Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Crit List 6: MonsterQuest Part Two -- Of Course They Get On My Nerves...

Again, not the most polished work I've done -- but the art isn't the goal. The point of this is to get myself in the habit of sketching daily. Once the habit is in place I'll start worrying about quality.

Before I go much further with this I should make one thing clear -- my idea of evidence has very little to do with eyewitnesses. The human eye and brain are not a recording system.

People are terrible witnesses. People frequently have experiences that did not actually happen. That doesn't mean they're crazy or lying -- it means they're human. Gaps and fill-ins are part of our sensorium. Add that to the fact that there are crazy people and liars in the world and you've got a situation where it's going to take a lot more than a witness to convince me of the absolute existence of anything.

I'm going to require verified physical evidence to believe in anything.

So here's what I don't like about MonsterQuest.

The problem is that the show plays to the gullibility of the public. For every moment when they show an expert debunking a piece of evidence, they balance it with a voiceover commentary saying, "While this may be unlikely, there is still a possibility that an unspeakable horror may be lurking in the depths, waiting for your children."

In an absolute sense, yeah, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence -- but to keep hammering at possibilities when probabilities have been fairly clearly demonstrated is intellectual dishonesty.

Yes, these things may not be absolutely impossible in many cases -- but most of the time they are so unlikely that you may as well make similar claims about Pikachu and the Tooth Fairy. 'Just barely possible,' isn't 'maybe,' it's 'almost certainly bullshit.' This is a very important distinction that a lot of people aren't good at making.

I know this is a television program and I know that it is entertainment. That doesn't absolve the makers of their responsibility for the show's effects on society. And right now our society is hurting for rigorous thought.

For instance, take the giant trout report I mentioned in the first part of this piece. They had one report from one person of something very much out of the ordinary and they just put the pedal to the metal and went for the investigation without once indicating that the guy in question was in all likelihood crazy or a liar -- and when they found no evidence whatsoever to support his claims they simply shrugged and said, "The mysterious depths."

Now maybe the other reports ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe the statement that, "In the end, there is no reason to believe a goddamned thing this daffy old coot says," was likewise excised.

But in that case, the editors are responsible.

The show presents almost every single claim on exactly the same level. And in most cases -- the episode dealing with the monsters generated by bird and insect flight as viewed through cameras being a rare exception -- that level is, "Okay, regardless of the evidence this could be true. Sure, the evidence makes it seem unlikely -- but it could be true! It could! Maybe."

Look. This is dishonest. It preys on the typical person's lack of practice and training in critical thought. When I mentioned in the first part the pleasure of the feeling that kind of thinking engenders, it's coming from someone who's worked hard to look at exactly these kinds of phenomena from a critical stance, who has made a point of researching and double-checking, and thinking really, really hard.

Someone who doesn't have that background isn't necessarily going to recognize the fact that they're being fed bullshit.

I mentioned that there seems to be missing information in some of these episodes; in some cases, the missing information is of real interest. The episode dealing with giant squid in the Sea of Cortez featured an early interview with a scientist who claimed a theoretical basis for believing in such squid.

His on-camera statement was so vague and meaningless that I dismissed it out of hand. It was a description of a hypothetical situation, not an analysis of evidence.

But the man was right -- and I want to know what thought processes led him to the correct conclusion. MonsterQuest didn't give those to me. And as a result I am petulant.

Or in the giant spider episode -- they never talked about the physical reasons why spiders are small. (Not to go into it, but they have to do mainly with respiration.) This is crucial to understanding just how nonsensical these claims are -- and they were just skipped. Maybe this was done out of ignorance. If so, that doesn't speak well for the researchers and writers.

Something else happened in that episode that really bothered me -- when one of the locals prepared some spiders for the show's representatives to eat, the soundtrack featured horror movie music.

The man is making lunch for people he hardly knows and they give him horror music? That was as good an example of unconscious racism as you're likely to run across -- "Why this gentleman's idea of lunch is absolutely terrifying and we feel obliged to use it as a means of inspiring fear." Creepy spider thrills were allowed to totally overwhelm the most fundamental levels of respect and courtesy. The guy was being nice and this is how they treat him?

Imagine if Julia Child invited you for lunch, made Boeuf Bourguignon, and you filmed and broadcast it using the Psycho theme as background music. It would be an insult. I hope the example clarifies my meaning...

Mixing images and information from dubious and inappropriate sources is also an issue. For instance, in the episode involving the search for the remains of the Loch Ness Monster, they included an image that came from The Weekly World News, the trash paper beloved of us olde-thymey punkes.

Or in the episode dealing with a Canadian lake monster, early in the show they cut repeatedly to illustrations of sea monsters by Conrad Gessner. Wrong continent, wrong body of water, wrong century -- this was done purely for decorative effect. And thus, was bullshit.

Then there's the habit of taking quotes from experts out of context early in the show to make it sound as though the experts support the monster claims. Later in in the show, when we hear what the expert really said, it turns out that the opposite is the case.

And dramatizing stories that are later shown to be false is a similar annoyance -- again, in the Canadian lake monster episode, they report a story about a giant eel attacking mounties but later in the show admit that the mounties had no record of the story.

Perhaps it seems a bit mean-spirited of me to complain about the bullshit levels of a show called MonsterQuest, but again, our culture is seriously lacking in critical thought.

And the fact is that a lot of the ads on the show seem to be aimed at the gullible, which seems a bit low. One ad in particular was for hair dye for men -- and it implied a direct connection between a man's use of the product and his ability to put his son through college. This is an ad for male hair dye, people -- and whoever came up with that ad should be ashamed of themselves. That kind of sucker bait just ain't right.

I love the show; I watch the show; I will watch the show. But to write about it without pointing out what strikes me as a genuine moral failing would be irresponsible. I know it seems like a minor issue -- but that's because the problem is so widespread and so serious that an individual example like this seems like a spit in the ocean.

That said, when are they gonna do something on the Nandi Bear or the giant salamanders of the Trinity Alps or the idea that there are giant sloths surviving in the Amazon Basin or...

Anyway, I'll be watching.


erica said...

lmao! This show is bullshit!! Right on dude...they never discover shit! And LOL @ commercials being aired during the show that are aimed at a "gullible" demographic!!! U rock!

Also... EVERY they go to any body of water its murky as hell and they have zero visibility...of course

Anonymous said...

every time* LOL