Animal Planet’s Monster Week tones down the hype for 2016

jump_the_sharkIt’s business as usual at Animal Planet channel. It’s Monster Week. You know, it’s not that bad to air shows like The Cannibal in the Jungle for one week or on occasion. But AnPlan has gone too far in the past several years by suggesting that mermaids, Megalodon and cryptids exist by co-opting bad or outright FAKE science to make people think there is more support for these claims than there really are.

Animal Planet and Discovery channel (both of Discovery Network) often share shows so you may have seen a variety of strange offerings on both. (A complete list of paranormal programming in English, go to my list here.) For AnPlan in particular, fiction began to overtake nature programming in 1997 with the show Animal X about mystery cryptids. Then, they got into the Pet Psychic shows from 2002-2004 and again in 2010. But seriously, pet psychic shows are not even interesting and are kind of ridiculous even to the average person who believes in psychic abilities. River Monsters began in 2009 and is still going. It’s not exactly an unnatural program but occasionally does hype up the drama and lead viewers to misleading ideas. This hinted at what was to come – actual cryptid hunting.

Finding Bigfoot was a ratings success at AnPlan starting in 2011, becoming its top rated series (for a time – I think River Monsters may now hold that spot). Then, in 2012, the shit really began to hit the TV screen. Mermaids: A Body Found was a fictional show that was made to look like an actual documentary. The two-hour special used fake footage, CGI, fake “underwater sound recordings”, and had actors portray scientists to discuss the thoroughly dismissed “aquatic ape theory”. There was an immediate response. People who expect to see science on AnPlan thought this was science! There were some who actually believed mermaids were real and the government was hiding the truth! The NOAA had to issue a public statement to assure the nation that, no, mermaids were NOT real. The network had gone off the deep end but took the position that ratings were more important than information about real animals. After the raging success of Mermaids for Monster Week 2012, a sequel came in 2013 with even more misleading content and fake scientists. Also included in the 2013 Monster Week were programs that sounded like Roger Corman movies: Man-eating Squid, Invasion of the Swamp Monsters, and Invasion of the Mutant Pigs. Discovery Channel meanwhile was basking in the glow of confusing the public again with a fake documentary on an extinct giant shark that they wanted you to think was still around. Cue fake footage and doctored photos. This was the end of association with the network by many scientists who had had enough.mermaids-e1368894096230

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Sciencey: People get it

In the course of writing, there are times when you have to either create a new word because there isn’t just the right one coined yet or you adopt a word, use it three times, and make it your own.

My research and writing for the public has often been about how activities, advertisements, and ideas might sound a lot like science, using science-sounding terms, but are not in the mode of science at all. They are false science, dressed up as science, pretending to be or imitating science. I call it “sciencey” stuff because it appears to pertain to science. This word existed but I made it my own, applying it to this construction.

You can read articles on this theme from my column for Center of Inquiry online called “Sounds Sciencey” for many and various examples.

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Just because you are “sciencey” does not mean you are “scientific”. I use the word “scientifical” to describe the activities of those who deliberately pretend to act like scientists. This does a fine job of fooling the public from product advertisements to non-traditional cures and treatments and even on television where people hunt for ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Keep using that word, I would love to see that get into the mainstream as well.

I hold that the reason the public is so easy to fool with sciencey and scientifical ploys is that, at least the American public, is not well-versed in what science is and how it works. We don’t have good science education in school and science as a career or even an interest is not encouraged. So, we will end up with what Carl Sagan said:

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
~Carl Sagan

That’s a very bad thing not just because we can’t fix our own gadgets these days, but because we risk being snookered by a sciencey put-on without scientific merit.

I contributed a small part to the marvelous book Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. Daniel Loxton was thoughtful to send along a copy of a recent review of the book done by Robert Bishop for Christianity Today magazine’s Books & Culture site. The review was titled “Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.”  Apparently, the “sciencey” aspect of cryptozoology is resonating. He writes:

One possibility for why belief in cryptids is so high in America is that few Americans—even the highly educated—actually understand much about the processes and principles of scientific inquiry. Cryptozoology superficially appears to be scientific, and a number of people mistake it for scientific activity. It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong.

YES! He gets it.

It’s my hope that what I share publicly (outside my everyday job) makes some sort of impact. That’s a goal, but a difficult one to measure. It feels so good to have those few moments where you see something you do gets understood, appreciated and passed along to other audiences. A Christian magazine? Who would have thought? But it’s great. There have been other occasions, too, where people are clearly “getting it” – a topic is not science but sciencey. It really is important to distinguish between the two.

are you scienceyLater this month I’ll be giving a talk at the Albatwitch festival to a crowd that, probably even more so than the general public, is inclined to believe in the paranormal. My goal for this is to not be the grumpy debunker but to explain how science has previously looked at the paranormal and why it was rejected. Then, I intend to show how these lessons can be useful for today’s paranormal investigator. In other words, don’t pretend to be a scientist, don’t be sciencey or act scientifical. Do solid work instead.

If they get it, like Bishop got it in his review, that’s a huge win for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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References

Hill, 2010. “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.”  https://idoubtit.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/hill_arigs_being_scientifical_thesis.pdf

Hill, 2012. “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things”, Skeptical Inquirer 36:2 March/April 2012.  http://www.csicop.org/si/show/amateur_paranormal_research_and_investigation_groups_doing_sciencey_things

“Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.” http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2015/sepoct/scientific-or- sciencey.html [Full text here, please do not distribute.]