Lying Through Big Teeth – Megalodon and “Shark Week”

The Discovery Channel‘s “Shark Week” began on Aug. 4 with a documentary titled Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. The program’s interviews and interpretive animations earnestly explored the biology of the massive shark, as well as the hazards a particular specimen, “Submarine,” poses to boating on the South African coast. This blend of science and violence helped earn the channel the highest ratings among all networks among male viewers aged 18-49 from Aug. 4 to Aug. 10. Such success might be considered a coup for science communication were it not for one minor detail: all reputable scientific work indicates that Megalodon has been extinct for approximately 2 million years.

At the very end of the two-hour program, the Discovery Channel briefly displayed the following disclaimer: “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 debate about what they might be.” Many scientists have criticized this disclaimer as intentionally vague and misleading, claiming that the statement failed to explain the depth of the “dramatization.” In perhaps the most blatant omission, the network did not explain that the marine biologists used in the program’s interviews, Collin Drake and Madelyn Joubert, were completely fabricated talking heads portrayed by actors. A poll conducted by the Discovery Channel after the show found that nearly 75 percent of viewers believed Megalodon was still alive, indicating that the majority viewed the documentary as fact rather than fiction.

Artist’s rendering of a Megalodon, courtesy of Kevin Oedekoven.

The network has defended its programming, with executive producer Michael Sorenson claiming that, “[w]ith a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon.” However, as explained by zoologist Stephen Wroe of the University of New South Wales in Australia, the real science behind the ancient shark has plenty of possibility. Wroe’s models indicate that Megalodon could exert up to 40,000 pounds of bite force, enough to destroy a small car. The shark is thought “to have used its massive jaw to bite the tails and flippers off large whales, effectively taking out their propulsion systems.” The teeth used to inflict this massive damage support Megalodon’s literal translation as “big tooth,” ranging from three to seven inches in size with sharp serrated edges.

With these sort of awe-inspiring, scientifically supported facts known about Megalodon, it seems unnecessary to create false excitement about the shark. The Discovery Channel has a unique position as “the world’s #1 nonfiction media company,” and its viewers trust the network to provide them with informative and entertaining content. Shark scientist David Schiffman has heard members of the public believe “because they saw it on the Discovery Channel, that Megalodons are real, and we have to launch a campaign to protect humans against them by killing sharks.” When science communication causes people to fear rather than to understand and value nature, it has failed in its most important goal.

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