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August 7th, 2013
06:44 PM ET

Scientist slams Discovery's Shark Week' fake documentary

The Discovery Channel has come a long way since the early days, where the highlights were things like migration patterns of the whooping crane, and the amorous activities of the dung beetle.

Discovery is right in the middle of "Shark week," which is always a smash.

But this year, the channel kicked things off by hoodwinking its viewers, in a grand tradition that dates back to at least 1938, when Orson Welles convinced radio listeners that Mars was attacking Earth.

Nearly 5 million people tuned in to the Discovery Channel Sunday night to watch "Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives," the story of a giant, extinct shark that, as the story goes, may still lurk far beneath the waves.

"There's a blend of fact and fiction, but the overall narrative is absolutely false, there's absolutely no doubt at all in the scientific community that megalodons have been extinct for a long time now," said David Shiffman, shark biologist at the University of Miami. "Perpetuating misinformation otherwise does a disservice to Discovery's reputation, and to their viewers."

Discovery Channel was following in the footsteps of its sister network Animal Planet, which in May decided to go beyond the extinct and serve up footage of creatures that have never existed: mermaids.

Both Animal Planet and Discovery are channels known for documentaries.

Animal Planet aired convincing footage that the half man, half fish creatures exist in a special called "Mermaids: The New Evidence."

3.6 million viewers watched it, and more than a few believed it. Though there was a tiny disclaimer at the end of the program.

The truth behind "Megalodon" also appeared briefly on the screen in bright white font. The disclaimer that flashed by said, in part, "None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have they approved of its contents."

Despite this note, 47% of respondents said they thought megaladons might exist, according to the Discovery Channel's online poll, which was as unscientific as its broadcast.

Discovery Channel is one of the world's top sources for educational programming which makes this "Shark Week" show all the more shocking.

A spokesman for the Discovery Channel told CNN, "People watch Discovery to explore the "what ifs" of the world. As in any entertainment, you aren't going to always please everyone, but we stand behind all of our content and are proud of it."

"If this show had aired on the SyFy Channel I probably would have loved it," said Shiffman. "But "Shark Week" has millions of viewers each year, some of them it's the only marine science they may be exposed to the whole year."

Discovery isn't alone. The History Channel, presumably meant for things that are recorded in the historical record, has been airing "ancient alien" footage of elongated skulls and UFOs for five seasons.

The footage is questionable at best. The show prompted one writer from Smithsonian Magazine to preface his review with, "I'm actually glad that my editors don't allow me to cuss a blue streak on this blog. If they did, my entire review would be little more than a string of expletives."

And that's the Smithsonian!

Is this all just fun a way to package science and history in a palatable way, or is this a dangerous path where making things up with teeny disclosures will become the norm? Because the people who are making these decisions at History Channel, Discovery and Animal Planet are in secret ... evil aliens!

Disclosure: that's not true.

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