The National Geographic Gets Real

The National Geographic magazine has, in recent years, run its share of articles that I personally felt were pretty fluffy. Apart from articles on big cats (a kind of fluffy I enjoy), there have been many that were little more than pictorals, often with some serious fiction author expressing their thoughts in a sincere manner. Nonetheless, I’ve remained a subscriber

However, in the past three months National Geographic has run two cover articles that make up for anything that may have struck anyone as silly.

First, remember that National Geographic (the primary magazine of the Society) has an incredible circulation, somewhere around 6,000,000 copies each month in the U.S. (according to the best figures I can find), making it one of the most widely-distributed magazines in the country. They’re in homes, libraries, and schools across the nation.

In September, the cover story was “Global Warming: Bulletins from a Warmer World.” Editor Bill Allen started his letter to readers with this:

After a decade as Editor in Chief, I have a pretty good idea which articles will provoke a lot of angry letters. Whenever we publish stories that challenge widely held beliefs, some readers get mad, and they write to let us know.

Well, we’re about to do it again. We’re devoting 74 pages of this issue to a three-part series on global climate change, and I’d be willing to bet that we’ll get letters from readers who don’t believe global climate change is real, and that humans contribute to the problem. Some readers will even terminate their memberships.

The cover of November’s issue contains the provocative question: “Was Darwin Wrong?”. Eager creationist readers who flip through to page 4 will find an unequivocal answer: “No. The evidence for Evolution is overwhelming.”

Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.

The rest of us generally agree. We plug our televisions into little wall sockets, measure a year by the length of Earth’s orbit, and in many other ways live our lives based on the trusted reality of those theories.

It’s more than likely that you’re familiar with National Geographic from your youth, if you’re not still a subscriber. In either case, it is one mass-media outlet that is willing to unapologetically state scientific fact to its readers. They deserve your support. Write a letter. Buy a copy on the newsstand (they do that now), or—better yet—subscribe. If you already subscribe, get someone a holiday gift subscription; it’s all of $19 for a year. You get beautiful pictures, some fuzzy kitty stuff, and a dose of the truth.