It’s SHARK WEEK! What should you expect from this year’s fin fest?

By Christie Wilcox | August 10, 2014 9:32 pm

f2d04871.discovery-logoTonight 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.

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:

Updated 8/10 to add Fake to Shark of Darkness.

Updated 8/10 to add fake label to Shark of Darkness after airing.

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Proceeding upriver: a timeline of the dispute over estuarine lionfish

By Christie Wilcox | July 24, 2014 12:15 pm

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Lionfish, Zachary Jud

Fraud, Deception And Lies: How Discovery’s Shark Week Became The Greatest Show On Earth

By Christie Wilcox | July 18, 2014 11:42 am
Feejee_mermaid

P.T. Barnum’s Feejee mermaid—perhaps Animal Planet will feature it in their next “documetary”? Image from Wikipedia

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

“Endangered”—You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

By Christie Wilcox | July 12, 2014 10:40 pm
The smiling family and their catch—a large great hammerhead. Photo from MarktheShark.com

The smiling family and their catch—a large great hammerhead. Photo from MarktheShark.com

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

Muscles Love Oxytocin: So-Called “Hug Hormone” Important In Muscle Regeneration

By Christie Wilcox | June 27, 2014 9:34 pm
The 'love drug'? More like the muscle rejuvenator!

The ‘love drug’? More like the muscle rejuvenator!

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Oxytocin

19 Real Reasons Not To Go To The Beach This Summer

By Christie Wilcox | June 24, 2014 5:39 pm

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.”

Annnnd @BuzzFeed publishes a shark scare-mongering piece that has GIFs but no intelligence http://t.co/u5LQme36dO Ugh. cc @BuzzFeedBen

— 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 scientistsscience 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.

Shark fearmongering – et tu, @BuzzFeed? Any comment on this, @BuzzFeedBenhttp://t.co/Y2ofE0yL0E

— Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie) June 19, 2014

 

@NerdyChristie @WhySharksMatter so you read this as a column advising Americans to avoid beaches? — Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) June 20, 2014

 

@BuzzFeedBen @NerdyChristie @WhySharksMatter No, I read this as a post perpetuating the myth that sharks are mindless killing machines.

— 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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: BuzzFeed, Sharks

Science Matters: Why George Will’s Math Is Wrong

By Christie Wilcox | June 10, 2014 7:21 pm
George "let me do the math" Will. Photo by Keith Allison

George “let me do the math” Will.
Photo by Keith Allison

In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, George Will decided to do a little math based on two “crucial and contradictory” statistics mentioned in the President’s recent report:

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Emptying The Ocean: Trawling Leading To Deep Ocean Deserts

By Christie Wilcox | May 30, 2014 2:47 pm

The more research is conducted on the effects of trawling, the harder it is to make a case for why it is allowed—anywhere, ever. It’s especially hard to argue for high seas bottom trawling, the kind that dredges up roughly twice the area of the United States every year and, since the United Nations couldn’t agree on terms, is currently unregulated. Now, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to the mounting evidence that our hunger for piscine protein is laying waste to parts of the planet we have never even seen, leading to lasting changes in the sea floor that prevent recovery.

Deep_desert_PLoS

Trawls are bulldozing millions of square miles of the sea floor every year. A new study in PNAS says that if such fishing is sustained, this is all that will be left. Image from Gewin 2004

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

White Hot Insects: Climate Change Leading to Lighter Colors

By Christie Wilcox | May 27, 2014 10:00 am
Pieris_mannii

Lighter wins as climate warms: this butterfly, the Southern Small White (Pieris mannii), has continuously expanded its range northwards during the past ten years. Image c/o Nature Communications

Most of the discussion on climate change focuses on startling images of potential loss: the city of Miami underwater due to rising sea level or the lone polar bear on an ever-shrinking iceberg. But some of the greatest impacts of our continued inability to curb our carbon appetite are surprisingly small—little changes that may ultimately have big implications. It’s the butterfly effect—except, in this case, I literally am talking about butterflies.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

April Sci-shimi: Penis Wars and Angry Birds

By Christie Wilcox | May 2, 2014 2:28 am

Welcome to Sci-shimi, my monthly roundup of  great science online! Like a delicious, fresh platter of sashimi, these tasty links are meant to be shared —どうぞめしあがれ 

This month’s mind-blowing science moment: An insect where the female does the penetrating during mating with a sexual organ never before described. Is it a penis? Ed says yes, Annalee says no. What do you think?

Best long-read: What’s in a name? Susan Milius explores fungal taxonomy.

Runner up: Angry Birds Part 1, Barbarism From Above by Jake Buehler. Think birds are fluffy and cute? Think again. (And don’t say I didn’t warn you it is a LONG read…)

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