Mesmerized by Mermaids. And Bigfoot.

Fantasy and fact, is it so easy to blur the line? When advertorials became popular, I remember the hoopla around labeling ads as ads, and making sure an infomercial wasn’t easily mistaken for a documentary. And I snickered at all that, since I grew up with a good “feel” for what was real or not. Surfing on the old creaky shortwave radios, I could tell a communist station from a western one in about 5 words or fewer, when all these stations broadcast in English. I could “smell” propaganda.

But today, photos do not always equal proof of anything. Video clips, easily manipulated, don’t always inspire confidence. So we have to trust in our sources of entertainment and education, to rely on the reputation of a publisher to evaluate news.

Mermaid sculpture "The Jewel of Norfolk," in Virginia

Mermaid sculpture “The Jewel of Norfolk,” in Virginia

So what happens when Animal Planet produces a fake-documentary? According to James Hibberd for EW:

    Sunday’s “documentary” Mermaids: The New Evidence delivered 3.6 million viewers, shattering the network’s ratings record. Yup, even bigger than the Puppy Bowl. The program is not only a hoax, but a sequel to a hoax — to last year’s rather effortlessly debunked Mermaids: The Body Found, which fooled more viewers than you’d think.

    So let’s take a moment to appreciate this: Animal Planet is 17 years old. The channel is dedicated to series and specials about the natural world. And the most-watched program in its history is about a non-existent creature — not even a remotely believable non-existent creature! There’s about 2 million cataloged species on the planet, and what sets the record? Mermaids. Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising — the network’s previous all-time record holder was Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real.

A documentary on how dragons are represented in fiction, that’s a good project. Check for animals who might (remotely) remind us of dragons, mermaids and so on? Bring it on — we know animals can be really weird. But while the line between fantasy and science-fiction may be be easily blurred, the line between what really happens in our oceans or forests and fantasy needs to be as clear as we can possibly draw it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) clarifies that line in an official statement:

    No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.

It’s pretty easy to imagine seafaring people spinning tales when bored and we know imagination takes over and the human brain creates patterns when presented with facts we cannot understand. I have no problem understanding how, in different times, strange sounds at sea could become fairytales then re-emerge as fact.

But we all have a big problem when people believe mermaids exist, but deny the science showing oceans threatened by human activities.

Animal Planet, however, seems concerned with ratings, not science:

    Animal Planet’s president, Marjorie Kaplan, is good humored about the situation. “Animal Planet has many shows about animals that may be more familiar to you,” she says. “Finding Bigfoot is an exploration of the secret corners of the planet … There are places on this planet that we know about and places we don’t … New species are being found all the time.”
    She also points out the network’s Mermaids: The Body Found special got “extraordinarily” high ratings.

A few new species are still being documented, but no mermaid body and no bigfoot. Yet many feel like Jane Goodall, who says, “I’m a romantic so I always wanted that.” Finding bigfoot, a foothold for romantic hope, but shouldn’t we focus on the many species going extinct?


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