The New York Times is dying before our eyes

May 20, 2020 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

The New York Times is dying before our eyes, and for longtime subscribers, such as myself, it is a sad and painful experience. From Orwellian editorial practices to crusading for wokeism, the decline has been clear for some time now. I used to think that Jerry was reacting too strongly to some of the Times‘ missteps, but I’ve realized for a while that, sadly, he was prescient.
One area in which the Times has stumbled in a major way has been its coverage of woo, everything from “energy healing” to “non-invasive face lifts“.  Its embrace of astrology has been especially dismaying– why on heaven’s earth would they do this? We’ve noted this before here at WEIT (for example here and here), and the woo just keeps coming. Here’s one of the latest:

The online sub-header is exquisite in its irony:
Will Coronavirus Kill Astrology? The pandemic has affected all of us. Who saw it coming?
The answer, of course, is epidemiologists and virologists saw it coming, not astrologers. But through journalistic gymnastics that defy common sense, it turns out that, according to the article, astrology is doing a fine job. It’s like all those various millennial cults who have gathered for the second coming (or the rapture, or Armageddon, or whatever), and when it doesn’t happen, they double down, finding some excuse for why the prophecy really is correct– it’s not just that the believers are fools. It’s textbook motivated reasoning. I’m reminded of what a colleague said after 9-11: “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.” Nothing did, and I guess the same goes for astrology.
This next example of the Times‘ love affair with woo one goes beyond astrology to ghosts!!

The online sub-header is oh-so dishonest:
For those who believe they’re locked down with spectral roommates, the pandemic has been less isolating than they bargained for.
“For those who believe…” What crap. Do they do articles coddling the idiotic myopia of “those who believe” that Obama is not an American? Or “those who believe” the world is flat?

In an article last summer, which I missed at the time, but which Jerry has recently brought to my attention, the Times actually lays out its strategy and goals for its popularization of astrology. It’s disturbing reading coming from a paper that once aspired to be, and was thought of as, the ‘newspaper of record‘.

Read this, and weep:

“We cover it because people have made it newsworthy,” said Choire Sicha, the editor of The Times’s Styles section, which reports on cultural trends and has published many of the recent articles on astrology. “It is a so frequently used part of people’s Instagram lives and online lives.”

Cicero said there is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by one philosopher or another. And the corollary to that you is don’t have to be a philosopher; masses of people, both small and large, may say and do absurd things (see Wikipedia on Heaven’s Gate; if you click on the immediately previous link, I would not advise clicking on anything within the page it goes to). It may be interesting to explore and understand the motivation for why people hold absurd beliefs. The study of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds has been well underway since at least the 19th century. But we should take the phenomenon of credulity and delusion seriously, not the beliefs themselves.

The Times used to boast that it had “All the news that’s fit to print.” Now its motto and operating procedure is “Anything that will attract eyeballs.” And they’re willing to swallow their principles—if they still have them—to do so.

The American media continues to tout the powers of psychics

January 26, 2020 • 9:00 am

Here’s a story published in both the State Journal of Frankfort, Kentucky (click on screenshot below) and Fox News. Note the headline: “Psychics were right. . ”

The story: Haylee Marie Martin, a 17-year-old, went missing on January 12 and her absence was reported to the police the next day. Baffled, the sheriff consulted psychics who predicted (sort of) where she would be found. In fact, she was found in the next county along with a 21-year-old woman when both were trying to break into the house of the woman’s boyfriend’s.  The police took them into custody on Friday. The pair won’t face charges, but the police may charge several adults who, they said, hid the girl for two weeks.

Now what about those psychics?

From the State Journal:

The sheriff said at 6 p.m. Thursday he joined a group of psychics from the Richmond area gathered at the Salyers Lane residence where Haylee was last seen on Jan. 12 or 13. Although he was admittedly skeptical at first, Quire said he “did not want to leave any stone unturned.”

“It’s hard to believe, but most (of the psychics) agreed that we would find Haylee in a neighboring county by morning,” he said. “And we did.”

Fox news gave the same report. (I wonder if they paid these psychics. If that’s the case, taxpayer money is funding woo.) Note that most of the psychics reported that she would be found in a neighboring county (correct) the day after the consultation.  Some of them apparently had other predictions, and were wrong.

This kind of reporting, of course, doesn’t mention the disparity of predictions, but it (and the headlines) serve to validate the widespread American view that psychics are accurate. But most missing people turn up nearby, so that’s not a stretch, and, most important, there’s no control here: how often are psychics consulted who turn out to be wrong? I can’t be arsed to do a comprehensive search given the palpable falsity of the idea that psychics are accurate, but a quick Google showed four cases in which psychics were brought into crime cases and gave wrong predictions.  These are “controls”, but of course a proper control would be to compare the accuracy of psychics in such cases compared with non-psychics who have comparable knowledge of the crime as conveyed by the police. I know of no such studies.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should remain agnostic about psychics, granting them the possibility that they could be right, for they make guesses in other situations as well, and those guesses are wrong. James Randi’s “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” was explicitly designed to test psychic abilities, but nobody has ever performed successfully (Randi is a magician well equipped to suss out tricks). You can read about a failure in 2009 here. Further, there’s no known physical mechanism whereby psychic abilities could be manifested. Now that doesn’t settle the case, as there may be unknown mechanisms. But physicist Sean Carroll has also written about how parapsychological phenomena are inconsistent with the laws of physics.

Still, Americans continue to be credulous. According to The Conversation, “there are still many people who firmly believe in the power of psychic ability. According to a US Gallup survey, for example, more than one-quarter of people believe humans have psychic abilities – such as telepathy and clairvoyance.” That study, done in 2005, also reports that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in some paranormal phenomena. 73% of them, for example, subscribed to at least one of these claims:

To me this is a remarkable (and distressing) result, especially since scientific tests of some of these claims have never turned up any support. (See here, for example, on astrology.) But of course the same motivation behind many people’s belief in religion—faith that provides comfort, also lies behind belief in psychics. And one can’t argue that these people are harmless, because many of them take lots of money from their gullible clients. (In the clip below, John Oliver calls it a “2.2-billion-dollar industry”.)

There’s no need to further belabor the scams perpetrated by psychics, as many skeptics and their websites have debunked these claims. Let’s just watch a 21-minute clip in which John Oliver takes a few psychics apart with his characteristic wit. There are some good clips here of psychics “in action” (or rather, in inaction).  See the one starting at 16:05 for a particularly egregious case.



Shermer takes down Luhrmann’s claims of spooky forces in nature

March 11, 2015 • 9:20 am

The other day I wrote a critique of Tanya Luhrmann’s latest essay in her series of Templetonian paeans to spirituality in The New York Times. Despite these pieces being not only embarrassingly bad but full of logical errors, the Times continues to publish them—why I’ll never know. In that piece (called “When things happen that you can’t explain“), Luhrmann seems to have melted a bicycle light in her backpack with the power of her mind, and her conclusion was “Who’s to say that this had some natural explanation rather than a numinous one?” In other words, since she didn’t know what melted that light—and didn’t even investigate—she held out as a distinct possibility that Some Other Unexplained Force did it. In that way she gives succor to the innumerable woo-lovers and spirituality mavens who populate America.

I wanted to write a letter to the editor of the Times about this, but I had no standing to do so, and the letters people are a capricious and cranky lot. So I called Luhrmann’s piece to the attention of Michael Shermer, who was mentioned in it. (Luhrmann referred to the episode in which Shermer’s radio, a long-defunct item that belonged to his grandfather, mysteriously started working on his wedding day. Shermer has since argued vigorously that there was no supernatural explanation.)

As I hoped he would, Shermer wrote a letter to the Times, and, mirabile dictu, they published it yesterday. Here is his response to Luhrmann, “Unsolved, not supernatural“:

To the Editor:

Re “When Things Happen That You Can’t Explain” (Op-Ed, March 5):

T. M. Luhrmann opines that when things happen that cannot be explained, it opens the door for the possibility of supernatural or paranormal phenomena being real. She cites several examples of powerful personal experiences that people have had, including my own, which I recounted in my Scientific American column.

As interesting as such experiences are to read about, from a scientific perspective they mean nothing because there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural and mysteries we have yet to solve with normal and natural explanations. Until such time as we can provide natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena, we need do nothing with such stories because in science we will never be able to explain everything.

There is always a residue of unexplained phenomena, and in science it is O.K. to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Unexplained does not equal supernatural.


Altadena, Calif.

The writer is publisher of Skeptic magazine.

I mostly agree with what Shermer said, although part of the letter is confusing: “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural.” One could take that as a tautology: that such phenomena, because they can be investigated by the tools of science and reason, must be natural by definition, as they’re part of nature. But I think Shermer means more than that: that there is a natural explanation for everything that seems paranormal or supernatural.  While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world. If that were true, those interactions would not have “normal and natural explanations.” (I find the paranormal a bit more “natural-ish”, since if we could, say, move objects with our minds, there would almost have to be some natural but unexplained reason for that.)

Where I agree with Shermer is that the history of science has shown not a scintilla of evidence for either supernatural (divine) or paranormal phenomena, and, given that, it’s best to suspend judgment when faced with a phenomenon, like melting bicycle lights, that we haven’t yet explained. The public needs to learn that in the face of things we haven’t yet explained—or, like the origin of life, we may never explain—it’s okay to say “We don’t know.”

I believe I posed this question to Shermer in Mexico City when he talked about the same issues at the atheist meeting in 2012. His response was a paraphrase of writer Arthur Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Anything that appears truly divine or supernatural, Shermer argued, could be the workings of space aliens with that advanced technology.  Well, I suppose that’s true, and perhaps those aliens and their technology are indistinguishable from God; but there are still things that would convince me of a God provisionally. In The Albatross (soon available at fine bookstores everywhere) I give a scenario that would convince me of the existence of the Christian God. But that acceptance would be a provisional one, subject to revision if we found out later that, say, it was due to aliens.

The fact is that it’s not impossible that there could be a God, and we might as well admit it. It’s also not impossible that, as Steve Gould once said, apples could start rising tomorrow instead of falling from trees. But there’s no evidence for any of this. Nevertheless, we can’t rule supernatural and divine phenomena out of court from the start. To do that is not only unscientific, but plays into the hands of the faithful, who criticize that attitude as close-minded. Had I written the letter instead of Shermer, I would have said that yes, there could be spooky “un-natural” explanations, but based on what we know they’re very unlikely, and the proper attitude (as Shermer said), is to seek a naturalistic explanation.