ScienceSkepticism

Discovery Channel = Nature Porn

I used to teach a Freshman Seminar about Skepticism and science, and one of the classes that always blew the kids away was a discussion of how much of what was on TV as nature/science was actually staged BS.

CBC recently ran an expose on this, in which the first half was devoted to showing examples of just how much of that lovely nature photography is fake. (Probably my favorite was the “Man vs Wild” clip in which the wild mustang that was “tamed”….had horse shoes.)

Hopefully, most people realize the lemming scene in the Disney epic was faked. (And the CBC turned up the additional detail of just how they were launched over the cliff by a spinning turntable–ugh.)clearly faked

But did you also know that Marty Stouffer had very dirty hands? Some of those great Wild America shots involved tethered prey animals. Wild Kingdom and Marlin Perkins also did a great deal of fakery. The Discovery program “Living with Tigers” is another example of fraud.

Is this just a cost of doing business? Or is it that we prefer our nature television like we prefer our porn?

Everything is pretty, the narrative is simple, and there are lots of money shots. It’s close up, sped up, and set to music. There is always a climax to the story.

I have students showing up at the university that love the environment…but don’t want to go outside.
It’s hot! There are bugs and mud! And why aren’t any cool big animals doing interesting things? Everything just lies around.

I’m conflicted about this view of nature, just as I’m conflicted about the lack of real body types for women in porn. (Not so much for men–Ron Jeremy doesn’t count.)

On the one hand, good that people are interested, good that it allows those in urban areas to learn about and value the natural environment and other parts of the world.

But.

Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.
Stillness and silence are not what television is about.

Watch the CBC show

(cross-posted from the Bug Blog)

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bug_girl

Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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33 Comments

  1. Not so much for men–Ron Jeremy doesn’t count.

    Pardon? Ron Jeremy has a pretty dang real body type! Admittedly, he exemplifies a different stereotype, “funny is sexy” — which in fact is why he gets into so many porn movies.

  2. I hear ya. I grew up a country girl, and it was only when I got to college that I realized not everyone was like that.

    Anyone have any idea what nature shows we CAN trust?

  3. It’s not just nature shows, most shows of most genres involve fakery to one degree or another. It’s just a dumb medium. Some of the most popular UK science shows regularly employed fakery…well, what are you meant to do if your budget and schedule are impossibly tight and your grand experiment for the camera doesn’t go as expected?

    But it’s better than no ‘factual’ programming at all, bar the cruel or unethical stuff like the lemmings, I guess.

    Re: porn, the unrealistic body shapes are what I dislike about modern porn. Being somewhat of a collector of vintage adult films, it saddens me to see entirely surgically-enhanced shapes are now the rule. You rarely see bodies that shape naturally. I would refer anyone who likes pornography but doesn’t like the fakery, to the late 1950s to early 1970s stuff.

    I have a book of every Playmate of the Month since the first issue, and the changes in fashion and therefore body shape are startling. But, porn caters to demand same as anything, so if consumers are demanding bigger boobs and smaller waists, that’s what the industry will supply. Ditto nature programming. As you say, people find ‘real’ nature a bit sleepy and dull. If you want your prog to be seen, you have to give people what they want to watch.

  4. When I was young, I used to like nature/science shows on TV (well, at that time Spektrum channel was the only one of this type, which was an additional thing to HBO.). It was a rather new thing at that time as it was just a 2-4 years after the transition. But as I grew older I felt these shows offending in an intellectual way – namely the basic concept that the viewer is dumb. So I ceased to watch such channels regularly at the age of 13.
    These science shows tend to be full of factual errors, inappropriate use of terms and so… There are additional problems: in order to be understandable by even the most ignorant many of them basically skip the science part and become something like news headlines. One is provided many fancy pictures, animations, and sometimes period play as illustration (if the topic allows), but not the essential things. I mean you can see someone dressed like Newton, and you hear about his great achievement in calculus, physics and so on, but you are not provided with the slightest insight in what he actually achieved. [forgot to mention his private life, somehow it is supposed to be focused on…]
    Well, probably the main reason why I ceased watching them was being aroused by mentioning some great inventions and after that not being told anything more than its name, and how great that is.
    Another irritating feature is when telling about some historical/catastrophic event the whole thing is presented by the [fictional] story of some particular individuals. I know it might be interesting for those who are in need of emotional involvement, but I think a science/documentary film is not the right genre for that.

    Well, I know there are some exceptions and real gems, but the majority is rather worthless.

    By the way, one can see a really huge contrast between these American type films and the old socialist ones. I am not a fan of socialist type of politics at all, but in some sense their science films were superior. They might be boring for most people, but you know – it was not criterion. They were not afraid of using equations or even deductions, and took care of the proper use of terms. I really lack these old-fashioned science/doc. films.

  5. I must disgree somewhat with your statement

    Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.

    In ‘nature’ which has been hammered into submission by humanity, tended and about as ‘natural’ as the boobs you see on in porn shots. And you can always leave it and go home afterwards

    In real ‘nature’ you would not be calm or contemplative. You would be windering where the next meal would come from, wondering if thats a predator behind the tree, though you would be quiet as you would be in a constant state of kill or be killed. And you cant leave either.

    As Tennyson wrote “Nature red in tooth and claw”. I apologise if I sound a bit terse but it bugs me (no pun intended) when people want to ‘go back to nature’ when they really mean ‘we want to go back to nature on our terms’.

    As for TV – they call it the “idiot box” for a reason. :)

  6. I’m conflicted about this view of nature, just as I’m conflicted about the lack of real body types for women in porn. (Not so much for men–Ron Jeremy doesn’t count.)

    Way off topic here, but I think Ron does count — not for the beer belly, but for the massive wang. While it may not be the same as how porn affects the way a woman views her body, I’m sure that porn causes plenty men to worry over the size of their penis.

  7. I should say, though, that part of what you are saying about the constructed nature of…um, nature…is correct.

    There is romantic nature (as seen on tv and experienced by most of us in small bits), and real nature.

    Humans are mostly prey for other humans, though.

  8. @Rebecca

    You only have to mention the about of “Viagra” or “penis enhancer” spam to back up your hypothesis. Even fairly comon innuendos (eg: hung like a horse, tripod, etc) bring attention to the sex image not being a female specific area.

    @Bug-Girl

    If it came to growing food I would starve, as I have a black thumb. But I can catch food :).

    But there is nothing wrong with ‘nice n fluffy’ nature, it can be relaxing to get away from the noise and hassle of other people for a while, but it’s not ‘real’ nature – a true ‘natural jungle’ would be just as bad and unpleasant as the ‘urban jungle’.

  9. I’m an amateur astronomer, and I spend a lot of time outside in the dark in “nature”, and let me tell you there is nothing calm and contemplative about hearing a twig snap in the bushes and wondering if you’re facing a raccoon, a coyote, a bear or *shudder* a skunk.
    It’s tense and unpleasant when nature comes to call. Wild animals are not your friend when you’re alone in the dark.

  10. @Lyc and bug_girl

    I would say that all of the above statements about nature being quiet, calm, contemplative and being vicious, blood-thirsty, and hard work are true.

    When I am out on the trail, I am worried constantly about finding a flat and (fairly) uninhabited place to sleep, finding a new water source before my current water runs dry, stretching my food supply, removing critters from the insides and outsides of my clothes, and avoiding potential death-by-inattention.

    At the same time, I don’t have the usual stresses that cause me to run to the woods in the first place. I don’t have impossible deadlines with shifting goals, people asking questions when they are supposed to know the answer, voicemail that fills up faster than I can empty it, vendors who only explain that they can’t meet the deadline after the deadline has passed, and a constant pressure to work harder, faster, smarter.

    Nature is very calming… in a sweaty, desperate way.

  11. While it’s true that the Barbie Doll porn is by far the leader, the growing popultarity of amateur porn and alt-porn is shifting the tide.

    Re: the authenticity of nature programs. I don’t know how “staged” Man vs Wild is, but I have seen Bear Ghrylls eat a live snake and crawl inside of a camel carcass. That earns my undying respect.

  12. @Jen
    I hear ya. I grew up a country girl, and it was only when I got to college that I realized not everyone was like that.

    This reminded me of my freshman year of college (Penn State). My best friend grew up in rural Pennsylvania and accused me of never actually seeing a real cow before because I was a little too excited about seeing some livestock in a fair put on by the Ag school. “Sure I have!” I protested, “at the Bronx Zoo”

    Man, I got shit about that for the rest of the year!

  13. Well, I for one will take the calm, contemplative bits of nature over the noise of the TV any day … I have opted for years to only have a VCR/DVD player hooked up to my TV, no cable, and due to my location, no channels either. So if I watch, it’s on purpose and on my own time. I value quiet so very much, and one of my favorite parts of any trip is to shoo away the rest of my party and be absolutely still for a while — the Oregon coast, Death Valley, and the hiking trails around the south Puget Sound in Washington State are a few favorites. I know it’s not the most authentic view of nature, since it’s all accessed by nice neat roads and trails and I don’t have to sleep in it … but as an alternative to TV, absolutely YES.

    Also, I get suspicious about authenticity when I see a lion tracking down a baby seal…

    I laughed harder about that than I have about anything in DAYS. :D

  14. It’s hot! There are bugs and mud! And why aren’t any cool big animals doing interesting things? Everything just lies around.

    bug_girl, that made me laugh. Once when I was at the Wild Animal Park, I overheard a boy say to his mother, “These animals aren’t very wild!”

  15. I have lost all faith in Discovery. I was wavering a little over the years as it has continued to decline but the breaking point was last night when, in the show “Mystery of the Crystal Skulls” they not only consulted Richard Hoagland (!!) as an “expert, but they brought up Atlantis, aliens, 2012, and a host of other nonsense. Keep in mind that this was supposed to be an archaeology show. And then they aired Mythbusters right after….was that an apology? Sigh. I wrote a brief blog entry about it with links to the show on Discovery’s website.

    Discovery, I’m sorry this just isn’t working out. You’re not the same person I knew. It’s over. It’s not me, it’s you. I’m changing my phone number. Goodbye.

  16. I am afraid I prefer reality to fake in all things. That is one reason I don’t watch tv at all. All the people are so fake. I see the danger with watching too much tv that you loose the ability to tell real people from fake people.

  17. Even if it turns out that they involve fakery, I still like Jeff Corwin’s shows for the message of conservation and the frequent references to evolution.

    But did anybody watch “King of the Jungle,” when Animal Planet was looking for somebody to do a Corwin-like special?

    The girl that won was not “fake” in the surgical sense, but she was beautiful, sexy, and one of the LEAST qualified, by the show’s own criteria, to host her own special.

    When her special aired, it was basically her traveling around Africa—and some stock footage of animals thrown in every few minutes. While watching it, I felt embarrassed for her and for Animal Planet.

    It was a shame, because there were other people in the running who seemed like they could do an informative, entertaining, real show.

  18. Thank you for posting this. I just watched the CBS video, and I’m so sad. I had no idea that this was going on. I assumed that nature documentaries were above being staged like “reality TV.” I love watching Animal Planet, so I’m not sure what I should do with this knowledge. Should we stop watching nature shows altogether? Should we watch but just with a more critical eye?

    Ugh.

  19. Not Cousteau… Damnit…

    He’s totally the reason I learned to swim – well, that and being chucked into the bayou when I was three. Shut up! What was I talking about? Oh yeah – don’t steal my beer.

  20. In the last episode of Marlin Perkins wild kingdom I ever watched, they were trying to catch a gizzley bear. The plan was for big Jim to ride up on a horse and lasso the bear, and then two other men would try to lasso it from other directions, also from horseback. I turned it off in disgust before the attempt, so I have no idea how it came out, but I have a pretty good idea how it would’ve come out in the real world.

    In college, my animal behavior prof told a story about an episode being filmed in a national park where he was doing a study. They penned the mountain lion in the horse stables, and it was six months before they could get the horses back in. Their eyes would get to be as big as saucers if they got anywhere near the stables.

    And speaking of animal behavior, that’s the part that really drives me crazy. The science is bad enough, but when they give animals human emotions and motives, I really go nuts.

  21. Durnett did a better job of saying what I wanted to say than I did :)

    Nature can be insanely noisy; just come and visit the bird sanctuary sometime when all the geese are nesting. But those noises are different.

    Even in the Rockies when I didn’t know if a Grizzly was around the corner, I was more relaxed than I ever am in the office.

    It’s just different.

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