BECK: Welcome to Empire Report. I’m Beck Russum.
ALAYNE: And I’m Alayne Gaither, in for Alan Nuevo who’s off on paternity leave. Tonight’s lead story: chaos in the exoscience community as shocking new allegations into a popular spectrum show are bringing new criticism of how interstellar discoveries are vetted and shared with the galaxy.
BECK: Viewers may be familiar with the Incredible Living Universe series of spectrum broadcasts that present unusual animals from distant regions of explored space. Here’s a clip from a recent episode purporting to cover undersea life in the Kellog system.
DOCUMENTARY NARRATOR: Miles beneath the sea surface, phalanxes of so-called nerve-crabs march in unison; their destination is one of Kellog II’s thermal vents where they will feast on a bonanza of naturally irradiated tube worms. A single worm is radioactive enough to cause certain death if exposed to an unprotected Human but can also provide enough energy to support one of these noble crabs for the weeks-long journey back to its coastal breeding grounds.
BECK: The series received widespread acclaim among critics and the public for its spectacular visuals and unique nature of the animals presented and has been credited for inspiring Humans around the Empire to take a greater interest in the natural world. But, according to new allegations, it turns out much of what the show broadcast wasn’t natural in the first place; the series’ producers have been accused of fabricating some of the more thrilling content in the popular documentaries.
ALAYNE: For more on what’s happening here, we’re joined by Dr. Trant Keu from the scientific watchdog group ASCOR, which has been investigating the situation. Welcome, Dr. Keu.
TRANT: Thank you, Beck and Alayne, I’m glad to be here regardless of the circumstances. And right off the bat I need to say that what we’re discovering about Incredible Living Universe is anathema to what my colleagues and I do day in and day out. We have time-honored processes to catalog our discoveries, we have rules and a code of ethics that are instilled from the first day of our training. I would dare say that what has been allowed to happen here is more shocking to us than anyone.
BECK: I’m going to start with the obvious question: what exactly happened here?
ALAYNE: After the initial accusations started appearing, ASCOR began our own investigation and discovered strong evidence that at least a handful of sequences from Incredible Living Universe had been fabricated by the research team at the center of the production. Presented in the series as an independent scientific consortium called the Banded Raven, they were introduced as traveling from planet to planet with special dispensation to conduct biological surveys in protected regions of the galaxy. But the ASCOR review of all eleven episodes found inconsistencies and no independent scientific corroboration that the life forms and ecosystems being presented even exist. Most shockingly, we couldn’t find any proof of accreditation for the various ‘scientists’ who appeared on the show.
BECK: And some of the sequences you’ve flagged as fabricated comprise some of the most memorable sequences in the show. The armored crabs and glowing worms, even the sea trench and coastal pens, did not exist as identifiable organisms or regions on Kellog II.
TRANT: That’s correct, our researchers have discovered that much of the footage was likely altered from older archival footage. We’ve logged a complaint with the NFSC and the production company to either remove the unverified segments or, at the very least, make it clear that those parts are fictionalized and not backed up by scientific data and observations.
ALAYNE: Now Trant, I can’t even begin to imagine what happened here. My daughter has a beloved plush Box Elk, which was one of the creatures ‘discovered’ on the program and now… well, I don’t know what to think, was it ever real? How is it possible for a series to claim that a creature exists and not have the scientific community question it immediately?
TRANT: The fact is, and I don’t mean to sound reductive here, the universe is very, very big. And even though a tiny sliver of that giant universe supports the development of life, that still adds up to more living organisms than anyone with the best of intentions could ever hope to catalog or even to understand. Couple that with the restricted access that prohibits developing planets from being effectively cataloged and it creates a lot of opportunities for exploitation. So when the episodes presented creatures and environments that, on the surface, seemed like they could exist, I think a lot of scientists went with it because they wanted to believe it as much as anyone else. Plus, most scientists don’t have access to the areas highlighted in the series so there wasn’t a lot of firsthand knowledge and research available to hold up against what the series was presenting.
ALAYNE: I see, it’s still just so surprising that such claims go unchecked for so long. The series has been a hit for nearly five years now. Why did it take so long for the truth to come out?
TRANT: There’s an element of red tape that makes verifying something like this both difficult and expensive. Take the clip you showed earlier, the Subcommittee for Development & Expansion makes doing any sort of legitimate research on Kellog II as difficult as possible. You’re talking about needing an expedition that would cost millions and millions of credits just to confirm that the crab you saw doesn’t exist.
ALAYNE: But why do this? What benefits do you see in lying about this stuff?
TRANT: I don’t know, it’s hard to say who profits here. There’s certainly money to be made from the sheer level of exposure that the show enjoyed. Someone made money off that Box Elk plush your daughter has, so maybe it was just an elaborate scheme to create a marketing phenomenon. I don’t really know.
ALAYNE: What about the people behind these documentaries? Are they going to be punished?
TRANT: I would hope that there will be professional repercussions. At the same time, there’s also no specific law preventing someone from making up new kinds of animal. So it’s a difficult question as to what, if any, legal consequences the production company and its employees may face.
BECK: So what do we do now? Is there a way to undo the damage these fabrications have caused?
TRANT: What I want the public to know is that we need to keep moving forward. There’s a big job to be done by scientists and explorers to right this wrong by finding the real mysterious creatures that inhabit this universe. They may not be as immediately sexy and interesting as the ones we so easily fell in love with on spectrum, but learning about them is going to be so much more rewarding because it’s not just entertainment, it expands our understanding of the universe. And there are so, so many dedicated explorers and scientists who are already partnering to do this right now, the importance of their work is so high regardless of this scandal. So we’re going to keep working.
BECK: Heady stuff, certainly something to keep in mind the next time you see some unusual life form or bizarre planet discovered announced in a vacuum.