Readers will recall that the lead article in our recent “Health Wars” special issue (September/October 2019) critiqued a series of six newsstand books or “book-azines” on natural healing remedies published by National Geographic. Our cover article, by California physician Victor Benson, found they were full of claims “that lack scientific evidence, are inconsistent and internally contradictory, and don’t reach minimal scientific standards.” A second article, a more specific review by physician and SI contributing editor and columnist Harriet Hall, evaluated the most recent and largest of the books, Nature’s Best Remedies (2019, 318 pages, $35). She found that the information in the book is “biased, incomplete, unscientific, and sometimes even dangerous. … A bitter disappointment.”
Both our authors, and I in my editor’s column introducing the issue, expressed disappointment that such a cherished and usually responsible and fact-based organization as the National Geographic Society had issued and marketed these publications.
Credits listed in the books are minimal at best, but after our special issue came out, we sent copies of it to four top officials at the National Geographic Society, including Susan Goldberg, whose title is “Editorial Director and Editor, National Geographic.”
After calling their attention to our main critiques, I wrote (on August 17):
We all treasure the National Geographic Society and National Geographic. As I say in my editor’s note, National Geographic’s articles and photographs cover the world with great insight. What are we to make, then, of these six books and book-azines? They fall far short of your usual high scientific and journalistic standards.
I ended this way:
May I respectfully request that you and your colleagues carefully consider the criticisms in these articles. The books seem out of character for the distinguished National Geographic Society that we respect so much. We urge you to reconsider their further promotion and dissemination. That could limit the damage they cause with their scientifically misleading and even pseudoscientific claims and assertions.
Two months later no response had been heard, so on October 23, 2019, I emailed Goldberg, including the original letter and a new request and invitation:
Having heard no response, I now intend to publish my letter or key excerpts from it, in the News and Comment section of our next issue … deadline next Monday [October 28]. We want to give you the opportunity to present your reaction to the criticisms we published. I ask for your response.
We stand strongly for science and reason and evidence-based thinking, and we have always assumed the National Geographic Society (or corporation) and its publications were on that side as well. Do you have any response to our published criticisms? Were we unfair? Are the books we critiqued anomalies? Does National Geographic still stand for good science and factual evidence? What can we expect in the future?
I told her we would like to include her response with this planned news article: “I am sure our readers would appreciate hearing your views.”
What are we to make of this nonresponse? It is possible that as National Geographic magazine’s editor in chief, Goldberg may not be directly involved with those six books and book-azines, but if that is the case my message asked her to forward our concerns to the appropriate person for reply. Without hearing their side, we can only speculate what’s going on.
Some readers pointed to the fact that in September 2015 the National Geographic Society entered into a $725 million business arrangement in a new partnership headed by 21st Century Fox (which owned the famous movie studio, the Fox television network, and Fox News Channel) controlled by media giant Rupert Murdoch. This new “National Geographic Partners” got control of 73 percent of the society’s assets (including the magazine, book, map, and other media assets), with the remaining 27 percent held by the National Geographic Society. Then in March 2019, The Walt Disney Company acquired 21st Century Fox, including its share in National Geographic Partners. So now the president of National Geographic Partners reports directly to the Walt Disney Television chairman.
National Geographic magazine itself (now “published monthly by National Geographic Partners,” not the National Geographic Society) still seems to exhibit its usual high editorial standards. Some past issues deserve particular acclaim by science-minded people: Its March 2015 “The War on Science” special issue, which reported on attacks on climate science, vaccinations, evolution, the moon landing, and GMOs, was briefly highlighted in our May/June 2015 issue. Its January 2017 special issue the “Gender Revolution” (“Can science help us navigate the shifting landscape of gender identity?”) was courageous in educating the public about all the new and perplexing gender-identity issues; it provided high-quality, science-based information, all of it sensitively written. Its current issue as I write (November 2019) is a special issue on “Women: A Century of Change,” its first in which, as Goldberg writes, “all contributing writers, photographers, and artists are female.” The issue includes two insightful articles on women in science.
Topics of the company’s current book-azines on newsstands include history, marijuana, and genes. And the National Geographic television channel (along with Fox TV channels) aired Ann Druyan’s 2014 renewal of the Cosmos series and plans to do the same for the second season (both hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson), forthcoming in 2020. In 2016, Bloomberg reported that rather than the National Geographic channel being pushed toward tabloid fare, it has been given “a radical makeover in the opposite direction” with millions of dollars invested in highbrow entertainment, “a kind of HBO for science and adventure programming.” The channel’s 2018 ten-part flagship series One Strange Rock, the story of life on earth from the perspective of eight astronauts (narrated by a genuinely amazed Will Smith), was compelling fare.
So we are hardly giving up on National Geographic. Perhaps the nonscientific books on natural healing remedies were an aberration; most likely they were a purposeful money-making operation started when the organization was strapped for funds. Looking at National Geographic’s recent output in total, I see less reason to fear that the National Geographic brand is in danger of becoming tainted. Will it remain the reliable source of solid scientific information it has been throughout most of its history? Let’s hope.