It’s not exactly a secret that Shark Week, Discovery Channel’s summer cash cow, is basically a heaping pile of hooey. Last year the network pissed off thousands of fans with its clearly fake and stupid “documentary” Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. And this year’s festivities already have people fired up thanks to Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarine, Discovery’s big two-hour special about a 35-foot Great White in South Africa that, whoops, was an urban legend journalists concocted in the 1970s to move newspapers (CLICKBAIT!), and double whoops, was presented as fact by Discovery with the deliberately evasive disclaimer “Its existence is highly controversial. Events have been dramatized, but many believe Submarine exists to this day.” Off to a great start!
B-b-but wait, because it gets worse! In addition to firing garbage across the room to see if it sticks and then proudly declaring “SCIENCE,” Discovery Channel is also apparently misleading the experts that appear on its shark-themed programs. David Shiffman, who runs the Twitter account @WhySharksMatter and is a proud thorn in Discovery’s side over all this, lays out the evidence at io9, but the most damning bit is probably the quotes from a Bull Shark expert from Louisiana, whose questions about the nature of the program went unanswered during his interview, and whose presence was eventually used to lend legitimacy to a program called Voodoo Shark about a fictional “monster” that was supposedly terrorizing the bayou:
Throughout the interview I was fed certain words to rephrase my sentences in ways that the producer thought would spark more interest. Some words or phrases they asked me to say were beyond anything I would say on my own and I refused. However, they were clever in their questioning by getting me to respond to a vague question with a response that could be used as an answer to a completely different question. The prime example that was used on the show was towards the very beginning of Voodoo Sharks. The voice-over introduced my researchers and I as we were riding in a boat out looking for sharks on the edge of the Lake. They said, “They believe that if there is a monster shark entering Lake Pontchartrain it is likely sticking to this area…” and then it pans to a clip from my interview where they asked me, “Do you think there are large Bull Sharks in these bayous and swamps around Lake Pontchartrain?” so my response was to THAT question. They used my response to one question to make it sound like I believed in this monster shark ‘Rooken’ that they had just laid the groundwork for being real as a preface for the whole show.
And guess what: It turns out scientists aren’t too happy about all of this, as Christie Wilcox explains over at Science Sushi:
“From the perspective of a professional researcher, to have a self-described scientific channel do this sort of publicity stunt is infuriating,” says David Kerstetter, Assistant Professor at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center.
But for Kerstetter, the lasting issue is that Shark Week has not only failed to provide real, scientific programming: their constant campaign of fraud is damaging to shark science and conservation. “Frighteningly, they’ve somehow done the impossible and actually contributed negatively to scientific research.”
So, to recap, Discovery Channel is using its most prized chunk of programming to air fake documentaries that feature interviews with real scientists that they’re lying to and misrepresenting, and all of it may actually be doing harm to the species they claim to be glorifying. Hmm, that’s kind of sad. Any way we can make this more, oh I don’t know, hilarious?
A Discovery Channel spokeswoman said producers are aware of Shiffman’s concerns, and even credited him with inspiring them to do a show on bioluminescent sharks this year, adding, “While we may sometimes disagree on approach, the important thing is we use this as a platform to get the word out about sharks, which @WhySharksMatter does very effectively.”
He had more luck with the producers of the over-the-top SyFy movie Sharknado, persuading them to use some of their promotional time for their corny sequel this summer to also promote the cause of shark conservation. They even paid for some of his lab’s shark-tagging work. [Tamba Bay Times]
Yup, the people who made Sharknado, the basic cable movie about sharks getting swept up in a wind storm and speeding to Earth jaws-first, were apparently more receptive to concerns from the shark expert community than the television network that specializes in “science.” Cool. Cool cool cool.