This week the Discovery Channel chose to air a program that calls into question whether this channel can continue to claim a shred of credibility. The channel was founded with the worthy goal of airing educational, scientific, and historical programming, and it has indeed aired some shows -- Mythbusters and Planet Earth, in particular -- that do good work helping people understand and think about science. But all that threatens to be undone by the Discovery Channel's shocking decision to wade into cryptozoological waters.
The offending program is "Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives," a two-hour show purporting to document a real hunt by marine biologists for a giant shark species known to science from the fossil record of its gigantic teeth (and also from some markings on whale vertebrae; megalodons were so large they could have fed on whales). This program was aired as part of the Discovery Channel's popular Shark Week.
The show title is unequivocal about the current existence of megalodon; it's not "The Monster Shark Lives?" but "The Monster Shark Lives." And the program clearly states, "There is evidence of Megalodon's existence today," offering CGI graphics and faked film sequences. Only a vanishingly brief disclaimer at the end of the show revealed that this documentary-style program was, in fact, entirely made up.
Apparently unashamed of its misleading tactics, the Discovery Channel invited viewers to answer a poll question, "Do you believe Megalodon is still alive?" One of the choices in this poll was, "Maybe ... 95 percent of our oceans remain unexplored, so it's possible that Megalodon is still out there." (At the time of this writing, 47 percent of respondents answered maybe, with 29 percent answering yes, meaning that nearly 8 in 10 respondents reject the scientific understanding of megalodon's extinction.)
The Discovery Channel is known for its non-fiction programming. Presenting this absurd fiction masquerading as a real documentary, sandwiched between programs with scientific content, blurs the line between reality and fakery, creates a toxic combination of misunderstood science and hollow entertainment, and ends up confusing viewers.
The worst part is that this confusion may affect children who are still in the process of learning about science. Science educators know that such shows spread pervasive misinformation to impressionable minds. This makes the difficult job of science education even harder; once a child has latched on to a misconception he or she saw on television, it is very difficult to correct this misconception. Real harm to the public understanding of science is done by shows such as "Megalodon."
Is not the fossil C. megalodon interesting enough to merit its own straight documentary, with real paleobiologists discussing its features and likely behaviors? Is nature really so boring that producers feel they must spice it up with the contrived tricks of reality tv shows?
The Discovery Channel is hardly the only culprit in this poisoning of scientific television programming; in 2004, Animal Planet aired "Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real," which purported to explain "the natural history of the most extraordinary creature that never existed," and in 2012 Animal Planet doubled down by showing another fakeumentary called "Mermaids: The Body Found." This toxic trend of adulterating even scientific programming with crass sensationalism to boost viewership simply has to stop.
While some argue that all television is inherently shallow, television, for all its flaws, has the potential to be an excellent medium to communicate scientific discoveries and stimulate interest in science. Carl Sagan's famous Cosmos series probably reached more viewers than all Astronomy 101 courses combined. Sagan recognized this power, writing in The Demon-Haunted World, "By far the most effective means of raising interest in science is television." Sagan envisioned a world of programs debunking pseudoscientific frauds and using sports to explain statistics and basic physics.
Instead of such educational programming, what we get is "Megalodon."
Such shows also play into the hands of young-earth creationists intent on spreading doubt about the scientific understanding of nature. Young-earth creationist literature teems with cryptozoological claims. From a purported plesiosaur netted by Japanese fisherman off New Zealand in 1977 (which turned out to be a rotting basking shark), to an alleged apatosaurus still living deep in the Congo and known in legend to people of the area as Mokele-mbembe, to a supposed stegosaurus wall carving at a twelfth-century Cambodian temple (the carving looks rather closer to a rhinoceros or a pig), creationist cryptozoology has a vested interest in attacking standard science and promoting a Flintstones milieu in which dinosaurs still roam a six-thousand-year-old earth.
The young earth creationist group Answers in Genesis is particularly keen on promoting the kind of cryptozoological "science" the Discovery Channel now embraces. For example, AiG is very clear on the unicorn issue: the "biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary creature." At AiG's Creation "Museum" in Kentucky, visitors are treated to animatronic dioramas showing dinosaurs and people living together. Young visitors are encouraged to have their picture taken on a triceratops equipped with a saddle.
You'd think the Discovery Channel would want to avoid being confused with Answers in Genesis. But the decision to screen "Megalodon" calls into question the future credibility of this "educational" channel.