The thinking person’s guide to Shark Week


It's Shark Week! From now until Saturday, the Discovery Channel will host a seemingly endless rotation of shark-related specials each evening. At 26 years and counting, the week is cable TV's longest-running programming event. But here's the thing: Generally speaking, Discovery's shark shows just don't hold water.

We won't know just how psuedo-science-y this year's Shark Week is until it's all wrapped up (last year featured at least one documentary that was eviscerated by scientists everywhere). But scientist and blogger Christie Wilcox writes on her blog that most of the programming looks to be "fear-based." These shows, which rely on shock tactics and fear-mongering to attract viewers, will probably leave you terrified of the ocean — but not much more educated than when you turned on your TV.

While these episodes might get sharks on your brain, think twice before viewing. According to many scientists, we're still getting over the irrational fear of sharks that the movie "Jaws" inspired in 1975. "It perpetuated the myths about sharks as man-eaters and bloodthirsty killers … even though the odds of an individual entering the sea and being attacked by a shark are almost infinitesimal," George Burgess, a shark biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told National Geographic in 2005.

The film, Burgess told National Geographic, led to a surge in shark hunting. With fishermen eager to get their own monstrous shark as a trophy, populations dropped notably.

The movie also inspired a new generation of shark researchers, so the effect wasn't all bad. But when watching a special with a title like "Monster Hammerhead" or "Sharkageddon," it's important to remember the facts: Very few sharks are considered dangerous to man, and attacks on humans are extremely rare. And far from being blood-thirsty monsters, sharks are quite intelligent.

If Shark Week is your favorite time of year, don't dismay — just follow one of Scientific American's recommended shark experts on Twitter so you get the straight facts, too. And if you're interested in seeing some shark-induced gore, maybe it's better to indulge in something obviously fake — like one of the Sharknado movies — so you don't have to gnash your teeth through fiction masquerading as fact.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · August 8