National Geographic TV’s ‘Is It Real?’

By Ted Dace

For every flying saucer report that’s debunked, another remains completely inexplicable. For every ghost story revealed as fraudulent, others aren’t so easily explained away. This is not to say there really are ghosts and flying saucers, simply that the universe doesn’t always cater to our desire for orderliness and transparency.

The object of “Is It Real?” (IIR) is to place its viewers under the purring, hypnotic sway of science – not science as a method for obtaining reliable knowledge, but scientism as a kind of religion that casts out the demons of uncertainty and mystery.

Each episode of the series raises the specter of the paranormal only to reveal it as the hallucination of abnormal people. Backed up by a battalion of skeptical commentators, including reporter Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer editor Benjamin Radford, and psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, IIR presents a black and white world of skeptics and believers – and the skeptics turn out to be right every time.

For the most part, the technique works quite well. It’s easy enough to shoot down alleged evidence that Bigfoot strolls the forests of the Pacific Northwest, that Chupacabras sucks the blood of farm animals in Puerto Rico or that a sea monster inhabits Loch Ness. As far as we know, the human body neither wields latent superpowers nor spontaneously combusts. Neither crop circles nor UFOs necessarily indicate extraterrestrial intervention in earthly affairs. The claims of psychic police fall as easily to scrutiny as the prophecies of Nostradamus. Just as the popularity of exorcism fails to verify demonic possession, bleeding palms tell us nothing about the existence of God.

Where the series stumbles is with the episode entitled “Psychic Animals”. After noting the numerous recorded instances of animals reacting to disaster before it strikes, such as elephants stampeding out of harm’s way just prior to the 2004 tsunami, the series narrator wonders if animals possess a “supernatural 6th sense or just a natural super-sensitivity to their surroundings.” The conclusion, already forgone, is that certain creatures are equipped with a sense of magnetism that enables them to detect oncoming events. So, when earthworms flee to the surface just prior to a tremor, it’s because they sense disruptions in Earth’s electromagnetic fields. Despite the fact that these fields are constantly fluctuating – and we have no idea how animals separate signal from noise – IIR considers this “the most promising theory.” Why? Because it’s natural.

The irony is that electricity and magnetism were themselves not understood until the nineteenth century, and were often associated with quackery. Only with the arrival of Faraday’s concept of fields and Maxwell’s field equations did scientists stop and take notice. Following Einstein, the field principle was applied generally in physics, covering everything from gravity to the force that holds atoms together. IIR overlooks the possibility that a similar shift in understanding could occur again, this time regarding organisms and telepathy. It may be that animals on land became aware of the approaching tsunami in 2004 as a result of a field-like connection to creatures in the sea and that this bond is a natural function of mentality, itself a poorly understood phenomenon. But such speculation is disallowed by the IIR directive that anything not currently sanctified by the scientific establishment is by definition supernatural.

It gets worse in the case of psychic pets, also addressed in this episode. Here the series engages in clear-cut bias, as determined by the British Office of Communications (Ofcom), which responded to a complaint lodged by one of the show’s participants, biologist Rupert Sheldrake. According to Sheldrake, IIR presented critical testimony about his research without giving him a chance to respond, violating the written agreement he received from a series producer guaranteeing fair treatment. Ofcom agreed.

Sheldrake conducted an experiment in which parrot owner Aimee Morgana was shown a sequence of pictures while her beloved parrot, N’kisi, who was holed up in another room, uttered words that often matched the contents of the pictures. Of course, N’kisi might occasionally have uttered the correct word by chance, but the actual number of matches was significantly above chance, according to standard statistical analysis.

IIR followed the efforts of a skeptic named Tony Youens to replicate the experiment with another bird, Spaulding, and its owner, Michele Karras. After thirty trials, Spaulding uttered the correct word only twice. Youens concluded that two “hits” could have resulted from chance and therefore that Spaulding was not psychic. Youens, who is not a scientist, then seemed to be accusing Sheldrake of manipulating the data in his trials with N’kisi by excluding data in which the parrot did not respond. The trouble is that IIR failed to allow Sheldrake to respond to this charge and explain that he was following established and accepted procedures. Moreover, had Sheldrake been given the opportunity, he could have pointed out that the exclusion of trials in which there was no response had virtually no effect on the results of his experiment. According to an independent analyst, the results “differed only trivially” when non-responses were excluded. Rather than trying to skew the data in favor of N’kisi’s psychic abilities, as the IIR program implied, Sheldrake was merely bringing his study in line with standard, scientific practice.

IIR producers countered, implausibly, that they did allow Sheldrake to answer Youens’ charge. Yet the alleged response, in which Sheldrake said he was “more interested in dogs than dogmas,”had nothing to do with Youens’ accusation and was filmed before Youens had even conducted his experiment. As Ofcom concluded, “The programme makers’ failure to give Dr. Sheldrake an opportunity to respond to what would amount to a damaging critique of his research resulted in unfairness to Dr. Sheldrake”.

The producers of IIR failed not only Sheldrake but themselves. Indeed, they would have benefited considerably from a genuine investigation into his work. Contrary to the IIR approach, which frames every issue in terms of paranormal vs. normal, the truth sometimes lies in the gray area delineated by the human psyche. Instead of treating Sheldrake as a trustworthy guide to this twilight zone, IIR regards him as another mystic to be debunked by its squad of professional skeptics.

Most of the beliefs discussed in the IIR series are self-contained, having no implications beyond the claims of believers. For instance, even if there is such a thing as the “pyrotron,” which is conjured to explain how human bodies could spontaneously combust, it would explain no other phenomena. Same goes for the “plasma vortex” invoked by some believers to account for crop circles. This lack of explanatory reach is a common feature of pseudo-science.

By contrast, Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation, originally intended to explain development from the egg, engages a wide variety of other biological topics, such as habit and memory, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the embryonic recapitulation of ancestral forms, parallel evolution, atavism, phantom limbs, social insect organization, the collective unconscious, and yes, even psychic pets.

Formative causation postulates that the fundamental property of the organism is the form, or morphology, intrinsic to its kind. Every creature resonates, on the basis of similarity of form, with previous members of its species. The role of genes is not to provide exact instructions for development from the egg but to “tune in” the embryo to its own kind. Like the charge-based electromagnetic resonance between a radio transmitter and a receiver, form-based resonance, or morphic resonance, provides the embryo with the morphological information it needs to develop properly. In this case, the receiver is the current organism while the transmitter is past organisms of the same type. In essence, Sheldrake is saying that memory, “the presence of the past,” is a general feature of nature with specific applications to biology.

Already the skeptics are rolling their eyes. Surely, they will say, this is unscientific and supernatural. Yet this hypothesis is no more of a stretch than the well-known and widely accepted theory of quantum entanglement, in which photons, after being separated out from a light beam, retain a “nonlocal” connection with each other. The difference is that instead of photons from a beam of light, the effect is revealed among organisms from a common line of descent.

Though biologists have long contemplated the possibility that cells are organized into tissues and organs via “morphogenetic fields,” Sheldrake is among the first to propose that these are literally fields of influence, just like the fields of physics. As with iron shavings that line up in the presence of a magnetic field, cells take up their appropriate positions in the presence of morphogenetic fields governing bodily organs. These fields, in turn, are structured on the basis of past, similar organisms via morphic resonance. Thus “morphic fields,” as Sheldrake calls them, translate nonlocal morphological information into spatial patterns of development.

Here we arrive at a scientific theory of mentality. Could it be that the mind is a field of influence containing inherent memory? If so, mentality is ubiquitous to life and pervades the body from head to toe. Every organ, not just the brain, has a mind that governs it on the basis of memory. In the case of the brain, not only memory but conscious will affects its activities. Moreover, mentality contains a collective, nonlocal element – – its species memory – – that unites physically separate individuals under a common program of development, perception and behavior.

This view of the mind, involving both the nonlocality of morphic resonance and the spatial extensiveness of morphic fields, has enormous implications for the other controversies taken up in the IIR series.

The Bigfoot myth, as the IIR narrator points out, is similar to many other wild man legends, such as Sasquatch of pre-Columbian America, Yowi of Australia, Yerin of China, Almasti of Russia and Yeti of Mount Everest, whose apparent footsteps in snow discovered in the early 50s inspired prankster Ray Wallace to leave oversized footprints in conspicuous locations in the Pacific Northwest. Though IIR attributes Bigfoot to a cultural phenomenon, the narrator offers no explanation as to how the same myth can keep popping up in such disparate cultures. For that we need the concept of morphic resonance, which enables far flung peoples to tap into a mental commons from which to draw cultural archetypes, in this case the archetype of the wild man.

Time and again, as with highway patrolman Richard Kael, credible sources contend that a large, semi-human creature has sauntered by right before their eyes. Since Benjamin Radford dismisses all eyewitness testimony as unreliable, IIR seems content to overlook this annoying fact. But how do we account for so many sightings by so many people? Why, if they’re just seeing things, must they insist on hallucinating the same thing? Perhaps Kael saw something similar enough to the wild man archetype that its image was conjured up from his unconscious, displacing the image of whatever was actually there. The problem with Radford’s dismissive position is that it forecloses the possibility of arriving at a real explanation, be it this one or another.

IIR traces sightings of sea monsters back to a 6th century Irish monk who once chastised a giant serpent and ordered it back into the depths. The underlying myth, however, goes back much farther, all the way to the beginning of recorded history. According to Sumerian legend, by destroying the ancient sea goddess Tiamat, the upstart god Marduk established the dominance of man over nature, order over chaos. Whatever the Irish monk thought he saw in the ocean, the only real monster was the one that surfaced in his mind. Rather than accept his account at face value, we may surmise that in the chaos of early medieval Europe, he resonated with his Near Eastern predecessors in their own struggle to impose order.

Today, the situation could hardly be different. As Radford puts it, “People want monsters.” But why? Perhaps modern sea monster sightings, from Scotland’s Loch Ness to Canada’s Lake Okanagan, reveal a desire to restore the pre-patriarchal “chaos” of old, to return to nature’s embrace instead of seeking to dominate it.

Chupacabras, said to drain its victims of blood, may gain its power over believers due to its resonance with the much older myth of the vampire. Likewise, the attribution of crop circles to otherworldly intelligence resonates with the age-old tradition of heavenly angels, now depicted as space aliens. Given the fact that angels have long been associated with light, it’s no accident that crop circles are often said to form while “balls of light” hover over the crops. Lacking a theory in which long-buried beliefs can influence current perceptions, we could only chalk this up to coincidence.

IIR highlights the curious difference between Mexican and US accounts of extraterrestrial visitations. With Mexicans the phenomenon is benign, even magical. El Norte ETs, on the other hand, like to get up close and personal, invading bedrooms and kidnapping people who are subjected to horrifying experiments by “intellectual” aliens in high-tech spacecraft. The narrator notes that the immobility of the victim prior to the alleged abduction is a clue that the phenomenon results from a condition known as sleep paralysis. Afflicted individuals report waking up but unable to move, often hearing pulses or seeing lights and sometimes figures. They also report a feeling of levitation, which accounts for claims of abductees that they levitated right out the window and into a waiting spaceship.

When asked why people would interpret this condition in terms of abduction by aliens to serve as test subjects, Elizabeth Loftus says that people like to feel special. At the other extreme, Professor David Jacobs claims that the remarkable similarities of descriptions by abductees means their accounts must be based on real events. A better explanation is that US culture, in contrast to Mexican, has grown paranoid, anxious and guilt-ridden with the onset of world dominance powered by scientific and military pre-eminence. American fear of the twin-headed monster of our own creation has generated waking dreams of inhuman techno-horrors. Meanwhile Mexicans, lacking a collective nightmare to tap into, happily videotape Venus during a solar eclipse and mistake it for a UFO.

Though IIR correctly attributes tales of sea monsters and space aliens to the “unfathomable depths of the human psyche,” the series producers don’t seem to realize that established biology can’t account for a shared unconscious from which irrational notions bubble up. Are we to believe that the myths of the wild man and the vampire are encoded in our DNA? Has US DNA mutated in recent decades while Mexican DNA remained the same? Clearly, a different biological approach is needed to explain our ability to tap into collective emotions and enduring, cross-cultural beliefs.

Joe Nickell, a warhorse for both the skeptic movement and IIR, claims that participants in exorcisms are simply role-playing. It’s all just an act. According to Loftus, audience members see how people behave during an exorcism and then do roughly the same when it’s their turn. Aside from the fact that this approach fails to explain equally striking behavior during private exorcisms, it also gives way too much credit for the acting abilities of ordinary people. Far from being awkward and artificial, the emotions seem to bubble up naturally from within. If morphic fields govern the behavior of everything from cells in organs to bees in hives, as Sheldrake contends, then the actions of people gathered for an exorcism also fall under the influence of a behavioral morphic field, which gains its structure from previous, similar gatherings.

The Exorcist, the movie that triggered the modern exorcism movement, was inspired by the case of a 14 year old boy known as “Robbie” who was believed to be possessed after his aunt died. Robbie had been close to his aunt and often used an Ouija board with her to communicate with their dead relatives. When she died, he tried to contact her too. As Sheldrake demonstrates with Aimee Morgana and her parrot, N’kisi, an intense emotional bond can generate a morphic field that unites two individuals. When one dies, the other feels a loss of wholeness. Robbie’s violent and bizarre behavior after his aunt died can be likened to the frustration of an amputee who still senses his lost limb due to the continued presence of its associated morphic field.

IIR tells the story of a group of young people in the UK who decided one night to meditate together on a particular crop circle design in order to induce its creation in a nearby field. Yet it was a different type of field, generated by their collective visualization, that prompted a nearby local, Matthew Williams, to go out that very night and produce that very crop circle (though in a slightly different location than the one intended). So too, when groups of UFOlogists stay up all night and report telepathic contact with aliens, it may be that they’re experiencing the consciousness-expanding effect of generating a morphic field among each other. You are your own alien.

In the episode on superhuman powers, a karate expert tries but fails to knock over a skeptic with the power of chi. Does this mean, as IIR suggests, that there’s no such thing as chi? Perhaps. But this fails to explain why so many people are indeed knocked down without touch in the same circumstance. Are they all acting too? A more satisfying explanation is that chi requires a field to travel from one person to another and that if one of the individuals resists the emergence of the field, the chi can’t move.

Though the IIR narrator invokes “the power of the mind” to explain the ability of Sufis, for example, to endure injury without pain, in fact there’s no room for any notion of mental potency in standard biological theory. Where the “mind” is nothing more than an artifact of the brain’s mechanical functions, even consciousness and free will are complete mysteries, to say nothing of Sufi magic or the placebo effect. And what do we make of Christians whose palms and feet spontaneously bleed? Are they resonating with the deeply ingrained cultural memory of Christ on the cross? Is it another example of mind over matter? Either way, the standard mechanistic view utterly fails us.

The meaning of the “Psychic Animals” dispute is more than just a slip up in a single episode. It’s a failure to understand science. In the world according to IIR, mystery is to be banished. Yet real science is fascinated by mystery and contemplates it, plays with it, pokes and prods it, and ultimately derives greater understanding of the world as a result of it.

The famous footage of Bigfoot ambling through a Pacific Northwest forest was chosen as the signature image of IIR presumably because it’s so easily revealed as fraudulent. The picture of the big guy in the ape outfit captures the whole attitude of scientism: it’s all just a load of bunk. But IIR tosses out the baby with the bathwater. Forget about psychic powers and cross-cultural myths. Without a radically new approach to biology, we can’t even explain that most intimate and mundane phenomenon of all, our own human mind.