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Jan 29 2014

National Geographic Lies to Kids

I am so glad I got the hell out of ScienceBlogs when National Geographic bought the site. As if the pseudo-scientific crap on their cable channel wasn’t bad enough, now they’re flat out lying to kids. This is the cover of the latest issue of National Geographic for Kids:

natgeocover

Seriously, NatGeo? Seriously? They try to make it all okay by putting a disclaimer in it that says “If these descriptions don’t match you, that’s OK. These are just for fun.” That’s about as credible as those psychic hotline ads that say “for entertainment purposes only” in tiny letters at the bottom. Shame on NatGeo.

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  1. 1
    marcus

    Ick!

  2. 2
    Trebuchet

    I’ve been a National Geographic subscriber for more than 50 years. This is just sad. They also sold their good name to Fox for the NatGeo TV network, which shows mostly crap like “Border Wars” and “Alaska State Troopers”, glorifying the cops.

  3. 3
    Jim

    My son gets this magazine and I regularly find myself having to go through it and correct stuff it gets wrong. And really basic stuff, too, like “If your dog’s nose isn’t wet, it’s probably sick,” and claiming that the blood in your veins is actually blue.

  4. 4
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Wow.

    I am so glad I got the hell out of ScienceBlogs when National Geographic bought the site.

    Also, Pepsigate was just the beginning. From a few weeks ago:

    Chevron, the global energy company known for its commitment to “finding newer, cleaner ways to power the world,” has joined the USA Science & Engineering Festival as a major sponsor, bringing with it a proven history of hands-on corporate outreach initiatives that ignite student motivation and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

    And true to the company’s innovative approach to outreach, students and others at the Festival Expo this April in Washington, D.C. can expect to experience a special Chevron exhibit that they won’t soon forget: a smorgasbord of dynamic, interactive science demonstrations in one 3600 square-foot location – aptly called the STEM Zone! (Expo runs April 24-27)

    “Science festivals are such a great way to reach out to communities,” says Janet Auer, Chevron’s Specialist of Education and Corporate Programs,” so we’re especially delighted to be a part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival – the largest event of its kind in the nation – since it brings together so many participants to show in dynamic ways how science impacts us all on an everyday basis.”…

    At least the commenters are catching on.

  5. 5
    democommie

    And Nova now “co-produces” stuff with NatGeo. Here’s a hint; the stuff sucks.

  6. 6
    Synfandel

    What your birth stone says about you is in which month you were born.

  7. 7
    Sastra

    I remember a fuss among the skeptic community about 15 or 20 years ago, when My Weekly Reader — which was read in the early grades of elementary schools across the U.S. — had an October issue which talked about “real haunted houses.” This is even worse. It’s supposed to be vetted by scientists.

    Well, geology is fine when it comes to helping us understand rocks and gems in the natural world. But it can’t give a satisfactory answer to the important, big questions like: what do the rocks say about ME?

    For the answer to that, we must go to religion National Geographic.

    For shame.

  8. 8
    dukeofomnium

    My birthstone says I’m sensitive, intelligent, extremely good looking, and very modest. So my birthstone is dead on.

  9. 9
    ruthstl

    My kids have received Muse magazine as a Christmas gift for years. While pricy, there are no ads and they have real science. The current issue is a skeptical look at Bigfoot-how easy it is for a stump or bear to look like Bigfoot. I looked at National Geo for Kids and was very disappointed. I prefer the real National Geo.

    We dropped cable years ago. While stuck in our hotel on a rainy day, we tried history channel, TLC and National Geo. All junk. I guess we aren’t missing much.

  10. 10
    omcdurham

    My dad had an NG subscription for many decades, up until about 15 years ago. He cancelled it due to the cost, as well as the amount of space all the back issues were occupying. I read them with delight as a child and a young adult.

    Though I have not read one cover to cover in many years, I have grabbed one at the doctor’s or dentist’s, hoping to learn something useful before a torture session. My has NG digressed. To many ads, and the content seems very fluffy.

    The TV channels I also grew up watching then have nothing to do with the name of the channel! Discovery, History, NatGeo, TLC, Science; they’re all “reality” shows now. For information, I’ll just read the comics.

  11. 11
    hoku

    My birthstone says I’m condemned to get crappy gifts featuring a rock I don’t like.

  12. 12
    bushrat

    My birthstone says I was born in August.

  13. 13
    Sunday Afternoon

    My birthstone says that I have a 71% chance of my Zodiac sign being Cancer and 29% of being Leo.

  14. 14
    eric

    My has NG digressed. To many ads, and the content seems very fluffy.

    I wonder if there’s some sort of prisoner’s dilemma or auction game situation going on with such magazines. Given a set of “solid content” magazines, the slightly more fluffly one gets bought (more often). So each keeps getting more fluffy to outcompete the other…and soon they all end up so content-poor, none of them get bought in high numbers.

    Same issue for ads. In a set of content-rich magazines, I hypothesize the slightly cheaper one gets bought more often. Which causes the others to increase their advertising to get cheaper…and pretty soon this race for the bottom causes sales to drop for all of them. Its like a free market version of a death spiral.

  15. 15
    whheydt

    Re: eric @ #14:

    It’s a version of “the tragedy of the commons”.

  16. 16
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    My birthstone says that of the two that apparently apply for that month, most jewelry will be in the one I don’t like.

    I grew up reading National Geographic, and watching the nature and science specials with my father. When I visit him now, we’ll get some snacks and make fun of how terrible the content of that and TLC and the like has become.

  17. 17
    democommie

    My birthstone is gravel.

  18. 18
    toro

    Disclaimer: “These are just for fun.”

    And yet, that cover claims: “Weird but true” and “Outrageous fun facts.” Next time, they might shorten it to “weird and outrageous.”

  19. 19
    thebookofdave

    @dukeofomnium #8

    My birthstone says I’m sensitive, intelligent, extremely good looking, and very modest.

    What a coincidence, so does mine! Conclusion: my birth certificate and parents were lying about my birth date. Also, you and I are twins.

    Next on NatGeo Kids: do psychic vortexes south of the equator spin in reverse?

  20. 20
    birgerjohansson

    My birthstone says SPLAT!
    (it’s a ten-tonne block of granite)

  21. 21
    =8)-DX

    I have to admit I buy my daughter a monthly magazine called Witch!, which has regular zodiak/chinese year/stones/colours/smells/plants etc nonsense sections in it.

    But then it also has 3-4 fuckin’ amazin’ comics .. with WITCHES!! in it (sexy, diverse witches – although I have to always comment that everyone tends to be on the slim side).

    I can’t deprive my daughter of comic witches, even if it means having to do some explaining about how zodiac signs are BS.

  22. 22
    michaelhughes

    Why in the hell would anyone get upset about a silly little article about birthstone mythology for kids? Is this really such a horrid blow against the Holy Temple of Reason? People like these sorts of things even when they don’t believe them. It’s entertainment. The article clearly states it is “just for fun.” You think kids are clueless automatons who will read this article and then go out and join a new age cult? My god, what a killjoy.

  23. 23
    michaelhughes

    My kids are 7 and 5. They read the article, and then their grandmother bought them birthstone necklaces. The horror! I guess I should send them to the L’il Skeptics’ “Camp Randi” for the summer and burn the necklaces. That will teach them the dangers of woo.

  24. 24
    Michael Heath

    michaelhughes,

    Your 2 comments are the biggest whoosh of the week that I’ve observed.

    Are you even aware of why that is? And if so, well . . . being disingenuous won’t get you very far in this forum.

  25. 25
    michaelhughes

    “Whoosh”? You’ll have to explain what you mean by that. And I’m not being disingenuous—I find the outrage over a birthstone article absurd.

  26. 26
    Michael Heath

    michaelhughes,

    The context here by Ed was very precise, context that whoosh over your head. That context is this the National Geographic for kids magazine which as Ed notes is promoting, “pseudo-scientific crap”. Context you avoided or denied in your criticism, in spite of the fact the primary premise of Ed’s criticism was the source of this woo. He didn’t go after Disney or Stan Lee’s comics, he went after the National fucking Geographic.

    Perhaps you’re ignorant on what the National Geographic once stood for in a sea of fantastical stories promoted by authority figures as if they were fact. Perhaps you aren’t and don’t care that a once reality based magazine is promoting woo for kids.

    Millions of children were once raised in areas of the country that were very successful censoring science-related content from children’s eyes. That content often reported on facts inconvenient to their parents’ religion, with pictures no less. The National Geographic magazine was one of the few journals available to children that revealed a world very different than the narrative asserted by their parents and pastors, and avoided even by their public school teachers. I’m one of the children that’s now all grown up that got my inconvenient science facts almost exclusively from the National Geographic until I left my hometown for college.

    So yeah, some of us do care that the National Geographic was diverted from the path of reality into one of Palin-friendly fantasy. So fine make your case, but make it within the context presented here, which is that this twaddle is promoted by a magazine who writes this in their “About Us” webpage:

    The National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888. It is one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world. Its interests include geography, archaeology and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation.

    Cite: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/about/

  27. 27
    michaelhughes

    I can understand criticizing National Geographic if it was pushing some kind of climate change denialism or creationist lunacy (and with Rupert Murdoch at the helm, it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened).

    But this is an article for KIDS. I enjoy that my kids (7 and 5) sometimes exhibit magical thinking. It’s part of childhood play and fantasy, and it’s absolutely developmentally normal. Hey, I even let my kids believe in Santa Claus! I suppose that’s the next thing to be purged in the killjoy demonization of irrational thinking.

    What I found interesting is that my oldest daughter and I had a discussion about the birthstone article in which she clearly exhibited the ability to grasp the difference between the mythology of birthstones and the reality that a stone cannot have “powers” or that a single type of gem can represent all the people born in a particular month. So the article actually encouraged her to come to a rational conclusion!

    It’s the “we must fight the woo at all costs and all levels!” fervor that strikes me as misguided, especially when it comes to kids. If my youngest daughter comes to me as says she found a magical rock that gives her special powers I’m not going to launch into a geology and physics lesson. I’m going to let her enjoy the fantasy. And as any developmental expert will tell you, children are much better at distinguishing fantasy from reality, even at an early age, than many people believe.

    Also, as an artist and a writer, I see value in metaphorical associations, even silly ones like birthstones. A kid could read this article and write a fantasy story about stones whose colors determine their magical powers. It might encourage a child to think about the associations between colors and moods. I read a lot of stuff that I know is not based in reality, but I use it in my fiction.

    In short, I would suggest that the author lighten up. He’s a former comedian, right? This is a light-hearted examination of a historical mythology about gemstones. It is not even pitched as a scientific article, and it has a rather clear (and well-done) disclaimer. Go after the fundamentalists and the science deniers and stop wasting time on silly stuff like this.

  28. 28
    Michael Heath

    michaelhughes writes:

    But this is an article for KIDS. I enjoy that my kids (7 and 5) sometimes exhibit magical thinking. It’s part of childhood play and fantasy, and it’s absolutely developmentally normal. Hey, I even let my kids believe in Santa Claus! I suppose that’s the next thing to be purged in the killjoy demonization of irrational thinking.

    You’re defectlvely conflating two genres here. Fantasy can absolutely be promoted in a manner where children can immediately grasp it’s imagined where such interactions withs such stories are beneficial to children. That’s very different than pushing supernatural-infused stories on children where they’re framed as factually true. That ‘s also lying to your kids. So relying on the benefits of fantasy role-playing to make your case that pushing falsehoods as true on to your own children suggests your own critical thinking skills need some development – from two different aspects.

    michaelhughes writes:

    It’s the “we must fight the woo at all costs and all levels!” fervor that strikes me as misguided, especially when it comes to kids.

    That’s quite a strawman you’ve created there. Ed nor I argued for this. Instead we’re both critical of the National Geographic creating and promoting woo – towards children no less. That’s a point I repeatedly emphasized in my prior post which you again avoid here with this point (but not elsewhere in your last post). As I noted earlier, this didn’t come from Disney or a Stan Lee comic, but instead a supposed science magazine.

    There’s also more context to Ed’s criticism here as well given the fact this is not the first time the National Geographic label has been used to market woo, which dilutes its brand that benefactors pay to promote. Here’s an example of another National Geographic production promoting woo that had Ed laudably criticizing them: http://goo.gl/X2MBmk.

  29. 29
    michaelhughes

    “That’s very different than pushing supernatural-infused stories on children where they’re framed as factually true.”

    There is a very clear disclaimer explaining that it is “just for fun.”

    “That ‘s also lying to your kids. So relying on the benefits of fantasy role-playing to make your case that pushing falsehoods as true on to your own children suggests your own critical thinking skills need some development – from two different aspects.”

    Uh, no. I encourage my kids to view things like horoscopes to develop their critical thinking. I don’t shield my children from popular culture—I’d rather have them encounter such beliefs in situ and use their reasoning to develop intelligent approaches to separate myths and folk beliefs from objective data.

    “Instead we’re both critical of the National Geographic creating and promoting woo – towards children no less. That’s a point I repeatedly emphasized in my prior post which you again avoid here with this point (but not elsewhere in your last post). As I noted earlier, this didn’t come from Disney or a Stan Lee comic, but instead a supposed science magazine.”

    National Geographic also chronicles history, and in this case, some people find the history of gemstone mythology to be interesting. Again, this is a light-hearted look at the mythology and folklore surrounding gemstones. It is a far cry from an article touting young-earth creationism, climate denial, or similar. And I believe the reaction is measurably out of proportion to the content of the article.

    As to the UFO special, I read about the reactions of the show’s stars when it was first written. And I agree, any show about UFOs should approach the subject with scientific rigor. It’s quite clear the producers of that program wanted garbage sensationalism of the type so common on cable television.

    Again, I’m all for criticism of junk media. But an article about birthstone mythology is innocuous and suitable fare for kids. As I pointed out earlier, the article encouraged my daughter to think for herself and come to the conclusion that it was silly. And it is.

  30. 30
    Michael Heath

    michaelhughes @ 27:

    I’m all for criticism of junk media.

    Well, you demonstrate you are not “all for criticism of junk media”. We observe you doing the opposite by criticizing Ed for promoting what can be demonstrably described as “junk media”.

    Ed and I have higher expectations of the National Geographic, expectations that they also claim for themselves via my link to their “About” page. You’ve repeatedly pointed out your fine with what they’ve done here. Your argument that what they’ve done here is for at least me, totally uncompelling for reasons I made @ 26.

  31. 31
    michaelhughes

    I’m all for criticism of junk media but my main point is the *scale* of opprobrium against this rather innocuous piece is a bit silly. As I said, if it were about a puff piece about Creationism, Noah’s Ark, or the hoax of global warming, I’d be firing off a letter to the magazine. It’s a fun little story about gemstone mythology, with an appropriate disclaimer. Not worth the flaming invective. IMHO, of course ,but I see little reason to get enormously agitated by something so innocuous and clearly indicated as “just for fun.”

  32. 32
    michaelhughes

    Here’s another important piece of information—the magazine’s promotional copy (nabbed from Amazon).

    NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KIDS is a fact-filled, fast-paced magazine created especially for ages 6 and up. With an award-winning combination of photos, facts, and fun, NG KIDS has captivated its more than one million readers for over 35 years. Articles and departments entertain and inspire readers to learn about their world with amazing information about animals, science, technology, archaeology, geography, and pop culture, plus jokes, games, activities in every issue.

    In case you didn’t see it—pop culture is explicitly part of the content.

    I have a copy in my hands. It’s clearly aimed at kids who can read at a pretty solid level, and it’s full of factoids (the ghost ant can turn the color of certain foods it eats), cute photos of animals, jokes, cartoons, and even a “Funny Fill-In” (essentially a Mad Lib). It’s very bright and attractively laid out. And to me, it’s a nice balance of science and history and trivia with more fully stuff—the games and jokes and goofy stuff. Why is that so? Because kids like their science and history mixed with some non-sciency, “fun” material. And that balance is likely to keep them actually reading the magazine.

    But now for the gem article. Each month has a photo of the stone, a section on what it represents (mythologically), “Old School Myths” (which discusses historical mythology), and “Rock Solid Facts” which is pure science. So let’s look at March with aquamarine as the birthstone simply because it is my birthstone.

    March (aquamarine)
    Represents: Courage
    Old School Myths: People used to believe that aquamarine could protect sailors and their ships from disasters at sea. The aquamarine was also thought to heal illnesses that affected the stomach, liver, jaws, and throat. The gem was supposedly an antidote to poison as well.
    Rock-Solid Facts: Aquamarines, which are a form of the dark mineral beryl, range from blue-green to deep blue. Naturally occurring deep-blue aquamarines are the rarest and most valuable. Some of these crystals weigh more than 250 pounds.
    Star with This Stone: Carrie Underwood

    Well, gosh, that wasn’t so bad, was it? A fun, silly look at what people used to believe (with the clear word “myths” preceding the description), and then a nice chunk of solid science before tossing in a silly pop culture reference. You see what’s happening here? It’s an attempt to teach about science while wrapping it in some innocuous fluff.

    Now step back. Is it really a dangerous assault on Reason? Or is it a fun kids’ magazine that uses proven, age-based strategies to teach science, history, and culture while keeping a child entertained?

    Once again, if the magazine published an article pushing climate denial, creationism, or the Glory of Jesus, I’d be pounding away on my laptop cursing and pounding my fist on my desk in fury. But this is not that. Not by any stretch.

  33. 33
    michaelhughes

    Here’s a recent study that may be of interest:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/cdev.12081/asset/cdev12081.pdf;jsessionid=C75EC4A1353B81F993FECE8291D96858.f02t03?v=1&t=hrb49qz1&s=a38f7ec9a5728cfb7e50513f351caf7d00019374

    Revisiting the Fantasy–Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics
    Jacqueline D. Woolley and Maliki E. Ghossainy
    The University of Texas at Austin

    Child Development, September/October 2013, Volume 84, Number 5, Pages 1496–1510

    Far from being the uncritical believers young children have been portrayed as, children often exhibit skepticism
    toward the reality status of novel entities and events. This article reviews research on children’s reality
    status judgments, testimony use, understanding of possibility, and religious cognition. When viewed from this
    new perspective it becomes apparent that when assessing reality status, children are as likely to doubt as they
    are to believe. It is suggested that immature metacognitive abilities are at the root of children’s skepticism,
    specifically that an insufficient ability to evaluate the scope and relevance of one’s knowledge leads to an
    overreliance on it in evaluating reality status. With development comes increasing ability to utilize a wider
    range of sources to inform reality status judgments.

  1. 34
    The Ideological Jihad Against the Imagination | Michael M. Hughes

    […] to write about this began when I caught wind of this “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” blog post about a cover story on gems and birthstones that appeared in National Geographic Kids magazine. […]

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