Make believe Science on TV

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Discussion by: Richard H

My son thinks Mermaids (actually fill in the blank with Nessie, Big Foot and/or Aliens) are real.  Television is not doing me any favors as far as teaching critical thinking and zoology.  While a branch of the US government (NOAA) has declared that there is no evidence for the existence of Mermaids my son (age 15) actually thinks that the government is hiding them (presumably along with ET at Area 51).  How can one counter something presented on TV (Animal Planet I think)?  It carries a great deal of weight with the younger set.  Any advice appreciated!

31 COMMENTS

  1. The belief or non belief in mermaids isn’t such a big deal. In, say, 30 to 40 years when his empirical interaction with mermaids has proved fruitless he may well revise his position. Until then I wouldn’t worry unduly. Work on nurturing skepticism in more accessible areas.

  2. I believe what the author is trying to say is that television now a days has dedicated itself to conspiracy theories, sudo-sciences, and other such fallicies, this coming from a 27 year old that being said…. even though I am 27 I do remember the days when discovery channel, Animal planet, and the History Channel gave us real science… Now a days it seems they only show us, reality shows about ice truck drivers, doomsday nonsense, and dumbed down fantasy science, I understand that these channels like all others want to attract audiences, and sell commercial spots but it’s sad that they no longer show real science. Sorry about all the elipses

    • In reply to #2 by higgsboson.photography:

      I believe what the author is trying to say is that television now a days has dedicated itself to conspiracy theories,

      These channels used to be good. Like a long time ago.

      Any advice appreciated!

      Dunno tbh, I’m kind of way past that. Sometimes it’s a phase, sometime it persists. But mermaids, damn! I was never even that crazy. Is he getting this from TV shows? They’re just having a laugh, see how far they can push it.

      The conspiracy theorist mind is weird. It’s basically a self-reinforcing mechanism. You feed on sketchy intel, scraps, hear-say, that kind of crap. It’s not really being a skeptic, in the sense that the main driving force is a need to believe, then you have a willingness to jump to conclusions, desire to connect the dots, bad inference, an inability to distinguish empirical evidence from subjective evidence (witness testimonies, argument from authority, pseudo-experts), and from there build an alternate view of reality, that is both scary and comfortable. As you say, make believe. It’s sci-fi and spooky stories made ‘real’.

      So, I’d say you can fight this by questioning how you judge ideas, evidence, and being aware of your own subjective view point (what you wish to be true, versus what is true), why believing this thing over that thing, which can bring a bit of perspective. Basically, a good dose of applied scientific principles, which may take time.

  3. Aliens etc. may or may not exist. OK so what? Your son isn’t about to take a trip to Cygnus X-1, so what exactly does he hope to achieve? Does he hope to visit Loch Ness and experience the cold damp misery of a Scottish lake? Spend his time and money traipsing across the Himalyas? Do invisible balls of light on a camera mean something to him? It all sounds rather like a phase I went through in my mid-late teens, he should become disillusioned in his twenties.

  4. All of this will be pretty obvious but for what it’s worth here are my thoughts. I find what works best with kids is to treat them like adults. Don’t talk down to them. I would just present the case why UFOs are pseudoscience. I also would emphasize don’t be dogmatic. Not “here is the truth” but “here is what I think and why”. Be open to listening to his side of things.

    Also, I’ve found that some kids, especially at that age tend to automatically reject ideas that come from authority figures. When my daughter was his age it was very common for me to talk till I was blue in the face and feel I had gotten nowhere and then a few days later she would start paraphrasing my arguments back to me as things she had concluded on her own.

    • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

      All of this will be pretty obvious but for what it’s worth here are my thoughts. I find what works best with kids is to treat them like adults. Don’t talk down to them. I would just present the case why UFOs are pseudoscience. I also would emphasize don’t be dogmatic. Not “here is the truth” but “he…

      The problem is that sometimes these shows present their arguments as fact, and even me an antropologist major is like, “Wait, is this for real?” I am talking about channels like “The History Channel” … Just an example you should look into this “Ancient Aliens” BS they have been pushing idk how they can seriously even have a show like that on their network… some of the stuff presented there can be debunked with a simple google. Actually, some of the stuff the sudo-experts claim are straight out lies, I find that sad.

      • In reply to #6 by higgsboson.photography:

        In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

        All of this will be pretty obvious but for what it’s worth here are my thoughts. I find what works best with kids is to treat them like adults. Don’t talk down to them. I would just present the case why UFOs are pseudoscience. I also would emphasize don’t be dogmatic. Not…

        I agree about the “History” channel. It’s awful. Sometimes humor can be a pretty powerful tool. Southpark had a pretty amusing episode mocking the History Channel and it actually fits right in with this time of year:

        A History Channel Thanksgiving

        Other good counter weights to the History Channel might be Myth Busters & Penn and Teller. Also, I wouldn’t worry that much if he believes some crazy stuff for a while. I read the books about “Ancient Astronauts” when I was around his age and thought it was very convincing I’m embarrassed to say. And much more recently (and more embarassing) there was about a year where I was a 9/11 Truther, until I really started to analyze the arguments critically.

  5. My guess is that if your son got his notion of mermaids from Animal Planet, then they discussed where the myth of mermaids may have originated. It may be that some sailors in days gone by took dugongs/manatees for mermaids. Believing in dugongs/manatees makes sense. If the animal TV show did indeed discuss where the myth of mermaids may have originated, but your son still thinks that there is a conspiracy to cover something up, then that is a problem. Have you viewed the relevant TV show(s) yourself, Richard H ? If not, maybe you should try to do so – if you can.

    If there really were mermaids, I fail to understand why anyone, government or otherwise, would want to conspire to cover up the ‘fact’ their existence.

  6. I think it’s Budweiser that has some commercials with people performing superstitious rituals in order to cause their sports team to win. They claim it’s not crazy if it works. I haven’t had a beer in years (Bourbon person), but if the occasion arises, it won’t be a Bud.

  7. It’s a shame to read your comment, I love those mockumentaries! They’re great entertainment. Try explaining to him that while Animal Planet and other channels that air these mockumentaries do usually show factual shows, once in a while they’ll show a made-for-entertainment fictional film that just happens to be shot in the style of the Blair Witch Project, Rec and Cloverfield (I’m assuming he doesn’t believe that ghosts and zombies are real?). It’s no different than the BBC airing the Wizard of Oz on Boxing Day. I’m sure as soon as these films end there is a very quick flash (but it’s still there nonetheless) that says they’re fictional. Maybe he just likes the excitement of a good conspiracy theory? I have to say I’m guilty of that myself sometimes haha. All in all someone else has already commented saying the jist of it – once a few years have passed without him encountering any mermaids he’ll probably change his mind! :)

  8. Thousands of years ago, Plato said we should separate logic from emotion, in terms of what we now know about neurology, how right he was.

    The neuron either fires or it does not, indicating logic, possibly boolean.

    The neurons float in a chemical sea, usually termed cerebral fluid, within that cerebral fluid are different ratios of neurotransmitters, my hypothesis is, those ratios equate to emotions.

    There are two universes, the epistemological universe, and the ontological universe.

    The epistemological universe is the one inside my head, whereas the ontological universe is the one my head is inside of.

    As Korzybski put it :- ‘in the head is the map, not the territory.’

    As to the existence of mermaids, your son feels that they should exist, the young care little for evidence, the thing is, as he grows up, he will find very little evidence for mermaids, so should grow out of it.

    Try to teach him, that the questions, are far more important than the answers.

    • In reply to #11 by Dollyknot:

      The neuron either fires or it does not, indicating logic, possibly boolean.

      This is off topic but I can’t resist a chance to talk about neurons and computers. The way you described neurons is a bit (bad pun intended) misleading. What you describe sounds a lot more like a bit in computer memory. A bit is absolutely boolean. It’s either 1 or 0 and nothing in between and the probability a bit will be either 1 or 0 at time T is independent of the values of the bits next to it or of of the value it had at T – 1.

      It’s different with neurons. Neurons are connected to each other and the way they represent information is through the connections. And the connections aren’t either on or off. Connections can be strong or weak. Also, connections can be inhibitory or excitable. I.e. if node A and B are connected when A fires it can make B either more or less probable to fire depending on the kind of connection. So whether a neuron fires has a lot to do with what the various neurons connected to it are doing. Also, time is important for a neuron. Once a neuron fires it takes time to “recharge”. It’s less likely to fire immediately after.

      • In reply to #14 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #11 by Dollyknot:

        The neuron either fires or it does not, indicating logic, possibly boolean.

        This is off topic but I can’t resist a chance to talk about neurons and computers. The way you described neurons is a bit (bad pun intended) misleading.

        It’s different with neurons. Neurons are connected to each other and the way they represent information is through the connections. And the connections aren’t either on or off. Connections can be strong or weak. Also, connections can be inhibitory or excitable. I.e. if node A and B are connected when A fires it can make B either more or less probable to fire depending on the kind of connection. So whether a neuron fires has a lot to do with what the various neurons connected to it are doing. Also, time is important for a neuron. Once a neuron fires it takes time to “recharge”. It’s less likely to fire immediately after.

        Just add some simple clarification:-

        Neuroscience For Kids – http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html

    • In reply to #11 by Dollyknot:

      Thousands of years ago, Plato said we should separate logic from emotion, in terms of what we now know about neurology, how right he was.

      I don’t where neurology says anything of the sort. Surely emotions are also a neurological phenomenon.

      The neuron either fires or it does not, indicating logic, possibly boolean.

      I don’t think so! Neurons are much more analog than logic gates are.

      The neurons float in a chemical sea, usually termed cerebral fluid, within that cerebral fluid are different ratios of neurotransmitters, my hypothesis is, those ratios equate to emotions.

      well interesting but I don’t see where your evidence is. Yes our thoughts are affected by hormones and balances of neuro-transmitters. But much of the rest of the thinking processes are too. I don’t believe emotions and reason are so neatly to be teased apart. I don’t think any intelligent being is going to be without emotion, certainly not one that evolved by anything like natural means. Characters like Spock I found utterly implausible- but then so did the script writers!

      There are two universes, the epistemological universe, and the ontological universe.

      The epistemological universe is the one inside my head, whereas the ontological universe is the one my head is inside of.

      As Korzybski put it :- ‘in the head is the map, not the territory.’

      As to the existence of mermaids, your son feels that they should exist, the young care little for evidence, the thing is, as he grows up, he will find very little evidence for mermaids, so should grow out of it.

      I don’t recall being that gullible at 15! But then I was science/math geek. People who thought razor blades sharpened themselves under models of the great pyramid I regarded as idiots. Perhaps what nettled me was that the guy who insisted on this was apparently quite intelligent.

      Try to teach him, that the questions, are far more important than the answers.

      yes. Some sort of evidence for bizarre claims might be nice! How the hell would a mermaid evolve? Is it a fish? An aquatic human? Where are the precursor species? Yes it’s difficult to disprove a conspiracy theory because evidence is being with-held (or assumed to be). This in itself should be a warning sign. Perhaps examine the sort of things govmints have concealed. So far no cryto-biology!

  9. At age 15, disbelieving the government shows he’s got some basic sense. He may be working out some handy rules of thumb, like “I won’t believe it unless the government denies it”, which is arguably more often right than its converse. Later on come the exceptions.

    He may even be getting more sophisticated already – why aren’t the government denying they’ve got a pool full of mermaids cavorting with the aliens in area 51? Where’s Scully and Mulder when you need them?

    Pity about the mermaids. Ariel was kinda cute. But if they turn out to look like dugongs I’m a lot less interested.

    More seriously, the dumbness of modern mass infotainment is breathtaking. And the Wizard of Oz isn’t fantasy, it’s allegory.

  10. if he thinks mermaids ar real there’s some work to be done. presumibly he’s not aware of darwinian evolution. if he is then find out what his view of their descent is

    secondly, which governenment? one of the most serious items that needs addressing in any conspiracy theorist is this assumption that there are people capable of such power, moreover capable of not screwing up their plans. If he means the US government, I’d ask if it’s only people within the US are being duped or if the US governemtn is also enforcing this, very important cover up on every other nation.

    After all, mermaids are not bound by geographical limitations and everyone has cameras in their phones. presumibly europeans and australians have filmed a few? Covering up the existance of any species is pretty much impossible. governements tend to only find out about their discovery after acedemia, then it’s a bit late. proving the existance of something is impossible without a specimen, inevitable with.

    So an understanding of biology should help sort out mermaids.

    aliens are harder to disprove but an understanding of physics can help put the question in perspective, in particlualr Drakes equation. chances aren’t zero but aliens visiting during that tiny slice of geological time that intelligent life is there? very slim.

    again, to believe in all that business, you must believe that the people who run the country/world, are a slot smarter than the visitors who managed to detect life on a distant planet and put together a program to visit the planet, arrive without being spotted by any amateur astronomer, finger a few rednecks aresholes, get themselves captured on shaky videocam footage, stick dirty great circles in corn fields yet somehow never manage to get a TV interview. They are outsmarted by the government who, apparently couldn’t even send a manned mission to the moon, and the only beings smarter than these, are a few socially-awkward movie fans who never leave their VDU for more than 8 hours other than to sleep.

    humour him. say “sure whatever, go find me evidence” (point out that a link to a website with brightly coloured-multi-fonted asserions flahing on it doesn’t count)

    otherwise, just ask loads of questions about what he believes. i bet within 20 inutes he’ll have contradicted himself without you having to bother any of your science books

    • In reply to #15 by SaganTheCat:

      arrive without being spotted by any amateur astronomer, finger a few rednecks aresholes, get themselves captured on shaky videocam footage, stick dirty great circles in corn fields yet somehow never manage to get a TV interview

      Wonderful, Sagan. Thanks for the laugh. I’m imagining a crew of disgruntled aliens sitting around wondering how the heck to get past the network execs. It speaks volumes about TV programming decisions. I think I need to watch Paul again. And then Mars Attacks.

  11. For what reason does your son think the govt is hiding them? If he’s not thought of a viable reason for the govt to hide them he’s not doing critical thinking, IMO. One option is to help him think of a reason for the govt to hide them, after all he might be right. I mean, how do you know the govt aren’t hiding them?

  12. For what reason does your son think the govt is hiding them? If he’s not thought of a viable reason for the govt to hide them he’s not doing critical thinking, IMO. One option is to help him think of a reason for the govt to hide them, after all he might be right. I mean, how do you know the govt aren’t hiding them?

  13. Planet Earth on BBC America is a great show about plants and animals all around the world! It has some great facts blended with some of the most impressive cinematography ever! I recommend this as something you can watch together.

  14. TV is a mixed blessing at any age. Sell it.

    My TV spends ~98.5% of the time switched off! and that figure is growing.

    I spend my information time reading and listening to the radio. The Net has far more to offer than TV.

    I got my Daughter a PC from an early age, with suitable software fitted of course.

    You have correctly guessed the real problem : Commercial pressures in media channels undermine the development of essential knowledge gathering and thinking skills. All avid TV consumers are mental zombies, in my experience.

    Peace.

    • In reply to #20 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      TV is a mixed blessing at any age. Sell it.

      My TV spends ~98.5% of the time switched off! and that figure is growing.

      I spend my information time reading and listening to the radio. The Net has far more to offer than TV.

      I got my Daughter a PC from an early age, with suitable software fitted of…

      Amen, brother.

      But certainly the radio is far from what it was…. I caught Jonathan Miller interviewed by Laurie Taylor (on TV…Sky Arts2 superb stuff) talking with great nostalgia about the BBC’s Third Programme. I had just achieved some form of intellectual consciousness (12/13) when the plug on it was pulled.

      Truly, intellectual radio of the highest calibre, shot down as elitist. I would trade 998 of my TV channels to have this back. BBC R3 Nightwaves is no substitute and the dull hand of Philip Dodd overlays everything in it with a ghastly outdated ’80s politico-po-mo-Freudian-pc-dogmantic, self-promoting gloop…..How often, for me, the subjects appeal and the Dodd repels. Though just as in need of an intellectual updating Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, at least, respects its experts and man-handles them far less. The Podcasts rule.

  15. mermaids

    Strictly speaking, the is one – The Little Mermaid statue that resides in a harbour in Copenhagen. Inspiration manifested from the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale of the same name; which in turn was inspired by folklore of fisherman. Bored / lonely human minds playing tricks.

  16. I’m not sure how best to approach the Bigfoot, Nessie, or UFO “issues”, other than to point out that no matter how many ways you make the case that something might be POSSIBLE (e.g.; citing numerous examples of the government lying to it’s citizens, pointing out that in the entirety of the Universe, the odds of other, even more advanced civilizations approaches definite, etc.) – you have not managed to give even ONE bit of positive evidence for the proposition in question’s truth.

    As far as the mermaid thing goes – the best advice I can give is to show him the part in the credits (for Mermaids: The New Evidence) where it actually says that the entire show is a fictionalization – see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmWrUxgBywk starting at the 19 second mark. See what he has to say about his acceptance of the program as evidence for the existence of mermaids at that point.

  17. With the belief in mermaids, you can probably point out that the Animal Planet show (despite being dressed as a documentary) is intended to be fictional and does not present real footage of supposed cryptids.

    When it comes to things like the Loch Ness monster, big foot, or aliens, a thorough explanation of the science opposed to their existence is probably a good idea. You can also help him by telling him about some of the proven hoaxes associated with them throughout the course of time, along with the history behind each. For example, the earliest report of the “Loch Ness monster” comes from the highly fanciful Vita Columba (or Life of St. Columba), along with stories about warlocks and fights with demons, and actually puts the monster in a river near Loch Ness.

    Ultimately, though, sometimes younger teenagers just believe strange things. I was really into cryptozoology at around his age for some reason, although I’m not sure that I actually believed that any of it was true even then.

  18. This is a tough one really. The only thing that I have noticed about people who take that leap of faith from healthy curiosity into full blown cult following is that the more forceful you are in trying to debunk myth, the more that person will cling to their belief. I think it is because they will take this very assertive debunking as personal attack and see you as just closed minded at best, or part of a larger conspiracy at worst.

    I think the thing to do in these cases is to show genuine interest in their views and join them in researching their subject as a team player. All the while, gently try to steer them toward rationality based on fact but also don’t box them in. Let them always have their “what if” as their safe position. Try to demonstrate your openness to the possibility (even if you think its utter bunk) of their beliefs but remain steadfast in your requirement of evidence.

    Often through this journey of “guided discovery” these people will come to the correct conclusion if they do not feel threatened. This journey will also increase their confidence in being a healthy skeptic and they can take ownership of it rather than being brow beaten. To this day, I believe whole heartedly in the possibility, even probability in ET, but I am a devout Agnostic in all things not just religion. I am totally open to possibilities, but belief must be earned by unambiguous and irrefutable evidence. I think open minded agnosticism is the best way to bring people around and back to rationality.

  19. Wow. Fifteen is a bit older than expected when it comes to belief in mythology, but then again, there are adults searching for Nessie even as I type this. Politicians lie to us constantly. Doctors tell us ridiculous untruths that kill some of us. Primary school history books are rife with inaccuracies that blow the mind when one finally reaches college where a student learns to research the truth independent of what a group of religious zealots in Texas will allow in high school history textbooks. The world is full of lies and mythology, not only in a child’s world, but in our adult world as well. As long as you stress the importance of research from reliable sources, like scientific journals for example (which can be tainted by money and politics, but that’s another horrible road I don’t have time to go down, but it’s still more reliable than TV). If you have someone, usually outside the family, that he really admires explain the concept of a jury of your peers who are at the top of their science field who only allow really good examples of research into their journals, he might consider reading those instead. Also, stress the importance of truth. Living in a fantasy is like taking a drug that never quite satisfies but only disappoints in the end. The truth is exciting, even when it’s not what one wants to hear.

  20. The issue with alien life forms splits into two. The first is that statistically at least, the existence of other (alien) forms of life, at some level, ranging from bacteria like to human like, somewhere else in the universe is highly likely.

    The second is that the likelihood of our ever coming into contact with them is highly unlikely.

    • In reply to #29 by Sheepdog:

      The issue with alien life forms splits into two. The first is that statistically at least, the existence of other (alien) forms of life, at some level, ranging from bacteria like to human like, somewhere else in the universe is highly likely.

      You can’t conclude this. Let P be the number of planets that can support life and let F be the fraction of planets that can support life that have life on them. Then the number of planets that have life on them is N = PF. We have a lot better idea of what P is than we did a decade ago and it’s big, really big. But we don’t know what F is except that N >= 1 so F >= 1/P. If F > 1,000,0000/P then N > 1,000,000 so we expect lots of planets with life. If F = 1/P then N = 1 so we are all there is.

      Even Sean Carroll agrees with me :-).

      Michael

      • In reply to #30 by mmurray:

        In reply to #29 by Sheepdog:

        The issue with alien life forms splits into two. The first is that statistically at least, the existence of other (alien) forms of life, at some level, ranging from bacteria like to human like, somewhere else in the universe is highly likely.

        You can’t conclude this. L…

        Thanks especially for the link, and it makes me want to read “The dancers at the end of time” (Michael Moorcock) all over again.
        To your argument, I think ascribing a low value to F and following on presumes one is speaking about advanced, a loaded term if ever there was one, life, such as us. I agree this will result in at least a very small number. I disagree with its being unity, the universe is too big a place for that kind of absolute argument, algebraically sound as it may be.

        Taking “life” to include the earliest and simplest forms increases the statistical pressure on F to increase in value.

        I for one would be far worried about being personally colonised by an alien organism at microbial level that my immune system had no idea how to deal with than an alien in the Sigourney Weaver vs. the thing with the awful overbight model.

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