In December, I had the amazing opportunity to spend almost two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon at the Tambopata Research Center to do research for a book I’m writing on venoms.
The Amazon is home to some of the most notorious venomous animals on Earth. There’s the bullet ant: an animal whose venom is so painful, it is said to be like getting shot. Then there are the wandering spiders: large, aggressive arachnids known for their deadly bite. And that’s not even getting into the various snakes with venoms potent enough to kill in less than an hour.
But while I was expecting the cornucopia of venomous animals, I was completely unprepared—and amazed—by the array of defenses employed by the Amazon’s flora. It seemed even the most gentle of plant species was armed with some kind of spine or spike, and if it wasn’t, you could pretty much bet it had enlisted an army of ants instead.
It’s that time of the year again where I look back and see what has happened over the past 365 days in the life of this blog. So far in 2014…
…I have posted 33 posts
…that received over four hundred thousand views
…from 218 countries/territories
…with 595 comments
The most popular post of the year was my scathing interrogation of Discovery Channel’s nefarious tactics, with my complete shredding of Sharkageddon not far behind. Second most popular was my step-by-step analysis of the death of Marius the giraffe. Last year’s posts on how dolphins might not be getting high on tetrodotoxin and my open letter to Discovery Channel for their terrible Megalodon fauxmentary stayed in the top ten this year. Other critiques also did very well, as my comments on George Will and Rosie O’Donnell also landed in the top ten. Other popular posts included 19 things more deadly than sharks at the beach, why the trust hormone increases deceit, and how sea stars see.
Perhaps the highlight of the blogging year, though, was winning the second place prize in the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize, The Strange Quark, for my piece and about how allergies may have evolved to save your life. I’ve also been busy outside of the blog—I successfully defended my dissertation this month, exchanging “Ms.” for “Dr.”. The Complete Guide to Science Blogging, which I am co-editing with Bethany Brookshire and Jason Goldman, will hopefully be coming out near the end of 2015, and I’m in the final stages of writing my first non-fiction pop-science book on venoms. I just got back from almost two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon—stay tuned for more stories from that next year.
Overall, it’s been an incredible year, and I look forward to the challenges, surprises, and joys of the year to come. Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2015!
Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia
This is a guest post by PhD student and science writer Jake Buehler. He blogs over at Sh*t You Didn’t Know About Biology, which is full of his “unrepentantly celebratory insights into life on Earth’s under-appreciated, under-acknowledged, and utterly amazing stories.”
Today is Thanksgiving. While as a holiday it is unique to the US and a few others, in many ways, Thanksgiving is universal. Basically every culture throughout history has had a celebratory feast before the dark of winter sets in. Harkening back to ancient harvest celebrations, Thanksgiving is about expressing thanks for all the good things in our lives. Though it has nearly been commercialized to death with Black Friday sales and overdone parades, underneath all that fluff is a holiday geared towards gratitude, a time to reflect upon one’s life and all of the little things there are to be thankful for. Read More
Two weeks from Friday, I’ll be defending my dissertation. It’s a moment five and a half years in the making, one that I’ve been excited for and nervous about for years. I should be eagerly anticipating the moment I step up to that podium, and even more eagerly anticipating the moment I step down, when if all goes well I’ll transition from PhD Candidate to University of Hawaii Alumnus. Instead, the thought of being an alum of this school leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Right now, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa is in bad shape. Years of budget mismanagement have led to a terrifying crisis, in which the main teaching departments are struggling to afford the instructors and teaching assistants they need to meet the demand of their students. The Vice Chancellor for Administration, Finance & Operations, Kathy Cutshaw, has been giving a “budget roadshow” presentation showing that the university it outspending its tuition revenue by almost $31 million. The Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Reed Dasenbrock, has pushed the colleges to immediately cut spending to rectify this, though such cuts are deep and harm the quality of education that can be provided to the university’s students. The Chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman, however, keeps telling the media that the university as a whole is “in the black.” There is no transparency, no explanation for Dasenbrock’s sudden urgency, and no reason why dozens of TAs are fearful of the future—of what is coming next fall even if, as Dasenbrock is now saying, it doesn’t come this spring.
UH is not the only university in the country with systemic budget problems. It’s not the only university where graduate students are not unionized, leaving them unprotected. It’s not the only university where politics and greed have trumped the mission of the school to provide a quality education. And it’s not the only university where the graduate students have been compelled to rise up and fight back. But it’s not any university—it’s my university.
Ani DiFranco once sang “We have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say. ‘Cause if you’re not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.” I love the University of Hawaii. I love the lab that has been my home away from home, the colleagues that have become my family, and the school that has allowed me to get to this point in my career. It is because I love UH that I have to tell its story. I have to explain why almost 100 students marched around campus yesterday morning in red, screaming for change. Those students and I have only just begun to fight to save the school they love as dearly as I do. We won’t give up, not until we have a university that we can be proud of. Read More
The midterm elections are over, and a number of significant changes lie ahead. Marijuana has taken several key steps towards legalization, more women than ever are in congress, and the Republican party has taken control of the senate—surely, it will be an interesting couple of years. But one thing hasn’t changed: GMO foods will not carry special labels, as the ballot measures in Colorado and Oregon followed suit with the failed propositions from California in 2012 and Washington in 2013.
Proposition 105 in Colorado failed splendidly, with close to 66% of the populace voting against the measure. Prop 92 in Oregon narrowly failed with less than 51% against. Many are up in arms about the failed measures on twitter, using hashtags like #monsatan and #nogmos. But No votes in both states are far from “losses” —they represent wins for science over the anti-GM initiative that is based solely in fear and propaganda. Read More
The salt-encrusted earth of Death Valley is, quite literally, the hottest place on Earth. It is desolate terrain where even the most rugged life is constantly struggling to survive. Staring out across the dusty landscape, it’s hard to imagine that the entire area sits atop a vast aquifer, with millions of gallons of fresh water hiding below the arid surface. It’s even harder to believe this land was once a lush basin, where spring-fed pools and streams supported an abundance of life. Now, what remains from this fertile time can only be glimpsed where the ground has been torn open by earthquakes—deep, jagged fissures like Devil’s Hole.
The smooth, near-vertical walls of Devil’s Hole are hardly welcoming. Yet year after year, scientists climb the dangerous descent. Their goal? To count the few remaining fish that live on a small shallow shelf in these dark, warm, oxygen-depleted waters. These fish—the Devil’s Hole pupfish—are considered to be some of the most endangered fish in the world. They’re completely cut off from all other pupfish species, having lived in Devil’s Hole for countless generations, unable to reach their nearest cousins. In the spring of 2013, there were only 35 pupfish found during the September count. Only 35 members of this entire species left on Earth. Read More
The 3 Quarks Daily Science Prizes have been announced. Top Quark went to the ever-amazing Eric Michael Johnson for his deeply-researched and thought-engaging post on how Promiscuity Is Pragmatic. The second place slot, The Strange Quark, went to… ME!
I’m honored to be chosen for this award, judged by none other than the esteemed Frans B. M. de Waal. Eric and the third-place winner, Carl Zimmer, are both incredibly talented writers, and I’m truly humbled to be in such good company. For the Strange Quark, Frans picked my essay on Margie Profet and the counter-intuitive idea that allergies might actually be a good thing. Here’s what Frans had to say about the piece:
“My second choice is Christie Wilcox’s piece on the toxin hypothesis of allergies. It is well written and the recent mouse work she describes supports the view that allergies reflect a protective mechanism…
In fact, all three essays explore unusual ideas that seem to go against the mainstream, which makes for exciting reading, leaving one to wonder what other established ideas we may have wrong. As such, these authors promote the healthy skepticism that is the bedrock of science, and show that science is always in flux, always keeping us at the edge of our seat. In a society that sometimes turns away from science, or views it as a boring mass of facts, this is a most important message to convey.”
Shark Week is over, and as the week has progressed, the flood of negative press about Discovery’s favorite time of the year has weakened to a trickle. Instead, news organizations are talking about how well Discovery did this year in spite of the backlash. Shark Week “set records” say the headlines, and it’s no shock: given the increased sponsorship and the two-hour uptick in programming, Shark Week 2014 should have beaten 2013 with its fins tied behind its back. But guess what? It actually didn’t.
Discovery’s done just about all they can to spin the past week positively. “The King of Summer reigned with Discovery earning its highest-rated SHARK WEEK ever in its 27-year history,” begins Discovery’s most recent press release. The statement is so bold and so confident that one might miss the phrase “across several key demos” which immediately follows. A closer examination of the release reveals that the “good news” is riddled with caveats, in stark contrast to 2013’s version, which unabashedly bragged about being “the most-watched SHARK WEEK in the event’s 26 year history across all key demos” (emphasis mine). And even 2013 was trying to trump up the facts—it was only the second most-watched Shark Week ever in terms of total viewers.
The hard numbers are simple. In 2013, Shark Week drew in an average of 2,106,000 viewers during primetime programming. In 2014, Shark Week only garnered 6,000 more, even though they had 2 more hours of new specials and increased PR. In their key age demographic—18 to 49 year olds—there were 68,000 fewer viewers on average during primetime. Even if you look at the entire day, this year didn’t do better. In 2013, the total-day average for Discovery during Shark Week was 1,048,000 viewers—in 2014, that dropped to 1,035,000. Overall, it was only the third best Shark Week to date with 42 million total viewers, behind the 62.1 million viewers that tuned in for 2010 and 51 million viewers that watched in 2013. A 9 million viewer drop is not insignificant, especially when you have 2 more hours of time that you’ve produced to draw them in.
If you compare 2013 and 2014 Shark Weeks by day and time slot, a pattern emerges. Let’s start with Day 1: Sunday night is Discovery’s kick-off evening, and it was the night that Discovery aired the notorious Megalodon mockumentary last year. The fake footage seen round the world reeled in 4.8 million viewers, a good chunk of which then took to Discovery’s Facebook and Twitter to complain. Discovery decided to ignore the strong pushback and began 2014 on a similar note with Shark of Darkness, another 2 hour special focusing on a legendary shark that doesn’t exist using made-up events and fake footage to sell the story. Fool us once, shame on you, Discovery. Try to fool us twice, and you’ll net one million fewer viewers.
The rest of the week, Discovery was mostly unable to keep up with 2013’s viewership. Though the Shark After Dark talk show fared slightly better in 2013 (up 3%, according to Discovery), most of the programming lost little or lost big. The one notable exception was Alien Sharks 2, which netted more than 340,000 more viewers than the 2013 program that shared its timeslot, Spawn of Jaws. As the most science-based program of the week, Alien Sharks not only didn’t play into the fear-based hype of programs like Sharkageddon, it was the only show that didn’t focus on big, “scary” sharks (in other words, it was the only show that focused on the sharks that make up the vast majority of shark species).
Discovery’s viewers voted with their TVs, trying to send a clear message that science-heavy programming is what they want. That message is even clearer when you compare how the original Alien Sharks from 2013 did against the program in its time slot: Sharkageddon, arguably the most unscientific, fear-based program that Discovery Shark Week has ever created. Even with the hyperbolic title and promise to explain ‘the recent spike of shark attacks in Hawaii,’ Sharkageddon only drew in 2.4 million viewers, making it one of the least-watched programs of the year—over 700,000 viewer less than the same day and time reeled in last year with Alien Sharks.
But perhaps the most impressive PR spin was Discovery’s packaging of Shark Week’s social media coverage. Discovery was quick to point out that Shark Week “generated 70 primetime Trending Topics on Twitter over 7 days” and that “13 million people had more than 21 million interactions” on Facebook “marking the strongest year ever online”. Never mind that the Twitter buzz they bragged so much about was way down from last year according to Upwell—Discovery also glossed over the fact that the sentiment of this conversation was far from positive. A shocking 40% of social media mentions of Shark Week were negative, while an embarrassing 11% were positive, a recent analysis by the social media monitoring company Sysomos shows.
Discovery claimed their new approach to programming (read: fear-driven and fake) was designed to “appease a different audience”. Instead, they’ve pissed off a large chunk of their current one, and there’s no evidence that this new and different demographic is tuning in.
Not that Discovery is paying attention.
“Everyone is absolutely thrilled,” Michael Sorensen, Discovery’s vice president of development and production, told The LA Times just this week. “It shows you how engaged the ‘Shark Week’ fans are as we keep making it bigger and bigger.” I guess if by “engaged” he meant “outraged”, then perhaps Michael has a point. Shark Week fans are ‘engaging’ more and more through social media, telling Discovery just how little they appreciate the way they are lied to and manipulated. But the more Discovery ignores their comments, tweets, and posts, the less they will ‘engage’ at all.
So what will happen to Shark Week?
It’s hard to say. Discovery’s audience has tried to let them know that science trumps fear, and they’re sick of the same old ‘sharks are scary’ schtick. Yet at the same time, Discovery is going to find it’s hard to make science-based documentaries considering that Discovery has made a habit of betraying scientists’ trust, which means fewer and fewer will be willing to take the risk of working with them in the future. Besides, those scientists will be too busy fighting the array of myths about sharks that Shark Week has created to film incredible TV programs, especially considering that for all their talk of conservation, Shark Week doesn’t increase donations to shark research or conservation efforts (“It’s not easy to get people to rally around a creature that they’re conditioned to be afraid of” explains shark biologist Chris Lowe).
Meanwhile, Discovery seems hellbent on pretending that there’s nothing wrong on either front.
So my prediction? Shark Week 2015 will be even worse than 2014. There will be “more hours!” that will include more faked footage, more actors or waitresses portrayed as scientists, more fear, more hype, and more hyperbole. Discovery will continue to bluster on about how awesome they’re doing while scientists shake their fists and viewers do the only thing they can do to be heard: change the channel. We’ll just have to see if, after next year, Discovery will listen to them.
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.