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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Curious About George

The PBS program Curious George is among the top-rated television shows in the country for pre-school age children. Based on a classic series of children's books that dates back to the 1940s, it has been a favorite on PBS since it began as an animated television series in 2006. The series is cleverly centered on a loveable monkey named George, whose relentless curiosity leads to insights and misadventures. It is meant to encourage inquiry in children and to introduce concepts of math, science and engineering at an early age, according to the program's producers.

Over the years, I don't recall receiving any complaints about this program. But recently, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Colorado, Dr. Carl E. Bartecchi, wrote to me concerned about a transcript from an episode that originally aired in January 2008, called "Monkey Fever." The cartoon segment is followed by what producers call a "live-action piece" on the same subject.

Courtesy of Curious George website at: http://pbskids.org/curiousgeorge/

I passed along Dr. Bartecchi's critique to the executive producer of children's programming at WGBH in Boston, Dorothea Gillim, and the two of them have engaged in a continuing exchange. I found this to be an important challenge and an exchange worthy of posting, illuminating issues for parents and producers. What follows, in sequence, are slightly abbreviated versions of the dueling emails.

First, from Dr. Bartecchi to Me:

I write a weekly health column for the Pueblo Chieftain, Colorado's oldest newspaper. A reader recently contacted me about an episode of the PBS show "Curious George" and sent me a transcript. The lack of rational science in that show was appalling. The Man with the Yellow Hat [a character in the show] apparently had a cold. He is told to drink lots of water and fruit juice, which is wrong and not supported in the medical literature. Also, there is no scientific support for "Feed a Cold and Starve a Fever." Then, there was no need for a person with a cold to see a physician and especially a "naturopathic doctor" whose training is scientifically inferior, as becomes apparent. The latter ND recommends oregano, which has no value in human medicine. Then it gets worse—pressure points on the body to treat illnesses don't exist and, along with the recommendation of the use of magnets, is pure quackery. Filling the minds of young children with such false and unscientific information is disgraceful and even unethical.

Here's the Response from WGBH's Dorothea Gillim:

Since Curious George is a cartoon aimed at very young children, ages 3 to 5, our aim is to give the audience very simple messages about science, math, and engineering topics. The educational goals for this episode were to illustrate what it's like to be sick with a cold and some ways to take care of yourself when you are (get rest, drink fluids, eat healthy food, and, if needed, take medicine), as well as to introduce some doctor's tools like thermometers and stethoscopes. All of our episodes are vetted by experts in science, math, and engineering curricula for preschoolers.

Because it's a cartoon, a transcript can sometimes miss the comedy, intonation, and non-verbal messages that are important to the story. In this particular episode, the characters who tell George that the best treatments for a cold are fluids and "starve a fever, feed a cold" are Pizza and Einstein, two inept scientists who routinely give George bad advice, prompting him to find better solutions. Having read the transcript, you may not be familiar enough with the series or the characters to understand the context of Pizza and Einstein's advice. Our science advisor did confirm what medical professionals know to be true—drinking fluids is not a cure for the common cold but does provide relief from its symptoms. "Starve a fever" is just an old wives tale, as you pointed out, and we refer to it comically in the program.

As for the live action piece that follows the cartoon, the naturalpathic doctor stresses that alternative treatments like oregano and pressure points "seem to help" boost the immune system or treat symptoms like nausea. The transcript does not capture the tone or emphasis on words like "seems to." We are not making claims that alternative treatments are scientifically proven. More important, the real message of this live action piece is to promote healthy habits for youngsters, as the child says at the end: "Eat right, exercise, and have fun."

Thanks, but…Says Dr. Bartecchi:

Unfortunately, you have not put my concerns to rest. In fact, I am bothered by your reply. First you say that your episodes are vetted by experts in science. It is hard to believe that any well-informed, unbiased scientist could have vetted that program.

You suggest that a 3 to 5 year old child is capable of understanding the comedy or intonation associated with scientific falsehoods, as might an adult. I doubt that. You say that a 3 to 5 year old child would understand the implication of "seem to help." I doubt that also. A child of that age would get the message—alternative (unproven) treatments like oregano and pressure points boost the immune system and treat symptoms like nausea, both of which are unproven and blatantly false. Even the mention of some value for magnets should be an embarrassment to your "science expert."

Even worse is your providing free advertisement for Shiva Barton, a naturopath. Naturopaths are not, despite protestations to the contrary, a science-based group. In fact, they argue against scientifically-proven interventions such as vaccinations.

Gillim Responds:

We appreciate your perspective and thoughtful feedback. We share a common interest in providing children with age-appropriate information. In addition to advisors on math and science, we include those with expertise on pre-school education and curriculum development to assure that our content is created and presented in a manner understandable to 3 to 5-year olds.

Over the course of the Curious George series we have produced nine episodes on health-related topics for children and pets, all featuring 'traditional' approaches with physicians or veterinarians. We included an episode with a naturopath, in keeping with the series' spirit of curiosity, to allow our young viewers to learn that there are those who take an alternative approach. We do not advocate or endorse any position or approach. We recognize the differing perspectives on this topic, and thank you for the time you have taken to share your considerations with us.

So, What Do I Think?

I thought this was a good and useful exchange, with Dr. Bartecchi laying out the medical and tonal arguments in a way that's hard to argue with, and Gillim capturing well the challenges of continually turning out thoughtful children's programming that focuses, in a very creative fashion, on curiosity. On balance, as a layman and old-fashioned, doctor-oriented person, I thought Dr. Bartecchi got the better of this. On the other hand, as I told him, I always drink lots of water and orange juice at the first sign of a cold and will continue to do so.

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