Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Scientific American: Dear Animal Planet, Learn The Difference Between Real and Fake Monsters

Don't call them River Monsters! They have feelings!

I love good skeptics, I hate lazy ones. When I say this I always cite my favorites. Sharon Hill of Doubtful News and a Huffington Post contributor and Brian Dunning of Skeptoid. Most others reach for the low hanging fruit or are just contrarians. These last two category of skeptics, the fruit-pickers and the contrarians, are unimpressive. Yes, this assumes I am worthy of being impressed, and truth be known, I can't think of a better person I would like to spend time impressing than myself. 

back to lazy skeptics, more specifically Kyle Hill (pictured left), a science writer who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Hill has also contributed to Wired, Nature Education, Popular Science, and io9. At least that what is says on his bio for Scientific American. Today he wrote an open letter to Animal Planet asking them not to blur the lines between real and fake using shows like River Monsters, Finding Bigfoot, and  Mermaids: The New Evidence as an examples that create an uphill battle for serious science educators. Boo hoo. Science is a method, teach the method and let people educate themselves.

The gist of his argument is real fish should not be called "monsters" and mythical creatures should not be considered real. We agree, leprechauns and unicorns should not be considered real--oh wait, he's putting Bigfoot/Sasquatch into this mythical category. Read for yourself below as he tries to protect the reputation of fish and uses the same knee-jerk arguments against the Bigfoot evidence.

I don’t want to see a legion of fisherman descend on the Congo or Amazon rivers to wipe out tiger fish, or any other animal, out of misplaced fear. Each time River Monsters decides to characterize a fish as a “flesh ripping chainsaw mauling atomic assassin,” the possibility grows. Don’t turn magnificent creatures into mythological horrors.

And don’t turn mythological horrors into real creatures.

I’m afraid I can’t speak highly of your track record when it comes to presenting evidence-based programming, considering that Finding Bigfoot never finds, and won’t ever find, Bigfoot. But never has it been worse than with Mermaids: The Body Found and the upcoming Mermaids: The New Evidence.

Cryptozoology persists precisely because there is no evidence for these creatures. If we actually found Bigfoot or mermaids, they would be studied, cataloged, and brought into the wide swath of biological knowledge. Bigfoot does not exist because there would be evidence left behind—hair, feces, bones, kills, offspring, a carcass—if it did. Considering how many expeditions have attempted to find this evidence and have come up short, in spite of the Bigfoot hunters who claim these creatures number in the thousands, we can effectively rule Bigfoot out. Admittedly, it’s hard to criticize the search for mermaids in the same way. We only recently captured the fabled giant squid on camera. But the difference between these sea monsters is that the squid, prowling the depths off Japan, leaves evidence behind (beaks, tentacles, whole carcasses).
Funny how footprints and casts never make the list of missing evidence. And there have been potential hair and feces samples that are currently being investigated by Bryan Sykes of the University of Oxford. I also think it is crazy that people assume a population of thousands should be easy to find. We have downed airplanes that we can't find in the wilderness, and those had trajectories to give us clues!

Finally, these are TV shows not documentaries. Anybody who's research stops at a TV show bracketed by commercials and ads is not someone you should care to persuade anyway. Let Animal Planet entertain, because I think people are smarter than Kyle Hill gives them credit for.

Click the following link to read Kyle Hill's open letter to Animal Planet 

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