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22 September 2014 22:03 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Astrology - the gullible's travails are written in the stars

  • Jacques Rousseau
Some might argue astrology gets a pretty bad press, but for a pseudoscience it sure commands a lot of column centimetres. In a world in need of reason, should the media pander to the whims of an ignorant audience – or risk alienating a galaxy of paying customers?

Just how much should radio stations, newspapers and magazines pander to the ignorance of their audiences? There is surely some merit to the notion that if you have a platform, where it could well be the case that the opinions of listeners and readers are shaped by what you air or print, you have some responsibility to not mislead them?

This is obviously true if you’re in the business of news, and is part of the reason why Fox News is considered either the most fearless speaker of truth to power, or the most venal and subjective purveyor of ideological programming, depending (along with your tolerance for hyperbole) on which political extreme you might find yourself inhabiting.

But what if you are a radio station that is only partly in the business of news – let us say like Radio 702/567 Cape Talk? For much of the day, you offer programming of a more general nature instead of news, including gardening tips, movie reviews, car and health advice and phone-in consultations with medieval astrologers.

Say what? Not as in “what is a medieval astrologer”, as that question is fairly easy to answer. Instead, why is a medieval astrologer on the radio at all, instead of in his cave, picking lice from his beard? Does Primedia have an obligation to cater to even its most insane or uninformed listeners?

Judging from what I hear on CapeTalk567, while they certainly have no such obligation, there seems little absence of desire in this regard. Although I suffer from occasional derision as a result of having my radio tuned to that station, it’s usually a rewarding experience to listen to the likes of Maytham and Whitfield, not to mention Stephen Grootes and others.

Alongside that enlightening content, however, are presenters and programming that seem intent on coaxing us into an eternal sleep of reason. I don’t mind the cooking shows, or the car shows and can even tolerate the long-winded excursions into questions like what sort of colour your child’s poo should be. All of these represent legitimate interests, regardless of whether I share those interests. The only harm this programming can cause is boredom, and one always has the option of tuning in to something else.

Astrology is, however, a different matter because, just as people make parenting, pet care or economic choices as a result of what they hear from people they imagine are experts in those fields, some people make personal choices of various sorts as a result of what they hear from experts in the field of astrology. Sometimes, as was the case with Ronald Reagan, astrology informed more futures than only his and Nancy’s.

It’s not simply or always the case that people listen to astrologers for entertainment value, and then proceed to make choices the way we all like to think we do: By weighing pros and cons, forecasting likely outcomes, etc. It doesn’t matter that many of us don’t make choices in this sort of way ourselves, as the mere fact that we try to do so marks us out as committed to being reasonable about our futures and the futures of those in our orbit.

This commitment should, in the long-run, make us better rather than worse at making appropriate choices, seeing as our data are falsifiable and our systems allow (at least in theory) for learning from the poor choices we’re guaranteed to make along the way. Choices based on astrology don’t offer those opportunities for learning, partly because the data are arbitrary, but also because it’s a science (here, science should be understood to mean something like what “cheese” means in nuclear physics) that is inaccessible to the layperson.

You need to be an expert to interpret the planets and their impacts on your future. Of course, as in any field – no matter how legitimate – there are hierarchies of authority. In astrology, it seems that those of the “medieval” persuasion are top of the heap.

Medieval astrology, from the Arab and Persian traditions, is “not the astrology of hobbyists and charlatans, but rather of men who lived in societies which valued astrology as the Queen of the sciences”, says Robert Zoller, author of three books on the subject, and a man who will also teach you the requisite techniques, once you cross his palm with enough silver.

It’s a remarkably robust technique for divination. This is much as one might expect, seeing as facts don’t seem to matter much when practising this art. It doesn’t matter, for example, that the equinox and solstice points have moved about 30° west in the last 2,000 years, meaning that the ancient constellations have no bearing on which sign you would be if born today.

It matters not that 13 signs would be more appropriate than 12, given what we now know compared to what Ptolemy knew, or that being born is a process, rather than some precisely identifiable moment. Nor, of course, that some initial conditions of being born, such as the competence of the doctor, seem to stand a far greater chance of affecting your future than do the stars.

One could go on in this vein, but the details are tedious, and most likely well known to most readers. The Forer effect, cold reading techniques (at least for readings done in person), and confirmation bias tell us all we need to know about why people are sometimes convinced by this sort of woo.

Despite all this and more, astrologers continue to flourish – or, even if not flourish, be given column centimetres and radio airtime. Now, I have no reason to believe the astrologers to be duplicitous or exploitative, and I certainly have no reason to doubt their knowledge of celestial bodies. There are no doubt charlatans among them, but many – perhaps even most – will be hard-working, sincere and honest professionals.

Even if this is true, it does not explain why Primedia or the Sunday Times or any other mainstream publication or radio station offers them a weekly platform. They don’t do so for those claiming to be alien abductees, or for those claiming to be aliens themselves, except for occasional sensation or comedy value. At some point, when the basic hypotheses of a purported theory don’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny, mainstream media start to ignore that theory and its proponents. Or at least, they should.

The main reason they should is some people believe in far too many of these sorts of things and the wasted airtime and column centimetres could be used to educate and inform, instead of propagating pseudoscience. I don’t believe the producers and editors in question believe in astrology, but they are instead pandering to what (part of) their audience wants.

But if a radio station or newspaper cannot even commit to respecting the facts and caring for the intellectual betterment of its audience in this simple way – namely by refusing to pander to this sort of desire – it becomes somewhat more difficult to trust in the judgement and authority of those producers and editors.

So, while we’re still talking (and maybe, still able to talk) about the self-regulation of the media, let’s not forget that part of the media’s possible role is to help us be a little less ignorant, and the implicit endorsement of things like astrology run entirely counter to this goal. DM

 

Read more:

  • A petition against “BBC bias” by the Astrological Association of Great Britain at The Guardian;
  • Should we debunk astrologers more respectfully? at The Guardian.
  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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