A loose seal, not a mermaid.
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Photo by Brian Switek.
A loose seal, not a mermaid.

Mermaids Return From the Depths of TV’s Chum Bucket

Mermaids are not real. I really shouldn’t have to say that. That statement is as evident as “Don’t drink antifreeze!” Yet, for the second time in as many years, the Discovery spawn Animal Planet has duped Poseidon only knows how many viewers into believing that merpeople swim among us with their program Mermaids: The New Evidence.

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My reaction when I first heard there was going to be a second Mermaids show.

The fictional interview, paired with a re-airing of last year’s noxious Mermaids: The Body Found, tugged over 3.6 million viewers into the inky depths of fauxumentary. (If you want the backstory, read my equally-ornery commentary from last year.) That makes the show the most-watched bit of flotsam that Animal Planet has ever aired. And while I too know the scientist’s mantra of “Anecdotes are not data!”, Twitter chatter and frustrated emails from friends suggest that many viewers thought what they were seeing was real, authentic evidence of Ichthyo sapiens. And that’s despite the disclaimer that

NONE OF THE INDIVIDUALS OR ENTITIES DEPICTED IN THE FILM ARE AFFILIATED OR ASSOCIATED WITH IT IN ANY WAY, NOR HAVE APPROVED ITS CONTENTS. ANY SIMILARITIES TO ACTUAL PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD ARE ENTIRELY COINCIDENTAL.

Granted, the fact that the mermaid shows are fiction was easy enough to miss. Animal Planet certainly played up how authentic the illusory evidence was, including faked vlogs that didn’t bother to say that they were scripted. (Duh, I know, but given how many people believe in mermaids because they saw some bad CGI critters on television, this needed to be spelled out in big flashing red letters. Who knows how many people are now going to be confusing mermaids with loose seals?) The channel’s page about Monster Week – of which the mermaids sludge was a part – likewise touts “physical evidence linked to the existence of mermaids” without saying the show is a fantasy. So, essentially, Animal Planet is like that annoying friend who piles contradictions on contradictions. “Mermaids are real! Not really. Just kidding, they’re everywhere. Unless they’re not, which is true. Maybe.” Makes you want to dash someone across the face with a fish.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t really care that Animal Planet made a show about mermaids. The actual subject matter isn’t what sending me into a snit. The approach is.

A program looking at the natural history of mermaid myths and old, gnarled taxidermy creatures molded into mermaid shape could have been fun, or even a show that asked “How would we need to change our bodies to live entirely at sea?” There certainly are ways to bring mythology and science together in an entertaining cocktail. Even if the program was clearer about the whole thing being a fantasy, I’d be mollified. Instead, we’ve got a network whose reputation was built on reflecting natural reality intentionally trying to mislead and confuse.

The worst part is that the ploy worked.

Over the past few days, a great deal of virtual ink has been spilled over the idea that we need another Carl Sagan. Or perhaps an army of Sagan clones. Or perhaps billions and billions of Sagan cyborgs. The plans are still under review. Be that as it may, the aim would be to have a celebrity scientist who can quickly assess and refute wonky claims – One Scientist to Rule Them All. Sagan reborn would quickly go on CNN or a late show, say “Look, there are no mermaids, and the show itself said it was fake”, and then the public would sagely nod, having avoided the clutches of woo. But here’s the problem with that fantasy. We already have celebrity scientists. We’ve got Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others who regularly appear on television to bring science and skepticism to the public. Yet the rejection of evolution is the same as ever, people still stubbornly deny that human-caused climate change is a reality, and lots of folks who now believe in mermaids just because they saw computer-generated fishpeople on television.

We don’t need another Carl Sagan. Today’s skilled science communicators – and we are legion – need to figure out how to amplify what we have to say and actually meet an audience that doesn’t seem especially interested in science or even maintaining a functioning bullshit filter. That’s the tragedy of Mermaids – not that the show exists, but that the standard for evidence is so low that almost anything ensconced in the soft glow of the television is taken as a reality. This isn’t new for nature films (nor other visual media, viz. how popular Glenn Beck’s witless and factless tantrums were before he got booted from TV). So-called “science” channels regularly play up drama to create a false vision of wildlife, and, as filmmaker Chris Palmer explained in his book Shooting in the Wild, documentarians have not been above faking scenes for the cameras. Even the venerable David Attenborough has played a part in doctored views of wildlife (SHOCK! HORROR!).

True, the twin Mermaids shows are of a different sort of beast from the standard nature film. From start to finish, the programs are fiction. Yet they are an extension of what many programs, and channels such as Animal Planet, have been doing for years. They’ve presented an edited and constructed vision of nature that may not actually match the reality they purport to show. These programs are planned and scripted like any other. This is often lost when we (erroneously) believe we’re looking at a true window into nature, however, and so Animal Planet was able to use an undeserved amount of credibility to convince many people that a fiction was a truth.

With record-breaking viewership, I’m sure we’ll see more fauxumentaries in the near future. This is the Michael Bay Effect. No matter how odious or mind-numbing the film, if enough people watch then the creators of such unmitigated dreck will be praised and asked to produce another steaming pile of visual offal. And that’s bad news for science communication. Television is an intensely powerful medium, and channels who have branded themselves as science or reality-focused have realized that they can increase their audience, and hence rake in more money, by using P.T. Barnum’s playbook. Animal Planet GM Marjorie Kaplan says the channel is “thinking big” about how to follow the success of Mermaids, so I suppose we should expect a cooking show hosted by the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot doing a stint hosting My Cat From Hell sometime soon.

I don’t know what to do about this. Honestly, I feel rather hopeless. Finding an audience for exciting, accurate science as difficult as ever, and some of the outlets we could use to better communicate our passion for the universe are openly hostile to science and even basic values such as honesty in presentation. Not even the combined might of resurrected  Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Isaac Asimov could help us now. All I can do is keep digging and keep talking, expressing how the world we exist in is far more wonderful and strange than anything we could possibly imagine. We don’t need mermaids or other mythical beings. The reality of life on Earth is far more spectacular than can be dreamed – just look at dinosaurs, to start – but how can we bring that kind of awe and affection to those outside of our little science circles? That’s a challenge that is never going to disappear.

Coda: I hate to end on such a negative note. So here’s Great Big Sea, to tell you a cautionary tale about non-existent aquatic humanoids (starts at 0:40):