David Shiffman owes his career to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week having caught the bug after being captivated by the first Shark Week over 25 years ago. Shiffman is now a PhD candidate at the University of Miami studying shark ecology and conservation and is crusading to have the monumental event turn from less shocking style of pseudoscience programming we are seeing today to being more informative and driven by real science.
This week, he will be taking to Twitter to state his case and no, he isn’t just some random scientist with 50 followers posting away. Shiffman’s Twitter handle @ has over 18,500 followers and he has posted more than 84,000 tweets.
“Shark Week is a major reason I became a marine biologist,” Shiffman says. “Unquestionably there is some good science content that airs on the Discovery Channel and on Shark Week, but there’s been a growing trend in recent years for promoting fear-mongering instead of wonder and promoting pseudoscience and nonsense instead of facts and scientific education.”
Shark Week – ditch Hitler and fiction posing as fact – lNew Scientist: http://t.co/YNyZ4K2ZxZ // New by me, please RT!
— David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) August 13, 2014
Shark Week’s programming does grab your attention and often for the wrong reason, using fear mongering as the way to educate is not the way to go notes Shiffman. He has made it a significant portion of his academic career to engage with the public in a meaningful way. Take his Twitter handle for example, he chose it to encourage people to ask a question central to his research, “WhySharksMatter?” His research includes looking at social media’s effectiveness in both informing or misinforming the public and eventually how this can translate into changing behaviors or policy.
“Learning things about the world doesn’t mean anything if we don’t share it with people,” he noted in an interview in Pacific Standard Magazine. “The goal of conservation biology is to protect threatened and endangered species and ecosystems, which requires that non-scientists understand what the problem is and how changing their behavior can solve it.”
Shiffman feels Discovery Channel is still getting some things right, such as Alien Sharks, a documentary series about deep sea sharks, he notes as the best example of the network’s programming due to it being both educational and inspiring. He is also quick to point out too that not every show needs to be science driven using the Air Jaws series of great whites leaping out of the waters off South Africa as amazing behavior caught on film. Despite this wins in his eyes, he’s continuing to push Discovery to do better and raise the bar for itself when it comes to Shark Week programming.
“The megalodon nonsense in particular is offensive to me as a scientist and a science educator because it’s Shark Week producers saying they don’t think reality is interesting enough,” Shiffman says about the Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives, dramatized documentary from last year about this prehistoric shark that went extinct 1.6 million years ago. Just to illustrate how people do react to shows like this, Shiffman says he spoke to over 500 students last year and at least one student from every group asked whether megalodon is still alive and swimming in our oceans.
We are champions of people pushing the boundaries of science education and championing science over pseudoscience designed to drive eyeballs, increase social media shares and “Likes” and just to gain a reaction, but we also need to ensure highly vocal activism is used at the right time. Being too vocal and coming down too hard could possibly drive away interest and make the skeptical audience tune out the message. However, we do applaud Shiffman for taking a visible stand against misinformation around sharks.
Go ahead and enjoy Shark Week as its been one of our favorite experiences on TV for many years, but make sure you keep a bit of skepticism there and when in doubt, research before you make an opinion either way.
[via Pacific Standard Magazine/Image: Discovery Channel]