Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Hey! You got scifi in my science!


Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) posted a fact sheet/blog post confirming that no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control blogged about how one prepares for the Zombie Apocalypse.

I think real science talking about magical things in this way is good.  It breaks down the perception that science is stuffy, or non-applicable in the day-to-day lives and thinking of the general populace.  I think it’s healthy for folks to read about “fun” stuff on these government pages, but I want to hear from y’all.

What do you think about official sites for science-based government organizations talking about non-science?


The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.



A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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  1. Hey… if it helps people who cannot differentiate between reality and myth, go for it. I wonder how many times they were emailed with questions on mermaids before someone cracked and made the post.

    On the other hand this gives the conspiracy theorists something to talk about. “Why would they make that sort of statement if they don’t have a hidden aquariam of mer-people underneath Area 51, with specimen of Atlantis!?!?”

  2. I keep trying to login as ‘lxndr’, I reset my password, and it doesn’t work even after resetting. Color me confused. (I tried my livejournal which gave me ‘lxndr1’)

    Nonetheless, my reaction is:

    (a) Fiction/fantasy and reality are on a different axis than science. Hence, this is not “non-science,” it’s just fiction (/fantasy / myth).

    (b) Approaching fiction in a scientific way is great! It’s engaging and nifty. However, it’s better if the fiction is acknowledged as fiction (such as what’s been done in the links you’ve provided). This makes it science!

  3. I like it, though it has to be done carefully… has to simultaneously engage the public, downplay the risk of the fantastic, and educate about real threats. The CDC did well… engage people about zombies, while educating about pandemics. The NOAA announcement seemed more to grab attention… engaging, but with less value educationally (though I’ll admit to reading it a bit less closely).

  4. When she was about 6 or 7, my niece wanted to become a mermaid to further her career goal of studying marine biology up close and personal.

    She was full of technical questions about the transformation process of humans to mermaids. Do your legs shrink while you grow a tail, sort of the reverse process of how a tadpole becomes a frog? Or do your legs fuse together, forming a tail like a dolphin or whale? No one was really sure if she believed in mermaids or was just pulling our legs. She’s like that.

  5. I am of two minds in this. The CDC Zombiepocalypse piece was really about educating the public in a clever way about epidemics.

    The NOAA piece was in response to a flurry of questions they received about mermaids. I thought they handled it well, without too much drama although it was endlessly tweeted. But just as X-Files inspired lots of FOIA requests and queries about where we store our frozen aliens to the Defense Department,NASA, NGIA, and a Scrabble game’s worth of other agencies, “reality” shows on mermaids, particularly if that show has the imprimatur of Nat Geo, will spark mermaid questions. It’s pretty harmless when it can be handled with a simple posting on a web page. It’s not always that easy.

    The effects of rumor mongering, diffusing magical thinking about real events, and, frankly, deliberately lying, can start eating up the time and finances of a federal agency when left-field inquiries and records requests propogate, such as has happened with the 9-11 conspiracists, the various right-wing fear stories such as Agenda 21 or the will-not-die rumor that the FCC is going to ban religious broadcasting, the “conspiracy” that the FDA is hiding the curative powers of shark cartilage, or the JFK assassination. Federal agencies should be as transparent and responsive to the public as possible. And, the citizenry should be diligent in making politicians and the tools of government respond to the people. But the very necessary laws that establish the right to police the government– the FOIA, the Presidential Records Act, Mandatory Review, the Atomic Energy act, and all the other legislation and orders we have in place that can be used to declassify documents and provide info to a private citizen– can be used for mischief or even for harassment of an agency to the degree that it impairs how an agency can fulfill its mission. As they say on Fox News(which is reponsible for quite a bit of BS rumormongering which leads to the above) this is your tax dollars at work. I’d rather see take the time to post this tidbit on its site than watch NOAA have to deal with mermaid questions from a well meaning public overandoverandover. Also, of course, one part of the NOAA’s mission is education.

    Occasionally some smart puppy in DC proposes a regulation to make deliberately spreading false rumors about agencies- and tangentially about the information agencies hold– a prosecutable defense. That makes all of us who handle that info queasy. Good intention, but just the sort of thing J.Edgar would have loved. Also, it does nothing to address the mermaid question: what do you do when people are just trusting/gullible enough to think that the TV show about mermaids just might provide some evidence that mermaids are real? And that do the smart thing and ask a federal scientific agency which should have that answer? And now, multiple that by a thousand.

    Buzz: Well, that’s adorable. I hope she becomes a mermaid someday.
    And, have you seen “The Cabin In The Woods?”

  6. “I think real science talking about magical things in this way is good. It breaks down the perception that science is stuffy, or non-applicable in the day-to-day lives and thinking of the general populace.”

    It goes even deeper than that: Science is a fundamental part of being human. I have recently had the pleasure of spending time with a 8-month old baby, who spends most of his time exploring the world. I’ve felt his joy as he learns a new word (he’s up to about three by now), I’ve felt fear as he discovered his parents are not around when he wakes up.

    Is he doing science? You bet he is. Is he following the scientific method as defined by Karl Popper etc.? Eh, nah… I seriously doubt it. :)

    But no matter the method, science is how we learn about the world, and the scientific method we use is the best way we know how to do learn without our emotions getting the best of us. My 8-month old friend knows this. He just doesn’t realize it yet.

  7. This reminds me of that conversation when Karl Pilkington claimed to Ricky Gervais that he got the gist of evolution.

    “I know it went germ, fish, mermaid, man”

  8. While such sites may offer answers for rational people, there will still be nutjobs out there that will make up any excuse they can to hold on to their irrational beliefs.

    The moon hoax conspiracy is a great example: sites exist that debunk the claims, but the same, tired arguments still persist. And new people try to spin them in as many different ways they can (Jarrah White is a good example of one such person).

    The same holds true with other topics, be it UFOs, mermaids (I never knew this idea had much ground until I saw an ad for a “documentry” on Animal Planet), the 2012 “doomsday prophecy”, ect.

    Who originates the site seems to have little bearing, from what I’ve seen, although I do find it interesting to see organizations like NOAA take on such topics.

  9. I assume the NOAA release is in response to that very strange fake documentary about NOAA discovering and then covering up evidence of mermaids:

    I caught the tail end of this when flipping through channels and I could not figure out why anyone (the producers of the fauxumentary, Animal Planet, etc) thought it was a good idea to start a mermaid hoax.

    1. Step 1: Spread mermaid rumors.
      Step 2: Collect viewers to your network(s).
      Step 3: Sell more ads.
      Step 4: Profit!

      Hey, I didn’t even need a ??? line. What gives?

  10. I think it’s useful, even if nutters can still find ways to justify their nutty beliefs. It says to the average person, “Your question is valid, and here we have a valid scientific answer for it.”

  11. I dig it. Mainly for the following reason: The NOAA is a science site. There are people, especially young people, who like and think about mermaids. If the NOAA has an article on mermaids (and treats the subject serio-realistically*) then those people will be attracted to the site and may stay to look around and see all the other cool things.

    I also like it as a historical data point. If that article is able to make it into the historical record then historians hundreds of years from now will be able to say, “During the early 21st century, large science institutions such as the NOAA had found no evidence for mermaids (explicitly stated), despite the proliferation of such creatures in entertainment media and outlying science oriented sites (pseudoscience sites) within just a few decades of the NOAA statement.”

    And, 2 images + 3 paragraphs, is just about perfect for the subject as regards the NOAA.

    But then again, I love mythologies (and their historical seating, what they tell us of the thoughts of those who created them and/or passed them on, carried them as important stories to tell), so be it zombies, dragons, mermaids, or any other of the myriad mystical monsters meandering through modern minds; I’m quite happy with science organizations putting out quick “No evidence for… and here’s the origins of…” articles.

    *Seriously within a realistic framework (the word is best spoken in a Scooby-Doo voice)

  12. On further thought, I think it’s really important to consider the fact that the NOAA page, at least, was probably posted in response to an ill-considered faux documentary about mermaids.

    NOAA talking about mermaids unprompted: cool. NOAA denying the existence of mermaids after being (faux) accused of a cover-up: Even moar evidence of the cover-up!

  13. I think the NOAA page was a clever piece of marketing, taking advantage of a really stupid stunt by a pandering TV network to draw a few eyeballs toward their site and some real science.

  14. a.real.girl,

    Well it is certainly true that no evidence for aquatic humaniods has ever been found so I don’t see why anyone other than a true believer in mermaids would have a problem with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association saying that. However, I am unable as of yet, to load that page for some strange reason.

  15. I think it’s a neat idea. Like a couple of people already said, it makes science appear more fun. As long as it is clear what the fun parts are and what the real science is, I don’t see any problems.
    And as fizzygoo said, it might attract people to science sites, that might otherwise not look at them. So it is also a good way to attract new people.

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