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
- Deciding when to die
- Minds are what brains do
- So what are universities for?
- Mantashe wants to help you 'Know your DA'
- Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!
- UCT, race, and the seductive moral outrage machine
- The sound and fury of sanctimony
- Burn the witch!
- Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data
- Pornography is coming to eat your children
- Do you know what’s good for you?
- #We Say Enough
- Talking about risk-mitigation is not (always) victim blaming
- Can Frankensalmon triumph over uninformed ad-hoc opinions?
- You can leave your hat on
- If performance-enhancing drugs are bad, let's ban high-fibre cereal too.
- Blood deferrals: Too important to take personally
- The world according to Zuma - and the trouble with 'culture'
- A free market in false choices
- I, for one, welcome our robot overlords
- Debate is the key
- Been there? Got the T-shirt? Think carefully before you wear it...
- You are what you tweet
- Body language: Freedom confronts respect in Body Worlds human forms
- Choose wisely: Mourdock, rape and targeted outrage
- Birds of a feather...philosophise together?
- So who owns oppression, really?
- Help, not demonisation, will stem child abuse
- More about trolls
- Please do not feed the trolls
- Affirmative action: Equity does not come with voting rights alone
- SAA's cadet programme: The sky isn't falling
- South Africa: Why do you make me hate you?
- SA & religion: Eyes wide shut
- Freedom of speech & freedom of abuse
- Is free speech fried in Chick-fil-A debate?
- Colorado killings: there's no comfort in the absurd
- Let's try to avoid drive-by charity on Mandela Day
- First do no harm
- The cutting edge of religion
- Public holidays: positive discrimination?
- The new discrimination – against men
- Censorship: The chilling effect
- Health Warning: You may not smoke, but you can eat yourself to death
- 'I see a red door and I want it painted black'
- Freedom of speech; oh, perish the thought
- Homophobia trending among traditional leaders
- How to meat friends and influence people
- How to meat friends and influence people
- Still hunting, still gathering
- Dogmatix isn't only a canine in the Asterix comic books
- Exactly Whose Humanity is Vanishing?
- Tim Noakes on carbohydrates - fad or fact?
- Mind over matter – and knowing the difference
- Don't PIN your freedoms to Icasa's apron strings
- Killing the messenger never silences the message
- The unbearable rightness of maybe being wrong
- The worrisome worth of foregone conclusions
- The tyranny of labels
- Staring into the abyss of ‘special privileges’
- Twitter censorship, the Streisand Effect and three fingers pointing back
- Free speech is good - but not in my back yard
- Abortion - the great conceptual conundrum
- Killing live animals to talk to dead people is bull
- Stalking votes with over-the-counter vetoes
- Always look on the One side of life
- Get Tested: Get off the entitlement horses and give it a chance
- The Lotters, Harry Potter and SA's judicial system
- The haunting of Helen Zille
- The Great T-Shirt Debate that went horribly wrong
- M&M & the media – playing the ball or the men?
- Twitter - fast food for ever-fattening egos
- How Occupy Wall Street became Pick a Protest
- Steve Jobs was just a man
- What are you?
- Who did ET really call? Woo-woo fest at Wits might have the answer
- How to strut like a slut and itch like a bitch
- The world according to reader feedback
- To judge or not to judge; that is the Mogoeng
- 'A Boy Named Sue' and a victim named 'slut'
- How to bake the perfect humble pie
- How to win friends and influence the irrational
- See what I mean? Or maybe you don't...
- Separating sense from nonsense
- Racial nationalism - the silliest disease of them all
- Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can rip my soul
- Just catch the next feminist wave
- That's right - tertiary education is a privilege, not a right
- The conundrum of university - level remedial education - where do we start?
- The immense value of the egghead
- If ridicule be the right remedy, mock on
- Racism, put on your ballot-proof vest
- It was the lizard on the grassy knoll
- Of unenclosed toilets and enclosed ballot booths
- Our responsibility to build a better 'Bill'
- It's the Singer, not the Song
- Trapped in an abusive relationship? Dial 0800-VOTE
- Hate speech and hateful words - there is a difference
- Why the Bill of Responsibilities doesn't make the grade
- Natural selection and principled prejudice
- The Orwellian horror of a world without grammar
- Beware the Jabberwock
- Ya don’t learn nuffink by shutting others up
- U2, Brute!
- Unfollowing the defriended is like delisting the unlikeable
- There's something fishy about Kenny and his critics
- Astrology - the gullible's travails are written in the stars
- Dr Woo and the Silicon Snake-oil Bangle Sellers
- Life, liberty and the pursuit of dignity
- Who wants to be African anyway?
- The Beatles warned you, Mr President
- Annelie Botes, racism, moralistic awards 'n all
- The silence of the racists
- The proof of the pudding
- Freedom is a fragile thing
- The conditionality of morality
- Of guillotines, smoking, kissing children and scientific proof
- Why moral absolutism hasn't done so well
- The moral arrogance of relativism
- The dilemma of being special in a world of special people
- Of burning closets and closed minds
- Is Internet making us stoopid commenters?
- To be, or not to be serious
- Stepping into greyer shades of grey
- Books and beliefs and other burning issues
- Talking of Hawking and thinking of God
- ‘You may be wrong for all I know, but you may be right’
- The unbearable triteness of best-selling BS
- The struggle for true freedom is with us more than ever
- It’s silly to take a penknife to a gunfight
- Tell me lies, tell me sweet little morally questionable falsehoods
- I think therefore I am … at least I think so
- First, do no harm
- All rights are equal – or should be
- Beauty and the beastly behaviour
- Afrighana versus United States of North America – a continental dilemma
- Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – the multiple tasks of multi-tasking
- Blow the vuvuzela and blow the cultural argument
- Roll up! Roll up! Welcome to the World Cup!
- Thought police, never a good thing
- The redemptive nature of offence
- Potholes or profits – the modern dilemma of corporate social responsibility
- Too many cows, too few tuna and too big an appetite
- Press freedom’s value is in our capacity to take part
- Of uncertainty and the opinions it spawns
- Just another brick in the wall
- Playing the authenticity card
- The dangers of tolerance
- ‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads
- Julius is The Man
- Beware the orthorexics as you chomp down on your boerie-roll
- Freedom of (Multi)choice
- Let's talk about our moral code