Shark Week’s mistake: authority and science education

megalodon and space shuttle
In case you desperately needed to know how a Megalodon measures up to a space shuttle, here is your answer. Image posted on twitter by Jason Major.

In the good old days we could joke about the Loch Ness monster or the Sasquatch. Now we have to pick our channels carefully so we don’t get a “science” lesson about a mermaid or Bigfoot. Did History Channel start this trend when it included aliens on its programming? Last week Discovery Channel gave us a “marine biology” lesson and told us paleontologists are wrong: the Megalodon, a 50-foot long extinct prehistoric shark, is still alive and eating people.

The first time I held out a Megalodon tooth in my hand I knew I had a powerful teaching tool. Two years ago, as a volunteer interpreter at the Seattle Aquarium, I showed visitors the teeth that belonged to the gigantic sharks. It fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, a single tooth out of hundreds that sharks shed naturally like a conveyor belt—when one tooth falls off another is ready to replace it. Visitors were mesmerized by the tooth, specially compared to a modern shark’s tooth, and liked to call Megalodon a “dinosaur shark.”

Well, the Megalodon was definitely not a dinosaur, and is much younger than dinosaurs. It was still around 2 million years ago. The teeth are the only evidence left behind by a cartilaginous fish that has no other solid bone in its body. The size it could have reached is extrapolated based on a jaw that could fit the palm-size teeth.

megalodon nmnh
A recreated Megalodon jaw on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the Author.

But then Discovery Channel, as part of this year’s Shark Week, broadcasts a faux “documentary” (mockumentary?) called Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives. Yes, they said “That Lives.” The show implies that this predator is still alive and well, and finding meals out of fishing boats. With movie techniques straight out of The Blair Witch Project, it uses shaky cam footage and bad editing to simulate non-professional footage. Perhaps it aims to be an aquatic Cloverfield, showing the characters facing a monster.

Except… it does not clearly state that its actors are characters. In regards to the “scientists” shown on the movie, a small print 2-second disclaimer is shown that says: “None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.” A somewhat convoluted way  of saying “our scientists  are actors.” It also said:

“Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they may be.”

Which is almost to say, “legends exist, therefore they are true” (?!) Unfortunately some people prefer to believe in prettier stories.

cristina megalodon
The author faces a model of Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The twittersphere, barely recovered from Sharknado (which was clearly not a documentary, but an equally atrocious shark film), was baffled. Blogosphere outrage ensued:

John Platt  covered it for Scientific American blogs, using the support of one of our favorite nature filmmakers here at Sci-Ed, Chris Palmer. Palmer was interviewed before for Sci-Ed in which we discussed the nature documentary’s role in science education and promoting conservation:

“Nature films have the potential to educate and to bridge the knowledge gap between the general public and the scientific community (…) Rebecca Wexler reports that ‘viewers regard film sequences as realistic because of cultural tendencies resulting from 19th century understandings of photography and film as mechanically accurate reproductions of the visual world.’ This also happens because movies are labeled as scientifically correct and factual.. [The] status of scientific authority is given to nature films even in cases of scripted dramas: footage that has been twisted to accommodate a sequence of edited scenes closely following a script.”

A Deep Sea News writer quotes her 9-year old cousin as an evidence of the perceived scientific authority of the show: “They spread that information out there, and then people start thinking it’s real. Then they start getting afraid of sharks, and then they start killing them…and that’s a problem.”  And also a problem that a chunk of Shark Week’s target audience is made of (easily influenced) children.

This may seem extreme, but isn’t outside the realm of possibility – people started killing stingrays following the death of environmentalist Steve Irwin. Is Discovery Channel doing a disservice to science by telling the public that Megalodon still exists? Or is it creating excitement and popularizing the ancient creature?

What do you think? How important is young students’ trust in the scientific authority of Shark Week for science education outcomes? Can educators use the mistakes of Discovery Channel to give students experience developing skeptical habits of mind? Learning to be a scientist is not just about reading trusted textbooks and watching trusted channels — it’s about learning to ask questions for yourself and evaluate evidence.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s