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National Geographic Supports Pseudoscience

by Mark Edward, Jul 01 2013
Jake The Numbers Guy

Jake The Numbers Guy

About three weeks ago I was contacted by “The Numbers Game,” a program sponsored by the National Geographic Channel. As in the usual cases these days, I was called upon by the show’s producers to speak on psychic readings and how they work.  At first I was delighted to be asked, but as you will see, what came out of this situation speaks volumes for where we are in the continuing battle to get critical thinking backed by scientific facts on television.

The show is described on National Geographic’s website as:

“Money. Sex. Marriage. Mortality. In each episode, data scientist Jake Porway tackles one of life’s most daunting topics revealing the surprising science behind them. From mind-bending stats, hilarious man on the street experiments, and interactive game play, this show delivers the answers to life’s mysteries and gives you the tools to help take charge of your destiny and change your life forever.”

After a very brief discussion by phone with their Associate Producer, (I assume this means he associates with the Producer)  I offered what I could and suggested several ways to show exactly what happens, how psychic readings work and more importantly, my experience in finding about why they are so inherently dishonest and manipulative. I wanted to make it clear that I did not think any sort of “reading” was beneficial, and that in fact in many instances, they can cause real harm. I mentioned my book “Psychic Blues” and suggested that the crew working on the show might give it a casual skimming before proceeding.

Soon it was determined that I would “teach” their nerdy host “data scientist” Jake Porway  “how to be a psychic” in the fashion that I had already demonstrated successfully on “The Jeff Probst Show” last Halloween. They thought it would be fun to use the earpiece information angle with their host getting pre-show from me off-camera. At this point I balked, telling them this technique is grossly manipulative and not how general psychic readings are conducted. I made it clear that using this sort of “hot read” wasn’t a fair “numbers game” and would skew any numbers by being too accurate and not in the realm of what a cold reading is at all. They insisted that was what they wanted to do. It made no sense to me. They also asked me to state that a psychic reading can actually help people. I reluctantly admitted to them that in some very rare situations, as when someone really has no family to talk to and little or no financial resources to obtain professional help, it is possible that a one-on-one reading might be marginally helpful, but stressed that the odds or “numbers” tell science the vast majority of clients who go to psychics get their pockets cleaned and can lose everything by trusting a psychic for any degree of happiness or friendship. I told them I did not want to be seen as soft on psychics and that was my stand after nearly 35 years of serious investigation.

“Numbers” replied with this email:

“_________, _________ and I have been talking about your request to appear tough on psychics. Without a doubt people who charge money to talk to passed spirits are predatory. Everyone on this side of the camera is in complete agreement and we would never want you to say otherwise. We never claim that psychics are real and go so far as to call them con artist. We are crystal clear on this point. Psychics are fake. However, science clearly shows that people who visit “psychics” feel better. I think its fair to say that some healers, even if may be the minority, are honest, have good intentions and actually help people. As a science show it is our job to acknowledge this.  _____________, ______and I talked about it and it makes perfect sense for Jake to say the line “AND ACCORDING TO ONE STUDY, 61% OF VISITORS TO PARANORMAL HEALERS REPORT IMPROVEMENT.” However, we feel for story and authenticity reasons we need our expert to acknowledge the positives as well. We need our expert to say something along the lines of “IT’S ALL ABOUT GIVING PEOPLE ENTERTAINMENT, ADVICE, AND MAKING THEM FEEL BETTER ABOUT THEIR TROUBLES. THAT’S RIGHT – IT CAN ACTUALLY HELP PEOPLE.” The line doesn’t need to be exactly that, but the spirit of the line is important to us. It is of the utmost importance to us that our experts express themselves honestly and knowledgeably. We don’t want you to lie. But we need to shoot the segment with the truth as we see it. Thanks for your time. Please let me know how you feel about this area of concern.”

The “spirit of the line” bugged me. And that “truth as we see it” bit really irked me. I let them know in this response:

“I’m a little concerned that (so far) I’m coming off as sympathetic to psychics. Not true at all. They are by and large predatory creatures.  I work hard to make it clear that in some rare cases as when people just need someone to talk to or bounce ideas off of, a reading may be helpful. The harsh truth in my experience (read my book “Psychic Blues”) is the vast majority of readings and psychic baloney causes untold heartbreak and victimization. It’s a huge business full of greed and fake spirituality. I have built my reputation on this rational principle and would not want to deflect from my skeptical leanings. As long as we make that clear, I’m okay with the rest.
And please do remember: the whole time when I worked as a “professional psychic” I was never a believer and was scamming the scammers to see how far I could get. That’s what “Blues” is all about. The bottom line is that any psychic act is something that can be taught and therefore nothing supernatural.”
From Nat Geo's "What Drives You Crazy: Facts"

From Nat Geo’s “What Drives You Crazy: Facts”

“Numbers Game” soon after emailed a very concise “script” for me to okay. I read it over and found a few things that bothered me. I was being reffered to as a “former psychic,” and while this tag may in some sense unfortunately remain true, I had made it clear I would not be happy with that title and made mention of the term “reformed con artist” that was unfairly coined by Penn Jillette on the Bullshit epsiode I appeared in. This is not a true statement. I have always been and remain a skeptic. Any underground work I did to discover the hows and whys of what was going on in the psychic market was used to observe and evaluate psychics in order to spill the beans on the whole mess. Under the present circumstances, “psychic investigator” was more where I was headed. I sent this email in response:

“Again, please don’t refer to me as a “Former Psychic” better a “Psychic Investigator” who went undercover to learn how the psychic market operates.
Totally understand. A psychic reading may indeed provide a level of “feel better.” On a first time basis, then perhaps yes. The harm done usually comes along after the psychic or medium initially “gets the hook in” and after finding a “soft spot” in their sitter, continues to provide this “feel better” fix. Then it becomes manipulative and an abusive practice that can literally take over a person’s life. As with any addiction, like heroin; it may make you feel better the first time, repeated use quickly becomes a destructive pattern that can end killing you.
“However, science clearly shows that people who visit “psychics” feel better. I think its fair to say that some healers, even if may be the minority, are honest, have good intentions and actually help people.”
Really? What science are you quoting from exactly? The science I’m aware of does no such thing. Science does tell us that the power of suggestion and the “placebo effect” can ultimately influence people, but there is no evidence that I’m aware of in the scientific literature to substantiate your claim. In fact, many people leave psychic readings totally shattered and without hope. It totally depends on the psychic. Case in point: The recent Amanda Berry Case: Amanda Berry’s mother consulted psychic Sylvia Browne on the Montel Williams program after her daughter went missing ten years ago. She was told by Browne that her daughter was dead and to give up hope. The mother passed away soon after this reading – some say she was never the same and died from heartbreak and depression. Later her daughter escaped her captors in Cleveland and was declared quite alive. This is neither “feel good” nor “entertainment.”
“…the minority, are honest, have good intentions and actually help people.”
Love to see the stats on that one.
Mentioning the “placebo effect” in any “feel better” situation are both huge parts of the total equation that makes “psychic” or cold readings sometimes so compelling. Defined as “an inactive substance or other sham form of therapy administered to a patient usually to compare its effects with those of a real drug or treatment, but sometimes for the psychological benefit to the patient through his believing he is receiving treatment.” So unless you can prove that “healing” is an active substance backed by clinical peer reviewed scientific studies, self-styled “healers” are administering a placebo. Granted it may be a very convincing performance, but so is Al Pacino as Scarface. You know what the strongest drug available is right? Placebo. Science and recognized medicine both know suggestion is a key factor in any “healing,”” whether such “treatment” is administered by a legit doctor or a psychic fraud.
“As a science show it is our job to acknowledge this.”
Okay, please do. Let’s acknowledge science and work together on that.
Hope I’m being too much of a pain in the ass…
I’m playing Devil’s Advocate to try and make your show rise above the usual “sciency” programming that can send false or incomplete messages to millions of people all over the world. That’s my job.”
I received this email in response:
“Thanks for getting back to me. This dialog is important and I appreciate you taking the time to make the segment better. Of course, “psychic investigator.” That works for us. Here is the study we are referencing where 61% of people reported improvement. Higher than the probable placebo effect.
 But here’s the thing, nothing can replace your personal and professional experience. That’s why you are the Expert and we are not. Your email is well thought out and accurate and tells a whole story. And that’s all we are looking for. Someone to come in and literally show that cold reading is a learned skill NOT and supernatural gift. There can be no misunderstanding the point of this segment. However, we need that same expert to acknowledge our finding that psychics can be entertaining, give people good advice and make them feel better. Actually help people. Based on your email I think we agree that psychics can be helpful, even if only for a short time. I just need to confirm that you feel this way and are comfortable conveying this to the audience. Do you think you would be able to suggest language you would be comfortable with? Is this sentence okay “IT’S ALL ABOUT GIVING PEOPLE ENTERTAINMENT, ADVICE, AND MAKING THEM FEEL BETTER ABOUT THEIR TROUBLES. THAT’S RIGHT – IT CAN ACTUALLY HELP PEOPLE.” Perhaps it needs another sentence to qualify? Please let me know. Thanks!”
It was the “however” parts that were really starting to worry me. I know too well how Hollywood editors work and have learned the hard way verbal agreements are not worth the paper they are written on in this town. An “expert” on these sorts of “newsy” programs never gets editorial privilege and the rewards of appearing as someone who goes against the grain never ends well. Besides all that, I don’t think it’s fair and balanced to suggest going to a psychic can be helpful for anyone involved. I was beginning to see this was going to be an up-hill battle. Knowing I was now skirting possible banishment from the Nat Geo camp, I still felt I had to send the following:
In reply:
“Perhaps it needs another sentence to qualify?”
Yep. I think so. How about these:
I would also add:
I think this makes my position clear.
After doing research on their claim, I found their source, “The Journal of Scientific Exploration” not quite a mainstream peer reviewed publication. Far from it. Read the doc they attached if you have the time.  JSE is neither “Scientific American” nor “Psychology Today.” In his paper, “Applied Parapsychology Studies of Psychics and Healers,” someone I never heard of, Sybol A. Schouten, makes reference to all manner of outlandish pseudo-scientific paradigms while being very careful not to sound too wooish. This is more of the kind of no-evidence “sciency” babble we already hear bandied about on television. It’s just slightly above Ghost Hunters bumping around dark rooms with the lights off. The “Editors-in-Chief” (all unknown to me) of JSE may well have designed their journal specifically for the “scholarly study of anomalies,” but as anecdotes are never evidence, they seem to be “Exploring” half-truths and fringe science. JSE isn’t far off from the more widely quoted “Society of Psychical Research,” whose members are almost exclusively believers. I know. I was once a subscriber. Their motto is “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” – C.G. Jung. Okay Carl… I read SPR magazine for several years in the hope of finding some substantial knowledge and after amassing a bookshelf full, tossed the lot into the rubbish.
Wiki says of JSE:
“Critics of the journal regard it as a forum for promoting, not investigating, fringe science.”
And further down the page: Kendrick Frazier, editor of Skeptical Inquirer and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow has suggested that:
“The JSE, while presented as neutral and objective, appears to hold a hidden agenda. They seem to be interested in promoting fringe topics as real mysteries and they tend to ignore most evidence to the contrary. They publish ‘scholarly’ articles promoting the reality of dowsing, neo-astrology, ESP, and psychokinesis. Most of the prominent and active members are strong believers in the reality of such phenomena.”

A little more reading up on Sybol Schouten left me with even less encouragement and I was beginning to get that creepy feeling I was once again about to become the two second sound bite of reason on yet another shout out for the paranormal. But remembering the Associate Producer’s words; …As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns…”

Okay, so I sent the following:

You might want to look into the opinions of the mainstream scientific community about JSE : the source material for Schouten’s “Applied Parapsychology Studies of Psychics and Healers.”
(in the interests of science of course…)
In a matter of hours, I received the coup de grace. Not unexpectedly, an early morning phone call from my contact person telling me they had decided to “go in another direction.” I told him I wasn’t surprised. He was cordial in that unctuous Hollywood way people who don’t want to burn bridges talk and he told me he appreciated my sticking to the truth. I told him I hoped some day National Geographic would do the same.
I found this email when I went to my computer:
Hey Mark,
Unfortunately we need to take the segment in another direction.
I hope you understand that you are an outstanding expert and we valued your input. This decision is based on many other contributing factors.
Thanks for your time and energy, but we won’t be needing your expertise for this segment.
I burned that one. “Going in another direction” is Hollywoodspeak for, “…Sorry, we found someone easier to work with.” Contributing factors? I think they meant facts. Nat Geo will probably opt for Gary Schwartz or some other nincompoop psychic sycophant to go along with their “science.” So be it.
There you have it: Another television show touting scientific credentials that does exactly what psychics do:
Tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.
It truly is a numbers game folks: ratings numbers.






15 Responses to “National Geographic Supports Pseudoscience”

  1. Deen says:

    Next time someone says “but it makes people feel better”, try “so does heroin”.

  2. Bill says:

    Mark – we really, really, REALLY want you as our Expert.
    As long as you don’t get in the way of the story that we’ve already decided that we want to tell. Can’t challenge our viewers to think, after all.

  3. Susan Gerbic says:

    Great article Mark. Just one more reason we want you on the skeptic team. You are the expert concerning psychics. Can’t wait to see what other direction they are going. Maybe just forgetting to do this psychic thing completely?

    Who would they get to replace you? There is no one even close to having your expertise.

  4. Andrew says:

    National Geographic Channel is owned by NewsCorp, a Rupert Murdoch Company – just like Fox News Channel. Don’t look for the truth about anything anywhere within this company.

  5. Phea says:

    I’m thinking the problem here is that they want an ongoing, viewer/ratings gathering television program, and your approach just wouldn’t fill that bill. A show can be an advocate of the paranormal, true believers, like Celebrity Ghost Stories, which unfortunately, seems to be the default position of most of these trashy programs, or a hardcore debunker, like Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, which, as far as I know, the ONLY show that does this.

    Shows that set out to debunk as their default position but also claim to be neutral and open minded, like TAPS, also know full well that if they NEVER found ANY “evidence” of ghosties, no one would bother watching the show after a few episodes. They HAVE to find something every now and then, or they would soon look like, and their viewers would feel like, what they really are… complete idiots wasting their time.

    I’m sure the producers of the program are very aware of this reality, but probably didn’t want to come right out and say it, as there would be no show if they failed to be “open minded”. They just wanted their expert to be on the same page. Geeze Mark, you coulda’ been a contender, if only you’d have taken a dive for the team.

  6. Jay Diamond says:

    Nice work Mark – drawing the distinction between something vaguely sciency but certainly fringe and ACTUAL science is something lost on the majority of the media.

    I’d have expected them to leverage your expertise and experience on the practices of psychics. The script iterations sent to you are pretty fascinating – starting with a conclusion and finding supporting evidence is flatly cognitive dissonance… but perhaps I started with that conclusion.

    I’d be really curious to see the “other direction” that they took – my guess is that it looks a lot like their original script, with an “expert” who agreed to the job title “former psychic”.

  7. Gary says:

    Ray Hyman would be a good replacement, but only from the skeptical viewpoint.

  8. Susan Gerbic says:

    I can just see Ray get after them. They would say “psychics do help people don’t they Ray?” and he would say “you idiots did you do any research at all? And my name is Professor Hyman to you sonnyboy!”

  9. d brown says:

    The National Geographic Channel WILL DO ANYTHING TO GET ADDS.

  10. Adam McCabe says:

    I completely agree about National Geographic. I’ve found many articles in it that are hokey, very speculative, and not evidence based. However, I think it should be known that National Geographic does have amazing photography.

  11. Mark says:

    This is further proof that these shows rarely have a real independent expert. Instead, they have a character called “expert”, and fish around for someone to fill the part. Sad…

  12. Acitta says:

    There is a great need for an independently funded, high quality sceptical science program written and controlled by a science oriented organization. Too much TV science has become subservient to ratings over quality science.

  13. Iain Fyffe says:

    I think you could have been stronger in emphasizing what it is about talking to the “psychic” that can benefit the rare person in the rare situation. I don’t think it’s a fair statement to say that a psychic reading can have value to these people, because it’s not the reading that has value, it’s the talking to a person. Talking to a person has value, and the psychic reading probably doesn’t get in the way of that (or perhaps it does). You did get into this a bit in the end, but it should have been addressed more clearly I think. It’s not the reading, it’s the person.

  14. Matt says:

    Hey, Jake does actually hold a PhD in Statistics from UCLA. So, I think putting “data scientist” in quotes is somewhat misleading…