Shark Week’s mistake: authority and science education

megalodon and space shuttle

In case you desperately needed to know how a Megalodon measures up to a space shuttle, here is your answer. Image posted on twitter by Jason Major.

In the good old days we could joke about the Loch Ness monster or the Sasquatch. Now we have to pick our channels carefully so we don’t get a “science” lesson about a mermaid or Bigfoot. Did History Channel start this trend when it included aliens on its programming? Last week Discovery Channel gave us a “marine biology” lesson and told us paleontologists are wrong: the Megalodon, a 50-foot long extinct prehistoric shark, is still alive and eating people.

The first time I held out a Megalodon tooth in my hand I knew I had a powerful teaching tool. Two years ago, as a volunteer interpreter at the Seattle Aquarium, I showed visitors the teeth that belonged to the gigantic sharks. It fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, a single tooth out of hundreds that sharks shed naturally like a conveyor belt—when one tooth falls off another is ready to replace it. Visitors were mesmerized by the tooth, specially compared to a modern shark’s tooth, and liked to call Megalodon a “dinosaur shark.”

Well, the Megalodon was definitely not a dinosaur, and is much younger than dinosaurs. It was still around 2 million years ago. The teeth are the only evidence left behind by a cartilaginous fish that has no other solid bone in its body. The size it could have reached is extrapolated based on a jaw that could fit the palm-size teeth.

megalodon nmnh

A recreated Megalodon jaw on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the Author.

But then Discovery Channel, as part of this year’s Shark Week, broadcasts a faux “documentary” (mockumentary?) called Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives. Yes, they said “That Lives.” The show implies that this predator is still alive and well, and finding meals out of fishing boats. With movie techniques straight out of The Blair Witch Project, it uses shaky cam footage and bad editing to simulate non-professional footage. Perhaps it aims to be an aquatic Cloverfield, showing the characters facing a monster.

Except… it does not clearly state that its actors are characters. In regards to the “scientists” shown on the movie, a small print 2-second disclaimer is shown that says: “None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.” A somewhat convoluted way  of saying “our scientists  are actors.” It also said:

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

Which is almost to say, “legends exist, therefore they are true” (?!) Unfortunately some people prefer to believe in prettier stories.

cristina megalodon

The author faces a model of Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The twittersphere, barely recovered from Sharknado (which was clearly not a documentary, but an equally atrocious shark film), was baffled. Blogosphere outrage ensued:

John Platt  covered it for Scientific American blogs, using the support of one of our favorite nature filmmakers here at Sci-Ed, Chris Palmer. Palmer was interviewed before for Sci-Ed in which we discussed the nature documentary’s role in science education and promoting conservation:

“Nature films have the potential to educate and to bridge the knowledge gap between the general public and the scientific community (…) Rebecca Wexler reports that ‘viewers regard film sequences as realistic because of cultural tendencies resulting from 19th century understandings of photography and film as mechanically accurate reproductions of the visual world.’ This also happens because movies are labeled as scientifically correct and factual.. [The] status of scientific authority is given to nature films even in cases of scripted dramas: footage that has been twisted to accommodate a sequence of edited scenes closely following a script.”

A Deep Sea News writer quotes her 9-year old cousin as an evidence of the perceived scientific authority of the show: “They spread that information out there, and then people start thinking it’s real. Then they start getting afraid of sharks, and then they start killing them…and that’s a problem.”  And also a problem that a chunk of Shark Week’s target audience is made of (easily influenced) children.

This may seem extreme, but isn’t outside the realm of possibility – people started killing stingrays following the death of environmentalist Steve Irwin. Is Discovery Channel doing a disservice to science by telling the public that Megalodon still exists? Or is it creating excitement and popularizing the ancient creature?

What do you think? How important is young students’ trust in the scientific authority of Shark Week for science education outcomes? Can educators use the mistakes of Discovery Channel to give students experience developing skeptical habits of mind? Learning to be a scientist is not just about reading trusted textbooks and watching trusted channels — it’s about learning to ask questions for yourself and evaluate evidence.

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4 Responses to Shark Week’s mistake: authority and science education

  1. Jake Limkemann says:

    It didn’t just stop at the show on Megladon. Shows on the 2013 edition of Shark Week, labeled sharks as serial killers, ranked them in there deadliness, and showed damage caused by accidents. Look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s happens when a shark bites you, or that when your femoral artery is severed your in trouble. After, all the years of shark education and research this should be common knowledge, sharks mistake US for prey, they are attracted by blood, electric pulses, and thrashing water. But the continued display of damage and victims, and the labeling of sharks as serial killers has to stop. I would like to see more research, more tagging, and more tracking of breeding habits. There was one show on great white breeding habits that was very interesting. By the way, I agree all the education television began to collapse when the history channel started doing there UFO Hunter show.

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  3. Even before the Discovery Channel went down the tubes (which was a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG time ago) they still had stuff like this. When I was a kid, they would have documentaries about people searching for moas and living dinosaurs and Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. At some point it became the “Stuff that Explodes Channel” and I stopped watching.

    What is it that worries you the most? Are you worried that people are going to be harmed by believing that Megalodons are still living? Are you worried that they’re not going to get set straight the next time they go on Wikipedia? Or are you just worried that someone said something that was “incorrect?”

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    • Alex says:

      Am I just worried that someone said something that was “incorrect”?

      In this context, yes.

      Imagine if this was the news, and journalists knowingly and deliberately fabricated a story. That does happen – and we get outraged by it.

      Same goes for a “documentary” – the clue is in the name. It should be documenting reality, not deliberately presenting fiction as reality, for entertainment purposes. No problem with that, if it’s clearly presented and marketed as such. But that’s not what happened here.

      Sure, perhaps a skilful educator can use this as an opportunity to prompt students in their critical thinking etc – but for every educator achieving that outcome, I think there will be orders-of-magnitude greater audience numbers who assimilated what was presented as fact. And that falsehood then goes towards shaping their perspectives of the marine environment.

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