Mermaid-gate, and why it matters that we talk so much about what doesn’t matter

Remember that time when the United States Government (via NOAA) had to issue an official statement about the non-existence of mermaids? If not, here it isI’m a little late to the Mermaid-gate game, but I’d like to bring it up here to write about two issues that have been bugging me for the past week.

This whole “debate” was kicked off after Animal Planet aired two (probably) terrible shows to showcase “the Aquatic Ape Theory, which claims that humans had an aquatic stage in our evolutionary past.” There was, evidently, a very small disclaimer thrown in that none of what was portrayed in the show was supported by science, but very few people seem to have noticed it. Anyway, if you need some more back-story, you can choose among these articles.

“Are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” — NOAA website

I really liked Marine Biologist David Shiffman’s reaction in this tweet:

The two parts of this tweet hit on the two issues that have been bothering me.

First is the issue that most non-scientists evidently place “little faith” in what they hear directly from scientists. Peculiarly, people seem to be even more distrustful of the science they hear from journalists, but in this case, the Animal Plant mockumentary was evidently more convincing than facts. I guess that this might be because of the large number of reports along the lines of “those vitamins we promised were beneficial don’t actually do anything anymore, and we scientists have known this for a long time,” but I wonder what we can do to reverse this. I will do some small part by just chatting with people about how I see science being done, and by writing about it here.

The second issue the tweet hits on is that a large number of people seem to be perfectly happy to engage in inane conversations like those about the existence of mermaids (or about whether Phil Robertson ought to have been kicked off of Duck Dynasty — sadly, I didn’t get a screenshot of the time when the top two trending topics in Minneapolis were “Duck Dynasty” and “Phil Robertson”), but those same people seem to be uninterested in engaging in conversations that matter.

This is something I will write more on later, but I think that as a well educated youngun, it’s my responsibility to voice my thoughts in Conversations That Matter. Society has invested a lot in my education, and the least I can do to give back is be an engaged citizen. And it is really easy to be an engaged citizen now! Until recently, I thought, as I suspect many do, that I could do nothing to reach the ears of the Higher-Ups (HUs) and the Head-Honchos (HHs), but I’ve realized I couldn’t be further from the truth. Social media has made it really easy for bums like me to reach these HUs and HHs. There is nothing stopping me from tweeting at Minnesota Public Radio about a story I’d like to see covered. Or I could tweet at Dr. Kristofer Helgen about how awesome the discovery of a new carnivore is, and what I think about his discovery’s implications are for me personally and students of nature generally. Sure, the HUs and HHs might summarily dismiss my tweets, but I’ve lost nothing by trying. And I might stand to gain a lot.

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