On Fake Documentaries

In case you found this looking for answers: Mermaids do not exist, and the Megalodon is extinct.

In the past year or so, there have been a few movies that have especially caught the interest of the science community (or at least the science community that I’m exposed to through social media): among them are Gravity, The SyFy Channel’s Sharknado, Pacific Rim, The Discovery Channel’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, and Animal Planet’s The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence. All of these movies have one thing in common: they’re all science fiction. However, the first three are different from the last: the first three are clear and transparent about their fictional nature. The last three pass themselves off as true documentaries, and that is where the problem lies.

Let me be very clear: my problem with Discovery’s shark documentary and Animal Planet’s mermaid documentaries isn’t that they are fake: Spinal Tap is a fake documentary, and it’s awesome. My problem is that Discovery and Animal Planet are supposedly informative, educational television channels, which are generally recognized as trustworthy sources for accurate nature documentaries, and these fake programs were not presented with effective disclaimers (see this Gawker article for a video of Megalodon‘s crazy-quick disclaimer). They’re filmed like documentaries, with actors playing scientists and fabricated “evidence,” and plenty of people are convinced. The general public trusts these educational channels to provide facts: they’re not SyFy, and viewers don’t expect Sharknado: when Shark Week starts, viewers expect facts, not entertaining lies.

Programs like these may be good for ratings, but they’re terrible for science and actual marine biologists. Millions of people watched the Mermaids programs, and given the popularity of Shark Week (it’s like nerd Christmas), I’d guess about an equivalent popularity for Megolodon. Even if only 1% of the viewers ended up believing in mermaids or the megalodon, that’s at least tens of thousands of people who have been effectively taught lies by “educational” television. This means that when scientists try to communicate actual facts about the ocean, at least tens of thousands of people may not believe them, since those scientists will doubtlessly assert that mermaids are not real. David Schiffman, an actual shark biologist, explains the negative effects of this on science much better than I can, so I’ll leave that up to his Slate article. If people only care about marine biology during Shark Week (and for many people, that is the case), why can’t Discovery give those people actual marine biology? It has so much potential for good science communication, and that is wasted on a fake documentary.

I think that may be what upsets me the most. The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet are institutions when it comes to science communication. In today’s screen-filled world, they have a huge amount of power to teach the viewing public about science. And, despite the saying being cheesy and cliché, with great power comes great responsibility. These channels have a responsibility to disseminate good science to their viewers – not to fool them into believing in fictional flights of fancy. For many of these viewers, especially children, their main connection to the scientific world may be through documentaries on television, and to show them bogus science without good disclaimers is a breach of trust. It’s like lying with your fingers crossed: it’s still lying. Lying is bad. Lying as a trusted distributor of facts is really really bad.

Real science is fascinating; we do not need fake science to stay entertained. I know for a fact that The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet are capable of creating good programs about real science. The fact that they didn’t stick to that is disappointing and counterproductive. Please stop doing that, educational channels. Please stop.

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2 thoughts on “On Fake Documentaries

  1. Well said. Such a waste of time, and only capitalizing on “mysteries” of folklore that do not truly exist. But of course, now you have to see the “documentary” on Dragons that Animal Planet did a few years back…

    • If only it was on the SyFy channel, everything would have been okay. I had to stop writing this post because I was about to write “Lying is bad. Stop lying, educational TV channels. Stop being so bad. It makes science sad.”

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