“It pays to keep an open mind,
but not so open your brains fall out"
~ Carl Sagan.
Recently, I've had a uni friend, Lucy, staying with me from Melbourne while she attended her Insect-Plant Interactions intensive school on campus. I met Lucy last year - we were both selected to travel to Bhutan for fieldwork - and the other night after dinner I started to tell her about an online experience I had in June 2013 about...
m e r m a i d s .
My "interest" in the topic of mermaids actually started with this tongue-in-cheek post to the Zoology @ UNE Facebook group on 29 May 2013:
Animal Planet had recently aired the mermaid "documentary" The New Evidence (which had picked up for where the earlier The Body Found had left off), and the Internet and social media were going nuts for two reasons:
- Stupid people either believed the documentary was real, or
- Smart people were angrily criticising Animal Planet for being so irresponsible.
A little over a week later, on 7 June 2013, a fellow Zoology student (well, she was at the time but I believe she is no longer enrolled in the degree) posted this at 12:51 pm:
And so began what I have affectionately coined "Mermaidgate".
The last comment for the day was posted at 9:25 pm - almost 9 hours later! Now, I know debates/discussions on public forums can rage for days/weeks/months/years, but this is a social media forum for university students studying zoological science. There is an assumption that all participants will have a certain level of scientific literacy.
Two first-year (I believe) students, based their beliefs and arguments that mermaids were real on a fake documentary aired on Animal Planet. It was disheartening to say the least.
In a failed attempt to undo some of the damage, I posted links to credible blogs that were critical of Animal Planet and urged them, as budding scientists, to read them:
- Mermaids: The New Evidence is a Fake Documentary by Andrew David Thaler for Southern Fried Science;
- No, Mermaids Do Not Exist by David Shiffman for Slate Science;
- Mermaids Embodies the Rotting Carcass of Science TV by Brian Switek for Wired Science;
- Mermaids Return From the Depths of TV’s Chum Bucket by Brian Switek for National Geographic Phenomena;
- Mermaids: The Body Found by Snopes;
- Again with the friggin' Mermaids by Tommy Leung; and
- Mermaids: The Faux Evidence on Storify.
I tried reasoning with them; I tried appealing to their presumed value for zoological science and their respect for the scientific method:
"There are so many REAL and fascinating species in our world. I've only touched on a few parasites! I plan to focus my energies on fact rather than fantasy, evidence rather than imagination. I'll leave the fantasy and imagination out of my science degree. I believe as budding scientists we should think creatively, but mermaids and science do not mix. Mermaids are not real."
"I think healthy debate is valid and purposeful - how else are we to challenge ideas that may have been put forward a hundred or more years ago, but have since been found to be lacking?"
"I think the Animal Planet fauxumentary was not only irresponsible, but detracts from some of the real issues. If only people could speak up so passionately and vehemently about overfishing of sharks or marine pollution or anything else that's real and that deserves or time and energy. The arguments that have erupted all over social media about mermaids are scary because it shows how easily rumours are spread and how hard they are to dispel once they're 'out there'. The damage is done."
"We, as students of science, should be taking responsibility for correcting some of the falsities out there. We can't get them all, but we can spread the word."
"It is so easy to be led astray these days, with social media at our finger tips. BUT it is so easy to check facts first, before hitting that 'like' button or 'share' button or 'tweet' button."
As a result of Animal Planet's irresponsibility, Dr Tommy Leung, Evolutionary Biologist and Parasitologist, now gives two lectures to first-year zoology students on this topic and on science in the media in general.
His reaction, at the time, to his very own students actually arguing for the existence of mermaids was priceless:
A few months later, I was invited to a friend's 40th birthday party and the fancy dress theme was I can't believe you wore that and yep - you guessed it - this was my costume:
My mind still boggles at what happened 2 years, 5 months, and 14 days ago, and I still don't know whether to laugh or cry sometimes. I do, however, take great pleasure in telling this story to other people and watching their reactions...
If you're interested and want to laugh and/or cry yourself, you can read the entire thread here (I have censored everyone's names and photos except my own for privacy reasons).