Fake Science and Fake Reality on Television

Mermaids: The Body FoundAre mermaids real? Well, they certainly were in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — the best film in the series. But if you are a viewer of the supposedly science oriented Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, well, you might think they actually existed once in the real world, and it is only because of a government cover-up that it isn’t in all the papers. Because that is what the 90 minute long “documentary” Mermaids: The Body Found disclosed. I know this because my father came to me in a state of confusion and agitation after having seen it. And how could he know it wasn’t real? After all, they didn’t show it on History Channel.

The film was designed to deceive. According to Brad Newsome at The Sydney Morning Herald, “Here’s a new low in supposedly educational television. It’s a fake feature-length documentary that doesn’t ‘fess up to being fiction until a disclaimer pops up at the end. Until then we have what looks like a slick documentary about the discovery of mermaids and a conspiracy to keep them hidden.” People of my father’s generation generally think that when people go to the trouble of making films, they are at least trying to be honest. They don’t go in for that whole postmodern Blair Witch Project nonsense.

I remember when I was a graduate student, I was in the habit of putting up the covers of Weekly World News on my office wall. This was around the time that Bat Boy first showed up and I just loved it. One time, I had up a cover with some sea monster that had allegedly been found in Lake Michigan. One evening, our regular janitor saw the cover and became very concerned. He said, “I used to live on Lake Michigan and I never saw anything like that.” I tried to explain to him that I didn’t think it was real, but the fact that the tabloid looked real left him unconvinced.

After that, I stopped putting the covers up in my office. It had never occurred to me that people would actually think they reported the truth. And I remember clearly watching television movies as a child and thinking that certain apocalyptic movies were telling the truth about something that was really going on. It concerned me a great deal. So I don’t want to do that to other naive people. But the thing about those dramas was that (1) they were about actual things that were going on, but in a more dramatic setting (think: The China Syndrome); and (2) they weren’t trying to deceive anyone. But that clearly isn’t the case now.

Another part of the problem is that channels now have pretty much no relationship to what they nominally offer. Last year, Ross Pomeroy wrote, Dear Discovery Channel: Less Pseudoscience, More Discovering, Please. In it, he noted, “Discovery Channel’s slogan is brief and to the point: ‘The World Is Just Awesome.’ It’s just not awesome enough for them, apparently.” Back in 2011, PhD Comics summed up the problem nicely:

Science Programming

It’s all pathetic. And even worse, is the state of “reality television.” At least Mermaids: The Body Found was well done. They properly noted that the mermaids (if they existed) would be more like half human and half dolphin rather than human-fish. And the CGI was quite good. But “reality television” is now a big deal because it is cheap to produce. People put up with the fact that it is really pretty boring because of the heightened excitement that it is real. The problem, of course, is that actual reality is even more boring than “reality television.” So we end up with scandals like the fact that Alaskan Bush People aren’t even full-time residents of Alaska.

It’s not just in politics where Americans will accept total crap. It appears that that Americans will accept total crap in all aspects of their lives. I was never much of a fan of I Love Lucy, but there is no doubt that it is far better than the majority of stuff people happily pay to get pumped into their houses. Thank God for Bob’s Burgers, or I would think all hope was lost.

6 thoughts on “Fake Science and Fake Reality on Television

  1. Even PBS’ entry into the “science programming” category, NOVA would probably pie chart out to maybe 60% military aerospace topics and 40% “all other science and technology topics.” I don’t get cable, but being in the Detroit area, I do get Canadian TV. TVO carries a lot of National Geographic Channel content which annoys the bejezus out of me because they tend to have narrators who speak with voice mannerisms of the “carnival barker” type more familiar to TV viewers in ads for replacement window contractors and furniture stores. To their credit, TVO carries a lot of science (and other) programming of British origin that is to die for.

    • Yeah, this really bothers me. It also bothers me how cheaply corporate American buys its influence. It doesn’t pay that much to PBS/NPR, but gets its way anyway. I think the bigger problem is that the PBS/NPR executives are so afraid of being called liberal, they become conservative. But the biggest problem, as you indicate, is the distortion of what they do shows on.

    • NOVA has huge funding from the Kochs, it’s announced before every episode. Sad, because it used to be an interesting show.

      • Not just NOVA. And they push their weight around big time. And PBS shows itself to be exactly as committed to the ideals of independent broadcasting as you would expect.

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