Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Animal Planet Disappointment

I used to watch Animal Planet quite a bit when visiting my parents or in-laws or any other acquaintances who happen to have cable. I find that now that we have cable ourselves, I’m not particularly drawn to AP, though. I’m really interested in the natural world, what animals can do, how they live, and how they evolved. That’s why the intrusion of pseudoscience into AP has cost the channel its charm.

What prompted this rant was an episode of Animal Planet’s “The Most Extreme” that I happened to catch recently. This show runs down a list of ten animals that excel in some particular feature like strength, speed, toxicity, intelligence, or such. The particular episode was a “best of the best” show, listing the examples from the top ten highest rated shows, and “most extreme senses” was apparently one of those shows. Sharks, with their electromagnetic sense, were the winner of that category on their show, I suppose.

If you’re not familiar with the format, “The Most Extreme” always tries to give you come kind of human comparison for the extreme animal’s characteristic. For example, the rhino beetle is their strength champion, and they say that to have comparable strength for their size, a human would have to be able to lift a tank. (Side note: In reality, muscle strength doesn’t scale directly with size, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.) Then they’ll go on to give examples of actual human extremes in the same field; showing record-setting Olympic weightlifters as actual examples of strength, for instance.

Getting back to the extreme senses of sharks, they mentioned that you’d need to be able to smell a hot dog stand from across town to have a comparable sense of smell, and you need to be able to detect a nine-volt battery from some ridiculous distance to have comparable sensitivity to electromagnetic fields. Then they made the grand mistake of calling the shark’s electromagnetic sense a “sixth sense” and brought out their human example: Sonya Fitzpatrick, the Pet Psychic.

For me, all of the show’s credibility abruptly dropped through the floor at that point. I watched as she went to visit an alligator farm, where the owner had supposedly called her because one of his favorite alligators wasn’t behaving normally: less socially, whatever that means for alligators. I watched as Sonya cold read the guy, saying the alligator was telling her that the man seemed unhappy (Duh! Why else would Mr. Credulous call in a psychic?); naturally he immediately volunteered that he’d recently gone through a divorce (and in a "post-reading" statement, gushed at how surprised he was that she knew about it).

As for the alligator’s less social behavior, she asked what the man had changed about the way he treated the alligator, and he helpfully informed her that he’d changed its diet to something less expensive. Acting as though it takes psychic ability to realize that a dietary change will often result in a behavioral change, she told him to change its diet back, and we got a glowing follow up of how her advice had brought the gator back to its old self and improved the man’s life.

I, on the other hand, felt a little ill after watching her shamelessly manipulate the guy. I know AP has a whole show dedicated to this woman’s supposed psychic abilities, but I hadn’t been confronted with it before. I realize that they’re a for-profit venture and that psychic shows bring in the bucks, but I don’t think it’s worth the sacrifice of their scientific integrity. I don’t watch AP anymore; they've gone from a serious science channel to a circus act..


JM O'Donnell said...

I wasn't even aware it was possible to have a 'Pet Psychic'. Sure shows me!

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Since when was ANIMAL PLANET ever a "serious scientific channel"? It has, since I've seen it, been just a place to see cute pictures of animals -- a Good Thing, I would argue, especially if you watch it with the sound off, a necessity at least for "Planet's Funniest Animals" which is usually hosted by "Planet's Stupidest People."
But serious science? C'mon, if a Creationist built this big a strawman, you'd never stop complaining, and rightfully so.

Lord Runolfr said...

Oh, I realize that AP is more of an entertainment channel than a science channel, but I had previously been under the impression that they took their scientific content fairly seriously. Color me disillusioned.