National Geographic

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.

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

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):

There are 39 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Christopher
    May 29, 2013

    I sympathize. I often feel like I’m drowning in dumb, but then I do live in Missouri. For what it’s worth, I mentioned your book and E.O. Wilson’s on our local NPR station and reminding people that there is a whole other section of the library called Non-Fiction. Sadly, however, I fear we will be grasped tightly by ignorance and continue to wallow in mindless make believe for many years to come. Sorry, I have no answers…

  2. Andre
    May 30, 2013

    ALIENS! Mermaids are real – they are the descendants of ancient alien visitors, the children of the “god like” alien visitor, Poseidon! You know, the same bunch of ancient aliens pranksters who planted fake dinosaur bones in the ground to fool gullible humans!

    (kidding, of course)

  3. jorge perez
    May 30, 2013

    I just read all the article/blog however you want to call it. And I am glad that I did. Its amazing how ignorant people are that they believe everything they see on television and its really depressing knowing that they can’t see the truth because their own ignorance don’t let them see far beyond their nose. But it gives me hope that there is still a few people just like you that really keep digging to find the truth behind every story television has to offer . Thank you for the story keep upwith the good work

  4. Katie
    May 30, 2013

    I, too, sympathize with your frustrations. I work in science communication, although on a much smaller scale than you and yours at Phenomena. However, in the interest of bringing some “positive” back to the issue, I want to mention that the average person, at least in my experience, is more interested in science that you might give them credit for [and by way of disclaimer, I don’t mean this as a contradiction to your post, your points are very valid, but more of a reminder of the good things and the differences we CAN make].

    This is of course setting aside those whose firm personal beliefs unshakably block them from opening their minds to certain aspects of science (sadly, some of the more critical issues), but you will always have that. Historically, presently, and in the future- it’s part of human nature. But for the rest, I have found surprising receptiveness to interesting science among the “lay people.” In both my career and my personal life, I spend a lot of my time with the scientifically uninitiated, but I share science with them at every opportunity. Surprisingly, they are always interested. Granted, I get a lot of “yucks!” and “wish I didn’t know that, thanks…” but I do work in food virology where many of the “yucks” abound. Even so, and even among the less open-minded, there’s often at least some piece of science the person will enjoy. And even if it’s a little bit (and doesn’t stop climate change) at least they learned and appreciated something. Who knows, maybe they even told a friend.

    On another note, I’m not sure I agree that we don’t need fantasy and mythological creatures; imagination is important. But I also think you really hit the nail on the head with your comments that the approach is key. A historical perspective on said fantasy, as you mention, is a fantastic approach- ideas, icons, images, etc., that spark curiosity are the key to getting non-scientists to pay attention to science to begin with.

    So many people in science get frustrated when they cannot share their passion with others. Sadly, when you lose patience, others lose receptiveness. This makes our jobs even more important. I really believe this issue, like any instance of change, is not going to resolve with a moment of mass enlightenment. It’s the not-so-quiet persistence of scientists, science communicators, and science lovers sharing with those who aren’t, that will make a difference. So don’t lose hope- as you mention, the best you can do is to keep sharing what you can. I know I’m “preaching to the choir,” but sometimes we need a reminder that someone other than the choir is listening, too.

  5. Stephen
    May 30, 2013

    You suck just as much as Discovery (or Animal Planet) does. Nowhere, and I mean no-[expletive deleted]-where, did you give any sort of evidence to disprove what they claim in the shows. Yet, here you are bitching about how these shows are fake. Oh? Well, they sure put forth a lot more evidence than you do. Learn to back up your [expletive deleted] talk.

  6. Jim Kirkland
    May 30, 2013

    Thanks for fighting the good fight. People need to doubt everything they read. As a scientist, I know. We beat the hell out of each others research. You need a thick skin, but that is what makes the scientific method work; prove me wrong. Eventually, the weight of repeated examination of the facts will stack support of the truth.

    And Stephen. In a couple of hundred years their have been no fossil evidence of mermaids and while we’ve filmed Giant Squids in the deep and really found them washed ashore; NO museum has a ,mermaid in the their collections.

  7. Hominid
    May 30, 2013

    Weak-minded people (the vast majority of mankind) will always be enamored of grand conceptions of the supernatural. Face it.

  8. A. D. Fitzgerald
    May 30, 2013

    So sad that some people are convinced that mermaids are real, while the oceans hold life forms that are more bizarre than they can imagine. Mermaids simply cannot compete with the weirdness of anglerfish reproduction!

  9. Bert
    May 30, 2013

    Stephen, you have serious issues.

  10. Matt Martinez
    May 30, 2013

    Excellent stuff Brian.
    Big fan of Laelaps (read it everyday) and all the other Phenomena blogs. I see others have responded to the resident fanatic Stephen, so i won’t beat a dead horse (even if that dead horse is wrong, and belligerent). I happen to be an education professional who deals with 5th grade students on a daily basis. I share your fear of this danger of information flaunted as fact, mostly for the childrens sake. I remember a time when i could tell the kids to watch something on discovery without having to worry about fact checking and even out-right fibs. The goal of these “science” channels should be first to educate and then to entertain. But as long as people like us aren’t writing the checks, i also believe that this is only the beginning of these faux documentaries. Sex sells. And apparently, so do Mermaids, Bigfoot and the rest of the fairy tale squad.

  11. Steve B.
    May 30, 2013

    I’ve seen the ads for these shows. I did not know the shows themselves were intentionally faked documentaries. I recall seeing a similarly faked documentary about dragons a few years back on cable. I had assumed this mermaid show would be on the level of Bigfoot and UFO shows . . . lots of anecdotal tales but no real evidence.

    Actually this reminds me of some of the History Channel shows that offer skewed versions of history. Many shows about early Christianity, for instance, reflect DaVinci Code inspired conspiracy theories more than mainstream history.

    I am increasingly taking with a grain of salt most information I receive.

  12. Zach Miller
    May 30, 2013

    It’s a conspiracy, Jim; they hold the mermaids in the same room as the Roswell aliens and Nazi spaceships.

  13. shelldigger
    May 30, 2013

    @ Stephen. Clearly one man’s definition of evidence is, well…different from yours lol.

    Mr Switek thank you. Cable TV has gone over the edge, and we need to speak up about it as loudly and often as possible. Job well done.

  14. Elisabeth
    May 31, 2013

    Brian, have you read _Demon-haunted World_ by Carl Sagan? Your feeling of hopelessness reminds me of something in the book. Sagan has an anecdote about talking to a cab driver (I think?) who asked him about all sorts of pseudoscience things and Sagan ends up feeling that science has failed the man somehow. The man wanted to know about things that were wondrous and inspiring but somehow true science hadn’t drawn him in the same way pseudoscience had.

    Both you and Sagan seem to be making the point that people find pseudoscience more attractive than real science. I think we need to ask *why* pseudoscience is more attractive. What has pseudoscience got that real science doesn’t?

  15. Rajesh Deb
    May 31, 2013

    If they are not real, so, from where the Greek Mythology or people get there conceptions of these creature???

  16. Dani
    May 31, 2013

    90% of the ocean is unexplored, and you’re telling me that you’re SURE that merpeople don’t exist!!?? Isn’t that a little crazy??!!

  17. St. Christopher
    May 31, 2013

    I know that I should not be but, I feel as if I have been lied to. I do not watch reality TV, or much TV at all for that matter but, I do love documenteries and the Science channels, “how they make that” and so on. I understand that one is not supposed to believe everything they see on TV but, I was really fooled by the Mermaid documentary. The disclaimer was gone way to fast but, I was fascinated at what was shown. To be honest, the next morning when i woke and started digging more into the research of the show and findings, I fealt real stupid when everywhere on the internet it was clear that the program was fiction. I was very angry because I do not believe that should be allowed, to let information come off like truth but be total fiction. In my eyes, Discovery/ Animal Planet has lost credibility.

  18. Eric
    May 31, 2013

    I don’t agree with your findings. It sounds like you have a problem with people living “in the moment” instead of planning for the future. Sometimes a fantastical journey begins with the first boring footstep. Think about all of those historical maps out there – with sea creatures or fantastic monsters in the areas which weren’t mapped. Was there substantiated evidence of these creatures, or were the drawings put there to say “hey, I have no idea if there is anything here, so I will put in a creature”? Did future geographers and scientists believe that these creatures existed – they sure did. Your diatribe on a population that “believes” in mermaids because Animal Planet didn’t offer enough disclaimers is hilarious. To sit there and actually cry about Animal Planet NOT offering up enough disclaimers to warn the viewing public that the show was fictionalized is hypocritical, I bet. Do you watch commercials and complain about the Ford Fusion and how it “can’t fly”, or the Fiat 500 cannot actually travel across the Atlantic to America? Did you cry when “The Blair Witch Project” was found to be fake? How about “Paranormal Activity” or that the “Amityville Horror” was proven to have been faked? Did you know that there are still people who say that the U.S. never landed on the moon? Why not believe that theory – CGI effects are astounding compared to the f/x of the 1960s! Is Rover really on Mars? I watch these show for the entertainment aspect. It’s not the viewer that needs to grow up, it’s people like you who cannot handle that sometimes people need a mental vacation. I will leave you with some lyrics from “Dreamer” by Supertramp: “Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer. Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no! I said “far out, what a day, a year, a laugh it is!” You know, well you know you had it comin’ to you, Now there’s not a lot I can do.”

  19. Judy Tsao
    May 31, 2013

    “Without an open-minded mind, you can never be a great success”

  20. Jean Kauffman
    May 31, 2013

    “Fictional documentary” is a contradiction in terms. This sort of thing misleads the impressionable and I find it very objectionable.

  21. Mike Huggins
    May 31, 2013

    Would anyone like to buy a bridge in Brooklyn? Real cheap!

  22. Anne
    May 31, 2013

    Dear Stephen, the evidence is provided in Brian’s previous background article, which link he provided here. Quit your expletives. They don’t add to the debate. The purpose of the article – if u didn’t catch it – was not really to debunk over & over again this fauxumentary on mermaids. If you want to find out the truth, by all means read up and engage scientists in the blogosphere/social media.

  23. Lisa
    May 31, 2013

    I really think we need a channel that focuses on really hard core science but makes it accessible to the masses. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some National Geographic but I do feel that their concentration is more on people, places and animals. What about all the little stuff that people can’t see with the naked eye. What about the biology, physics, chemistry behind things we interact with every day. I have worked in the biological science field for over 10 years and “doing science” is totally rad. It is amazing the things we have discovered and achieved. I think with the right combination of PhDs, marketing, and writers you could make some highly entertaining and informative science television. In addition you are providing a service to the community. By educating people in scientific concepts you enable them to ask the right questions at the doctor’s office, to read and understand food labels, and to not be afraid of things they do not understand. Most importantly you teach them that no one knows everything but there is a very high probability that mermaids do not exist.

  24. Izzy
    May 31, 2013

    I am 14 years old and I approve this message. It’s shocking how many people believe this sort of thing. I remember when there used to be actually informative programs on Animal Planet. I would watch those shows all the time! When they started showing all these weird shows, like “My Cat From Hell” for instance, I just completely stopped watching the channel. When I look around my classroom, its very irritating that many kids my age would believe this kind of thing (at least I’m pretty sure some would). For the most part, I’m ashamed of my generation.

  25. destiny
    May 31, 2013

    i think mermaids are real because according to the such as hyroglyphics the cavemen or the early humans had put mermaids to hiding.

  26. oddzball
    June 1, 2013

    These Mermaids are linked to the Martian invasion of 1938.

  27. Jonny O
    June 2, 2013

    I am a scientist who supports the accurate communication of fact. I am also a media-maker who understands the notion of “entertainment.” Seriously, anything and everything on television is “entertainment.” If you want “real science” go to published journals that feature peer-reviewed articles. Seriously, if you are getting your “science” from cable stations…

  28. beetlerace
    June 3, 2013

    Wow, there’s a disturbing peppering of mermaid believers on this comment thread. I would urge those people to learn more about evolution — the idea of a branch of primates returning to the ocean is so out there… PLEASE, trust real scientists when they tell you how preposterous the idea is! You are falling victim to a program that preys on your ignorance of science, and penchant for conspiracy.

    Who am I kidding? People will believe what they want to believe, evidence be damned (cryptozoology in a nutshell).

  29. Mon Acosta
    June 4, 2013

    @Johnny O, you cannot expect people to read scientific journals to learn.

    I work at a research funding agency and I tell you how tedious for our writers to write articles based on scientific literature. Animal Planet (as well as other similar networks), being channels that supposedly feature science, have the responsibility to translate scientific facts into what ordinary people can digest. Their word is the truth for many.

    This is not because ordinary people are dumb. It just that people have different expertise and line of work. Not everyone is a scientist. This is why these channels exist. They are the ones that inform nonscience people about the world of science.

  30. Herman Diaz
    June 4, 2013

    1stly, as others have said b-4 me, I sympathize w/you.

    2ndly, for what it’s worth, this article reminds me of an episode of “Sid the Science Kid” ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2393363/ ) which teaches the same lesson (that not everything on TV/the Internet is true) AWA how to tell whether something is true.

  31. Kessa Russell
    June 7, 2013

    i dont get it. i saw the program and some of the pictures looked real but then others did not look real. like the video with the boys. was it real or fake. can we just find out the truth. And if they are real why have we not found a live one. and if we do lets leave them alone. because they have rights too. so can we just find out if they are real or not. thanks.

  32. l georgia
    June 9, 2013

    I don’t understand why it is such a big deal if people want to believe in mermaids then let them its not hurting you so why are you complaining we can not say for a fact that mermaids do or do not exist…so I do not see why people are trying so hard to try to make people believe they don’t exist…if they do then they do..if they don’t then they don’t obviously we probably will never know if they are real or not……so just let people believe what they want its not that big deal for crying out loud relax and chill out geeze

  33. mermaid
    June 30, 2013

    real or not? People believing everything they see on t.v., disturbing..yes. What’s more disturbing is how human impact effects the oceans and its wildlife. It doesn’t take a genius to put the need for entertainment and the human impact on oceans together. Mermaids.. real or not. I believe the the topic was construed to create awareness of harmful Naval Sonar testing. And its sad to say it takes a fantasy to catch the attention of the public’s eye. People can believe what they want and always will but I hope they take in the facts as well as the fantasy.

  34. Nathan
    July 1, 2013

    exactly georgia, it was a good watch to anyone with an open mind.. most of our planets waters have yet to be explored so for a “scientist” to say they dont exist without exploring ALL area’s to prove they dont, makes me wonder how many mistakes these so called “scientists” have made over time due to such ignorance. we have yet to explore all of space and yet to find any physical proof intelligent life exists out there does that mean there is none? NO! time to step outside the box my friendly scientists.. time to stop hiding.. time for progress to resume and the mainstream to putup or shutup…

  35. Zucharm
    July 9, 2013

    In my own opinion, it doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. What matters is, if its out there then it is. But if its not, then it’s not. Everything exist for a reason. Who knows??

  36. Jimtac
    August 5, 2013

    As far as the need for another “Carl Sagan type” to go on networks like CNN to denounce the show as tripe, I see the problem as being a bigger issue of the plethora of specialty channels and to a greater degree the internet where discussions are increasingly held inside those echo chambers.

    Just as people tend to gravitate to the news channels that cater to their particular biases, the same is true for people searching out like-minded individuals on the internet, and once they find them there’s no reason to look further. The reinforcement that is provided by finding other like-minded individuals is intoxicating to some who are truly looking for their beliefs to be validated. Science geeks frequent science heavy sites, Bigfoot fans will seek out cryptozoological forums, Porsche enthusiasts find Porsche websites, and so on.

    Unfortunately once people find their specialized community, they quickly feel a sense of belonging and even ownership. Because of this, when the community’s beliefs are challenged in any way all other opinions must be defended against, and they rally on the sites which they know will again reinforce their “correctness”.

    I don’t believe that there are any “conspiracies” to further this behavior, but rather that it is a natural product of our inane desire to belong to a group, and desire to defend our tribe. It’s not healthy or an excuse, but I see it as a reason.

  37. george
    September 30, 2013

    hi everyone pro, or contra! of course difficulties are part of our very existence. debates are part of constructive arguments indeed! provided that evidence and experimental data are the axioms that proceed the debate. all agree? lets move onto the greatest difficulty of all! knowledge is the most beautiful and exciting,sadly, along with the understanding of it’s purpose, it makes it the most difficult thing that our universe has ever created. WE MUST LEARN TO WALK BEFORE RUN. and just to remind you how a difficult task this is, I suggest to learn a discipline of science in depth outside your field of knowledge…

  38. george
    September 30, 2013

    jimtac I cannot agree with you more! what constitutes familiarity makes us what we are. science will take us on a journey out of our comfort zone and teach us, but our constituency or tribe for that matter, will always keep us in check. whether there are valid reasons or simply subjective arrogance and ignorance on that communities part! how do we get vibrating on the same wave length when it really matters? I don’t know but what I do know, is that unless we try harder we might not make it, taking most of other species with us to that biblical paradise!!!

  39. Rick
    March 23, 2014

    I could see a fish of this size going undetected. But a creature that has to breath air would be to hard conceal from common knowledge.

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