Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" is misleading the public again this year with several documentaries. So why are scientists allowing themselves to be featured in these pseudoscience disasters? There's a simple reason: Shark Week producers have been lying to them.
Jonathan Davis, who now works for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, was studying the bull sharks in the Gulf of Mexico for his Masters research when he was approached by a Shark Week film crew. "They were interested in the sharks in Louisiana, and I was the person doing the research there," Davis says. He agreed to take the film crew into the field, but quickly became concerned by their refusal to answer his questions.
I asked a few of the crew members, including the producer, what the show was going to be about. I never got a straight answer and the producer seemed to avoid the question. I was just told it would be combined with some other filming to make one show about Louisiana shark research.
Davis was shocked to find that his interview aired during a 2013 Shark Week special called Voodoo Shark, which was about a mythical monster shark called "Rooken" that lived in the Bayous of Louisiana. The "other filming" his interview was combined with featured a Bayou fishermen, and the clips were edited together to make it seem like a race between his team of researchers and the fishermen to see who could catch the mythical voodoo shark faster. In reality, Davis was barely asked about the voodoo shark at all. His answers from unrelated questions were edited together to make it seem like he believed in its existence and was searching for it.
Davis explained how the hoodwinking was done:
Throughout the interview I was fed certain words to rephrase my sentences in ways that the producer thought would spark more interest. Some words or phrases they asked me to say were beyond anything I would say on my own and I refused. However, they were clever in their questioning by getting me to respond to a vague question with a response that could be used as an answer to a completely different question. The prime example that was used on the show was towards the very beginning of Voodoo Sharks. The voice-over introduced my researchers and I as we were riding in a boat out looking for sharks on the edge of the Lake. They said, "They believe that if there is a monster shark entering Lake Pontchartrain it is likely sticking to this area..." and then it pans to a clip from my interview where they asked me, "Do you think there are large Bull Sharks in these bayous and swamps around Lake Pontchartrain?" so my response was to THAT question. They used my response to one question to make it sound like I believed in this monster shark 'Rooken' that they had just laid the groundwork for being real as a preface for the whole show.
Despite criticism for using this practice last year, Shark Week seems to have done the same thing again in 2014. Kristine Stump, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Shedd Aquarium, will be featured in the 2014 Shark Week documentary Monster Hammerhead. The description for this documentary reads:
Monster Hammerhead explores a legendary hammerhead shark that has been patrolling Florida's shores for the past 60 years. Now, a team of scientists and anglers look to explore the mystery and find out if the legend could be real.
First of all, great hammerhead sharks live a maximum of 44 years, so a large one could not have been patrolling Florida for 60 years. Also, this description is completely different from the documentary that Stump was told she'd be featured in. "The basic premise was a camera crew was dropping in on real scientists doing actual hammerhead research," Stump said. "We'd talk about the research goals and the challenges we face in trying to achieve those goals. Monster Hammerhead does not match the description of what we filmed."
Both Stump and Davis offer the same advice for scientists considering working with Shark Week: ask a lot of questions before agreeing to anything! "Had I known they would combine it with those ridiculous fishermen to make a show about a mythical shark I would have had some serious second thoughts about participating," Davis said.
But Stump feels that participating in Shark Week can still be worthwhile. "Whe we can't control the editing, we can control what we say on-camera," she said. "By being involved, I could have the opportunity to be a voice of real science amid an otherwise sensationalist line-up. If we want to make a difference in Shark Week, then be the difference."
David Shiffman is a marine biologist studying shark feeding ecology and conservation. He supports science-based sustainable fisheries management and blogs at Southern Fried Science. Follow him on Twitter.