What is wrong with National Geographic?

I’m just watching the whole brand morph into something contemptible — they held out the longest, but it seems to be a general rule that mass media that promotes science will eventually sell out to peddle popular pablum. That’s happening right now before our eyes. Two things leap out at me:

  • The rush to produce religious apologetics. They’re coming out with a new “documentary”, The Story of God, that from this excerpt is clearly total crap with a good budget (they hired Morgan Freeman) and some quality production values.

    That’s terrible. Videos of people gazing wisely into space are not evidence for a deity. Subjective anecdotes from a guy who nearly died recalling the hallucinations his oxygen-starved brain generated are not convincing evidence of an afterlife.

    There is potential for a fascinating analysis of comparative religion, but this does not seem to be that story. That story would be the story of humans grappling with their mortality, not the story of an imaginary being called “god”.

  • The lack of appreciation of good, solid content. I’ve just learned that NatGeo is going to discontinue Brian Switek’s Laelaps blog. That’s shocking, too: Switek puts out quality science regularly, every week or two, and he has an excellent reputation. The reason given for kicking him out is that he didn’t generate enough traffic to the site.

    That’s appalling. That sends a message: NatGeo doesn’t care about the quality of your content, just how many eyeballs swivel in your direction. If that’s your metric, then you’re doomed to drive right down into the pit of popular garbage.

    Maybe they can replace him with a Kardashian.

Watching something that was good and valuable slowly rot away is depressing.


  1. says

    When I am being promised “content”, I skip. I do not want “content”. I want information, or entertainment, but not “content”.

    I stopped watching National Geographic some time ago, since much – if not most – of what I have seen the past number of years is a continuous regurgitation of repackaged “content”, devoid of information, presented by some zombie in a crypt. No National Geographic for me. Life is too short for this.

    As for the promotion clip, indeed, it is utter nonsense, but then, that’s what religion is all about.

  2. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    I remember fondly when TLC came out and it was actually The Learning Channel.

  3. peterh says

    So NG has added woo-woo to their growing list of negative accomplishments. Cue the Great White Handkerchief!

  4. iiandyiiii says

    I was looking forward to “The Story of God”, hoping for comparative religion and history. I’ll probably still watch at least the first episode, but I’m less optimistic. To be honest, I don’t mind starry-eyed pablum so much as long as it’s accompanied by good history and analysis.

  5. mastmaker says

    Ha….the first thing that hit me when I clicked on this article was the big Ew.com in the video frame. How can you expect anything other than crap (that induces an ‘ew’) from something called ew.com?

  6. Scientismist says

    Yep, that sure does look like content. I dropped cable, so I’d only watch it if it were on PBS.

    Including my Grandmother’s subscription, my family has subscribed to the magazine continuously for over 80 years. I inherited the collection, which at one time took up several bookshelves in the spare bedroom. We finally recycled them when they published the collection on CD and then DVD. I’ll decide when the latest year’s subscription is up, but I may not have to worry about updating that digital collection.

  7. robro says

    This Variety story about the production gives some interesting background. Freeman is a co-producer and “the series will also include Freeman’s own opinions on the matter,” the “matter” being this great mystery of god. Gosh…

    Freeman’s producing partner is named Revelations Entertainment, and if that isn’t a clue I don’t know what is. As Variety quotes their person, “God is arguably the most important topic of our time. National Geographic’s unprecedented inside access will allow us to explore the global mystery behind God and religion. With Morgan as our storyteller, we’re going to produce a visually stunning and thought-provoking series that will spur meaningful conversations about God and faith, by believers and nonbelievers alike.”

    I wonder what “inside access” NatGeo has on this subject. Mmmm. Any way, lets get to the meaningful conversation, you nonbelievers you…

    The other partner in this is the entity known as “National Geographic Channel” which…per Wikipedia…is “owned by Fox Cable Networks division of 21st Century Fox and the National Geographic Society.” In case you forgot, Fox is majority owner of NatGeo.

    So, Murdoch. Or is that Mordor.

  8. Johnny Vector says

    So, they’re discontinuing a blog because it doesn’t get enough clicks. Makes sense. I mean, I do understand, as Simon Helberg once said*, about the limited space on the internet.

    *Okay, he said “time”, but time and space are the same thing at the right energy scale.

  9. busterggi says

    The Story of God could have been great – starting with a bunch of Nerdanderthals cowering on a cave floor because of thunder & lightning and going ton to explain why religion is organized ignorance & superstition that humanity has to outgrow for its own good.

    But that would take more guts than any network has.

  10. moarscienceplz says

    I’ve just learned that NatGeo is going to discontinue Brian Switek’s Laelaps blog.

    Science columns in for-profit publications are definitely an endangered species. Faye Flam finally found a new home for hers at Bloomberg here. Please check it out.

    Speaking of drek passing for popular science programming these days, Nova last night was disgusting. They started out talking about the Babylonian and Assyrian origins of the Noah’s Ark story, which was good, but then they built a giant Iranian-style round boat!
    Why? I do not know. There certainly is zero evidence that any people anywhere ever intentionally built a big boat and stuffed it full of animals to survive a flood, so this did nothing to explore ancient engineering techniques and in any case, the boat they built was way smaller than the boat described on the clay tablets. I can only conclude that they thought their audience is too immature to watch a hour long show with only clay tablets and qualified linguists and historians. What a disappointment!

  11. unclefrogy says

    I am saddened every time I go shopping and see the magazine next to the check out stand right next to the gossip and scandal mags, nary a real news mag in sight. I grew up reading the magazine and have been tempted to look but the “content” is so light as to be borrrrring. They are not even trying to compete with the on-line world so readily accessible in there market.

    I have watched a program on PBS sometimes called “Closer to truth” which asks these hard questions like what this is purported to ask and tries hard to not take a side, not much in the way of cgi effects just authoritative talking heads in their appropriate places asking serious questions . not aimed at the lowest common interest or trying to get the biggest numbers of eyeballs.

    uncle frogy

  12. moarscienceplz says

    unclefrogy #18
    I’ve watched a number of episodes of Closer to Truth, but I was not much impressed. The host seems to want desperately to believe in some kind of a god, he’s just not sure which one to pick. It felt a lot like those old Victorian clerics arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether Yahweh can make a rock so massive that even he can’t move it.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    moarscienceplz @16:

    They started out talking about the Babylonian and Assyrian origins of the Noah’s Ark story, which was good, but then they built a giant Iranian-style round boat!

    Correction to Iraqi in #17 noted, but my impression was that the specs for the boat came from an 18th century BCE cuneiform tablet.

  14. unclefrogy says

    moarscienceplz well one of the things that is interesting about that show is that the host moderator asks the same hard questions of all of the interviewee’s. He does not take a side and asks in always a respectful way much more than I could do.
    I do have a reaction to the religious answers to his questions he poses but that is me already working through them myself to some degree and the fact that many of the answers given by the theologians are just made up BS that barely hold together in words but don’t match demonstrated reality much at all. That is the point to get the answers that they have in their own words given by themselves in the best possible light, That they turn out to not make very much sense what leads us closer to truth I think is the point.
    Religion and the belief in gods are a real thing, all these explanations and rationalizations are real things wrong though many are.
    “story of god” if the emphasis is on story and not just a worshipful history
    of the middle east’s chosen god it might get there but I will wait for the final review there are more important thing to watch with my limited time like good stand up comedy on Youtube
    uncle frogy

  15. sherylyoung says

    “The highest power is the human mind. That’s where God came from, and my belief in God is my belief in myself.”
    -Morgan Freeman. Unless he was “saved” very recently, he doesn’t believe in an afterlife.

  16. wzrd1 says

    I prefer this version:
    “The story so far:
    In the beginning the Universe was created.
    This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

  17. unclefrogy says

    dam! the word, wrong , somehow got deleted from the above comment sorry if there was any confusion.
    uncle frogy

  18. moarscienceplz says

    Rob Grigjanis #21
    Yes, they followed the “specs” on the tablet (except the Nova people did not make their boat anywhere close to the size mentioned on the tablet), but the tablet is certainly telling a fairy tale.
    I don’t know if you live in North America, but here we have a series of “tall tales” about a fellow named Paul Bunyan. He was supposedly a giant man who lived as a lumberjack. One of the tales talks about how his breakfast was made: a cast-iron griddle so large that a number of full-grown men skated on it with sides of bacon strapped to their feet greased it, then giant flapjacks were cooked on it to feed Paul. This Nova episode was the equivalent of building a giant cast-iron griddle to understand more about the life of Paul Bunyan.

  19. wzrd1 says

    @moarscienceplz, I saw the big blue ox, Babe.
    I cut back on drinking. ;)

    Still, the tall tales of Paul Bunyon are more entertaining and likely than the ancient astronauts, Egyptian origin of Native Americans and slightly less likely than flying saucers in a domestic dispute.

  20. sarah00 says

    @moarscienceplz, as Rob Grigjanis @21 pointed out, the programme you saw was most likely the one presented by Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper Ancient Mesopotamian at the British Museum who wrote a book a few years ago called ‘The Ark Before Noah’ about his research of the Ark myth from cuneiform tablets. It’s a really interesting read (basically an excuse for him to geek out about cuneiform writing) and while the show was, as all these things must be these days, full of staring into the distance and lots of unnecessary drama, it’s actually based on legitimate scholarship, including the fact that the ‘Ark’ as described in the tablets was actually a type of coracle.

  21. wzrd1 says

    Sarah. there’s another biological issue with Noah’s ark. Take a pair of animals, breed a large population from them, there are going to be major founder effects. This would be far, far, far beyond mere population bottleneck, this would be extinction probable effects. Defects would be amplified continuously.

    Going into the design problems of such an immense ocean going zoo, problems that would be daunting even today, despite modern alloys to work with, yeah, it’s regurgitation of a previous and far more interesting legend.

  22. sarah00 says

    wzrd1 @31,

    I’m not at all arguing that the Noah’s story is true (I’m a biologist and even if I wasn’t I still know how stupid it is), but neither is Finkel. It’s looking at the story as a myth and how that myth has changed over millennia. If I remember correctly (it’s been a couple of years since I read the book), the whole thing about the coracle is that school boys used to get maths questions that were based on the Ark story and they have tablets with these calculations. In the TV programme they thought it might be fun to try and see if the calculations were right.

  23. wzrd1 says

    Sarah, I was trying a quick thought experiment as I typed that.
    We’d be talking about a modern steel hull, with at least two inches of riveted hull.
    At least three nuclear plants to run bilge pumps and modest propulsion.
    Feeding one and all, that needs magic! ;)
    That’s for a continental region, with only two examples each and ignoring biology, mutation and founder (and a few other inbreeding) effect.

    It’s fun to think of such a complex project and find how many immediate problems present themselves.
    Such as deck panels made of unobtainium-1 (first unobtainium being infinite strength, zero mass, infinite shear, other stress impervious). Other unobtainium versions, the ability to be tissue paper thin, breathe like nothing is present, even cool when hot, defect and absorb the destructive power of a direct or near miss 155 mm howitzer round as body armor. Something impossible currently is pretty much what engineers call unobtainium. :)
    Also stupidly used in the film, “The Core” as a single substance. :/
    The film also used the Ronco MagicNuke, does whatever you want it to do. See a previous rant on the use of nuclear weapons being considered a magical solution to all problems. :)

    As lousy science fiction loves to play the ark game as a root of a story, it’d be interesting in actually calculating how insane such an ark, even on earth, such an actual device would be.
    I’m thinking, to properly protect all life on the North American continent, I might get by with a biosphere 2/3 of the continent in size and an engineering section the size of the earth. Using a hundred different unobtanium versions.
    Clarke’s Rama spacecraft are positively easy in comparison. :D

  24. sarah00 says

    wzrd1 @35

    I think you’re misunderstanding. The point of the TV programme (and the book) wasn’t to be some sort of apologetic. It’s NOT about Noah’s Ark, so all the arguments about how impossible it would be to build and maintain it are moot. Finkel’s work is based on tablets dating to a good millennia before the Jewish myth. Even then, it’s not about trying to prove the Babylonian version of the story, it’s about seeing what real things in their culture inspired it. One of the tablets gives descriptions of how to build the ark and, in contrast to the Biblical version, the Babylonian ark was round, like the coracles that were used in the region up until relatively recently. This, combined with the tablets of maths calculations, inspired the TV people to try building one of these big coracles (I can’t remember if it was the size the tablets gave for the ark or if it was just a big coracle) to see if the components gave a workable boat.

    This is a short article on the tablet detailing the ark dimensions, which begins,

    Noah’s ark was never built, still less crash landed on Mount Ararat, a British Museum expert has declared – despite holding in his hand 3,700-year-old instructions on exactly how to construct one.

    “I am 107% convinced the ark never existed,” Irving Finkel said.

    The whole ‘ark’ angle is really just a way in to discussing the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia – a really fascinating set of cultures that lasted for several millennia and are frequently overlooked.

  25. wzrd1 says

    Sarah, the epic of Gilgamesh made far better reading than Noah’s nonsense.
    Still, from a thought experiment, using even modern technology, it’s an entertaining thought experiment. It remains today, utterly impossible. But, it’s a fun thought experiment. :)

    As for the coracle, that boat never did make sense to me. Utterly unseaworthy, not streamlined at all and hence, utterly inefficient. Still, people used the bloody things, as you said, until relatively recently.
    I guess stupid scales upward. ;)
    Proved yet again by our current presidential election. :P

  26. Owlmirror says

    @sarah00, #36

    This, combined with the tablets of maths calculations, inspired the TV people to try building one of these big coracles (I can’t remember if it was the size the tablets gave for the ark or if it was just a big coracle)

    Having just watched the episode, I can say that the coracle-Ark (Iraqi “quffa” — Wikipedia has it as “kuphar“) they built was not the size specified on the tablet. They determined very quickly that the dimensions given would not be physically feasible, and tried instead to build the largest coracle that they thought might be physically feasible. They decided not to build it in Iraq, due to the troubled and violent political situation there, but in southern India. The whole process took about six months (explicitly meant to reflect the six months between the spring and autumn natural flooding of the Tigris and the Euphrates). A specific problem they ran into was the bitumen used to coat the outside of the coracle — they didn’t have actual Iraqi bitumen oozing from the ground, so they tried to use commercially refined bitumen with animal fats and lime added to give it the same waterproofing properties as the original was supposed to have. This did not work properly, and the coracle, once in the water, leaked terribly. So they gave up on historical accuracy and put in a pump (or more than one pump?) that ejected water out at a very fast rate.

    The coracle was floating, at least for a while, and they showed Prof. Finkle going on board to experience the coracleness of it all.

    The narrative of the show did not try to claim that a global flood, or even a single large local flood (of Mesopotamia) ever happened — indeed, they pointed out that the massive (local river) flood deposits that were found in different Babylonian cities were not simultaneous, but were in fact dated as having occurred in different times over the course of a thousand years (Ur in 3500BCE, Uruk in 2900BCE, Shuruppak in 2700BCE, Kish in 2500BCE).

    They then pointed out that ancient Babylon was relatively damp (criss-crossed by rivers and canals), and actually relied on mild spring and autumn floods for their livelihood. It’s just that every so often the flood that came down was a giant, killing superflood…

    When they talked about the Biblical story, what I understood them to be saying was that when the Judeans were conquered and taken in captivity to Babylon, they picked up the story there, and drew a sort of narrative parallel to the disaster of the conquest to the universal disaster of the global flood in the story. So they were trying to explain the existence of the story in the Bible as a borrowing of a disaster story for its similarity to the disaster of the conquest from the Babylonians, and the original story had developed as a narrative in a land which had a usually benign but occasionally terrifying relationship with water and flooding.

    I’m not entirely sure I accept the logic, but I want to help emphasize that the episode is absolutely not an apologetic for biblical accuracy.

    (The narration was nowhere that straightforward, though, and occasionally, the coy way they phrased things was annoying)

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    sarah00 @36:

    I can’t remember if it was the size the tablets gave for the ark

    It was definitely scaled down, to about a fifth the linear dimension. As I recall, they established early on that the boat on the tablet would have been impossible to build, so the remarkably precise instructions were possibly scaled up from a more realistic size.