The New York Times has an ongoing soft spot for astrology, but not everyone there has drunk the Kool-Aid

March 21, 2019 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

After Jerry posted about the recent New York Times piece touting astrology and its harmlessness, I came across some good news, and some bad news. First, the good news: some of the Times‘ writers continue to be able to exercise their critical faculties. In a piece, “#MAGA Church“,  about a loony, apocalyptic church in New Jersey, Sam Kestenbaum writes the following about its pastor, Jonathan Cahn:

He devoured the writings of Nostradamus, the Virginia psychic Edgar Cayce and far-out conspiracy theories about ancient astronauts. Mr. Cahn soon stumbled on “The Late Great Planet Earth,” the 1970s best-seller that argued doomsday prophecies of the Bible were playing out with events like the Cold War and Israel’s Six-Day War. Mr. Cahn bought the book thinking it was about UFOs; instead he was given a crash-course in Christian eschatology.

It’s a longish piece, and you should take a look at the whole thing. It’s a great example of how fascination with woo, and the inability to reason about it, can lead further and further down the epistemological rabbit hole. If the only harm that comes of this is one person’s derangement, it’s harm enough, but this church is leading a whole flock of people– and their money– into a warren of woo, not to mention what those people might do.

The bad news is that the piece critiqued by Jerry is not a one off. I did a search at the Times’ website for “astrology”, and the results were intriguing, verging on appalling. The first 9 results were all supportive of astrology; and all had appeared since since July 2017. Many treated astrology as a “he said, she said” affair, which is bad enough, but often the astrology critic was a token. If a respected news outlet treated climate change, evolution, or gravity this way, we’d all be rightly outraged. (This search did not catch the latest astrology article on which Jerry posted; I’m not sure why.) The 10th astrology result was from 2011, an article about a race horse named Astrology.

The astrology articles are in a number of sections: “New York”, “Asia Pacific”, “Style” (2), “Arts” (2), “Sunday Review”, and (!!!!) “The Learning Network” (2). They are all by different authors, except for two by Amanda Hess. One of Hess’s pieces is not so bad, but in the other she suggests “online mysticism is filling a legitimate need”, and favorably compares the amount of “woo-woo crazy” in Goop vagina jade eggs to flat Earthism! She’s a little concerned that people are making money off of all this, but concludes that “retreating into the mystical internet feels like a quite rational move”. The diversity of authors and sections suggest there is not a particular editor who has a thing for astrology; rather, impairment of the critical faculties has seeped through many parts of the paper. The author of another Times article, not picked up in the “top 10” of the search, suggests that some people believe that criticism of astrology is misogynistic. (I hasten to add that there is no indication that the author of this piece concurs– she is reporting, not advocating.) But the Times is not merely avoiding criticism of astrology (perhaps to ward off the woke); it keeps bringing it up when there’s no evident impetus to do so.

I also noted that all 5 “NYT Picks” of readers’ comments on the piece critiqued by Jerry are pro-astrology. Here’s a sample of what the Times‘ editors found worth reading:

As to Mercury, when it is out of phase, being a Gemini whose ruling planet happens to be Mercury, it helps for whatever it’s worth to be aware when it comes and goes.

Yeah. Whatever it’s worth. My critical comment, to the effect, “Why did you publish this?” did not make it past the Times‘ moderators. I’m not sure why, as many commenters (including some WEIT readers, alerted no doubt by Jerry’s post!) said much the same thing.

The Times is clearly not all bad, and remains an essential news source, but I’ve been wondering lately if I should at least try out a subscription to the Washington Post to see how it’s doing.

(Links to the top ten search results, in order of their listing, are below the fold.)

Continue reading “The New York Times has an ongoing soft spot for astrology, but not everyone there has drunk the Kool-Aid”

A disgraceful movie, but a good newspaper article

March 26, 2016 • 3:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

Update: The Tribeca Film Festival has pulled the film, apparently in response to widespread criticism. Details at Jezebel. Thanks to reader horrabin for the alert.


Jerry has taken note of the upcoming showing at the Tribeca Film Festival of a ‘documentary’ by the disgraced and de-licensed British physician Andrew Wakefield.(And  Orac has rather full coverage of the matter at Respectful Insolence.) Though the prominent woo-coddling is disheartening, there is a bright point amidst the darkness: the refreshingly straightforward coverage by the New York Times.  Reporters Melena Ryzik and Pam Belluck do not engage in the wishy-washy journalism of ‘controversy’, but tell it like it is.

They open their piece by calling the film’s anti-vaccination thesis “widely debunked”, describe Wakefield as a “discredited former doctor”, note that his 1988 study on the subject was retracted, which led to the revocation of his license for “ethical violations and failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest”, and further note that the festival website takes no notice of this essential context.

They also quote critics of the decision to screen the film. Some highlights:

“Unless the Tribeca Film Festival plans to definitively unmask Andrew Wakefield, it will be yet another disheartening chapter where a scientific fraud continues to occupy a spotlight and overshadows the damage he has left behind in the important story of vaccine safety and success,” Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in an email. …

[Documentarian Penny Lane said] including “Vaxxed” in the documentary section “threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general…. this film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.” …

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School, called the decision to show the film “particularly sad” because the Tribeca festival receives attention far beyond New York.

I am delighted to see a major news source write the plain truth, and not resort to the ‘he said-she said’ format, which leaves readers at best confused, and often misinformed. As we’ve noted before here at WEIT, too often journalists, in a misguided search for ‘balance’, give voice to thoroughly discredited ideas. But sometimes, there is only one side to the story– vaccines don’t cause autism; the global climate is warming; and evolution is true.

David Carr, 1956-2015

February 17, 2015 • 3:45 pm

by Greg Mayer

David Carr’s funeral was held earlier today in New York. He died last week of complications from lung cancer, collapsing and dying in the newsroom of the New York Times, where he had been a media reporter and columnist since 2002. A media columnist for the New York Times might seem a bit far afield for WEIT, but our interests here are varied, and, in many ways, much of Carr’s journalism addressed questions at the heart of WEIT as an online enterprise: in a digital age moving away from physical print media, how are the means of gathering and disseminating information to change, and how can authority and reliability be earned and represented in digital media? The questions might sound a bit grand, but since starting his website 5 years ago, Jerry has been very much actively involved in defining what a website for discussion and presentation of science to the general public can be.

David Carr, 1956-2015
David Carr, 1956-2015

Carr, while embracing virtually all forms of digital media, clearly saw the virtues of “legacy” media, and insisted on the importance of news-gathering versus news-aggregating. In a memorable moment captured in the film Page One, he was once on stage with a vacuous dot com executive who hailed a brave new future where newspapers would be gone and people would produce their own news, to which Carr replied:

The New York Times has dozens of bureaus all over the world, and we’re gonna toss that out and kick back, see what Facebook turns up? I don’t think so.

I first found Carr through his Carpetbagger column at the Times, and began to regularly read all of his Times contributions. His back story, which I learned only after reading him for awhile, was amazing. A Minnesotan by birth and upbringing who had worked at a number of “alternative” weeklies, he had been a crack addict who, as he liked to put it, was a single parent on welfare. But in a remarkable second (or third or fourth) act to his life, he became one of the nation’s leading journalists– a paean to the second chance. He told this story in his memoir Night of the Gun and in a NY Times Magazine article (which is where I first read the story).

I saw him give a live TV interview last week, just a day or so before he died, on the Brian Williams affair. I was shocked to see how ill-fitting his suit was—he had lost a tremendous amount of weight, probably one of the complications of the cancer that was to soon end his life. I thought his remarks about Brian Williams a tad ungenerous: he referred to Williams’ “bad decisions”, but having taught for 20 years about the unreliability of sincere eyewitness testimony and the constructive nature of memory, I could not see Williams’ errors as “decisions”, but as an all too frequent result of how human memory works (an aspect of the Williams story well covered by the Times).

Despite my different take on Brian Williams, I always appreciated and frequently agreed with Carr’s analyses. Margaret Sullivan has gathered together links to much of the coverage of Carr in the Times and throughout the media in her Public Editor column, so I won’t place any here; go take a look at her column and follow the links to sample some of Carr’s work and the tributes that have poured in.

Dennis Overbye on faith vs. science

June 2, 2009 • 5:31 am

A curious but very good piece in the New York Times today:  a review of the movie “Angels & Demons” by the science writer Dennis Overbye.   Overbye takes to task the popular attitude that scientists are geekish upstarts who think they have the truth but don’t:

This may seem like a happy ending. Faith and science reconciled or at least holding their fire in the face of mystery. But for me that moment ruined what had otherwise been a pleasant two hours on a rainy afternoon. It crystallized what is wrong with the entire way that popular culture regards science. Scientists and academics are smart, but religious leaders are wise.

These smart alecks who know how to split atoms and splice genes need to be put in their place by older steadier hands.

It was as if the priest had patted Einstein on the head and chuckled, “Never mind, Sonny, some day you’ll understand.” . . . .

. . . But I can’t help being bugged by that warm, fuzzy moment at the end, that figurative pat on the head. After all is said and done, it seems to imply, having faith is just a little bit better than being smart. . . .

. . . And they are still patting us on the head.

Why should wisdom and comfort inhabit a clerical collar instead of a lab coat? Perhaps because religion seems to offer consolations that science doesn’t.

The late physicist John Archibald Wheeler once said that what gives great leaders power is the ability to comfort others in the face of death. But the iconic achievement of modern physics is the atomic bomb, death incarnate.

Moreover, since the time of Galileo scientists have bent over backward to restrain their own metaphysical rhetoric for fear of stepping on religious toes. Indeed, many of them were devout believers convinced they were exploring the mind of God. Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist and author, famously referred to science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria.”

The lament, voiced often in the movie and even more in the book, is that science, with its endlessly nibbling doubts, has drained the world of wonder and meaning, depriving humans of, among other things, a moral compass.

The church advertises strength through certitude, but starting from the same collection of fables, commandments and aphorisms — love thy neighbor; thou shalt not kill; blessed are the meek for they will inherit the Earth — the religions of the world have reached an alarmingly diverse set of conclusions about what behaviors, like gay marriage, are right and wrong.

If science drains the world of certainty, maybe that is invigorating as well as appropriate. The cardinal is free to revel in the assurance of his absolutes, while Tom Hanks and I can be braced by the challenge of being our own cosmologists, creating our own meanings.

Meanwhile, America is not so young and innocent anymore, and science has its own traditions and, yes, wisdoms, stretching back to antiquity.

In science the ends are justified by the means — what questions we ask and how we ask them — and the meaning of the quest is derived not from answers but from the process by which they are found: curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance.

Those fatherly pats on the head sound comforting, but as an answer to life’s struggles and quests, they lack something.

To me, this piece is one more sign that it is no longer off limits for the public media to criticize religion or its ludicrous claim that it has possession of the “truth”.  (The NYT has had a curious attitude to the faith and science debate. Their editorial pages often publish accommodationist or even intelligent-design tripe, like pieces by Michael Behe and Cardinal Schönborn. On the other hand, their science staff is resolutely pro-science and pro-evolution.  Go figure.)

Thanks to Lawrence Krauss for calling this to my attention.

Did cooking fuel human evolution?

April 21, 2009 • 7:41 am

In today’s New York Times, primatologist Richard Wrangham (at Harvard) is interviewed about his controversial theory of human evolution.  Wrangham posits that the invention of cooking food over fire, rather than eating it raw, was the important impetus for the evolution of many hominin traits, including big brains, upright posture, etc.  The theory is apparently about to appear in a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.”wrangham_

While I don’t find this theory extremely convincing — for one thing, there is no evidence for the use of fire before H. erectus (about 1.5 mya), which was already well advanced in bipedality and big brains.  Still, Wrangham is a smart guy and the short interview is well worth reading (including his account of how he ate like a chimp, including raw monkey).

Domestication of horses: a New York Times editorial

March 18, 2009 • 8:08 am

Today’s New York Times has an odd opinion piece which begins, correctly, with the recent discovery that horses were domesticated about a thousand years earlier than previously suspected, since findings of pottery containing traces of horse milk from 3500 B.C., as well as horse skeletons from Asia, suggest (see original paper in Science magazine) that the inhabitants of central Asia had modified the skeleton of wild horses through domestication, making it less robust, and also were using mare’s milk as food. Preumptive bit wear on the ancient horses’ teeth also suggest domestication. All well and good, and an excellent example of forensic archaeology. However, the Times goes on to say this:

This discovery pushes back the date for a hugely important technological change in human existence. But it’s also a reminder that domestication isn’t just the conquering of one species by another. It’s the willing collaboration between two species, a sharing of benefits. There is something in the equine nature — genetic or social — that allowed it to partner with humans, just as there was in the character of dogs.

Well, of course there was something in the nature of horses that enabled them (unlike many other wild animals) to be successfully domesticated. But what on earth suggests that the domestication was “willing” and a “collaboration”? What do the horses get out of it? Maybe some food, but to me it looks more like animal slavery–indeed “the conquering of one species by another.” Let’s not kid ourselves.