David Shiffman cringes whenever he watches the Discovery Channel and finds mermaids, megalodons, or zombie sharks on air. But for the 30-year-old University of Miami graduate student, Shark Week is the worst. That’s because Shiffman has spent his career researching actual science about sharks. The way he sees it, few popular institutions have done more to spread ridiculous lies about the creatures than Discovery Channel’s annual deep-sea gore fest, which will air July 5 through 12.
“People thought this stuff was real,” Shiffman says of past Shark Weeks. “But there were some pretty egregious basic factual errors that even an 8-year-old would know.”
That’s why Shiffman has spent the past several years becoming the Discovery’s biggest pain in the ass during its signature week. Despite promises from the channel that this year’s programming will be different, Shiffman will tweet to his 22,000-plus followers about any lapses in truth.
Shiffman was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where his childhood dream was to study sharks. There aren’t any in land-locked Pennsylvania, though, so he took summer jobs at the aquarium. He moved to Miami four years ago to work toward a PhD in shark ecology and conservation. In South Florida, he has spotted 15 species, from common nurse sharks and bull sharks to a great white that was reported off Islamorada.
Shiffman argues that Discovery sensationalizes the creatures he studies. For example, the show Zombie Sharks harassed the creatures by turning them over to make them fall unconscious. “It’s stressful for them and shouldn’t be done for TV footage,” he says.
Other so-called documentaries have tacked vague disclaimers at the end. Discovery producers allegedly even misled credible scientists to appear on their shows by keeping tight-lipped about the premise. Once, they aired a show about a legendary shark called Hitler that was said to exist off the coast of Florida since World War II. “That’s impossible,” Shiffman points out. “By muddling the facts, people actually believe that the government and scientists are actively trying to cover up a 50-ton monster shark.”
In 2013, Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives attracted the highest ratings of any show in Shark Week’s 27-year history by suggesting the prehistoric beast may still swim the oceans. But backlash by experts such as Shiffman put a dent in Discovery’s reputation. Discovery defended its megalodon show, calling it “one of the most debated shark discussions of all time.”
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“It isn’t. It’s fear-mongering,” Shiffman scoffs. “Twenty-five percent of species of sharks are threatened with extinction. It’s hard to get people to care when they’re terrified of them.”
The criticism dished by Shiffman and other scientists has made a difference. Earlier this year, Discovery Channel’s new president, Rich Ross, announced the network would stop airing pseudoscience. “I don’t think it’s right for Discovery Channel and think it’s something that has run its course,” he told critics at a winter TV press tour.
Shiffman is optimistic about that pledge, but still wary. He plans to continue live-tweeting his commentary throughout Shark Week. Stay tuned to @WhySharksMatter in case another zombie shark fiasco ensues.