TED Sydney – “The myth of the rogue shark”

TEDTalentSearch recently posted a video from TED@Sydney2012 which features PhD candidate Chris Neff discussing the origins of the term “shark attacks” and the “myth of the rogue shark.” Neff, a Government and International Relations student at the University of Sydney, is working on a dissertation on the politics surrounding shark attacks. Neff’s position is that “trying to govern ungovernable events distracts us from real shark bite prevention.”

Neff makes the claim that there are no such things as “shark attacks” and goes on to give some background on the origins of the term. Dr. Victor Coppleson, a Sydney shark researcher, had learned that American researchers had falsely concluded that sharks don’t bite north of the Caribbean, so he set out to prove that sharks “attack” man. Coppleson published what Neff describes as the “authoritative journal article of its day” on sharks biting humans. Neff points out that “shark accident” was the general term used in Australia to describe a shark biting a human, prior to Coppleson publishing his findings in the book “Shark Attack” in 1958.

So, is Neff trying to tell the audience that sharks never bite people when he claims there is no such thing as a “shark attack?” Of course, not, rather it seems that he’s focusing on how the wording of a particular event, a shark biting a human, affects perception. After all, Neff points out that he is “humble social scientist” and not a shark researcher. So, while it’s clear that shark “attacks” or “bites” or “accidents” do exist, it seems as though Neff’s focus is on how society reacts to the wording used to refer to such events.

While Neff clearly seems to disagree with the use of the term “shark attack,” one could similarly argue that the term “shark accident” is a flawed description of a shark bite event, due to the fact that, though rare, there are documented cases of sharks biting and eating humans in what would seem to be “intentional” opportunistic feeding events.

The problem with both “shark accident” and “shark attack” from a social perspective is that terms potentially lend to personification (or anthropomorphism for the grandiloquent audience). The term “shark attack” can imply a level of malevolence in a shark when it bites someone. The term “shark accident” drums up the notion that a shark bites a human that the well-intended shark just made an honest mistake. In reality, sharks aren’t people and they don’t behave or think in the same manner as humans.

Neff’s next point is to dispute the “rogue shark” theory by stating that there is no scientific evidence of “any shark ever getting a taste for human flesh.” Neff attributes the rogue shark theory to a series of three shark bite incidents that occurred in a single day along the Suez Canal in 1899, in which the British Medical Journal concluded that a single shark was responsible for all three attacks, due to the proximity of the attacks to one another and the time frame. He does note that researchers have found “considerable evidence” that construction waste along coastlines can increase human-shark interactions. Neff did not mention the 2010 Sharm el-Sheikh attacks, in which the “rogue shark” theory was most recently suggested, or the infamous 1916 Matawan, NJ series of attacks (though this might have been due to time constraints).

Neff also talks about a survey (N=50) that he performed at Cape Town, South Africa to get a measure of “pride” that beachgoers have about local shark populations before and after a shark bite incident occurred. Neff concluded that this measure did not significantly change.

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