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.


12 Responses to “the necessity of paying attention”

  1. WanabePBWriter Says:

    It’s getting kind of like the science and nature category in Trivial Pursuite. Science and nature show should be under the heading now of Superstition and nonsense.

  2. Carrie V. Says:

    Yeah, this thing should have been on SyFy, not Discovery or Animal Planet.

  3. T.K. Marnell Says:

    This documentary sounds nothing at all like the articles on The Onion. Onion articles are intended to be obvious and humorous, and usually sprinkled with enough obscenities to squash any doubts about the authors’ intentions. You have to be a real sucker to believe they’re anything but satire. But this show was not satire; it was intended to be taken 100% seriously. The executive producer apparently said that “the theories presented were rooted in science and based on other evolutionary theories.” The Discovery Channel even made some fake websites with landing pages that say they were seized by the Department of Homeland Security:,, and Oddly, a WhoIs lookup shows that all three of those were registered to Discovery Communications, LLC on October 13, 2011. But no, that must be part of the big cover-up conspiracy to make it look like it’s fake :p

  4. Lissa Says:

    I think you would have really enjoyed this commercial from back in the day.

  5. Griggk the goblin Says:

    When listening to a mockumentary, I like to count the uhms per second. Most folks, when not speaking from a script, liberally sprinkle their dialog with spacers, like uhm, err, and uh. These were either the most eloquent scientists in the world, or the dialog was rehearsed. Only one scientist used verbal spacers at all.

  6. Doruk Says:

    I had a friend post about this show on Facebook, fully believing it to be real. A couple of minutes of internet search was enough for me, as it was for you, to reveal that it was a purely fictional effort. I am not categorically opposed to the existence of such a film, but I agree that disclaimers would be a good idea, from a skepticism point of view, to avoid misinforming the populace.

    However, I am a bit torn on the issue since I do think there is some sort of artistic merit in creating such a work with as much verisimilitude as possible. This in turn may justify a presentation format that disguises the fictional nature of the content (I am reminded of Blair Witch Project in this regard, which was also originally presented as non-fiction). As I am a scientist, I lean more towards the former view than the latter here, but it is still a mental struggle.

  7. John Shearer Says:

    Why can’t I just have some DVD copies of “In Search of…” to watch? That’s still infinitely better (and creepier) than those wacky programs.

  8. Carrie V. Says:

    In fact, this reminded me of the Blair Witch Project more than anything else…

    Usually the “documentaries” about fringe topics are really up front with the ambiguity. They interview both believers and skeptics, they present the evidence and acknowledge that it’s open to numerous interpretations. The mermaid one was just…gah. It wasn’t like that at all.

    I actually like The Universe and Through the Wormhole..meaty science stuff is good!

    I remember the mini-giraffe commercials…which had a fake website where you could order mini giraffes from the breeder…I think some people thought that was real as well.

  9. ArcLight Says:

    Animal Planet has a history of this kind of show, starting with their LOST TAPES series and including a neat one about werewolves a few years back.

    I don’t know what sort of disclaimers the mermaid show might’ve had when AP first aired it, but I remember when it was coming out. I didn’t have cable and had to catch it later but I enjoyed it. Of course, I love this sort of thing anyway and am perfectly happy to play along with the story. I’d still love to get a copy of ABCs “When Cars Attack.”

    I agree that putting them on channels like Discovery that *should* stick to the real stuff can be a little off-putting, but if they moved them to SyFy where you put the wrestling?

  10. Ha, I remember when I was little and thought that “When Cars Attack” was real.

    I guess this practice of making such “documentaries” with few disclaimers started with the Animal Planet special about dragons (Which I’ll admit was actually pretty good; so much so that I own the DVD of it). I can see how that would inspire a bunch of knock-offs that would invariably be inferior.

    No, from what I understand, what really made this mermaid one truly ridiculous was the whole conspiracy angle.

  11. Tess Says:

    I saw a documentary kinda like that on the science channel. But about dragons. I think there was a disclaimer at the beginning. But this was years after it originally aired on AP. It did let me see a dragon fight a T-rex in CGI.

  12. Christine Says:

    Of course The Onion is real. I read first about 5-bladed razor blades there. It takes true genius to make truth sound like satire.

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