Pseudoscience in National Geographic Kids: A Review
by Jeremy Genovese
The National Geographic Society has prided itself in being “the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institution in the world.”
National Geographic Kids is the Society’s publication aimed at children and usually it does an admirable job of presenting geographic and scientific information to children. Unfortunately, in a recent article this publication has fallen far short of its goals. The article, which appeared in the November 2005 issue, was titled “Animal’s Sixth Sense: True Stories Suggest Special Powers.” When my daughter started to tell me about this article I assumed it was about the truly amazing special senses possessed by some animals; such as the pressure sensitive lateral line in fish or the echo location of bats. This would have been perfectly appropriate and lead to interesting questions about the selective forces that produced these particular adaptations. However, the article was about something else altogether; animal psychic powers. The article largely consists of several anecdotes where animals supposedly exhibited psychic abilities. For example, we are told about a pair of pet ducks that found their way back home from a distant park. The explanation proffered by the National Geographic Kids? .. “perhaps some sixth sense led them back to where they wanted to be.”
Human beings love stories. Perhaps, as highly social primates, we find the vicarious experience of an unusual story particularly compelling. On many TV infomercials you will see dubious products being sold on the strength of an individual testimonial. Unfortunately, anecdotal tales are often misleading and must be rejected as a source of evidence. What are the limitations of anecdotal evidence? Most obviously there is the problem of veracity. How do we know that the story is even true? False tales and urban legends swamp the internet. A visit to the Snopes.com website shows that many often repeated stories are fabrications or exaggerations.
In addition, a misleading anecdote need not be the result of deliberate lying. Psychologists have documented that people possess a confirmation bias, we tend to notice and remember information or events that support our preconceptions, while ignoring or forgetting evidence that is contrary to what we already believe. If one is inclined to believe in special psychic powers then why not mistakenly see these abilities in the behaviors of animals?
More over, even if is the anecdote is true, it can not provide evidence for any generalization. For example, if we could identify a 90 year old who smoked 3 packs of cigarettes since age 16 would we have demonstrated that smoking is healthy? Undoubtedly, such a case exists, but I think you will see that an individual case is more likely to be a statistical exception than proof of some general proposition. This is certainly the case with individual claims of psychic powers. Most of us have had dreams that have seemed to come true. But every normal human dreams for several hours each night and how are we to distinguish between the coincidence of the occasional dream coming true and some psychic ability? The point is we can not. We need the scientific method which tests our preconceptions with rigorous repeatable observations. Thus, when National Geographic Kids tells its readers about the Siamese cat alerting its owner to a future danger it is making a non-scientific deduction. A claim of a pet psychic power, indeed the claim of human psychic power, could, in principle, be tested. Indeed, there have been hundreds of experimental tests of psychic power and yet there has never been repeatable experimental demonstration of the existence of these powers. The magician James Randi has for years offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could demonstrate psychic abilities. To date all claimants have failed.
The article also describes research by British parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake supporting the existence of telepathic animals. Journalists are often poorly equipped to cover claims of scientific evidence for paranormal phenomena. They operate in a historical and scientific vacuum, unaware of the repeated failure to replicate these claims. Typically the initial claims of such powers get widely reported because they are interesting and appeal to the public’s appetite for the unusual. When later attempts to replicate these findings fail, the results are ignored by the media. A case in point, National Geographic Kids reports Sheldrake’s claim that a dog named Jaytee could psychically sense when its owner, Pam Smart, was returning. The magazine tells us:
"Sheldrake carried out experiments in which Jaytee was videotaped to see when he went to the window when Smart was out. Smart went at least five miles away and came back at randomly chosen times. She was signaled through a pager when she should return. The person doing the paging was neither with Smart nor in the house with Jaytee.
"Amazingly, Jaytee went to wait at the window when Smart started home after receiving her message. His reactions did not depend on hearing familiar car sounds from miles away, because he behaved the same way when she traveled by train, bicycle, or car. Jaytree is one perceptive pup!"
This is truly an amazing assertion and it has received considerable media attention. Unfortunately, the essential scientific question “have independent researchers been able to replicate this claim under controlled conditions?” is never asked. A simple literature search would have revealed that in 1998 the British Journal of Psychology published a paper by Wiseman, Smith, and Milton that reported on a carefully controlled attempt to test Sheldrake’s claim about Jayee. The researchers concluded that “analysis of the data did not support the hypothesis that Jaytee could psychically detect when his owner was returning home.”
This is a serious matter. At a time when the scientific community is raising the alarm over the public’s poor grasp of science National Geographic Kids has decided to be part of the problem. The magazine is guilty of both scientific illiteracy and irresponsible journalism. Our kids deserve better.
About the Author
Jeremy Genovese is Assistant Professor of Human Development and Educational Psychology at Cleveland State University.