Tonight, three stars from the classic comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000 are going to do something I never thought possible – they’re going to make terrible natural history television watchable.
In celebration of April Fools’ Day, the National Geographic Channel has offered up some of their shows to the fearsome riffing abilities of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Just think of the trio as comedic Deinonychus, pinning down prey with jokes instead of switchblade-like claws. (No apologies for any nightmares induced by that last sentence.)
I was ecstatic when I heard the news. My Saturday mornings weren’t complete without watching these guys punch up b-movie cheese like The Blood Waters of Dr. Z and Track of the Moon Beast, and I’ve avidly followed the trio as they’ve joked their way through modern Hollywood sludge like Transformers and Twilight at RiffTrax. And given that Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett have already warmed up with shorts on baby moose and the reproductive lives of pigs – I still can’t hear the word “parturition” without letting out a brief scream – I couldn’t wait to watch their take at some of the National Geographic Channel’s less-than-stellar recent programming.
I’ve only been able to see a small sample of what’s going to air tonight – a mixtape featuring everything from venomous snails to dogs who can’t stop eating underwear – but the Total Riff Off will leave MST3K and RiffTrax fans in stitches. (In a good way. Not in an ill-advised bar fight kind of way.) That’s because the National Geographic Channel clips make it easy for Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett.
The shows featured tonight aren’t classic National Geographic fare, but newer entries that run the mind-numbing range of sensationalist to inane. All the riffers have to do is point out the obvious absurdities, over-the-top presenters, and strange reenactments. I don’t think anyone – anyone – needed to see a program about a hyper little canine with lingerie stuck in her anus, much less detailed reenactments of the pooch’s visit to the vet in order to solve the mystery of “What’s in my dog’s butt now?” Also: please, please don’t ever let that become a show.
In fact, I’m a little surprised that the National Geographic Channel cleared this special event. I truly hope that it’s because they’re aware of how their programming has contributed to intense dumbing down of science and nature television, a trend underscored this week when the hyped Nazi War Diggers got canceled before airing because of serious ethical concerns raised by professional archaeologists. The channel’s programmers really should be laughing along as the RiffTrax crew skewer the overwrought description of “badass” animals and the absurdly monstrous depiction of vampire bats, saying to themselves “Wow, yeah, we’re not going to do that again.”
I hope Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett can do even more of these shows. There’s no better way to highlight how gonzo “science” television has become, with the added benefit that the hilarious commentary is as sharply-honed as a cone snail’s harpoon. Not that I’d wish endless episodes of Showdown of the Unbeatables or Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout? on anyone, though. There’s only so much punishment even experienced riffers can take.
Tonight science advocate Bill Nye is going to argue with creationism’s top spokesman, Ken Ham. I won’t be tuning in to the CNN broadcast. There’s no point, and I can do without the headache the ballyhooed face-off would send stabbing into my frontal lobes.
The event is as much as debate as the Creation Museum is an actual museum. Which is to say, not at all. It can’t be because of what Ham believes about scripture and how science must bend to his narrow view of what his beliefs prescribe.
Ham’s creationist temple is the public face of Answers in Genesis, and one of the organization’s core values is to “proclaim the absolute truth and authority of the Bible with boldness.” And they have so much unwavering faith in their interpretation of the Bible that anything inconsistent with fundamentalist views must be totally wrong. As Ham wrote in a post about why he set up this publicity stunt for his business, “Ultimately, I have decided to accept an authority — our infallible creator and his word, the Bible — over the words of fallible humans.” How can anyone argue with a zealot whose answer to everything is “I don’t believe you because you’re not God”?
Consider the clumsy attempt of Answers in Genesis to explain why human remains are never, ever found with non-avian dinosaurs or other forms of prehistoric life as their beliefs predict. The organization preaches that all forms of life paleontologists find in the fossil record were specially created and that these various organisms co-existed with each other in the last 10,000 years. Later, according to their timeline, Noah gathered representatives of the various and sundry creatures. The majority that did not make it onto the boat perished in the Flood, the fundamentalists say, and so the remains of non-avian dinosaurs, archaic mammals, and other forms of life became preserved in the Deluge-created fossil record.
But remember that this myth says that people died in the Flood, too. That was the whole point, after all. If the fossil record is a testament to a single catastrophe that simultaneously killed and preserved everything from ammonites to Apatosaurus, why aren’t human remains found alongside such fossils? The best Answers in Genesis can do is shrug and say that God made sure sinful humans didn’t enter the fossil record. “In Genesis 6:7 we read that God said He would destroy man whom He had created from the face of the earth,” AiG contributor Andrew Snelling wrote of the conundrum, “So perhaps God deliberately made sure that the Flood waters did just that, destroying every trace of man and his artefacts from the pre-Flood world, if this is what He meant by what He had recorded in the Scriptures.”
The creationist fable is easily overturned by simple observations. While prospecting the ancient exposures of Dinosaur National Monument, for example, I’ve seen layers of mudcracks made by the heat of the Triassic sun overlain by strata created by braided streams systems where dinosaurs and phytosaurs left their tracks in the mucky sediment. Above those are sand dunes from an Early Jurassic desert that has since turned to stone. There’s no way to reconcile these petrified facts with the Flood story. Still, from their literal reading, creationists will still insist that such strata were laid down by the Flood and that God paid special attention to the process to magically remove any evidence of the evil people he supposedly destroyed. The Genesis account is easily contradicted, but fundamentalists such as Ham care more about the strength of their faith than evidence.
Nye is going to argue from the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence that evolution is a fact, while Ham will undoubtedly try to sow doubt in such explanations as quickly as he can. If Ham were facing a theologian who could articulate why the Bible wasn’t meant to be read literally, that would be a debate. Instead CNN is going to air two experts arguing past each other in a program that only serves to make the Creation Museum look more credible. And, as shown by a recent bit of depressing dinosaur news, that’s exactly what Answers in Genesis wants.
A few months ago Answers in Genesis announced that a lovely Allosaurus skeleton is going to go on display at the Creation Museum and they’d like scientists of all backgrounds to study it. Cue Admiral Ackbar – It’s a trap! If paleontologists go to the Creation Museum to study the skeleton, then Answers in Genesis can claim that it’s a research institution and make themselves look more legitimate. Not to mention that there’s no guarantee that the skeleton is going to be properly curated and made available for research in perpetuity, as such specimens should be, and so the skeleton is sadly lost to science.
By agreeing to the argument on Creation Museum turf, Nye is inadvertently creating the impression that there is a real debate to be had over whether or not evolution is real. No such debate exists. Evolution is a fact, and there are those who are made uncomfortable by that based on their religious beliefs. And contrary to Ham’s posturing, there are many people who maintain their faith but also understand and accept science. There are areas of tension between religion and science, of course, but it’s not as if people must always choose one to the exclusion of the other.
Who wins tonight’s showdown will be determined by style more than substance. At least Nye has that. But no one benefits from the delusion that there’s a debate about the reality of the evolutionary phenomena that brought us into existence and gave us the mental abilities to manufacture such nonsense for broadcast.
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.
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 anotherCarl 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):