In our age of armchair science, no media outlet provides a lightweight intellectual experience more than the documentary. What were once films of purpose and discovery have been affected by a new breed of documentary, which use pop science and scare tactics to deliver their message.
A documentary used to tell a side of a story, using facts and images gathered through research and a great deal of searching on the part of the filmmaker. The appeal of documentaries is their sense of discovery; both for the filmmaker and the filmgoer alike. Unfortunately, many modern documentary filmmakers are not seeking to answer their questions. They have already made up their mind as far as their results and discussion goes, and their film is just a means with which to carefully select and craft a fictitious story with a dishonest argument.
The epidemic of misinformation and sense of distrust many have for the world we live in has fuelled the meteoric surge in popularity many documentaries have experienced in the past two decades. What began as a film schematic that closely mirrored the process of the scientific method – where a principal investigator asked a question, formed a hypothesis, and carried out research and observation in order to form a logical, unbiased answer – has now turned into a parade of fabricated statistics, quotes taken out of context, and flat out lies.
Some of the most popular documentaries of our time have also contained some of biggest lies and myths. Because of the surface legitimacy of a documentary, individuals that view the film who do not know any better are prone to believing the misinformation spread in the documentaries and making rash decisions about the subjects of these films.
This flammable tap water was supposedly caused by the activities of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is a technique used to extract natural gas and oil. The shock and awe of this scene created quite a stir, but it was a myth. Flammable tap water is not caused by fracking; it’s caused via a methane build-up. There are three famous regions in the United States where this phenomenon occurs, and has occurred since before fracking was invented. Despite being disproven by numerous scientific governing bodies and high ranking officials, the belief that hydraulic fracturing causes flammable tap water persists to this day.
I could go on for days listing inaccuracies found in popular documentaries, but I won’t bore you with the details. Instead, I’d like to explore why documentaries, many riddled with inaccuracies, have surged in popularity in the past few decades.
The basis of any documentary film is education; the purpose of the film is to inform the viewers of a subject and present the facts associated with it. Education is ever popular today because of the idea that the more education you have, the more successful you will become in life. Being intelligent is en vogue, and profound ideas are a popular form of social currency exchanged today. Being unintelligent is becoming less and less attractive.
For naturally intelligent people, their educational pursuits in an institutional setting or through their leisure time will yield a great deal of new knowledge and ideas through their natural curiosity and penchant for observation and problem-solving. Reading scientific research articles, non-fiction books published by reputable professionals, or attending public lectures on new topics are all great examples of how to do this. For those not as inclined to the rigours of higher learning, they turn elsewhere to find a quick fix to the problem. The easiest way to accomplish this is by watching a documentary.
Reading a 500 page non-fiction book could take a person weeks to finish, and it might be very time-consuming and boring. Watching a few documentaries one night only takes a few hours, and because the images on a TV or computer screen are more visually stimulating, the viewer is likely to retain more information, which makes the entire process that much more attractive. The problem is that watching a documentary gives someone the feeling that they’re critically learning something, but without a credible source in charge of delivering information, the risk of the information being misreported runs high.
If the documentary cites scientific studies or articles to support their point, that still is not enough. Despite the fact that a scientific article is authored by people who are credible sources with years of training in the subject they are researching and writing about, their evidence is not enough to provide proper support for a point. The fundamental basis of science is that it is a system of checks and balances. One of the cornerstones of the scientific method is replication. Can you replicate these exact methods and procedures and produce statistically similar results? If not, then either the methodology is flawed or the data and interpretation of it have been done so erroneously.
Replication is why, for the most part, majority rules in the scientific community. It is widely accepted that vaccines are effective, organic food is no better for you than non-organic food, and that adding fluoride to drinking water is not harmful because an overwhelming majority of experts have determined these facts through a series of experiments closely mirroring each other. Documentaries have a history of using anecdotal evidence and citing other shaky facts that ignores the fundamental scientific principle of replication.
Another common tactic of documentaries is to cite “experts” on the subject in support of their point. These experts might have a “Dr.” in front of their name, but rarely does the documentary ever detail what their educational background is in. Additionally, just because someone has the letters doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a credible source. In a recent poll, 3.7% of university professors in Massachusetts believe that creationism should be taught in science classes. These are Ph.D. holding experts in their field recommending something that has no place in a scientific environment. It is the same principle with health or lifestyle advice, where any person can write a recommendation for a certain food or lifestyle choice, tack their name on the end complete with a “, Ph.D” at the end, and give it the expert stamp of approval.
By promoting bad science, documentaries are encouraging a new generation of poor thought leadership. This has created a dichotomy of thinkers: those who are truly intelligent and logical with their information searching and gathering, and those who are led to believe they are intelligent by buying into quack science and alternative theories. The latter group is educated with a sense of being “awakened” or “enlightened” by gaining this newfound knowledge that is going against the status quo. This sense of enlightenment and distrust of mainstream thought is also the basis for conspiracy theories.
Humans are naturally susceptible to conspiracy theories. I’m sure we all tuned into a television program about one at some point and bought into it, even if it was for a moment. The human mind weaves observations into patterns to form conclusions and solve problems. It is why we are susceptible to a phenomenon known as Pareidolia, which is the psychological tendency to see patterns and shapes in random occurrences.
A common example is gazing up at a cloud on a summer day and seeing an animal or other object formed by the cloud. This is also why we see “faces” when we look at various surfaces, whether it be the man in the moon or seeing the face of Christ on a piece of toast or a burnt piece of Toaster Strudel. One reason we often see faces in things is because it is our primitive instinct to recognize faces, even from our earliest age as an infant. We are equipped with a primitive facial recognition cognitive process that allows us to form a face in our mind from a relatively simple geometric construct or pattern.
People seeing the face of the Lord on their breakfast pastry mistakes isn’t the entire story, though.
Recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where humans first require food, water, and shelter. Considering most popular conspiracy theorists inhabit developed countries, their basic needs are met, so the next level of the pyramid comes into place. On the next level, we find the need for safety, security, and the protection from fear. It is this fear of the world and the governing bodies that control it that scares most into becoming a conspiracy theorist. Humans react differently to what they are scared of, and many humans are naturally fearful and suspicious of the motives of large governments and corporations. As a result, conspiracy theories are formed as an explanation and solution to the injustices these individuals face in their daily lives.
One famous conspiracy theorist named David Icke has popularized the theory that humanity is controlled by a select group of reptilian humanoids that control the earth through various positions of power in government and corporate ranks. He names high-ranking individuals such as the Queen of England, George W. Bush, and John D. Rockefeller as reptilian humanoids. These reptilians are said to be shape shifters that are hybrids of an ancient reptilian race known as the Anunnaki and humankind. Modern day reptilians are all hybrids, which, once they feed on human blood, can shape shift into human form.
Icke has published no fewer than 4 books on the theory, blending it in to other conspiracy theories. What’s even more remarkable than writing 4 books on these subjects is the fact that around 4% of registered American voters state that they actually believe in and support Icke’s theories.
Secrecy and the nature of human curiosity make conspiracy theories like Icke’s entertaining in either a serious or satirical manner, because nothing captivates the human imagination like the unknown. What is unknown and invisible is universally more attractive to us because of the effect that fear and uncertainty have on the human mind. Unfortunately, due to cultural tastes, documentaries will continue to grow in popularity, and will also continue the trend of being riddled with more lies and myths.
In order to keep growing as an industry, documentaries need to compete with mainstream films, and a great way filmmakers can do that is to make their films more entertaining. A high level of entertainment often comes at a price, and farfetched claims composed of fabricated data and facts are often the solution. There will always be a group of individuals in a population who will reject mainstream media and demand answers that challenge authority. Sometimes these individuals will have some merit; for example, Galileo. Most often it is simply a case of human nature to be curious, and in order to address the issue of misinformation being spread by documentaries, we need to work a little harder to gain new knowledge, and check our facts along the way.