Once more, National Geographic goes for the woo

December 31, 2019 • 1:00 pm

We’ve all observed National Geographic magazine going down the tubes and going soft on religion (e.g., investigating and affirming the historicity of scripture), and on woo. Apparently this issue, highlighted by fellow skeptic Phil Ferguson on his Facebook page, is about trying to validate woo, or at least about implying that there might be something to it. (Until recently National Geographic was owned by Fox, but as of this year it’s a Walt Disney property.)

Yes, it is sad, and I wasn’t pleased by the prospect of trying to find out what was between the covers (it’s not easy to find that!). I did notice the subtitle, which hearkens to the woo-ey X-Files. But I was saved from having to read this tripe by Hayley Stevens, who wrote an analysis and critique of the issue’s contents on her website, Hayley is a Ghost (click on screenshot below). Stevens researches claims of the paranormal, trying to find out what’s behind them (she says she isn’t committed to debunking these claims, but to understanding them).

You’re not going to be happy about National Geographic after you read what she wrote:

What the magazine discusses includes the following:

  • The medical curative abilities of shamans and their drugs
  • Levitation
  • Ouija boards
  • Alchemy
  • Satanism
  • Fortune telling
  • Ghosts
  • Vampires

And the list goes on. Stevens’s beef is that the magazine blew a big chance to actually describe how scientific investigations have debunked many of these phenomena (she has a list of references at the end of her piece). Apparently, the magazine is trying to leave the door open that. . . there may really be something out there.

An excerpt:

I’ll lay it out simply. The ‘Science of the Supernatural’ issue of NatGeo magazine contains roughly half a page of science in the whole 96 pages of the publication. I say science but what I actually mean is ‘accurate science’ because some of the science claims within are wrong, which I’ll come onto in a bit. The magazine has a lot of nice pictures, but it reads like a folklore history blog written by somebody who has a lot of pages to fill and not a lot of time or desire to do so. Nothing written in this magazine is new, nothing in this magazine contributes to helping people learn more about the reality of the supernatural, and certainly not the science behind the supernatural. This is a shame because learning about the science behind paranormal experiences and claims is really, really interesting. It tells us so much about who we are as people, about how society is shaped and reshaped, and about the world around us, too.

The magazine gets a lot of stuff wrong (they mis-describe the Church of Satan, for instance, as a religious organization), and they blow chances to explain stuff properly (we now know that ouija boards “work” via involuntary muscular movements of the participants).  And this statement really got me:

Towards the end of the magazine it is written of earth formations that ‘from crop circles to other land patterns. There are no records of who might have created many of these designs.’

To which Stevens adds:

Stick a fork in me, reader, for I am done.

We now know of many cases of modern crop circles, for example, that were hoaxes or pranks or even advertising gimmicks. To imply that we don’t know who created “many” of these designs is grossly misleading.

But National Geographic has lost half of its subscription base in the last few decades, and so they must osculate religion, the numinous, and the supernatural to try to retain what credulous readers they can. As for me, I have no use for the rag.

A crop circle in Switzerland. Aliens? I don’t think so. And why do these patterns always appear at night? Are aliens afraid of the Sun?



41 thoughts on “Once more, National Geographic goes for the woo

    1. Me too, and I wrote them a note saying I cancelled my sub because of the sale to him. They wrote back lying about the magazine’s charter not changing and their commitment to blah, blah, blah. I think within a month or so, they fired a bunch of their reporters, and they’ve been pandering to religion and woo ever since. I agree with Jerry, it’s now a rag…a shame, really.

  1. Crop circles are just farmers who have lost their minds, right? Of course some of it is just center pivot irrigation.

  2. Many thanks to Hayley Stevens for reading that stuff so the rest of us don’t have to – and to our host for highlighting her response to it. It sometimes feels that this type of nonsense is regurgitated so that eventually rationalists will tire of repeatedly pointing out its palpable flaws, and then the woo brigade will celebrate the triumph of their worldview.

  3. Depressing. They could have…
    1. Debunked these claims. Easily. The resources for doing that are only a few clicks away for even a lazy journalist.
    2. Assuming the list is what they cover, they could have dropped a few (only full fledged kooks believe in alchemy and levitation) and instead gone after some of the more popular myths like…
    a. Homeopathic medicines
    b. Near death experiences
    c. Heaven & hell (Fat chance! It’s Nat. Geo!)

  4. As a kid, I was completely obsessed with both NG and Fondation Cousteau. My main goal in life was to work with either or both organizations, in any capacity.
    By the time I was 14, I had collected every issue from 1897 to what was then the present.

    I just cannot express my disappointment when I learned that NG was going to become primarily an entertainment division of Murdoch’s empire, and a tour agency.

    I did manage to do some limited work with both organizations, and even appeared on a NG television segment.

    A couple of years ago, I was in town, and happened to be wearing a “National Geographic Television” hat, left over from when I was interesting. Anyway, an elderly lady stopped me and told me that she noticed the hat, and assumed I had also been on one of their cruises. I guess that is what it means to people now.

    It hardly matters that NG is publishing articles advocating pseudoscience and social justice. They are not even the “science-lite” organization that they used to be. They are pure entertainment, steered by focus groups, and edited by someone who is “appalled” by the NG stories that captivated me as a child.

    The Smithsonian is next.

  5. I loved the National Geographic as a child and kept up my subscription as an adult until Murdoch bought it. At that point I allowed it to lapse, and have not regretted doing so. As others have commented this makes me very sad.

  6. “Apparently, the magazine is trying to leave the door open that. . . there may really be something out there.”

    Leaving the door open strikes me as consistent with scientific skepticism, a part of which is remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).

    I can understand the complaint about lack of empirical evidence for something but less so when combined with a complaint about looking for such evidence. If no one even bothers to look for evidence, of course there’s not going to be any.

    1. Did you read the article or what I said about it? The complaint is that the magazine NEGLECTED THE EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE AGAINST THE SUPERNATURAL ORIGIN OF MANY OF THESE PHENOMENA. Read the previous sentence again. And no, given the lack of evidence for supernatural phenomena, skepticism is not the same thing as remaining agnostic or neutral, in the same way that, in light of any evidence for God, it’s not really good to remain “agnostic or neutral about god.” You are an atheist: you aver no belief in God.

      I would ask you to read the article again, and what I said about it, before you make comments like this.

  7. The crop circles were all made by Doug and Dave, as is well known. (Yes, really. At least all the early ones were. Many other cereal artists then took up the pastime.)

    Doug Bower died in July 2018. R.I.P.

    Go to circlemakers.org for plenty of examples, some of them quite lovely.


  8. Question to the board. PCC’s fair and balanced analysis above mentions that National Geographic is “grossly misleading” the public by claiming the genesis of crop circles remains unknown. I completely agree. Maybe it’s just good style to write using nuanced language but is it unfounded or too strong or bad form to simply state that crop circles are a lie and a fraud and a hoax, full stop? I’m in no way critiquing Prof. Coyne’s style nor conclusions but I’ve often wondered if the softer approach leaves the door open to plausible deniability.

    1. Claims that ‘something is a mysterious’ are in a kind of gradation. These range from claims that something is a mystery, and indeed they really do remain a mystery (as in what happened to Emelia Earhardt?) Toward the other end of the gradation are claims that something is a mystery that has been satisfactorily answered and we can move on. Crop circles have been repeatedly shown to be done by people. In fact, particular persons have stepped forward and demonstrated how they did it. All it takes is the cover of night, a plan, string, and some planks of wood.
      Not every crop circle has an identified author, but enough have been well explained to where the better service to the public is to assert, with confidence, that all crop circles have a human origin. It is not ‘good’ for us to not discourage numinous thinking.

  9. I was hoping the sale to Disney would help shore up the editorial content, but I guess not. I’m not encouraged.

  10. Well of course crop circles only appear at night. Anybody who hasn’t drunk the Kool Aid knows that crop circles are exclusively made by vampires! Further, vampires’ famous obsessive-compulsive traits explains why crop circles are always geometric and ordered!! Wake up, sheeples!!!

    1. (And, just because this is the internet, here’s the missing #satire and #exasperated tags)

      #sad #the_once_mighty_now_fallen #etc

  11. Aw come on. Don’t you believe in freedom of speech?

    I’m kidding but this is how many idiots respond when somebody calls out their b.s.

  12. Can we get a group together and buy out the Nat Geo? Restore it’s sanity and push it back into the cultural stream?

    1. Well, then you have the problem of owning a formerly renowned magazine that is in a slow death spiral. Sure, its content is an embarrassment now, but the old magazine we loved just will not sell well. Most magazines are in decline. That is the truth of it.

  13. We now know of many cases of modern crop circles, for example, that were hoaxes or pranks or even advertising gimmicks. To imply that we don’t know who created “many” of these designs is grossly misleading.

    Actually, I think it is true that we don’t know who created many of these designs, but I’d bet my house that the “who” in question consists of human beings.

  14. Darwin was an avowed white supremacist. Anti-religious talk is what is sparking all of these attacks at religious services. You all are just believing writings of men who came before you. Why don’t you all just allow people to have the thoughts in their heads that they want. Why do you care? Their brain, their body. Just let people live their lives, enough people have died. The Soviets, Chinese, Nazis were all anti-religious and murdered in that name.

    1. Lord, we don’t often get emails as muddled and wrong as this one (it’s your last comment here, by the way). For one thing, no atheists are urging people to attack religious people. Perhaps you know that it’s religious people who are responsible in general for attacks on other religious people. It’s anti-Semitism that is responsible for the attacks on Jews, and anti-Semitism, as you should know (but apparently don’t), comes from Christianity and from Muslims as well.

      As for your really stupid statement, “Why don’t you all just allow people to have the thoughts in their heads that they want?”, the answer is palpably obvious: because (especially for religious people), thoughts often lead to actions, like the murder of Jews. Are you really so thick as not not realize that? Now we can’t prohibit people from thinking what they want, but when they think things that hurt other people (or indoctrinate their children with lies), then we avail ourself of counterspeech, which is what I have been doing.

      As for the Soviets, Chinese and Nazis, they didn’t kill in the name of atheism, but I won’t write several paragraphs to explain that to you.

      By the way, Darwin was both a white supremacist but also an abolitionist; his views on race were much more progressive than many white men of his era. But so what? Are you saying that belief in evolution leads to white supremacy? What is your point here? There was hardly a white person in England in that era who didn’t see whites as the superior race.

      I don’t often chastise commenters for being completely stupid, but I have to say that this comment gets the prize for the most ridiculous and mushbrained comment of the year–and there was some stiff competition!

    2. Seriously, Michael Evans?? Just allow people to have the thoughts in their heads that they want? No matter how ignorant (the earth was created 6000 years ago), or hurtful(gay people are an abomination), or actually fatal (people who draw cartoons of Mohammed should be put to death)??? We should not correct them on these things?

    3. People can have whatever thoughts they want in their own heads. Problem is, those thoughts leak out their mouths and turn into action. At that point, my thoughts can leak out and counter theirs so we can all have a discussion. It’s what we do in a society. Your implied violation of bodily autonomy through expressing an opinion is nothing short of absurd.

  15. Whoa there: “The medical curative abilities of shamans and their drugs” is definitely a legitimate area of study, not because shamanism itself has any validity, but because a lot of their drugs may have actual, useful pharmaceutical properties. Quinine as a preventative for malaria, and aspirin both derive from folk medicine; let’s see what else they have that may be useful.

    1. Whoa there; you didn’t read the article, did you? She’s talking about National Geographic’s claim that ayahuasca has miracle curative properties and can treat stuff like cancer. That’s what I was talking about, not whether native medicine might be useful, which it is (not, btw, always administered by a shaman!)

      Please read before you ride on in here and say “whoa there”. . .

  16. Why is everyone getting SO bent over National Geographic covering an aspect of culture? Just because you disagree with the beliefs of this particular aspect of our culture doesn’t mean NG shouldn’t (distorted thinking) cover it. NG has covered the beliefs of many oddball cultures over the years but the response has always been “How curious!” rather than people virtually ejaculating venom all over the internet. Breathe deep, now . . .

    1. Oh Jebus, not another one. Yes, just because we disagree with superstitious wish-thinking that damages people and thinking in general, we should shut up about it and let National Geographic spread this kind of numinous crap through the culture. The fact is that Nat. Geo. isn’t covering this stuff as if it’s an oddity of American culture; it’s covering it to give those views some kind of credibility, and to try to buttress their waning number of subscribers. They do the same thing with the “historical Jesus.”

      If you don’t understand that, I can’t help you.

    2. Had NG covered belief in superstitions as a cultural phenomenon, you’d be right. Instead it presents a bunch of crazy beliefs with National Inquirer type titillation and credulity.

  17. Wow, I predicted it. The loonies become instantly agitated the moment we say supernaturalism is unfounded (the gentle approach) and evidently, even when we say it’s complete bullshit (the strong approach). It’s as if they’re saying ‘how do you NOT know…?’

  18. I remain open-minded toward crop circles. Not the stupid crop circles almost everyone knows but our particular Russian kind. They seem to appear on any surface in various forms (tree covers, ice included). The ‘images’ are often projections from a point source (produccing conic sections). For now I don’t know how to debunk it or think of possible flying point source with this power and variety of actions (ice cutting, tree burning, crop circling 🙂 ). As a laser engineer I understand that someone can use a drone with a guide laser but that is all.

    As for NatGeo, they could try to find some interesting new woo as mine above. The rate of conspiracy innovation is boringly slow.

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