-megalodon/

  14. 14
    Thomas Holtz

    Raging Bee: didn’t see the particular special. If they panelist said “given these parameters, this is how to proceed”, that would be legitimate speculation. (In fact, there have been scientific papers following just that premise).

    If instead it was stated or implied that “real zombies actually have these properties”, that is a different story.

  15. 15
    Thomas Holtz

    I HATE this meme about “95% of the ocean being unexplored” in this context. All the relevant paleontological data (i.e., the only data that exist concerning C. megalodon) point to it feeding in the photic zone and having nursery areas in shallow water. These realms of the ocean are very well explored.

    It is the dark deeps that remain less well studied. There are certainly many species down there of which were are currently ignorant. But they won’t be C. megalodon.

  16. 16
    davidgentile

    I wrote to Discovery last week to protest that Michael Behe and flagella were on Through the Wormhole, a show I love. Freeman didn’t endorse ID but did the “Could it be…” schtick.

    The episode didn’t nuke ID but it did bring on mathematicians to show why ID arguments don’t add up. Still there was a teleological pall over the whole thing.

    Discovery wrote back that my concerns would be forwarded to the producers.

  17. 17
    Nemo

    The Discovery Channel owns TLC and Animal Planet, so that’s kind of all one thing.

  18. 18
    Alyosha

    Carcharodon megalodon exists to some degree in the form of Carcharodon carcharias, ie the great white shark. Nature decided that a smaller form was better suited to the environment and the overall template more than adequate. Unfortunately even the programs on this creature are pretty superficial, even as the science behind it increases our understanding of its behaviours and migrations. Even when channels like these aren’t peddling utter dreck they’re broadcasting mediocre educational substitutes.
    ‘The dismal tide’.

  19. 19
    Raging Bee

    “…with 95% of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”

    A creature that big would not go unnoticed. As PZ already mentioned, sooner or later we’d see a whale with a huge bite taken out of it (and a viable population would eat a lot more than one whale), or bones that had been chewed on, or an actual sighting. And the former would mean specific tooth marks that could be matched to fossil finds. So no, “it’s a big ocean” doesn’t cut it here. That kinda sounds like that old canard about how we only use 10% of our brains.

    If instead it was stated or implied that “real zombies actually have these properties”, that is a different story.

    What they said was that scientists “agreed” that a zombie apocolypse could be caused by certain events (like a viral plague), and that a certain response would be the best way to contain it. So yeah, that puts it in your “different story” category — they were attributing certain properties to something that was not known to be possible at all, and saying this came from actual scientific research.

  20. 20
    Pyra

    Well, I haven’t watched actual television in years. Just DVDs friends loan me of shows they think I’ll like. I don’t think I’ll be watching television anytime soon. Everything recent has ruined my hope for television suddenly having the power to inform as well as entertain that I thought might happen when the Discovery and Science Channels first appeared. I am not impressed with much today, though, I guess.

  21. 21
    cjmitchell

    I was pleased when I heard that a new, updated (if shorter) version of Cosmos was being produced and Neil Degrasse Tyson would be host. But I got nervous when I heard who was producing it: FOX. Yes, that FOX.

    Reassure me, fellow science-y Internet denizens.

  22. 22
    Raging Bee

    Thomas: funny how the Disco Channel went to Fox to defend their stupid bullshit. Kindred spirits?

  23. 23
    sparks

    If they (Discovery Channel and all it’s intellectually challenged progeny) spread the shit thickly enough, The Great Unwashed will sit down to eat.

    Keep in mind that it’s not really about education or even entertainment. It’s about profits. And during this particularly Stoopid Era of humankind, shit sells.

    Where is that extinction level event they promised us?

  24. 24
    evilDoug

    These programs have writers and producers – people from the amusement trades. It doesn’t surprise me much that bullshit triumphs over substance.
    I once worked briefly with someone who was a “writer” who wanted the technical writing in the university department where we worked to be dramatically “improved” to the “See Spot. Spot is a dog. Spot is running. Spot is jumping.” approach, because short sharp sentences were so much better than things like “See Spot the dog running and jumping.” Substance be dammed. Style is what counts.

  25. 25
    frog

    shelldigger@6:

    … it seems every year these cable companies are vying to capture the lowest possible IQ market.

    I wonder how much of this is because the better educated people have decamped for online-direct viewing. Perhaps the population of people with cable subscriptions is slowly self-selecting to the dumb folks.

    I moved 10 months ago and didn’t bother keeping my cable subscription, just internet. In that time I’ve read three times as many books as the previous year. I can watch the three shows I really want by streaming direct from the network’s website the day after the episode airs.

    My few friends who still have full cable subscriptions mostly keep them for HBO so they don’t have to wait to watch Game of Thrones.

  26. 26
    busterggi

    Despite all the bashing I watched the second half of the megalodon show last night. Not only was it as bad science-wise as everyone has said but it also managed to be ridiculously boring with poor special effects (SyFy Channel circa 2005). It was treated as though there was just this one giant shark as if it were Godzilla or something.

    And the ‘exciting’ climax that they even warned viewers ‘might be disturbing’ was a couple of minutes of shakey cam of a diver in a shark cage, some people running aimlessly on a ship and long shots of said ship from what must have been an uninterested bystanding ship whose crew had zero reaction to the ‘horrifying spectacle’ they were watching.

    GAH!

  27. 27
    bbgunn

    My 80 year old father stopped watching the History Channel a few years ago. He said it was like watching reruns of Hee Haw. Thought that they should re-brand it as The Hillbilly Channel.

  28. 28
    magistramarla

    I’m very angry at Animal Planet for devolving into shows about hillbillies catching “critters” in the most inhumane ways, shows about “scary” snakes in Florida and shows that seem to encourage hunting and fishing rather than education and conservation.

  29. 29
    davidgentile

    @23,

    Could AGW be an ELE? I love my kids but I wouldn’t mind if we or Gaia took us (and only us humans) out of the picture. Hopefully the next sentient species does it better.

  30. 30
    Trebuchet

    clearly an affiliate of History2 Channel

    Actually, no. The History channel is part of A&E, which is pretty much Discovery Communcation’s arch-rival in the cable TV fake documentary and reality show business.

    Discovery does own “Animal Planet”, which made them a mint with the two Mermaid mockumentaries. that no doubt inspired the Megalodon one.

    It’s kind of dismaying that Adam and Jamie continue to work for them.

  31. 31
    Trebuchet

    I forgot I was going to add that living Megalodons, however improbable, are pretty much infinitely more likely than mermaids!

  32. 32
    Thomas Holtz

    Alyosha @15: in fact, you hit upon an actual question about the nature of C. megalodon, and one for which there is a legitimate scientific debate. Was it actually a member of Carcharodon and more closely related to the great white than all other living sharks? Or is it actually a member of a more distantly related group (more closely related to the makos) which evolved teeth similar to that of the living great white due to similar life habit.

  33. 33
    Thomas Holtz

    Or, for that matter, that it was part of an even more distantly related, entirely extinct group (Otodontidae).

  34. 34
    scottruplin

    As someone mention on Discovery’s Facebook page, what’s next? Sharknados really exist? Or better yet….wait for it….

    MegalodoNado!!!

  35. 35
    DLC

    My brother usually watches Shark Week, but gave up on it after that and the “Redneck Shark Hunters” or whatever it was called. Me, I watched 10 minutes of the “Megalodon” bollocks and said “oh what complete horse shit” and quit. I’ve seen bits of several of these fauxumentaries and been angered at each of them.
    Of particular note is the one about mermaids and the one before that about dragons. Yes, including CGI footage created in cinema style about dragon ecology and mating rituals. “two dragons come together in midair about 5 miles up, they have to be careful because they might become lost in the moment and smash into the ground” or something like that . Lately it’s been fakeumentaries on such things as ghosts and UFOs. They don’t even bother with “Were ancient aliens real?” and go right to “Ancient Aliens”.
    What used to be fact-based TV has become tabloid-based TV. They’ve gone from Interesting Inquiries into science and history to “Enquiring Minds Want to Know!”
    And I’ve gone to streaming my TV from the web.

  36. 36
    David Marjanović

    In the Tet Zoo thread it’s been called a focumentary. I think that’s the perfect expression.

    Nature decided that a smaller form was better suited to the environment and the overall template more than adequate.

    Don’t anthropomorphize her, she hates that.

    There aren’t any decisions involved in evolution.

    I was pleased when I heard that a new, updated (if shorter) version of Cosmos was being produced and Neil Degrasse Tyson would be host. But I got nervous when I heard who was producing it: FOX. Yes, that FOX.

    Two words: The Simpsons.

  37. 37
    brianpansky

    @ David 36

    you said “Two words: The Simpsons.”

    forgive me for being a completely uncultured person, but i have no idea what that is supposed to mean. you haven’t helped me learn anything.

  38. 38
    Thomas Wright

    With logic like this, I’m waiting for them to do a documentary on God. There are legends all over the world, and with so much of the universe unexplored, who really knows?

  39. 39
    erikschepers

    Discovery channel stopped being about science years ago. At least in the Netherlands, unless you consider shows like Overhaulin’, American Chopper and whatnot science. And these days they offer the horrendous crap that is Salvage Hunters, Baggage Battles and assorted reality crap like Tanked and Yukon Men.

    All of which are coincidentally rerun upon rerun. So yeah, fuck you discovery, fuck you very much.

  40. 40
    Amphiox

    Of particular note is the one about mermaids and the one before that about dragons. Yes, including CGI footage created in cinema style about dragon ecology and mating rituals. “two dragons come together in midair about 5 miles up, they have to be careful because they might become lost in the moment and smash into the ground” or something like that .

    The dragon one was actually quite different from the others. That one stated right at the outset that it was fake, and piece of “what-if” fantasy. IIRC, it flat out stated early on that “Dragons do not exist. But what if they did? This is what their natural history might have been like”, or something like that. And it put a lot of focus on the CGI bits a-la Walking With Dinosaurs style. (And that mating ritual was copied directly from one that exists in real life among certain species of hawks)

    I never watched the two mermaid ones, but this Megalodon one simulated a documentary from the start, and never even hinted that the events portrayed were made-up.

  41. 41
    anteprepro

    forgive me for being a completely uncultured person, but i have no idea what that is supposed to mean

    I think the point was either (or both of):
    1. That FOX is not the same as FOX NEWS.
    2. That not everything on FOX is garbage.

  42. 42
    John Phillips, FCD

    Amphiox, yep, with the dragon one was it was stated clearly that it was a what if fakeumentary. They did some good work with the CGI and the invented science, much of it extrapolations from various actual existing creatures, for how a dragon might be able to produce fire, fly etc. I found it an interesting and enjoyable bit of fantasy in much the same vein as the ‘science’ behind Star Trek type of programs.

  43. 43
    unbound

    The only thing in favor of the Science channel is that they play Firefly every now and then. One of the latest “Through The Wormhole” episodes gave creationists air time with some of the weakest rebuttals I’ve ever seen against their nonsense.

    I agree with others, I miss the times when science was actually shown on TV.

  44. 44
    Nick Gotts

    I love my kids but I wouldn’t mind if we or Gaia took us (and only us humans) out of the picture. – davidgentile

    You love your kids but you don’t mind if they perish in a global disaster? With a parent who “loves” them like that, I pity your kids.

  45. 45
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @stevem

    I have to admit, I am mostly of the opinion that the vast majority of people who watch that show and are fooled into thinking it don’t understand the difference between “possible” and “plausible”. And I think such shows know that, and exploit it to the max.

  46. 46
    microraptor

    Shark Week stopped being worth watching years ago, when they made it all about jumping great whites and shark attacks dressed up in the most lurid manner possible (okay, so that was always a big focus of Shark Week). But they completely stopped devoting any time to any shark that wasn’t a great white, tiger, or bull shark.

    But this year’s Megalodon fakeumentary was, dare I say it, really caused them to jump the shark.

  47. 47
    davidgentile

    @44 Nick,
    When you quoted me, I realized how heinous it sounds – so thank you. Gonna stop while I’m behind.

  48. 48
    David Marjanović

    you said “Two words: The Simpsons.”

    Thuh Simpseeeeehns!

  49. 49
    anchor

    I’m actually amazed that so many folks everywhere have finally noticed anything rotten there and recognized that same cloying odor in any of the other alleged science or history programming channels. (Hmmm…interesting phrase, those last several words…).

    Its encouraging!

    Remember all the excitement over the incipient prospect of hundreds of channels that progress in communications technology promised (esp. 1990s), with the diverse range that included several channels (at least) that would inevitably be devoted to superb science and how all of this in synergistic combination with the internet would revolutionize public understanding of science, etc.?

    I did not share that rabid excitement at the time, though I was as cautiously hopeful as anyone can be as one of many who worked their asses off toward a decent fruition of the dream.

    Three overriding forces wrecked the ideal and led to the wasteland we currently see:

    1. Commercial interest (well larded with political influence).

    2. What Thumper (#45) and others have pointed out. Indeed, exploitation of the viewing audience under the all-consuming profit motive is a powerful force. Its not just about giving ‘em what they want, its giving ‘em what programmers think they want, what they think is ‘popular’ (and, sinisterly, what political interests with concomitant profit and power motivations require) and if that isn’t quite enough, promote anything you like to manufacture as ‘popular’ and go from there. Its a monocultural sludge. After all, obtaining audience preference data is very tedious and expensive even if its done just to twist the data afterward to favor intentions, so it becomes more cost effective simply to cut directly to the chase and make shit up along tried and true sensationalist formulae and absorb the risk of missing the mark. Since viewers can only tune in to watch whatever may be on, any competition doing the same thing won’t much matter in robbing audience share: win/win for advertisers ultimately in charge (see #1)…who are now in the business and position of cultivating a common herd of goats (check into the advertisers for all of the so-called science, ‘discovery’, history, National Geographic channels, and note that commercial advertisement breaks are synchronized across them all).
    3. A failure on the part of the science community itself to step in and make at least ONE SINGLE CHANNEL WORK on their own sponsorship. Why? Because it would not pay for itself? For the science community, its rather more complicated than that single particular bottom line (another advantage ceded to commercial advertisers who own or control competing channels who don’t need further motives, yet will be happily receptive to political money).

    I don’t need to describe the consequences of that failure and the farce of promoting the communications technology that made it possible at the outset without following up the fanfare with the substance and content necessary to validate it. There were pretty good noises way back when about assembling national and international consortia of largely university-based science institutions toward contributing to a dedicated science channel or three, but it seems attachment to government purse strings complicated the matter.

    Oddly enough the new ‘public outreach’ movement that had blossomed at that time (much energized by the emergence of the communications/media technology in both cable TV and interne) retreated from the most potentially effective and powerful means of reaching the public. We still hear from academically attached expertise why that avenue of public outreach was never achieved. These well formed excuses from the academic community which manages the bureaucracy-laden and now well entrenched public outreach establishment keeps their funding in strict check and will not allow the possibility of forming productions without passing through the horror of grant acquisition from NSF and the like – the very agencies which so blithely promoted the potential for public education to begin with.

    Take a solid moment to guess what the primary excuse is?

  50. 50
    sornord sornord

    Three words: Honey Boo Boo

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