Science

Liberal Scientists Outlaw Shark Attacks!!!!!

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You know how in horror movies you see early signs of a serious problem, like a ventriloquist dummy very subtly moving on its own, or a news report in the background talking about a mysterious asteroid approaching Earth, and you get that feeling of dread because you know it’s not going to be any good? That’s how I felt when I first saw Twitter trending with “shark incidents.” And when I saw it was being reported on by traditionally conservative rag the Telegraph, the anxiety began to mount.

Because I knew exactly what it would lead to. It only took a week or two but eventually we got there: Tucker Carlson complaining about the “liberal lunacy” that led to people now being unable to call anything a “shark attack.” Sigh.

So, my first thought on all this was “this is not ‘liberal’ for fuck’s sake, this is about how diction influences human feelings and behaviors. That concept didn’t used to be “liberal,” and in fact famous non-liberal Newt Gingrich ran an organization back in 1990 that distributed a now-famous pamphlet called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” in which he instructed Republican politicians running for election to choose their words carefully to describe themselves vs their opponents.

But then I realized…okay, sure, I guess it is. Because it seems like anything proposed by actual scientists based on actual scientific research is now politicized as “liberal,” and I guess this gets bonus points because it’s also about conservation, protecting our planet and its inhabitants, which has been “liberal” for some time now. Some decades ago conservatives decided that their platform would be “God created it and we can fuck it up if we want,” so fine. Sure, Tucker Carlson, this is “liberal.” But is it “lunacy?”

No. Obviously. But let’s talk about why.

This is, in no way, “new.” Scientists focused on wildlife (including but certainly not limited to our oceans in general and sharks in particular) have long argued for humans to rethink how we contextualize interactions with wild animals. If you don’t think that the way we tell stories about animals matters, consider Jaws. Sharks have never been particularly beloved creatures, but prior to the mid-20th century they were things for sailors to worry about, not the average beach-goer. Shark-human interactions were rare, and outside of Australia there was a common belief that sharks wouldn’t bother to go anywhere near people at all. Australians, obviously, understanding that EVERYTHING will go out of its way to try to murder you.

Eventually, as more people did hit the beach and more incidents occurred, including fatalities, people became more wary of sharks even outside of Australia. And then Jaws hit in 1975, and the popularity of inspired people not just to be careful around sharks but to seek them out and kill them. Fishing tournaments grew in popularity, leading to a sharp decline in shark populations as amateurs rushed to try to catch themselves a “man-eater.” According to Beryl Francis in the article “BEFORE AND AFTER “JAWS”: CHANGING REPRESENTATIONS OF SHARK ATTACKS,” Rare interactions between sharks and humans led to local newspapers blasting out sexy headlines like “MONSTER SHARKS THAT HAUNT ALBANY.” Dr. John Paxton of the Australian Museum pointed out that ironically, when an attack occurs, a media “feeding frenzy” may result.” “Our fear of sharks was used to sell newspapers, magazines, and television programs.”

Accordingly, attempts to conserve sharks were then met with complete shock, like when one “professional shark hunter” was quoted saying “For a government to protect something that can tear your children apart in seconds is brainless.”

There is good news, though. Peter Benchley, who wrote the book Jaws, saw the wanton destruction that the film encouraged and he dedicated the rest of his life to shark and ocean conservation. And for people like me, who saw the film as a (probably way too young) kid, it actually inspired us to learn more about sharks and take an active interest in protecting them. In recent years, sharks have been enjoying an improved reputation and several species are seeing their populations rebound as scientists succeed in convincing the general public (and especially lawmakers) that the solution to shark-human encounters isn’t to cull them but to cultivate a more knowledgeable public.

By the way, if you’d like to know more about why shark culls don’t work and what interventions CAN work, go watch this video I made on that very topic way back in 2017 where I compare two islands within 120 miles away from each other — one has a shark-related fatality every year, and the other hasn’t had a single encounter since the 1980s. And note how rarely I use the word “attack,” which brings me back to my initial point that the call to “rebrand” “shark attacks” as “encounters” didn’t just suddenly pop up out of nowhere.

Back in 2013, Christopher Pepin-Neff at the University of Sydney wrote Science, Policy and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human-shark interactions, published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. In that piece, he and his co-author argue that “attack” is a misleading word for the general public for several reasons. First, it lumps in all interactions, from fatalities to minor bites to sometimes no injury at all, like when a shark bumps a kayak. But they also point out that the word “attack” has, uh oh, been “politicized.” 

“The words “shark attack” can create a perception of a premeditated crime, lowering the public’s threshold for accepting shark bite incidents as random acts of nature. The narrative establishes villains and victims, cause and effect, perceptions of public risk, and a problem to be solved. A shark fatality in Western Australia in 2011 led the local shire president to state that “[a] lot of people say the water is the shark’s territory, but I think if they can find the shark (responsible) they should get rid of it.” And he added, “[i]f they have attacked [our italics] a human in one of those areas they may want to do it again.”

And that leads to the “rogue shark” misconception, which is wrong. You see, sharks don’t consider humans a particularly tasty meal because we’re mostly bone. Compare the usual snack of a white shark (a seal with 30-40% body fat) with the delicious meal that we are expected to believe a white shark spent several days attempting to devour in the film “The Shallows:” Blake Lively, approximate body fat percentage, I don’t know, 6? I’m not body shaming, here, I’m just saying that if that shark was a human, Blake Lively would be a toothpick that once had an olive on it. You probably wouldn’t spend much energy trying to get at that toothpick.

So it’s not like a shark eats a human, either accidentally or on purpose, and goes “oh my god, that was incredible. I’m gonna need to get some more of that.”

The point being, using the word “attack” to describe a shark biting a human calls to mind all of that misinformation, and therefore we should stop doing it. I’m sure there have been times when a shark notices a human in the water and specifically seeks them out to prey upon and eat them — the oceanic whitetip is fairly well known amongst sailors fleeing capsizing boats for being none too picky about their dinner menu. But most cases of shark-human interactions are due to misunderstandings. Sharks don’t have hands with sensitive fingers to feel around and figure out what it is they’re dealing with. Sharks have a big-ass mouth with very pointy teeth. So much like human babies, they explore their world by putting things in their mouths. They see something splashing around in the water, maybe it’s all black and shiny and looks exactly like their favorite meal but they’re not sure, so they bump it. Maybe take a nibble. Maybe take a whole bite and scoot away to see if the thing splashes around and bleeds out like their favorite meal. That’s not an “attack” because the predator didn’t have agency and the desire to hunt down a snack. That’s why it’s an incident, or an interaction.

I’m not going to sit here and say that sharks don’t terrify me, because they do. When I’m in the ocean, which I am at least weekly, I know that they are there, even when I can’t see them. And I know that there’s a chance they will mistake me for a meal, or just get curious and want to see what I’m all about. I’ve mentioned this before but the one time I did see a great white shark speeding toward me with its fins above the water, I pretty much had a damn heart attack.

But logically I know that at the end of the day, these interactions are rare. Injuries or death from these encounters are far rarer. And that’s just the risk I take by having a hobby that puts me in the home of an apex predator. Humans kill way more sharks than the other way around, and they aren’t even coming up on land to say “what’s up.” We’re going to them, and killing them. And it’s bullshit.

So, sorry Tucker Carlson and his fellow conservatives, I know you’re triggered by…accurate scientific terms that improve public education and perception. But don’t worry, scientists aren’t attacking you. This is just a scientist/dumbass interaction.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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