Thursday night, I sat down with more than 15 scientists to watch Shark Week. Most of them don’t watch the annual spectacle—they’ve become embittered after years of Discovery’s fear mongering, mockumentaries, and lies. But this particular episode was different—it was all about our home, Hawaii. We all wondered how the sharks that roam our islands’ waters would be portrayed, and we joked about how many times we’d hear ominous music or see blood in the water. We wouldn’t have been so jovial if we knew what was in store.
I would argue that Sharkageddon is the worst Shark Week special this year, perhaps even to date. At least with the mockumentaries, there was the expectation that the audience would understand they were fake, even if that expectation was wildly off. Megalodon and Shark of Darkness carry disclaimers saying that the events were dramatized and that there is “debate”. Sharkageddon, on the other hand, is billed as truth. It pretends to lay out the facts and be a documentary. And it isn’t. Almost everything said in the hour-long program is wrong.
I won’t go into how the shark “danger scale” is ridiculous at best (cookie cutter sharks a “5”? Not unless that’s the lowest number!). I’m even going to gloss over the poor reenactments full of threatening music that make it look like sharks magically sneak up on their victims in crystal clear water (hint: that’s not what it looks like during shark attacks). Instead, I’m going to focus on false statements that were delivered as if they were cold, hard facts, and how Discovery used shady filming tactics to try and convince the world that Hawaii is in the midst of a Sharkageddon.
The clash between police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri has escalated significantly over the past few days. Police dogs and handguns have been swapped out for tanks and assault rifles. The protestors are being shot at with rubber bullets and wooden baton rounds, but perhaps the most disturbing images surfacing are those of police suppressing peaceful assembly with tear gas. Currently banned for use in international warfare, tear gas is still legal to use domestically, and has become a go-to for riot control. To understand what the use of tear gas means for the citizens, members of the press, and government officials currently in Ferguson, here is a scientific explainer of what tear gas is, what it does, and what scientists and medical professionals think of its use.
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 12, 2014
It’s the third day of Shark Week, and Discovery has already come under fire for their programming choices. Their big special on kick-off night—Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarine—turned out to be another fake documentary, making up people and events to perpetuate the idea that a 30+ ft long great white patrols the coast of South Africa. The legend of Submarine is a particularly fishy topic choice, as its origin can be traced to the 1970s when some journalists decided to make up a story to see how gullible their readers were. Yet again, the all-too-quick disclaimer failed to let a good chunk of the audience in on the charade, resulting in a spike in tweets like this:
Don’t understand why I watch shark week because it just makes me 10x more scared of the water than I already am — Danielle (@daniellejene) August 12, 2014
Shark week always makes me more scared of sharks — Christian Villalon (@christianv2328) August 11, 2014
This submarine shark got me all sorts of scared about going into the ocean again. — Samantha Kramer (@SamanthaKramer1) August 11, 2014
Tonight kicks off Shark Week, the longest-running television event in history. As readers of this blog know, many scientists (myself included) have become critical of Discovery’s beloved television event, criticizing their PR tactics, shark attack fearmongering, and overall lack of facts, science and conservation throughout the week.
Though the concerns have been brewing for the past decade or so, last year’s ‘documentary’ on C. megalodon shoved the Shark Week science—or lack thereof—into the national media spotlight. Discovery believes they did nothing wrong with presenting “one of the most debated shark discussions of all time“, however, scientists and viewers alike protested loudly about the special on and offline to the point that CNN and other major news stations covered the controversy. Supporting the notion that ‘any press is good press’, last year’s Shark Week was the most viewed of all time.
@WhySharksMatter we have more hours than ever before and most are the factual ones you enjoy.
— Laurie Goldberg (@LaurieGoldberg) July 14, 2014
This year, Discovery claims they have responded to the strong public and media backlash. Laurie Goldberg, executive vice president of public relations for Discovery, tweeted to explain that concerns over the scientific content of this year’s Shark Week are unfounded, as “most” of the programming is fact-based. Curious if that is true, I pulled up Discovery’s day-by-day plan and examined the shows’ descriptions. I categorized them as ‘science-based’ or ‘fear-based’ using the wording in the description and whether it mentioned scientists or research (particularly as the ‘host’ or focus). I then tweeted my predictions (Storify below). Here’s the summary table:Read More
Over the past month, the story of Lauren Arrington’s sixth-grade science project on lionfish salinity tolerance has exploded. In the past week, however, questions have arisen as to the validity of her study and the events that led to her project, particularly the involvement of scientist Zachary Jud, who was rarely mentioned in early reports on Lauren’s work. Some are saying Zack is trying to “steal the spotlight” from a 13 yr old girl, while others are saying Lauren “hijacked” her project from Zack and referring to it as “plagiarism”.
Given the conflicting media coverage of Lauren’s project and Zack’s research, it seemed prudent to have a complete timeline of the events, both prior to and after Lauren’s project. Here is that timeline, which has been confirmed through emails, blog posts (including one by Craig Layman), and my personal communication with Zachary Jud. I contacted Albrey Arrington on July 23, 2014. Albrey did not respond.
In 1842, the infamous showman P.T. Barnum unveiled a truly bizarre creature. In his autobiography, Barnum described it as “an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen… its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.” The Feejee mermaid, as the mummified remains were called, possessed the torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish. Naturalists from around the world came to examine the specimen, enticed by letters explaining how a Dr. J. Griffin had hooked the strange creature while fishing in the South Pacific. At first Griffin was reluctant to share his find, but somehow, Barnum convinced him to reveal the mermaid to the public. Huge crowds swarmed the Concert Hall on Broadway just to get a glimpse.
Things were not, however, as they appeared: The letters were written by Barnum himself. “Dr. J. Griffin” was only a character portrayed by Barnum’s close friend, Levi Lyman. The so-called mermaid was purchased from Japanese sailors in 1822 and leased to Barnum by Moses Kimball. Barnum even asked for a professional opinion, and was assured by a naturalist that the mermaid was a fake. The tale of the mermaid’s capture, Griffin, and his reluctance to unveil the animal was a publicity stunt. The Feejee mermaid, in all its grotesque glory, was P.T. Barnum’s first major hoax. His knack for trickery, manipulation and showmanship proved highly profitable, and over the years, his circus became known as “The Greatest Show On Earth”.
In his autobiography, Barnum explained how he manipulated so many into believing in the Feejee mermaid. “How to modify general incredulity in the existence of mermaids, so far as to awaken curiosity to see and examine the specimen, was now the all-important question,” Barnum wrote. “I saw no better method than to “start the ball a-rolling” at some distance from the centre of attraction.” So he wrote letters, which appeared in New York papers, from Alabama, South Carolina, and Washington DC. “I may as well confess that those three communications from the South were written by myself, and forwarded to friends of mine, with instructions respectively to mail them, each on the day of its date. This fact and the corresponding post-marks did much to prevent suspicion of a hoax, and the New-York editors thus unconsciously contributed to my arrangements for bringing the mermaid into public notice.”
You might expect such deception and fraud from P.T. Barnum, one of the most notorious showmen of all time. But it seems the executives at Discovery Channel are cut from the same cloth.
This past week was supposed to be a happy week for Rosie O’Donnell. She was ecstatic to announce that she’s re-hooked her old job on The View, and will be joining its cast next year. But instead, Rosie is being scrutinized for a different catch—one made two years ago.
In early 2012, photos began circulating of Rosie with Mark the Shark, a notorious fisherman who pompously claims he has killed over 100,000 sharks. Dangling in the foreground is a great hammerhead, the largest of the hammerhead species and one listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2007 (prior to that they were ‘data deficient’). Rosie was immediately and loudly criticized for the act, as the species had newly become protected under Florida law.
Rosie did not respond well to the critique. “chill people – really – my family fishes” she tweeted to those calling for an apology for her actions. In response to one tweeter, she classily replied “it was years ago asswipe – b4 they were on the endangered list”. After the recent resurgence of the story due to a Slate article by widely acclaimed shark scientist and conservationist David Shiffman, Rosie stuck to her guns. “before hammerheads were illegal – my daughter caught one – end of story” she tweeted.
Or, to phrase her argument simply: the animals weren’t “endangered” when her family caught them, so back off.
@alexbvollmer – Alex when we caught the shark – hammerheads were not endangered – r u against fishing of all kinds
— Rosie (@Rosie) July 11, 2014
I’ve written before about the most lovable molecule on the planet, oxytocin, and how it isn’t the warm and fuzzy chemical it’s purported to be. Though you’ll often hear it referred to as the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘trust molecule’, oxytocin has a wide variety of effects in our bodies. For the most part, though, scientists (and especially the media) have focused on how it affects our behavior—how sniffing oxytocin changes how so-and-so group of people act when doing such-and-such. But this month, scientists from University of California Berkley reported on a completely different effect of oxytocin—one that has nothing to do with love, trust, or how we behave—and it’s one that might just make the most overhyped molecule on the planet deserve a little bit of the love it gets.
Last week, BuzzFeed published an article titled “19 Reasons Not To Go To The Beach This Summer.” In reality, the article contained only one reason—and as they hinted, it “rhymes with shmarks.”
— Kyle Hill (@Sci_Phile) June 20, 2014
Not surprisingly, the article—which BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith claimed was meant as a “parody”—upset a lot of shark scientists, science communicators, and BuzzFeed readers. Yet BuzzFeed stuck to their guns, saying that clearly, those who find the article distasteful lack a sense of humor and simply don’t get the joke.
— Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie) June 19, 2014
— Katharine The Shark (@Shark_Katharine) June 21, 2014
We got it, BuzzFeed—we just didn’t think it was funny.
“Jokes” like this one (and the very real fear that BuzzFeed is “mocking”) are part of why so many shark species are declining or already threatened. The idea that sharks are dangerous, deadly, and otherwise unwelcome where we want to swim is devastatingly common. The pervasive, irrational fear of sharks isn’t something to make light of, particularly when such fear has real consequences for wildlife conservation. For example, the fear of shark attacks on beaches is what the Western Australian government used to justify implementing a massive shark cull that more than 100 shark scientists and 2/3 of Western Australians oppose. So far, the cull has cost over a million dollars and killed more non-target sharks than targeted ones, yet the government still plans to continue the cull for years to come.
Besides, if you’re going to make light of death at the beach, you should at least make it statistically valid. Maybe you should fear the beach—but not because of the Chondrichthyes beneath the waves. Sharks generally avoid people, and even when they don’t, the odds that you’ll be killed by a shark are unbelievably low. Since the 1500s, there have been less than 500 fatal shark attacks worldwide. Sharks kill less than five people every year globally and less than one person per year in the US. As the Dodo pointed out, there are far deadlier things to be afraid of.
Of the many reasons why beaches aren’t safe, sharks are the least of your worries. To show you what I mean, I present to you 19 beachy things that are more likely to kill you than sharks—in proper BuzzFeed form.
A. 20% of college women are sexually assaulted during their tenure at the university, and
B. 12% of rapes are reported to law enforcement
His overall message is that, clearly, women are lying about being assaulted to gain the “privilege” of victimhood, based on this mathematical argument:
The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent.
Or, to put it into math equations:
98 reported assaults (at Ohio State) = 12% of the assaults that occurred
98 / 0.12 = 817 (total assaults)
817 / 28,000 = 0.029;
which means only 2.9% of the 28,000 female students at Ohio State have been assaulted.
Therefore, the 20% statistic is far too high, thus women must be lying about assault.
Here’s the thing: experimental design matters when it comes to statistics. There are several ways you can go wrong when interpreting statistics, any of which can be accounted for if you simply pay attention to the science that generated them—which George clearly didn’t. Read More