The death of critical thinking or just bad journalism?


Woo hooThere was a recent article on with the scary headline, “Young People Are Choosing Horoscopes and Crystals Over Fundamentalist Religions.” The last part of that might seem good news, but the first part is highly troubling. It suggests a continued descent into the New Dark Ages where science, logic, and reason are replaced by woo hoo.

Let’s be clear from the start: astrology is bunk. Magic rocks are bunk. Guardian angels, reiki, homeopathy, psychic readings, tarot cards, energy healing, reflexology, phrenology, and iridology are all bunk. None are based on anything close to science, reality or fact. At the very least destructive they are mere entertainment, at their worst they are a cultish belief in magic and superstition. But the piece is more sensationalism than fact.

The author of the Patheos article – supposedly a skeptic who describes it as a trend towards a “less violent form of nonsense” – writes,

Believe it or not, I don’t oppose this. We should be moving away from fundamentalist adherence to ancient dogmas, and more toward this type of relaxed take-what-works-and-drop-the-rest approach. And if you can make yourself feel better without hurting anyone, I say you should go for it.

No, no, no. The test for meaning, for benefit, relevance, utility or truthfulness is not whether it makes you feel better. That’s simply being selfish. You can get the same from eating ice cream or splurging on something you want to own. The news is full of politicians – local to federal – doing something to benefit themselves, not the people they supposedly serve. Epicureanism notwithstanding, there ought to be a benefit to more than just yourself.

Not harming anyone is good, of course, but by itself not good enough to make it the sole basis of anyone’s beliefs or practices. Where is the ethical or moral substrate? The greater good? Too easily not harming anyone can become simply avoidance and excuses for not actually doing something.

But who is to determine harm? if children see their parents believing in something, they are likely to follow suit. Nonsense is as harmful to their minds as a religious cult. Believing in magic stones can easily lead to question all forms of science, reason and medicine (hint: New Age anti-vaxxers…)

And for all their faults, fantasies and flaws, at least most religions have a moral and ethical basis – you don’t get that in any form of woo hoo. It’s trite to consider all aspects of religion as “nonsense” just because you dismiss the supernatural aspects of it. 

Furthermore, belief – even in nonsense – spreads like a virus. Look at the anti-GMO and anti-gluten fads, the anti-vaccine wingnuts, the chemtrail and reptiloid conspiracies, and every diet fad. Behind all of these woo hoo beliefs are hordes of con artists, bullshitters and hoaxsters eager to get rich by prying money away from the gullible. Being scammed or conned by them is surely a form of harm.

Nor does it matter to the believers, as the original LA Times piece suggests, that this is actually woo:

Most millennials claim to not take any of it too seriously themselves. They dabble, they find what they like, they take what works for them and leave the rest.

Now, if you read these two pieces, you should have immediately grasped a core problem with both of them: bad journalism. Okay, the LA Times piece is from someone who may not be an actual reporter. She’s in the “audience engagement team” – I don’t know what that is, but it sounds artificial and gooey – but it doesn’t excuse the editors from letting this piece of fluff get published with a “must read” label. The editorial controls are so shoddy you’d almost think this was a CBC piece.

The original piece is bad because it makes half-assed assumptions and jumps to unsupportable conclusions based on limited or faulty data (or maybe just the writer’s preconceptions). The Patheos piece fails by repeating the content without doing any critical analysis or fact-checking, just regurgitating what the first piece said. This is the much-denigrated “iterative journalism” – a serious flaw in online reporting (read Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying for a good explanation of why this sort of reporting fails even basic tests for credibility).

The author of the LA Times piece admits to having done only a “dozen interviews for this story with people ranging in age from 18 to their early 40s.” Hardly a reasonable sample to be able to make the claim that “most” millenials have any opinion about anything. And there’s no indication in the story that a single one of these interviewees lived outside Los Angeles, much less beyond the borders of the USA. So a factual headline would be, “A Dozen Local People Embrace Woo Hoo. Maybe Instead of Religion.”

And it’s a dozen people who pursue the woo, none of whom challenge it or see through the obvious hucksterism of people selling magic rocks. It’s more like an advertorial for woo than a piece of reporting.

The author also writes, “a common theme emerged: They were raised with one set of religious beliefs — Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist — but as they became adults, they felt that faith didn’t completely represent who they were or what they believed.” But nowhere does she note that these 12 people came from fundamentalist backgrounds they later eschewed. So where does the Patheos story get that in its headline? More jumping to conclusions.

Nor does it follow that someone who was raised with a religion might not also believe in woo without discarding those beliefs. Lots of Christians, Buddhists and Jews believe in astrology. Lots of religious people have superstitions like luck. But none of the interviewees even claimed to be Buddhist.

(Why were no Muslims interviewed? Why does she write of Catholics but not Christians? Bias? Or just part of the new and shoddy “normal” for American media?)

While moving away from fundamentalist religious beliefs is good, swapping them for pseudoscience, con games and quackery is not. But the LA Times piece has more flaws:

Spiritual practices appeal to the commitment-wary: You can get a little into crystals or astrology or tarot, or a lot into it. You can buy a few rose quartzes or light a few candles and if it’s meaningful for you, keep it; if not, it’s not like you went through a full religious conversion.

What a load of codswallop, and it isn’t backed up by any evidence. First, a definition of spiritual practice from Wikipedia that is as good as any to work from:

A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. A common metaphor used in the spiritual traditions of the world’s great religions is that of walking a path.

This is the very essence of commitment. Practice requires commitment. Dabbling in magic rocks or magic star patterns is NOT a “spiritual practice” any more than reading a Dilbert cartoon makes a person a comic artist. (There is no agreement about the differences between spiritual and religious terminology, but generally religious beliefs are theistic and spiritual are not).

Commitment-wary? Quite the opposite. The people she quotes or the evidence of widespread LA hucksterism catering to the gullibles suggests a very serious commitment indeed, if to nothing more than fleecing the eager-to-hand-over-their-cash-for-magic-beans crowd. The author also writes:

Before the internet, people who held beliefs outside the mainstream — religious, political or otherwise — lacked a public way to connect with one another. With social media, she said, divinatory practices like astrology, crystals and tarot have been able to take up space in a public conversation. It helps that they all look great on Instagram.

Clearly, the writer has never heard of bookstores, because there have been specialty bookstores catering to these beliefs dedicated to them since the late 19th century (in fact, I ran such a bookstore in the 1970s).

Uncountable numbers of organizations, associations and secret societies like the Rosicrucians and the Order of the New Dawn, have supported and helped nurture and expand these beliefs. The only difference between then and now is that the internet is a more fertile platform for the con artists and wingnuts. At least the Theosophists in the days of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant weren’t just after your money. They actually had beliefs, wacky though they might be to us today. Even Aleister Crowley had beliefs, not just a bunch of woo to impress others with.

And let’s also be clear: divination is bunk. Journalists should not be so pliable (or gullible) as to simply call these practices what the practitioners call them. They are alleged, or so-called divinatory practices. To be otherwise requires proof (and, funnily enough, there is NONE). The LA Times writer doesn’t ask for any proof, nor offers any critical assessment of the claims the interviewees make. She just accepts and repeats. That’s not journalism: it’s just typing.

One of these practitioners gets quoted in a telling way that exposes how the gullibility factor works to keep the woo hoo alive:

“What I love about young people is that they are so open to it, they’re willing to explore without judgment,” she said. “They have just a different perspective on life and are really open to exploring and healing and growing.”

“Without judgment” means without critical thinking, without asking for proof, without questioning wild and pseudoscientific claims. It’s not simply a “different perspective” to swallow the codswallop unthinkingly and unquestioningly: it’s ignorance and stupidity. Superstition is not something to celebrate: it’s something to challenge and redress. But it is something to cash in on, apparently.

The writer claims without any evidence that “a growing number of young people … have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing and crystals.” What does a “growing number” mean? Three people today is a growing number from yesterday’s two. Nor does she clarify what “turned away” means – given up, discarded, abandoned? Or just enhanced with additional woo?

And again the write claims “a lot of younger people feel alienated by mainstream religion…” without offering any source for such a claim. So we have an article full of assertions without any factual basis. They may all be right – but without citation to a source, they come across as merely the writer’s own views. Good journalism offers credibility, not just opinion.

In another paragraph, she quotes an astrologer (whose credibility isn’t even once questioned!) saying young people are “…exploring nontraditional religious beliefs…” without explaining what a “nontraditional religious belief is.” Pastafarianism? Dudeism? Astrology isn’t a religious belief; it’s just a superstition. Then the astrologer says, in a vapid non-sequitur, 

Socialism isn’t new, and astrology definitely isn’t new, and earthly spirituality or living in accordance with the earth’s rituals isn’t new, it’s ancient. I think we’re yearning for something that technology cannot give us, that capitalism cannot give us.

WTF has socialism or capitalism to do with magic and superstition? Why didn’t the writer ask that simple question?

And what are “earth rituals” – aside from more made-up woo? Another item the writer overlooked and simply regurgitated as if it meant something.

No, astrology isn’t new, but dollars to doughnuts this astrologer doesn’t follow ancient Babylonian or Egyptian or Indian astrology of any of the ancient forms, none of which were remotely akin to the modern codswallop. And just because something is “ancient” doesn’t mean it’s credible, good or even sane. Ancient Aztecs cut the hearts out of their living victims to sacrifice to their gods. Ancient Greeks put unwanted babies out in the open to die. Ancient Chinese entombed concubines and servants with their dead rulers. Ancient does not equate with good or even enviable.

It’s not like we need to turn to someone modern like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens to find suitable debunking and skepticism for woo. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha spoke to the Kalama people and told them to use their wits and wisdom to assess the claims of teachers and teachings, to weigh them, to examine and analyse them instead of simply accepting them at face value:

[D]on’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

Which in another translation comes out as:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

In other words: think for yourself. Don’t merely accept what you’re told. The sutra continues with a warning about delusional beliefs:

“Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”

Belief in claptrap like astrology and magic rocks is, without any doubt, a delusion. So, at least according to Buddhist views, there IS harm in such beliefs even if only to the believer. Just how vapid this piffle is can be found in the final paragraphs of the LA Times piece:

As people gathered for the solstice session… She asked people to take a pen and a piece of flammable wish paper and write down negative things, things they were ready to let go of. Then everyone passed around a lighter and an enamel bowl. One by one, they ignited the bad things, watching them crisp into embers and float away.

Argh. Just holding a “solstice session” gives away the bunkum: there is no magic in calendrical or geophysical events. Neither the sun nor the earth gives a damn whether you dance naked, have tantric sex or meditate that day. No, your chakras don’t get energized because they and the energy are both imaginary. 

Does anyone really think that by burning a piece of paper with a “bad thing” written on it will make the negativity disappear? WIll make the world a better place? Will it change anything? Aside from lightening your wallets, that is.  Chanting around a bowl of burning paper doesn’t accomplish anything. You want to change the world, or even change your own life, you actually have to do something useful. Woo hoo isn’t an excuse to avoid that.

But to get back to my original point: despite the sensationalism, neither article is good journalism. Regardless of whether some of the assertions are correct, they are not presented in a credible, objective manner. And that discredits the source media. 

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