May 312013

Fake documentaries have been around forever. Fake documentaries about truly wacky stuff are rarer, and making them truly believable, rarer still. With the advent of affordable and quality computer graphics, more and more fictional presentations are tricking people to believe in fictional stuff. One of the more recent examples of this are two “mockumentaries” on Animal Planet that purport to show evidence of the existence of mermaids. The evidence is convincingly presented in the form of supposed YouTube videos, everything from crappy cell phone vids to video from remotely operated subs to the inevitable government conspiracy videos.

But it’s still fake. And it seems to be irritating marine biologists.

No, Mermaids Do Not Exist

This week, Animal Planet aired two fake documentaries claiming to show scientific evidence of mermaids. I say “fake documentaries” because that’s exactly what The Body Found and The New Evidence are. The “scientists” interviewed in the show are actors, and there’s a brief disclaimer during the end credits. … It is, after all, airing on a network that claims to focus on educating viewers about the natural world. “The Body Found” was rightfully described “the rotting carcass of science television,” and I was shocked to see Animal Planet air a sequel.

The author of the piece goes on to give reasons why promoting “mermaids are real” is a bad idea, mostly revolving around the notion that the ocean and its resources are in trouble. But there is a more fundamental issue: convincing people to believe in stuff that simply doesn’t exist is bad for society as a whole. Mermaids,  “ghost hunters,” “ancient aliens,” “Nazi flying saucers,” “bigfoot hunters,” “pet psychics (or *any* psychics),” and all the rest of it are all based on wishful thinking rather than facts and critical thinking. By promoting such things as worthwhile endeavors, the producers are promoting a worldview where it’s ok and common to believe *anything* so long as it’s interesting or entertaining. Given how readily so many people will believe in utter rubbish anyway – faith healing, “intelligent design,” belief that vaccines cause autism, collectivism, so on – promoting a lack of skepticism will only make things *worse.*

An upside might be that when people realize that “Mermaids” and others are just fictional BS, maybe they’ll realize how easily they can be tricked, and will be more skeptical going forward. But history does not really support that thin hope.

 Posted by at 9:38 am
  • Mark Temple

    i remember when the “Dragons, a Fantasy made real” fake documentary was put out by Animal Planet. it was a Fake Documentary about how a dragon carcass was found preserved in a glacier, and how the group of scientists brought in to study it pieced together not only dragon biology (like a third lung turned gas bladder for flammable lift gas, platinum catalyst fire breath, etc), but also much of its (fake) evolutionary history. interspersed with diary type segments narrated by the head researcher showing how they were finding out how it lived was ‘walking with dinosaurs’ type segments showing different species of dragons through the history of earth, from the earliest ones in the Mesozoic, to the aquatic ones that fought early whales, to the ones that
    cavemen stole fire from. ending with the one that took an icecave in a glacier as a home in the middle ages, and was killed by a knight.. the one that was found at the start of the show.

    the science wasn’t bad, considering the topic, just very speculative and unlikely. but it had a lot of people convinced that Dragons were real, despite the fact there was a disclaimer at the end of every single commercial break that what was being shown was a work of pure fiction.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I saw that. Heck, I even have the DVD… it was entertaining.

      > ‘walking with dinosaurs’ type segments

      IIRC, the special effects were by the same folks that did WWD.

      > the science wasn’t bad,

      They did the best they could within the constraints, just as the Mermaid people did. “If dragons/mermaids actually existed, how might they have evolved?” Makes an interesting thought experiment. But especially with “Mermaids” they went too far, IMO, in trying to make a “documentary.”

  • Jordan

    It’s the power of myth, people need to have something to believe in. Whether that’s Mermaids or Hope.

    • Anonymous

      > people need to have something to believe in.

      That’s nice. But people are better off believing in what’s really *real,* rather than invented nonsense. If I get bronchitis, I can believe in Medical Science, or I can believe in Prayer, or I can believe in Magic Nose Goblins or Aliens or Spirits or Newage. One of those has actually demonstrated levels of success.

      If you start believing in lies, you start living lies.

      • LordJim

        Which can be better than living reality.

  • Matt

    I seem to recall reading that the professional hoax used to be a semi-respectable genre of literature, back in the 19th century. If they’re including the appropriate disclaimers (hell, even if they aren’t, for stuff this far into the realm of fantasy), I say any blame for being fooled falls on the gullible, not the producers or the channel. If we continue to pitch everything to the lowest common denominator of viewer intelligence, the bar will just continue to get lower.

    • Anonymous

      On one hand I agree… get taken in by patent nonsense, it’s your fault. Buuuuut… there can be some mitigating circumstances:
      1) With TV shows, people tend to only pay part-time attention. If you don;t watch every single second, you might miss the fine print.
      2) With the improvements in CG, fakery can be harder and harder to spot.

      And on another hand: if you *don’t* pitch facts to the lowest common denominator, those pitching bullcrap to ’em will continue. And then you’ll end up with even more magical thinking than we already have. The result of *that* will be even more political popularity for nonsense like teaching “intelligent design” in science classes, political correctness and the likes of Sheila Jackson Lee.

  • allen

    I help run a “ghost hunting” group. 99% of the things you see on those shows are CRAP. they aren’t interested in science, only something that will shock the audience. I understand that science isn’t all that entertaining, and we’ll do 40-50 hours of investigating before you get something we can’t explain away…only to have a photography or sound expert tell us it’s an echo, or a shadow, or a rare equipment glitch they’ve only seen once or twice in 40 years. and that doesn’t make good TV.

    and then you get something like this…and everyone we’ve showed it to has been stumped.

    we’ve tried to replicate it, and .we haven’t been able to come anywhere close. a ghost? who knows. I know its not one of us, or a camera strap.

    • Anonymous

      > everyone we’ve showed it to has been stumped.

      Here’s your problem: you didn’t turn the lights on. How are you supposed to see a ghost in the dark?

  • publiusr

    Ah–forget Mermaids.
    Slenderman is cooler 😉