Are mermaids real? Mockumentary shows need for developing critical thinking skills

Do mermaids exist?Have you ever wondered, “Are mermaids real?” Maybe when you were eight years old and saw the Disney movie. But since then you’ve excelled (hopefully) at developing critical thinking skills. Many are asking the question again however, after the Sunday, May 26, 2013 airing of the mockumentary, “Mermaids: The New Evidence” on Animal Planet. What’s surprising is that the network, known for its information-based content, attracted something like 3.6 million viewers, its largest audience to date.

You’ve got to be kidding

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) must be thrilled to have the so-called NOAA scientists portrayed by actors who are discussing the “new” discoveries about the mermaids in our midst. The last time this happened was when Animal Planet aired its first installment on mermaids, “Mermaids: The Body Found,” in 2012.

It’s all fiction, of course, but that didn’t prevent an onslaught of inquiries to the stunned agency. Lisa de Moraes described the reaction to the 2012 program in her May 28, 2013 article for The Washington Post titled, “Animal Planet clocks biggest audience in network history with mermaids documentary.”

According to de Moraes, “When the original ‘Mermaids’ special ran, NOAA got pelted with so many demands for more information on its mermaid discoveries that the agency felt compelled to issue a statement on its website that said: ‘No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.’”

Exploring the “what-ifs”

What was Animal Planet thinking, offering up what could be called fake science?  Was it really all fake? After the 2012 airing of “Mermaids,” Betty Chu discussed the science behind the story in her May 26, 2012 posting for Discovery.com titled, “Everyone’s Asking: Do Mermaids Really Exist? …Well, Do They?” According to Chu, it’s about exploring the possibilities of how an aquatic human might have evolved.

“We use the transitive property to further explore the possibility of mermaids – i.e. if polar bears evolved from the brown bear, isn’t it possible that a mermaid, which was reported in disparate civilizations for ages, evolved from a human-like creature that retreated into the water?” Chu said.

Which leads to the question

What do you believe and how do you decide what you believe? You probably hear your instructors talking a lot about the importance of developing critical thinking skills. This is probably the kind of thing that they’re thinking of. When you are presented with a number of “facts” and you’re asked to consider them or even to believe them, how do you deal with that?

How does critical thinking work?

If you practice critical thinking then you don’t have to believe or disbelieve the facts presented to you. What you will do is consider those facts in a systematic way. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) put together some useful information to help us wrap our head around the practice of critical thinking.

According to UTC the simplest definition of critical thinking is, “… using criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper. In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.).”

Critical thinking involves several practices which include:

  • asking questions
  • defining a problem
  • examining the evidence
  • analyzing assumptions and biases
  • avoiding emotional reasoning
  • avoiding oversimplification
  • considering other possible interpretations
  • tolerating ambiguity

Some people do believe in mermaids, especially after watching the “Mermaid” program. I’m betting that they haven’t run that belief through the practices listed above. It’s emotionally warm and fuzzy to believe in mermaids but does that belief pass the tests of examining biases and avoiding  oversimplifications? Not really.

So, are there mermaids?

So what we have in the fake documentary, or mockumentary as some would call it, is the presentation of what might have happened. The speculation is, however, presented in a very realistic way with “scientists” discussing the findings. The credits at the end of the program reveal that it was fiction and that the scientists were played by actors, but how many people actually read and saw the credits?

Just log in to Twitter and do a search on “mermaids” and you’ll find plenty of folks who clearly believe that mermaids are real. Any statements to the contrary from a government agency is just more proof that it must be true.

What do you think? Are mermaids real?  How have you arrived at your belief and how would you defend it to someone who disagrees with you?



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