Last week, the United States government made a statement that I hope will come as a shock to very few people: There is absolutely no evidence that mermaids exist. That should be abundantly obvious to anyone who has been on Earth for more than eight years and is capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. Water-breathing, finned human beings would probably not go unnoticed for long in today’s world.
This, of course, raises the question of why the government felt the need to issue such a denial. Well, apparently the answer is that the ability of some of the population to distinguish fantasy from reality has been significantly impeded by the effects of television. In a bit of depressing irony, the primary offender in this and other cases is that category of television that somehow retains the label “educational.” As it turns out, you can learn a lot more about nature by spending a day watching bamboo grow than by spending a day watching Animal Planet.
In May, that network capped off its “Monster Week” with a completely fake documentary that pretends to follow two scientists who find evidence of real, live mermaids that have been hiding beneath the sea for millions of years. Enough viewers were convinced of the truth or plausibility of this theory, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt the need to respond to the inquiries and chatter by adding the page to its website that answers the question, “Are mermaids real?”
The promotional copy for the movie, posted on the Discovery Networks website, claims that it “paints a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids, what they may look like, and why they’ve stayed hidden… until now.” Well, that’s nice, but is it real?
As the government has helpfully pointed out to us, of course not. “Wildly convincing but made up” is practically the definition of what we call sophistry. And any person or organization who engages in it without regard for the truth ought to immediately be barred from ever again being referred to as “educational.”
I have fond recollections of what television was like during my childhood and early adolescence, and it goes way beyond plain nostalgia for the wonder of youth. And the first thing that comes to mind when I think of how the media landscape has changed for the worse is the difference between educational networks today and fifteen years ago. I remember a time when Mythbusters was the least education thing on the Discovery Channel, not the most. I remember when the History Channel taught legitimate history, rather than giving crackpots an outlet for BS.
People around me don’t seem to notice, but TLC hasn’t referred to itself as The Learning Channel for a number of years. They’re not even pretending that that’s their brand identity, or that they’re the same entity they were when they first entered the basic cable lineup. None of those old networks are concerned with educating their viewers anymore. They are outlets for simple, easily-digestible entertainment, like anything else, and that really is a shame for our culture.
Don’t we have enough escapist fantasies that we should be willing to pull ourselves back to reality from time to time with the embrace of some raw, factual information? Doesn’t today’s media give us enough videos of cats falling down, enough beauty contests, enough cool explosions, and enough alternate realities, that it can deign to risk an iota of its profit margin against the responsibility to tell the truth and contribute to the creation of a better informed, more intellectually enriched population?
It seems to me that when I was a child, my education, whether it came through a classroom or through television, was viewed as a way of building up a person with critical thinking and problem solving skills. It seems to me that teaching and learning was what would make the solutions to the world’s myriad problems possible. I still see the truth in that.
The world is full of terrifically important facts and principles that hold the key to a better future. But people have to know about them first. People have to know that bamboo can help to halt global warming. They won’t support it as a green resource just because someone used it as a cool fighting stick on TV. Yet that’s as much as I would expect to see on today’s so-called educational networks. It’s enough to make me wonder whether knowledge of the real world is even valued the way it was when I was younger.
Discovery Communications hasn’t just fallen a long way from when I was a child. It’s fallen a long way just from 2008, when it put out an ad campaign called “I Love the World,” which presented musical montages of a stunning variety of actual, beautiful, impressive things that really exist in the actual, limitless world of human experience. Now, the parent company seems to think that it needs to make things up about mythological creatures in order to make the world seem interesting to its viewers.
The world is interesting on its own, it is lovely on its own, and it possesses a lot of very real things that, for everyone’s sake, need to be discovered more often. The sea creatures whose existence we have proven are stunning on their own; there’s no reason for educational television to make up new ones and confuse people’s understanding of the world.
We don’t need to pretend that the world actually has triffids and truffala trees, when we can teach each other wonderful facts about known plant life, like the fact that bamboo can grow upwards of three feet per day. And without having to resort to fictions, isn’t it interesting enough that one of the strongest natural materials in this ordinary world can be processed into extraordinarily soft bamboo fabric?
There are countless many such facts to learn. In many cases, simply knowing them can help to make the world a better place. Why would either the media or the viewers choose to push those aside in favor of a false reality of mermaids, fairies, dragons, and chimera. Those may all be interested bits of speculative fiction. They may even be articles of faith for some. But to mingle them with our objective reality, to place them side by side with presentations of fact, is exceptionally irresponsible.