the necessity of paying attention
October 1, 2012
Some incidents this weekend prompted the observation that about three quarters of appearing smart is just a matter of paying attention. Making observations. Being able to draw appropriate conclusions from those observations. Remembering observations that you’ve made before and being able to apply those conclusions to new situations.
I came home last night after a fairly rowdy evening and sat down with a glass of wine in front of the TV to decompress for a few minutes before heading to bed. I landed on a show on Discovery, which looked like one of these typical documentary things featuring interviews with scientists and fairly crappy CGI “dramatic re-enactments.” The topic: mermaids, and do they exist? The show was adamant that it had the physical evidence and eyewitness accounts to prove the answer was yes.
Within five minutes I had a web browser open and searched for the title of this thing. The second article to come up on it: Snopes, and my instincts were correct. This thing is pure fantasy, front to back. The physical evidence — skull fragments, cave paintings — was completely made up.
I felt inexplicably furious at this. Because the show had no disclaimers, no title cards, nothing indicating that this was anything but an in-good-faith documentary on an admittedly fringe topic (see info on aquatic apes). They’ve run documentaries on Bigfoot that are exactly this earnest. So what pinged me? Those so-called NOAA scientists interviewed on the show — they didn’t act like scientists, they acted like actors. Watch a show with real scientists on it — like The Universe or even Monster Quest. When they talk, they use their hands, they get excited, and they really do look kind of nerdy, like they might be used to lecturing but certainly not in front of a TV camera. The ones on the mermaid show — too polished, and too angst ridden. Too rigged. Not to mention the supposed mermaid home videos that used the same CGI mermaid cut and pasted in each one… You know, you really can’t call it a “dramatic re-enactment” if it didn’t happen in the first place. (Not to mention the conspiracy plot they put forward was very Hollywood.)
So why did I get so enraged about a fake documentary? Because of how many people out there now believe that the government really is covering up physical evidence of mermaids. Probably some of the same people who believe that stories in The Onion are real. At this point, it’s not opinion, it’s willful ignorance.
I’ll admit that I’m rigged for skepticism when it comes to things like “documentaries” on mermaids and Bigfoot. But it’s skepticism that comes from paying attention to that little niggling voice in the back of my head saying, “This doesn’t sound right. This doesn’t look right.” I’ve been watching documentaries with scientist interviews my whole freaking life — I know what an interview with a scientist generally looks like. And this didn’t look right.
It’s so important to simply pay attention.