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The Sciences

Discovery's Megalodon Defense? 'We Don't Know,' Or 'We Don't Care'

Science SushiBy Christie WilcoxAugust 9, 2013 4:00 PM
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FIFY, Discovery! From twitter user Alaskanime

Discovery has responded to the hordes of angry fans defending their recent "documentary" Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives. The statement, as given to Fox News, came from executive producer of Shark Week Michael Sorensen:

"With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon. It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, can Megalodon exist today? It’s Ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95% of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”

"One of the most debated shark discussions of all time"? Really? While I am a marine biologist, my research is on lionfish, not sharks—maybe I'm out of the loop. So, I went to the experts. I asked Carl Meyer, Assistant Researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and co-head of the Shark Research Team, for his take. Is the extinct status of C. megalodon a "discussion" that he and his colleagues have?

"We all secretly wish Megalodon was still around," he told me. But no. The only discussion they occasionally have is "why people fall for this stuff."

"This documentary was the first time I’ve ever even heard it suggested that Megalodon may still exist," said  Daniel Holstein, a post doc with the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "There’s about as much scientific controversy about the possibility of Megalodons lurking in today’s oceans as there is about mermaids. None."

David Kerstetter

, an assistant professor at the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida, whose current work includes reducing shark bycatch in fisheries, had a similar response. "There is no discussion among fisheries professionals whether Megalodon is extinct," he said. "If even one credible scientist had doubts about this, the Discovery Channel wouldn't have had to use actors." "As a researcher focused on mako sharks, I often discuss Megalodon with my colleagues," explained Dovi Kacev

, a PhD candidate at San Diego State University studying the population genetics of shortfin mako and common thresher sharks. "Megalodon is an extinct relative of the mako after all." "We sometimes discuss what it would be like if Megalodon still existed—what it would prey upon, where it would live," he said. But as to its current existence? "Never do any of my colleagues or I ever plausibly argue that Megalodon is still extant." But hey, these are all just scientists studying living sharks. I bet the ones that study shark paleontology have a different viewpoint. John G. Maisey

received his PhD in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy from University College London in 1974 and is now the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. He studies a wide variety of Chondrichthyes species, living and extinct, using CT scans and some of the most up to date technology we have to examine animal bones. If anyone is going to know the truth about Megalodon, it's him. "The fossil record of Megalodon ends in the Pliocene," he told me conclusively. "Megalodon is hardly a blip on my radar! " "It isn't a subject for serious scientific discussion," he continued. "There are much more exciting things going on the the world of ancient sharks!" To name a few: Maisey is currently working on the anatomy of the oldest known fossil sharks and shark-like fishes, from the Lower Devonian of South America, Africa and Canada; slightly younger (Lower Carboniferous) shark fossils from the USA, including the largest Paleozoic shark ever discovered; and NSF-funded work on modern sharks, rays and chimaeras, as part of the chondrichthyan "Tree of Life" project.

"I have been studying Megalodon for the last 5 years," Catalina Pimiento, a PhD student working with the Florida Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute explained to me. "The main subject of my dissertation is to understand how, and hopefully why, it became extinct." Aha! There we go. Surely she must know about the debates that Sorensen speaks of. "There is not a discussion in our field as to whether Megalodon is extinct. Fossil evidence demonstrate it became extinct around 2 million years ago, that is, before humans first appeared in the fossil record."

So, it doesn't matter if you talk to shark scientists that study ecology, fisheries, genetics or paleontology. When asked if there is a debate about Megalodon's extinction, the answer from scientists is a clear and resounding no. There's a reason that they aren't discussing whether Megalodon is still out there: "There is no evidence that megalodon is extant," said Pimiento. "Any statement that suggest this species is extant is science fiction." "No convincing evidence exists to suggest that Megalodon is still extant," added Kacev. C'mon, guys. Are you all sure there's no evidence it's still around? Discovery had to have started somewhere, right? Isn't there a little bit? Something? "Sadly," said Meyer, "none whatsoever." "No," confirmed Maisey. "None that I am aware of," said Holstein. "None. Nada. Zilch," added Kerstetter. And he explained why: Megalodons were large, endothermic animals, which means they cannot regulate their temperatures in the same way you and I can. Simply feeding a body of that size would mean they had "a tremendous caloric demand," but the energy requirement would be even higher if these large sharks were living in that '95% of the ocean' that we haven't explored because those places are deep and really, really cold. "If Megalodon were extant, it would either be living in surface waters (where it would have been seen/caught/killed by SOMEONE) or in deeper mesopelagic/bathypelagic/abyssopelagic waters (with insufficient prey biomass and cooler temperatures)." To put it simply: there isn't enough to eat where they wouldn't be seen, and there's just no way we wouldn't have seen them if they lived where there is enough food for them to survive. Holstein added another reason there's no chance that Megalodons are still around. "There is evidence that Megalodon pupped, or gave birth, in shallow coastal areas," he said. "So if these massive sharks were still around, they would be obvious." "No scientist I've ever met thinks there are extant Megalodons roaming the oceans," Kerstetter affirmed. Sorensen's defense of the "documentary" simply doesn't hold water. There is no debate. There is no evidence. No shark scientist in the world thinks that there is any truth to the idea that Megalodon is still alive. Either Sorensen is continuing to lie to Discovery viewers, or he really is that out of touch with the science he's in charge of producing. I'm not sure which is worse. Even still, network spokesperson Laurie Goldberg says the channel stands by what they did. "We have found that people are open to exploring different ideas and concepts in addition to the more traditional fare that we air," Goldberg said

. "That would explain the ratings. As in any entertainment, you aren't going to always please everyone, but we stand behind all of our content and are proud of it." According to her, the special "used a novel storytelling device to engage that imagination and curiosity in a way that was disclosed to audiences throughout the program." Really? It was "disclosed to audiences throughout the program"? Funny, because all I remember was a too-fast-to-read disclaimer at the end that said:

None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of “Submarine” continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.

First off, I don't think the word "novel" means what you think it means, Goldberg. The documentary was a work of fiction. There's nothing new or unique about a network creating a visually entertaining fictional story—that's exactly what every other channel on TV does every day. As for the rest of your statement, the disclaimer doesn't in any way disclose what happened. Saying agencies haven't approved its contents doesn't mean what you presented didn't happen. "Certain events" doesn't disclose what in the supposed documentary is real and what is fake. But more importantly, Discovery chose to use the word "dramatized" instead of "fictional", the one they used in the disclaimers for their Mermaids mocumentaries

. "Dramatized" simply means acted out—it doesn't tell you whether the original story is real or fake. The movie Lincoln dramatized the life of a president. While we clearly don't have a complete record of his every conversation, we know that many of the events depicted in it were true, and we can somewhat trust that those that were scripted for the movie are in line with historical events. Many of the shark attacks shown on Shark Week are dramatizations of real events. So simply saying "dramatized" doesn't count as disclosure of forgery. People are open to a wide diversity of ideas and concepts, and even new ways of presenting them. They just want to know whether those ideas are completely made up or based in fact if it's going to be coming from a non-fiction network. All Discovery had to do was put "What if Megalodon was still alive?" in big letters on the screen to open the "documentary". Then all of their viewers would have been aware of the ruse, and we would have been happy to play along in the fictional world they were creating, like we did for the National Geographic's Aftermath: Population Zero. Airing the entire documentary deadpan and pretending the evidence was real isn't 'exploring'—it's lying.

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Sobering statistics It's very telling that the last three sentences of the disclaimer echo Sorensen's (inaccurate) statement regarding the supposed debate. It hardly counts as a disclaimer when you basically add on 'No, really, guys! There are lots of people seeing these things! They might still exist!' Of course Discovery didn't disclose to their viewers that it was a work of fiction throughout the program. If they had, it would have been clear that the evidence presented was fake. And if that was so abundantly clear, how did they manage to convince over 70% of their audience that Megalodon still lives? Even with their now-modified poll

, almost a third are completely convinced, and an additional 47% think it's possible Megalodon is still out there. Kacev stated the issue perfectly: "I think Discovery has every right to make fictional programming," he said, "but they should really be forthright in letting their viewers know that a "documentary" is not real." Bingo. There was nothing forthright about the way Discovery presented the so-called documentary. There was nothing forthright about their so-called disclaimers. There was nothing forthright about their response to viewer disapproval. And even now, despite thousands upon thousands of angry viewer comments, the network still has yet to own up to what they actually did. Not once have they admitted that they faked footage, scientists and events to create their work of fiction. Considering it drew in a record 4.8 million viewers, Discovery probably couldn't care less about the thousands that are angry

. That's what Goldberg implied when she casually disregarded the people who didn't appreciate the special by saying "you aren't going to always please everyone." Here's what they should care about, though: by passing off this mockumentary as science, they've tarnished their reputation in a way they never have before. Sure, not all of their programming is super-awesome, but at least when they have reality shows like Naked and Afraid, they're portraying actual people. With Megalodon, they've made themselves into peddlers of pseudoscience, willing to misrepresent reality for the sake of a story. And guess what? That makes scientists very, very nervous. To produce the high-quality, educational, scientific content they're known for, Discovery Channel needs to have a good rapport with the scientists they want to feature. Once you lose those scientists' trust, you lose your ability to make that kind of programming. Many scientists are wary enough of the media, as often their work is twisted or misconstrued. Megalodon wasn't the only blow to Discovery's reputation this week. The special Great White Serial Killers was a misrepresentation of Neil Hammerschlag's excellent paper "Hunting patterns and geographic profiling of white shark predation" (PDF

). And throughout the week's programming there were mistakes of all kinds. As shark scientist David Shiffman put it on twitter

, "Approximately every sentence not spoken by Greg Skomal had at least one factual error."

Basic factual errors in these documentaries would bother me less if it took more than 3.5 seconds to look up the real fact. #SharkDown — David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) August 8, 2013

Just like reality shows rely on people being willing to make fools of themselves on TV, educational programs rely on scientists and other professionals opening their doors to production crews and showing the world what they do. If you get a reputation for performing stunts for attention or being loose with facts, those people aren't going to want anything to do with you. What Shark Week has become certainly makes me wary of ever working with Discovery Communications, reservations that I don't have for their competitors like National Geographic. And if they're so happy to sell out their programming, what about their educational materials? Or their outreach? Exactly how much science is Discovery Communications willing to sacrifice to cash in? Loss of integrity does not go unnoticed in science media circles—just look at what happened to SEED after Pepsigate

. Tell me, Discovery: do you really think that scientists are going to be as eager to agree to interviews or filming when it's possible you'll make a Megalodon or a Serial Killer out of their work? Of course not. They're going to be wary because their reputation is on the line. They're going to wonder what your angle is. They're going to question how much you are willing to fake to get the program you want. Because if you're willing to compromise your integrity once or twice to get higher ratings, whose to say you won't do it again, and again, and again? By making this "documentary" and standing behind it, you've put blood in the water, and every professional that you rely on to be in and promote your products can smell it. Discovery might be defending their choices, but I'm not buying it. By making Megalodon the way they did and using it to kick off Shark Week, they traded integrity for publicity. That's fine if you don't really care about being "the world's #1 non-fiction media company" or "producing high-quality content," but don't sit there and pretend that you've stuck to your mission. Don't tell us you were transparent and open, or that you were just covering a scientific debate when none exists. Because the truth is out there, and everyone knows you're just lying through your phony, unfossilized Megalodon teeth.

John Oliver is right: Discovery owes its viewers a Megalopology.

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