Episode 26: You’ve Been Misinformed About Sharks

Recent conversations about scientific misinformation have concentrated on what is new: social media and algorithms that spread all kinds of information—reliable and unreliable—surprisingly fast. But misinformation has long been an issue for scientists who study sharks. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has anchored the idea of predatory, dangerous sharks in the public consciousness for 35 years, often wrapping its entertainments in the legitimizing cloak of science. In this episode, we talk with Arizona State University marine biologist David Shiffman, who studies sharks and the impacts of misinformation on shark conservation. 

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Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University.

If you’ve ever watched Jaws or seen the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, you might think that sharks are dangerous predators that often attack people unprovoked, but you have been misinformed. In a world of dangerous things, sharks barely rank. What’s more, they’re vital to ocean ecosystems, and we are much more dangerous to sharks than they are to us. All of this makes sharks an interesting case study in science and misinformation.

I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues. On this episode, I’m joined by marine biologist David Schiffman. David studies sharks and the impacts of misinformation and disinformation on shark conservation. Welcome, David.

David Schiffman: Thanks. I’m happy to be here, Lisa.

Lisa Margonelli: So, you’ve been a shark conservation biologist for a really long time, and you’ve done lots of different things, but recently you wrote a book called Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive into the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator.

David Schiffman: Yes.

Lisa Margonelli: What I want to know is, why does it matter that sharks are misunderstood?

David Schiffman: That’s a great question. So, let me back up and first tell you what things I would like for people to know about sharks, before I get into why it matters that they don’t know those things. First of all, sharks are awesome animals, there’s all sorts of cool things about them. This is an ancient group of animals that was swimming in the ocean long before not only there were dinosaurs on land, but before there were trees on land. So, a really ancient group, hundreds of species all over the world, all sorts of fun facts.

But when most people think about sharks, they think about sharks as being a threat to you and your family, that if you go to the beach, or even if you go to a pool, or even if you dip your toe in the bathtub, a shark’s going to eat your whole family. And that’s not true, but it makes people think that sharks are bad, when in reality, sharks are good. They help keep the food web in balance, and ocean and coastal food webs provide billions of humans with food security and tens of millions of humans with livelihoods. Having a healthy environment means having a healthy ocean and coasts, and that means protecting the food web, and that means protecting the top of the food web.

But many species of sharks face very serious conservation challenges, and the policy choices we make now or soon are going to impact whether or not many species survive or go extinct. So, why does it matter that people don’t know those things? Because we are in danger of losing a lot of ecologically important animals, in some cases entire species, and in no small part because the things that people know—I’m doing sarcastic air quotes when I say “know”—about them are incorrect, and in some cases those things were maliciously spread intentionally.

Lisa Margonelli: So, let’s just back up slightly. How did you first become passionate about sharks?

David Schiffman: I feel like most kids go through a shark thing or a dinosaur thing at some point in their childhoods, and I actually went through both of those. I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is far from the ocean, but we had a wonderful dinosaur museum, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and a wonderful shark tank at the then Pittsburgh Zoo, Aqua Zoo, now called the PPG Aquarium. So I was very lucky as a kid to have access to these amazing educational resources, even though I lived far from the ocean, and I sort of never grew out of the shark thing. Actually, a lot of my marine biology and ocean conservation colleagues that I work with very closely come from the Midwest or come from far from the ocean, and there are lots of folks working on this stuff right in the desert at ASU. So, you don’t have to be right next to the ocean in order to care about or have an impact on the ocean.

Lisa Margonelli: So, you start off talking a little bit about the food web that sharks are part of, but they’re also sort of part of an information web that extends across places that don’t have sharks, to sort of ensnare small children into becoming shark fanatics.

David Schiffman: There is a lot of stuff of having to do with sharks for kids. Of course, there’s “Baby Shark,” every parent’s or grandparent’s or aunt’s or uncle’s nightmare, which is, that’s actually the most viewed YouTube video of all time, and it’s not even close, which is fascinating. And another thing about the “Baby Shark” video, it’s a lot older than people think. It’s over a hundred years old. I grew up singing that song at summer camp, and not at the marine biology camp I went to in middle school and high school, at the just day camp, summer camp in Pittsburgh. So, it’s an older song than a lot of people know.

But yeah, there’s things like Octonauts, of which the chief scientific advisor is an ASU faculty member, Dr. Lara Ferry. There’s movies that are based on books, like The Bad Guys that just came out and just got added to Peacock Plus. I might be viewing that this weekend.

There’s lots of material about ocean science stuff, and there’s often sharks in it, for kids, which is a far cry from when I was growing up, where if you look at movies like The Little Mermaid, which everyone in my generation saw as a kid, and every single fish or crab or shrimp in that movie can not only talk, but sing, and has agency, except for the shark, whose only role is to have scary eyes and chase them around a shipwreck, and doesn’t ever speak or have any instinct or any agency or plot device other than to be scary. So, there’s a lot of great material out there for kids, for sure.

Lisa Margonelli: That is just a really wonderful place to sort of kick off and start talking about the misinformation about sharks. I mean, we talk now, when we talk about scientific misinformation, we’re really focused on social media. But long before Facebook and Twitter and their algorithms, there was Disney and The Little Mermaid, and there was also Shark Week.

David Schiffman: Oh, goodness.

Lisa Margonelli: You’ve called that a “dumpster fire of nonsense.” What is Shark Week?

David Schiffman: So, Shark Week is the longest running basic cable program. It is a “week”—It was, again, sarcastic air quotes for “week,” because now it’s eight or nine days for some reason, of theoretically shark–focused documentary programming that airs on the Discovery Channel every summer. And it is just a enormous missed opportunity. This is something that’s actually been measured. It is the largest temporary increase in Americans paying attention to any science or conservation issue of the year. It’s not the most that anyone pays attention, but it’s the most changed from baseline to spike.

Lisa Margonelli: Okay, so it gets all these eyes, it’s in 70 countries.

David Schiffman: Yeah.

Lisa Margonelli: It’s been going for 35 years, which is longer than The Simpsons. It’s a pop cultural phenomenon.

David Schiffman: And it’s full of nonsense. We actually just completed a study that came out late last year where we had some poor undergraduate research assistants that watched all of Shark Week ever, which is over 200 episodes. Most are an hour, some are two hours. And we just had them record what’s in it. Where do they go? What do they do? What research tools do they use? What experts are featured? What species are featured? What do they say about science? What do they say about conservation? And man, it is worse than I thought it was going to be.

Lisa Margonelli: Give me some of the highlights.

David Schiffman: Out of more than 200 episodes, there are six—not 60, six—that have a single actionable step that their audience of millions can do to help save sharks. And half of those, the only thing they said is don’t eat shark fin soup, which is a traditional Asian delicacy that is already not consumed by most of Shark Week’s audience. So, it’s not a particularly useful actionable step. And when criticized, they say, “Oh, we talk about conservation all the time.” No, you don’t. You just say general platitudes, like, “Sharks are in trouble,” when you could be saying, “Here are some things that you, our viewers of millions, can be doing to help save sharks.” They never do that. The scientific content is nonsense.

Lisa Margonelli: Tell us about the scientific content. Let’s talk a little bit about the content and the misleading content that’s in there.

David Schiffman: Yes. So, we categorized what research methods are used in the episodes, and the number one choice was what we charitably called “other,” which is to say it’s not things that I would consider science if it was presented at a conference, but they’re calling it a tool in service of answering a research question. And they’re things like a goofy custom-made shark cage that looks like a dolphin that can move around on its own, but they never test it and it always falls to the bottom, and then the episode is never, again, about answering the question that they set out to answer. It’s about this diver is now in mortal peril because his shark cage malfunctioned. And that’s happened maybe 30 or 40 times, and at a certain point, maybe it’s not especially dramatic anymore and it’s just an intentional plot device, but it’s not science or conservation education.

Lisa Margonelli: Let’s go back. So, there’s misleading information about the scientists, about who scientists are?

David Schiffman: Yeah. There’s a shocking statistic that we found about this. My field is more than half women, the field of shark science. And that makes it all the more striking that among the featured experts on Shark Week, among the people featured in more than one episode, so the recurring stars, not only are there more men than women, there are more men named Mike who are not scientists than there are women. So, it’s just a staggering amount of just preferentially hiring white guys who don’t know what they’re doing over local experts, over diverse experts. Three of the five most common sites that they visit are the Bahamas, Mexico, and South Africa, and prior to 2020, the number of scientists of color they’ve ever featured could be counted on one hand. They’d rather bring someone who’s a known entity to them halfway around the world to work on a study system he’s never done before.

Lisa Margonelli: Tell me about Megalodon.

David Schiffman: Oh, yes.

Lisa Margonelli: 2014. So, tell me about Megalodon, because what’s really interesting is, we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that misinformation is spread in small places on Twitter by individual actors and that it goes out. But this is like a gigantic megaphone.

David Schiffman: Yes.

Lisa Margonelli: What happened on Megalodon, 2014?

David Schiffman: Yes. So, Megalodon, for anyone unfamiliar with it, it was a real animal. It did exist, absolutely. But they’ve been extinct for millions of years and there’s no doubt about that whatsoever. Shark Week aired the special that claimed Megalodon actually is not extinct. It’s still around, it’s still a threat to you and your family, and scientists in the government know that and are lying to you. This special—which aired on a non-fiction educational television program and with no disclaimers until the end, other than “its existence is disputed,”—had actors pretending to be scientists, had actors pretending to be victims of and family members of victims of shark bites that never occurred, because the people who supposedly died aren’t real. They had CGI video, they had photoshopped images, and this is airing on an educational documentary.

I’ve spoken to thousands of people all over the world about shark conservation. I just completed a 50-city book tour that always included a public Q&A session, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get a question about someone saying, “So what’s the deal with Megalodon? I’ve heard that it might still be out there.” It’s not.

Lisa Margonelli: OK. And then, there was also a part about there being a government conspiracy.

David Schiffman: Oh, yes. I don’t think you can draw a straight line from the Discovery Channelsaying, “Scientists and the government are lying to you about something important. You can trust us. We’re an educational TV channel,” to all the nonsense you saw with vaccine denialism and things like that, but it’s certainly not 0% of a contribution. When trusted actors lie in order to get attention, it breaks down trust in the system, and it’s a shameful thing that they did. A really shocking follow up to that is the next year, they aired another special called “Megalodon, the New Evidence” that used real criticism that the real show got and framed it as, “Look how deep the conspiracy goes.”

Lisa Margonelli: That’s some wild entertainment. That’s a really interesting mixture of science and entertainment. Now, I want to know, just reorienting ourselves a little bit, I want to know how you analyze scientific disinformation and its relationship to entertainment. Do you have a theory of how this stuff works?

David Schiffman: It’s important to know, first of all, what the real information is, and that it is generated not just by scientists—science is not the only way of knowing—but by experts of various kinds, including longtime professional environmental advocates, including in some cases traditional Indigenous knowledge, including government management documents. Real information that’s really true and fact-checked and peer-reviewed is the baseline. This is what should be said:”This is what we know is true. This is how confident we are.” That stuff.

Sometimes the boundary between stretching the truth a little for entertainment value versus straight up lying can be a little fuzzy. But in many cases on Shark Week, they’re just straight up lying, by which I mean they know it’s a wrong answer and they’re saying it for ratings. So, in terms of accuracy and what I would like to see, not every documentary needs to be a dry, stuffy, boring science lecture. Of course not. There’s room for narrative, there’s room for intrigue, there’s room for storytelling, but you should not just make up nonsense to get ratings when it’s harming endangered species.

Lisa Margonelli: So, one of the things that’s really interesting here about the misinformation is that, as we’ve discussed, rooting it in science gives it authority, but then it needs to be ridiculous, and it is nonsense. And there’s this very interesting dynamic. What I see is another level of that, because of course, Issues is a policy journal, and one of the things that’s really interesting about nonsense science is the way that it blocks policy action.

David Schiffman: Oh my God, all the time.

Lisa Margonelli: I mean, fear has a logic of its own. Nonsense makes all action pointless, and it kind of preserves a status quo. How have you looked at that over the years?

David Schiffman: Yeah, so this, it’s very closely related to political nonsense in some of these cases. If you remember Steve Bannon talking about how you have to flood the zone with BS, and the goal there is not necessarily to make people believe any individual specific piece of BS, it’s to make them believe that nothing matters. It’s to make them believe that you can’t trust anyone or anything. He’s lying, but the other side’s probably lying too, so it doesn’t matter if I pay attention, it doesn’t matter what I support.

And you see this with shark conservation stuff all the time. The integration of social media with this is really bad for public understanding of science and conservation. And one example that drives me particularly crazy, that I rant about on social media all the time, is you get these goofy online petitions. Websites like Change.org, they bill themselves as anyone can make a petition about anything. Anyone can save the world. But what that means is people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about make petitions about real issues in ways that are not helpful.

And one example that I see all the time is these petitions made by scuba divers that say, “We need to ban shark finning in Florida.” And the most recent incarnation of this got more than 50,000 people to sign it, and apparently not one of those 50,000 people knew that we banned shark finning in Florida in 1993. This is not a real problem. It has been solved for 30 years, and all this does is it makes people think they’ve done something to help when they have not. It confuses people about what the actual threats are. That’s one that we fixed a long time ago. And it confuses people about what can be done to help.

And that happens every day on social media. In some cases, it’s people who earnestly are trying to help. They saw a documentary or they read a book that the ocean’s in trouble. “Oh, what can I do? I’ve heard of shark finning. That’s bad. Let’s make a petition to ban it where I live, without checking if it is.” It’s wonderful that so many people want to help. It’s wonderful that so many people are trying to help, but wanting to help and trying to help are not the same thing as helping.

Lisa Margonelli: For which you need knowledge.

David Schiffman: Knowledge, experience, training, credentials—any of the above.

Lisa Margonelli: So, how can scientists, individually and at the policy or collective level, counter this sort of scientific misinformation? I want to start first by asking, has your activism around Shark Week changed the series?

David Schiffman: After the Megalodon special aired the second year, there was so much pushback that it resulted in the board of directors firing the then-president of Discovery Channel, and I know from someone who is there that one of my blog posts calling out the harm of this was read out loud in that board meeting. So, they’re not doing the most egregious, awful nonsense anymore. Now it’s more of death by a thousand cuts and death by a thousand facepalms. So, it’s less awful, I would say, rather than it’s better. It’s not that the median quality has improved, it’s that the minimum quality isn’t there anymore. So, now everything’s pretty bad instead of some things being pretty bad and some things being awful.

Lisa Margonelli: OK. I did notice that the 2022 Shark Week had “Jawsome” moments, but it also did have shark facts and women who were shark scientists, and I think that the crew of Jackass was also involved.

David Schiffman: Yeah, women of shark science got one show out of 27, and Jackass got a second special after their first special resulted in Poopsies, one of the Jackass guys, getting bitten by a shark after they engaged in what would’ve probably been illegal wildlife harassment.

Lisa Margonelli: Oh my God.

David Schiffman: There’s no time for a special about conservation, but they can have two shows about Jackass. But we don’t have time for a show about overfishing. We don’t have time for a show about how people can help.

Lisa Margonelli: OK. So, when you talked back against Shark Week, you used blog posts, you used social media, you wrote for the Washington Post, you’ve written all over the place. Do you use the same strategy to counter misinformation on social media, or do you use a different strategy?

David Schiffman: So, there are a bunch of different strategies for countering misinformation and disinformation. An important thing to note here is there is a difference. Misinformation is saying something incorrect. Disinformation is intentionally saying something that you know is incorrect with the goal of stirring up trouble. And we do have both of those with online ocean conservation world, and countering them is different, and diagnosing what’s the difference can be hard.

An important thing when I train scientists how to use social media, and I’ve trained 600 scientists all over the world how to do this, is it’s very tempting for academics in particular to try to change someone’s mind, to argue with someone all day and try to get them to say, “You know what? You were right. I was wrong, I’m sorry.” And that does not happen. Some of these people might not even believe the nonsense they’re saying. They’re just saying it because they know it annoys scientists. I am assured that some people find that fun.

But you also can’t let demonstrably false information stand totally unchallenged in the public sphere. So, what I do is, I’ll respond once, visibly and publicly: “Hey, that’s wrong. It’s not that it’s exaggerated. It’s totally wrong, not even close. Here’s what the real information is, here’s how we know.” And then that person will inevitably try to keep arguing with me about whether or not the sky is blue, and I will not engage with them. But other people are watching, and if they ask questions, I might an answer some of those questions. You’re trying to stop something from spreading by convincing people not to spread it, not by convincing someone to not shout “fire” in a crowded theater, or whatever.

Lisa Margonelli: That’s really interesting, because that really is a philosophy of how to fight the misinformation, is to correct it once and try to stop the spread rather than change minds. You have posted 322,000 tweets to your followers.

David Schiffman: Yeah, I use Twitter a lot. I have been on Twitter since 2009. I’ve been a science blogger for, we just passed 14 years last week. So, I’m very lucky that in my field, there’s long been this recognition that we don’t just publish papers in a journal that no one reads and call it a day, that we need to get out and talk to the public. Lots of people in my field have been doing that forever. I was just an early adopter of using emerging social media tools and blogs for this.

Lisa Margonelli: Well, this was one question I was going to ask you. That’s a lot of time. It’s a significant percentage of your life since 2009, and scientists are not usually compensated for the time that they spend on projects like this.

David Schiffman: Yeah. It’s just got to be something you value. I do see it as part of my job. You know, the public pays my salary. It matters to me what my neighbors know and believe about science and the environment. If I just publish papers and journals that no one reads, that doesn’t help. I also see myself as popularizing my field,. I amplify, of those 322,000 tweets—I really feel like it’s more than that, but something like that—of those, most of what I talk about is not my own work, it’s just general principles of the field, sharing other people’s papers, sharing other people’s reports, sharing when someone’s looking for a job or looking to hire someone for a job. I consider it community service, and that’s gotten me leadership positions on two professional societies.

There are perks to this. I can’t remember the last time I paid to go into a zoo or science museum or aquarium. I get to go behind the scenes a lot. It’s helped with book sales. I told you I did a 50-city book tour. That was arranged entirely over Twitter. And I do these professional development training workshops for scientists to train them how to use these tools for their own public science engagement. It’s definitely a lot of time, but it’s been professionally, as well as interpersonally, extremely valuable.

Lisa Margonelli: Okay, great. So, in general, beyond your personal work, are there policies or society-wide changes you’d like to see around misinformation and science? Has the sharks as a case study given you insights into some sort of bigger changes than every scientist wearing out their thumbs on Twitter?

David Schiffman: Yes. So, I would love to see restrictions on what misinformation can be shared. Certainly there are some areas of active and heated debates where new data might change people’s minds, but there are also some things that we know and we’ve known for a long time, or that we know that something, even if we don’t know what the truth is, we know that someone just made up an answer and know that that’s not true.

You shouldn’t be allowed to say that with a large audience. I’m not talking about anything related to, with freedom of speech here. I’m not saying the FBI should arrest someone who says something wrong about sharks on Facebook. I’m saying that it shouldn’t be allowed to be easily spread. It shouldn’t be monetized in the algorithm in such a way that it spreads a lot.

And these are relatively easy changes, because we see that in some parts of the world, social media is restricted on what you can say. In Germany, there are a lot of things you cannot say about the Holocaust, and Twitter is very, very effective at finding those things and stopping them from being spread. They have the software, they can just add keywords. Do they get things wrong sometimes? Sure. There are lots of examples where something was restricted and perhaps arguably shouldn’t have been. But I would rather err on the side of not burning down the entire planet because someone was wrong about something.

Lisa Margonelli: So, what you’re arguing there for, really, is controls by the company, the social media companies themselves, really looking at their algorithms and thinking about the civic fabric.

David Schiffman: Yes, corporate social responsibility. I think any law that’s passed about this is likely to be very politically challenging, but the company can voluntarily say, “No, we would like to be a force for good in the world.” And that doesn’t necessarily mean for or against any particular policy outcome. It’s, “We would like facts used in this argument to be based on reality and evidence and what’s really there, rather than some angry person making up lies.”

Lisa Margonelli: So are there any sort of national or state policy-level or regulatory changes that you think about?

David Schiffman: Yeah, just whenever you get the government involved in talking about what people should or should not say, it just becomes very, very, very loaded, very quickly, and everyone immediately goes to what ifs and slippery slopes. I want to stress here that this is not just about sharks. This misinformation stuff is a problem in lots of things. But I have colleagues who study misinformation and disinformation in far more controversial subjects—vaccines, climate change, GMO foods—and they’re shocked at how much organized disinformation there is about shark conservation on social media. It is not an accident. It is a well-oiled machine. It is organized, it is agenda-driven, and that agenda is not helping the ocean. It’s getting a few particular scam artists rich.

Lisa Margonelli: OK, so, I guess the takeaway from this is something along the lines of “don’t fear the sharks, fear the people who are using the sharks.”

David Schiffman: Yeah, that’d be a good summary. Yeah. Sharks are just not something you need to worry about from a public safety perspective. More people are bitten by other people on the New York City subway system every year than are bitten by sharks in the whole world. More people die from flower pots falling on their head when they walk down the street under apartment complex balconies than are killed by sharks in the whole world. More people die falling off cliffs while trying to take a selfie of the scenery around them than are killed by sharks in a year. It’s just not something you need to worry about.

Lisa Margonelli: Thank you for joining us, David. To learn more about sharks, read his new book, Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive into the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator. You can also follow David on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. His username on all platforms is @WhySharksMatter.

Email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions and subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us.