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Why is National Geographic Lying About ESP?

Do people have psychic powers?

That’s a really simple question; five words, 26 characters and a question mark.  It is though, shall we say…problematic.  It’s one of the most difficult questions that’s ever been posed in scientific and metaphysical circles.  Though people on both sides of that imaginary line are certain that they know the answer.

I’ve written on this topic many times, offering both my own opinion on the subject and its various branches, as well as reporting on advances in understanding in that regard.  There has been much to talk about, and generally, scientific reporting on this topic is careful to remain centered and unbiased, as is the role of science.  This doesn’t always happen though.

This subject in particular is charged, the question above is a loaded question.  Everyone has an opinion on it…everyone.  Few really know that much about it though.  That is, few take the time to look past the superficial, the romanticized psychic trades, ghost hunting mediums and pop-culture, to really understand what PSI or ESP or whatever you want to call it, really is on a fundamental level.

I’m no expert mind you, just an enthusiast you might say.  I am fairly well read on the subject though, and it pains me to see so-called experts making egregious assumptions and well known media outlets misrepresenting the facts of the issue.  That is, however, exactly what I found circulating social media today.


National Geographic, a source for news and education on the natural world, and which has had some PR issues of late, has taken a position on the issue of psychic abilities, or ESP as they put it.  They reported on a new study published on January 13 in the scientific journal PLOS One.  This study focused on determining if people can detect subtle changes in visual media while not being able to identify what had changed.  According to their conclusions, yes, they can.

It’s a fascinating study, well worth reading if you’re interested in perceptual psychology and neuroscience, but you may already be wondering exactly what that has to do with ESP.  From my reading of the paper, not a damn thing, but as I said I’m not an expert.

A single word in the paper relates in a very semantic way to the study of extrasensory perception and associated phenomena.  In their discussion of the findings, which amounts to educated speculation on the impact these findings would have on other areas of study, they use the word “mindsight”.  And though the context in which they used it was not related to PSY or ESP, this is the only reference I can find in the entire paper that might lead the more credulous to think they meant such.

What they did mean by invoking that word, was as a way of labelling a process known where a person can pick up visual information that they can’t see because of brain injury.  However, that they can’t see it is inaccurate.  Their eye and visual apparatus do detect the information and relay it to the brain, but the cerebral cortex doesn’t allow them to be consciously aware of that fact.  The researchers believe that the information is processed in a sort of subconscious way.  They define the word as “the ability to detect changes before one is able to identify them.”

“The term “mindsight” was invented in analogy to the phenomenon of blindsight. In blindsight, a patient with damage to the primary visual cortex reports not being able to see stimuli located in the corresponding part of the visual field. However, some of these patients are still able to detect the occurrence of visual transients, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as type 2 blindsight.”[1]

That sounds fairly straightforward, doesn’t it?  You would think most would agree, but it seems the folks at National Geographic, and several prominent skeptics are confused by this paper. They claim that these result prove that ESP doesn’t exist.

That is a BIG claim.  An entirely unsupported claim at that.

The National Geographic article that cites this paper goes on to dissect two famous past experiments that actually did take on ESP, with varying and controversial results.  They provide a very cursory abstract of each experiment, skewing the explanation, and then they list the “believer’s” view and the “skeptic’s” view on each.  They did so in a very amateurish way, I might add.  Of course, there have been far more than just two experiments on this subject, some more objective and well done than those cited, and some that appear to confirm ESP, but these aren’t mentioned.


Instead of offering a transparent look at the subject, they’ve decided to explicitly deny that any such phenomenon exists, and they’ve totally misrepresented the spirit, intent, and conclusions of the study in question.  I wouldn’t normally devote any time to such closed-mindedness, and that isn’t to say that I don’t value skepticism, my work clearly says otherwise, but this is a definitive message being given to the public by a trusted source of information on the natural world.  A message that is demonstrably wrong.  What’s worse is that some well-known skeptics (read deniers) have taken up this message, apparently without looking at the source, and are running with it.

It is not the place of science reporting to twist the products of science to fit some philosophical or secular ideology.  We, the public, need to know that what we find on these sites – outlets that purport impartial coverage of issues that are as charged as this – is pared down to truth and that it is presented in a transparent and honest manner.

Why did they do this?  I have no idea.  I might speculate that someone on their editorial staff fits the description of a denialist, or that they’re seeking page views through controversial content.  Either way, I’m disgusted.

[1] Piers D. L. Howe, Margaret E. Webb. Detecting Unidentified Changes. Published: January 13, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0084490

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  • alanborky

    This’s somethin’ ‘at’s bein’ goin’ on for a long while now Martin.

    There’s a bunch o’ people out there who’re genuinely convinced compared to ’em the rest o’ us’re such morons we only have t’HEAR there’s such a thing as a such-and-such an’ instantly we start seein’ such-an-suches everywhere.


    Keep repeatin’ the mantra “There’s no such thing as…” telepathy ufos ghosts Bigfoot etc etc etc blah blah blah an’ sooner or later us morons’ll stop seein’ ’em.

    But here’s the vast cosmic joke some o’ that tribe’ve become so witchfinder general vociferous [openly turnin’ wikipedia in t’their propaganda disseminator possibly even hackin’ the pcs o’ weirdos’n’loonies deemed potentially dangerous] others among the tribe’ve begun t’back off sufficiently t’take another look an realise “Hey hang on a mo’ there really are effects o’ some sort there…”


    Admit that but smuggle the data in under a form sufficiently nebulous it passes if not as science then as scientific soundin’ [which I’ve no problem with so long as the data’s given the attention an’ time t’reveal whatever it really is].

    Which’s actu’ly an improvement in a way ’cause not that long ago all y’d get is “There’s no evidence of nuffink THE END!”


    If anythin’ what Detectin’ Unidentified Changes suggest t’me is the possiiblity we’re all of us includin’ skeptical zealots bombarded all day long by *psi* [whatever that actu’ly is] data which precisely ’cause we’re gen’rally oblivious to it whips us round like so many sentient Phaeacian sailing ships trapped in a millennia old storm but rather than admit the our collective an’ individuals follies we keep explainin’ away all the endlessly recurrin’ problems as the stupidity an’ ill will o’ those who won’t be told.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    “That which I cannot explain does not exist” is a refined form of solipsism.

    To admit the existence of telepathy, precognition is to present one’s self with an unacceptable contradiction of a world view, and a fundamental challenge to a world view is for most of us impermissible. It feels like madness, so that the reflexive response is to accuse those who accept the phenomenon as real of being mad.

  • Ross Holcomb

    No surprise here . . . Nat Geo has a pattern of such behavior. Under the guise of a respectable scientific journalistic organization, they have repeatedly followed an agenda of steering people away from “the unexplained or paranormal” concluding, “Nothing to see here folks.” It seems to intelligent readers that their conclusions are illogical, unscientific, or just plain faulty. Actually, their conclusions are already decided upon and they selectively choose seemingly scientific data to support their “nothing to see here” agenda. They have done this with Crop Circle videos (most recently in 2010), Loch Ness Monster articles, and other “unexplained” topics. You asked a very telling question, “Why would they even bother?” Great point. Nat Geo could easily take the position of ignoring the PSI and paranormal, which most scientific institutions do. However, they often go out of their way to take these topics on, in a pseudo scientific way, with an end clearly in mind. This repeating pattern has me convinced that Nat Geo is an instrument of those who want to steer our attention back to Brittany Spears’ latest foibles and away from questioning the “unexplained.” Most people will buy it hook line and sinker!

  • I would like National Geographic to explain its fallaciously reasoned conclusion in the light of evidence to the contrary that certainly cannot be explained away as “mindsight”. The evidence I refer National Geographic to is the case of Nandana, a 9 year-old autistic girl in India reported on in the Khaleej Times in the article “Miracle Girl: Nandana has access to mother’s memory”.

    The case was evaluated by psychiatrists and by a reporter from the Khaleej Times, who, in writing this story said that Nandana was able to read her mother’s mind to type out the telephone number of the Khaleej Times that the reporter had given to her mother in another room.

    In a case of faulty logic paralleling National Geographic a psychiatrist described Nandana’s ability to read her mother’s thoughts and intentions as a case of “genetic memory” Obviously it is no such thing. Genetic memory is when memories of experiences of an ancestor are passed down through genetic transmission, and this has recently been shown to be a reality. However, this is not what is happening with Nandana – Nandana did not inherit the telephone number genetically from her mother through her mother having experienced a traumatic event before Nandana’s birth involving that telephone number – which it would have to be if it were a case of genetic memory. There was no physical contact between Nandana and her mother to explain this phenomenon – but genes are physical. So this psychiatrist, while admitting that Nandana has telepathic powers, is misinterpreting them when he claims that they have a genetic basis, despite Nandana being genetically related to her mother.

    Can National Geographic explain this rare savant ability, where Nandana is able to have access to her mother’s thoughts?

    What I find tantalising is that this case shows that there is a scientifically evaluated and proven method of communication that goes beyond currently understood laws of physics. I am reminded of the scientist, Robert Lanza’s theory on quantum physics and the universe.

    Robert Lanza makes so much sense in his interpretation of quantum theory – that quantum theory says that we create the world around us and that we precede the universe. Listen to what he says if you have a chance and see what you think.

    “Scientists Claim That Quantum Theory Proves Consciousness Moves To Another Universe At Death” –

    Here is another video of his theory:

    “Robert Lanza – What are Space and Time” (You Tube)

    Also, Robert Lanza has been judged to be one of the three most important scientists in the World so he is worth at least considering. I was convinced by his interpretation. I think it is theoretical and experimental proof of survival of death.

  • RogerKnights

    IIRC, the press release that went out with the study is the one that made the debunking claim. NG just bought into it.