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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2023
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TV Interviews

Shark Week: A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Whitenack, and Dr. David Shiffman

Shark Week has been a staple of the Discovery Channel for 33 years, a juggernaut of specials mixing entertainment and education that’s spawned a rival set of specials on National Geographic called SharkFest, now in its ninth year.  Shark Week’s goal is dispel myths about sharks while providing education and highlighting conservation efforts to keep the ocean’s apex predator safe in its native habitat. The specials feature a mix of scientists, “experts,” and celebrities to draw in viewers and call attention to the realities of shark behavior and the need to protect the various species. But how well is that educational and conservation-oriented goal achieved?

If you ask some who work in shark science, not as well as it could be. Shark Week has been heavily criticized by shark researchers the past several years. Stunts like the infamous fake documentary about the prehistoric megalodon, which aired in 2013, frustrated scientists. Even fans of Shark Week were in an uproar (https://www.businessinsider.com/discovery-channel-fake-megalodon-documentary-2013-8 ).  A group of shark scientists and researchers undertook a study during the past year of Shark Week specials and discovered several troubling things. The team analyzed 201 out of 272 shark specials and have published their findings in a peer-reviewed paper. Key findings include: 21.7% of the specials had negative titles; 22.1% of the experts who appeared on more than one special have not published any work on sharks; and, diversity and gender are greatly underrepresented (one particularly irksome finding: more non-experts named Mike were featured than any women in any field).

The Nerd Element spoke to two of the authors, Dr. Lisa Whitenack, associate professor of biology and geology at Allegheny College, who was the lead author on the paper, and senior author Dr. David Shiffman of Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Dr. Shiffman is an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist. Dr. Whitenack and Dr. Shiffman discuss their findings, including what was the most shocking and alarming things they found, as well as what drew them to study sharks and how anyone who loves and respects sharks can help them and maybe push Shark Week back to its stated purpose of education and conservation.

*The opinions expressed in this video are those of the participants. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of The Nerd Element.

Minorities in Science (as mentioned in the video)

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