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Now THAT is a fish tale!

by Donald Prothero, Jun 05 2013

As Daniel Loxton and I worked on our magnum opus about cryptozoology (due out in mid-July at TAM), we wrestled with the issues of book length, since our exhaustive research on cryptids like Bigfoot, Nessie, and the Yeti were much longer and more comprehensive than even we imagined at first. We ended up leaving out a few cryptids (like the other lake monsters, and the Chupacabra) that have received excellent book-length debunkings by Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, and others. But even in our wildest imaginations, we never thought we needed to put in a chapter (or even a sentence) about mermaids!

Yet mermaids have just become the hottest new cryptid in the media and cryptozoology community. A year ago, the Animal Planet channel ran a hokey “documentary” on mermaids called “Mermaids: The Body Found”, and got a lot of coverage (and outrage) at the obviously faked “documentary” that was not promoted as fiction. Brian Switek gave it the best assessment: it “embodied the rotting carcass of science TV.” Clearly, however, ratings speak louder than the outrage of skeptics and experts, because last week they did another “documentary” on the same topic. Entitled “Mermaids: The New Evidence,”  it wasted a perfectly good 2 hours of airtime on Animal Planet on Sunday night, May 26. It was just like the first program: a lot of moody, dark, poorly lit shots of vague forms and backgrounds, a lot of CG reconstructions of “mermaids”, “re-enactments” shot like the “Blair Witch Project” and presented as real events, but no actual physical or photographic evidence of any kind. The “video footage” was all so poor and blurry that it proved nothing except the incompetence of the videographer. The “money shot” is a distant telephoto image of something on a Greenland ice floe that could just as easily be a seal (and probably was). The entire two hours was filled with this fluff and fakery.

Just as in the first program, they had lots of speculation about cave drawings or images from ancient cultures that might represent mermaids. Since when did we start taking ancient mythologies as evidence of biological reality? Do we believe that Osiris and Isis and Ra and Nut are real because the Egyptians drew them on their tombs and temples? There is a bit about the cultural mythology about mermaids over the centuries, but it is extremely superficial and keeps implying that if people believed these myths, then they must be based on some truth. Again, they mentioned P.T. Barnum and his famous faked “FeeJee mermaid” (which they admit was a hoax made by combining several specimens using taxidermy), but claimed that Barnum had a real mermaid that he could never show anyone. Really? Barnum had no qualms about making a buck off of any hoax or fake, no matter how ridiculous. Given Barnum’s track record, why would we believe ANY evidence he produced? Of course, the fact that Barnum never showed his “specimen” is all chalked up to conspiracies and outside forces which are trying to suppress the truth, a theme which runs throughout both shows. In short, nearly everything about the show follows the same old tired formula of the crappy shows about Bigfoot and other cryptids, or UFOs, that have proliferated on many of these formerly “scientific” cable channels. All of these shows peddle pure nonsense, and they know that it’s garbage. Just like P.T. Barnum, however, they don’t care as long as people watch. As P.T. himself said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The bulk of the program’s overlong presentation was padded (as was the first show) by the ridiculous “aquatic ape” hypothesis made famous by Elaine Morgan, which is pop anthropology at its worst. First making the best-seller list back in the 1970s, it was completely debunked back then, and virtually forgotten as a footnote from the archives of long-debunked ridiculous ideas that crop up in anthropology off and on. But that was almost 50 years ago, and no one remembers that we beat this horse to death the first time—so it pops back into the public consciousness again, ready to dupe a whole new generation of credulous people who are too young to recall why it was abandoned the first time around. For those who don’t know the story, the “aquatic ape” hypothesis argues that our hairlessness and a few other anatomical features are due to our past history of being aquatic creatures, so we lost our long body hair as have dolphins and whales. (Not explained is how our entire lower bodies evolved into a fish-like tail in just a few million years).  It’s a classic “just-so” story—cherry-pick a few features that seem to suggest one idea, then ignore the vast majority of data that doesn’t—and then peddle it to the masses with a best-selling book to cash in before the scientific community catches up. The list of problems with the idea are summarized here and here, so I won’t belabor the point further.

The fakery goes even deeper than just the blurry footage and conspiracy-mongering. Just as in the first show, they have several “experts” on camera such as “Dr. Paul Robertson of NOAA”, who is actually an actor named Andre Weidemann, with no affiliation with NOAA. There’s even an IMDB page for the show which gives the complete cast of actors who pretended being “scientists” and “experts” and “witnesses”. Meanwhile, NOAA was deluged with mail and emails demanding that they release this evidence that they have been suppressing, and reinforcing the conspiratorial thinking of the show’s audience. NOAA was obliged to waste their time with a statement that affirmed that indeed, mermaids don’t exist—not that it will convince the type of viewer that believes this bunk in the first place.

Unlike many of the shows on Bigfoot, UFOs, and other fakes, this one actually admits that the entire program is fictional—but only  in the end, in a disclaimer in the fine print in the closing credits! How many people will stick around long enough even watch the closing credits, let alone read the tiny boilerplate text at the end that admits the entire work is fiction? The press release for both shows admits the work is fiction, but who reads press releases? Anyone who does the simplest search will find out that it is all a fraud. But most people who watch such shows are not warned during the bulk of the two hours that it’s all fiction. Typically, they’re not the kind of people who tend to doubt what they see on TV, or check to see if it’s real.

As Jim Vorel commented on his review of the original show:

Aside from “certain events in this film are fictional,” (which means “as much of it as we want”) that sounds like standard legal boilerplate. But in this case, the line about “actual persons” is even more significant, because get this—the two main characters appearing on screen to give “their story” throughout the entire program? They don’t exist. As in, they’re not real human beings. The person presented as “Dr. Paul Robertson” is an actor named Andre Weideman, and at no point does the program make any admission of this. He says he was a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? Lies. He says his team’s data was confiscated by the government? Lies. And how do they get away with saying all of this? By small-print, tacit admissions to anyone in actual authority that “Look, we’re just making something for entertainment, nobody is going to take it seriously.”

The problem is of course that the general public can’t be bothered to verify any of this information, and plenty simply take it at face value. They do take it seriously. If you go on Google and go searching around for discussion of the program, the stuff you find will blow your mind, as people find reasons to believe a two-hour television special on the secret existence of mermaids. Look a little longer and you’ll run across all sorts of cryptozoological believers. My favorites are the ones who shoot down each other’s theories as ridiculous and then offer even crazier opinions. “You’re a fool for believing the aquatic ape theory! Anyone with half a brain knows that mermaids are the direct descendents of ‘nephilim,’ the gigantic early ancestors of man that existed before the flood of Noah!” The statement to the left is an actual opinion that I read last night. I am not making this up—unlike the filmmakers.

One of the best touches is the website for “Dr. Paul Robertson,” which bears a realistic-looking message saying that it was “seized by Homeland Security.” Good evidence of a cover-up, right? The government doesn’t want you to know the truth! Or at least this would be good evidence, if it hadn’t been put together by the film’s creators themselves to make their case look legitimate. You need look no further than the vagueness claiming that a warrant was issued by “a United States District Court.” In an actual web seizure like this one at a sports streaming website, the specific court is always listed. See the additional detail? Unfortunately, this simply distraction is all a conspiracy theorist needs to leap into action. It’s classic confirmation bias.

This is a disgusting amount of effort for a group of filmmakers to go to, just in order to make a quick buck by sensationalizing their film and trying to cause a stir by portraying it as “banned” or suppressed by the government. A web-savvy community in 2012 shouldn’t be able to be taken in by something so stupid. We’re supposed to be smarter than this. And shame on a network like The Discovery Channel for airing “documentaries” that are entirely fictional accounts of nonexistent creatures. Shows like “A Haunting,” “Ghost Lab” and their faked reality series “The Colony” are bad enough. But mermaids?

Vorel makes the larger point that cleverly produced fakes like this have an even worse effect: they are

damaging to the overall public perception of reality, imbuing those with no desire to question the “evidence” they are given with a false sense of being “in the know,” which is of course one of the major appeals of any conspiracy. It doesn’t even matter that immediately after airing, all the claims of the show are debunked, because many of the people who watch these programs will spend the next decade of their life walking around, telling other people they meet that mermaids are “totally real, it was on the Discovery Channel, man.” Don’t believe that people are that foolish? There are still people debating an 11-year-old moon landing hoax special that aired on FOX, even though it was complete malarkey. There are human beings walking the face of the Earth right now who believe that this planet is flat. That’s the nature of rumors about secret knowledge—we really want to believe them, because they confirm our biases and make us feel informed.

Marine biologist David Schiffman commented on another pernicious effect of such programming: it gives people a completely misleading notion about the oceans. The seas are dying off due to global warming, the coral reefs of the world are vanishing due to bleaching caused by heat and too much carbon dioxide, and fish populations around the world are crashing due to overexploitation. Even sharks are being hunted to extinction due to irrational fears caused by sensationalist shows on cable TV and the huge appetite for shark-fin soup in Chinese culture. Even more importantly, the sea is full of wonders that are real, and could make great entertaining programming—if only the TV producers cared about reality more than ratings. Instead, as deep-sea ecologist Andrew David Thaler (in the Schiffman article) said:

the ocean is a vast, unexplored frontier. The deep sea is Earth’s last great wilderness. When we do venture into the abyss, we find creatures more diverse and incredible that our relatively limited imaginations can conceive. Don’t insult that wonder with something as utterly mundane as ‘human with fish tail.’ ”

But do the TV producers care? Not likely. This latest piece of pseudoscientific garbage garnered record ratings of 3.6 million viewers for Animal Planet, and a huge buzz in Twitter and elsewhere of people who were taken in and are now true believers. Are the producers at all concerned that they just peddled one of the worst frauds on the public in TV history? I doubt it. Just like Liberace (whose own sordid biography was exploited in the same week on a different channel) famously said, they probably “cried all the way to the bank.”

17 Responses to “Now THAT is a fish tale!”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    Dude. Chill. Does anyone actually believe the mermaids show is anything but fiction? That coffeetable book about gnomes was a huge bestseller back in the 1970s, but I don’t think anybody thought the authors were actually going out and sketching real miniature hippies in Scandinavia.

    Simple rule: if they admit it’s fiction, then it’s not pseudoscience crap. It’s fiction. Otherwise we’re going to wind up debunking _Game of Thrones_ because there totally weren’t dragons during the Wars of the Roses.

    • Apparently you were not following all the Twitter chatter and online stuff: a LOT of people believed it! Just because you were not taken in doesn’t mean a lot of others weren’t. After all, a high percentage of Americans believe in Bigfoot (no less ludicrous) and UFOs (a scary percentage of Americans), both fed by constant pseudoscience on formerly “scientific” TV networks

      • Trimegistus says:

        People were fooled by the “docudrama” style of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Doesn’t mean Orson was really trying to claim Martians were landing in New Jersey. (For one thing, we all know it was Lectroids.)

      • No one believed in Welles’ fiction once the hoax was exposed. But based on the accounts we have from the aftermath of the “Mermaids” shows, LOTS of people STILL believe mermaids are real, even though the show had the sneaky disclaimer at the end–and very few have apparently read or heard anything that exposed the hoax. As the quote in my post points out, there are STILL people who believe other weird things, such as the moon landing was faked, based on shows that were aired years ago. And MANY of the believers in the UFO community get their notions for the glut of fake UFO shows on TV. The two cases are NOT equivalent!

      • LovleAnjel says:

        In addition, most of the people that fell for the Welles broadcast though it was the Germans invading, not Martians. It was 1938 after all, that was a real concern.

    • tmac57 says:

      I spent 30 minutes the other night trying to explain to my 19 year old granddaughter that just because Animal Planet aired this show,that that in no way gave it any credibility.It was quite an exercise in frustration,as she kept saying,”Well,how do you know there aren’t mermaids?”,and “It could be true…right?”.
      Trying to explain why you can’t prove a negative,and why just because something “could be true”,is not exactly a good reason to believe it is true, to a naturally credulous (weren’t we all at some point) young person,is harder than it seems.They are becoming independent thinkers at that age,and can be quite stubborn,so she will probably just have to let it sink in until the light comes on.But yeah,people can and will believe in dubious sources of information,no matter how transparent it may seem to a seasoned skeptic.

      • BillG says:

        Your telling me programmed television is not real?
        I’m “shocked” and outraged!

      • tmac57 says:

        Sorry to have been the first to break that to you ;).
        But in all seriousness,there seems to be a surprising number of people who are credulous about such fare,and although that may seem silly to you and me,I am often surprised at how easily people fall for such transparent hoaxes.
        I spend a bit of time each day sifting through the latest urban legends and email rumors that circulate in the backwaters of news media (email, social media etc.) and the amount of nonsense and outright lies that people are exposed to almost guarantees that some of it will be picked up,absorbed,and integrated into their belief system at least temporarily,if not permanently.

      • BillG says:

        What pisses me off is the production of such flimflam and the impact on some children. When I was little, watching the Wily Coyote suffering multiple deaths from his ACME devices, or Daffy getting his beak blown off from Elmer and promptly reattaching it – if not hilarious, it was easily discern between cartoon and reality.
        Disney and the little mermaid have amusement value. The Animal Planet approach deserves no such pass.

        Hence, we will have adults void of any satire or critical thinking.

  2. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. says:

    Trimegistus: sadly, social media comments show that a substantial number of people DO think it was real. The logic runs something like “It was on Animal Planet, which shows real stuff, so it must be real.” Add to that the “government is covering up the TRUTH ™!” element of it, and it draws even a larger element of society.

    Personally I am fine with pseudodocumentaries, found-footage fiction, and the like, but done in the right context. For instance, this could have run on the SyFy Channel instead. Or be really clearly labeled. And it would be nice if were used to promote real science (for example, the way the Snouter book and After Man teache evolutionary biology and zoology, even if the animals involved are all fake.)

  3. Josh Ronsen says:

    I disagree. I expect a program on Animal Planet to be factual, I think most people do. If they are going to run something fictional, it needs to be stated as such, because there is an expectation and a precedent of non-fictional programing on that station. It would be different if it ran on the SyFy channel; we expect the programming on there to be make-believe. And it HAS confused some people. It’s bad enough that there is a Snopes article on the topic.

    Animal Planet is owned by Discovery Communications, the self-proclaimed “The World’s #1 Nonfiction Media Company.” They have an ethics hotline to report unethical behavior, which I think airing this fictional work unlabeled as such is unethical. You can find the phone number to call from your country at the following web address. Right now I am writing a letter through their Viewer Relations section. I may give the ethical hotline a call as well.

  4. Josh Ronsen says:

    I meant that I disagree with the first comment, not the second. Oops.

  5. But even in our wildest imaginations, we never thought we needed to put in a chapter (or even a sentence) about mermaids!

    Mermaids are mentioned in the book, but only in passing.

    This popular resurgence is quite something, but not totally surprising. Mermaids have had more of a life in the contemporary cryptozoological literature than I had realized until fairly recently, and of course stories of mer-beings extend back to antiquity. I started a research file on mermaids a couple of years back, and will address the topic in a future project.

  6. Nyar says:

    “There’s even an IMDB page for the show which gives the complete cast of actors who pretended being “scientists” and “experts” and “witnesses”.”

    Um, yeah, that’s called acting jackass, its kinda their job.

  7. Jim says:

    “Do we believe that Osiris and Isis and Ra and Nut are real because the Egyptians drew them on their tombs and temples?”

    Some ancient alien theorists do…

  8. Kristin Carlsen says:

    It never ceases to amaze me, what people will believe. Also, how happily some will accept what they are told just because it “flies in the face of science”. And the people who believe that “the government hushed it up” never have a rational reason for the hushing up. Mermaids, huh? Well, I confidently expect reports any day now about hushed-up unicorns and centaurs.