This isn’t the first time Discovery Communications, the media company that runs the Discovery Channel, has broadcasted dubious documentaries, and judging from the ratings it won’t be the last. The company also runs Animal Planet, which aired two pseudo-documentaries claiming to show scientific evidence of mermaids. The second documentary attracted 3.6 million viewers, unprecedented for the network.
These faux documentaries, which can best be described as anti-educational, seem to have grown more common on in recent years. The Disney-owned History channel, for example, has earned criticism for airing pseudoscience programs like Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and the Nostradamus Effect instead of programs about, you know, history.
If these programs offer any signs that they are fictional, they are brief and inadequate signs. Unsurprisingly, then, many viewers buy into the false claims these documentaries peddle. Shortly after Discovery’s documentaries aired, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found it necessary to assure the public that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.”
As marine biologist David Shiffman wrote in Slate, public misinformation about the ocean harms the effort to protect real aquatic life. “If you are so ignorant about what is really happening in the ocean that you believe that there are organisms that are half human and half fish, you’re almost certainly unaware of the important problems, much less how to solve them, ” he wrote. And fake shark documentaries aren’t helping.