New York Times

Difficult to believe

Somehow an article snuck its way past the editor and onto the pages of the New York Times praising the benefits of (how I wish I were making this up) ASTROLOGY. It's an opinion piece by Krista Burton from the last few days and it's difficult to make sense of. 

I'll start at the end and work my way back. The article ends with the strange quasi-disclaimer: 

Now, I’m not stupid. I may be a woo-woo, crystal-worshiping homosexual, but I know that a polished red rock is not going to heal my tailbone. It’s not going to bring my mom back either. It may not do a thing. But none of us know anything about anything, really. So why not be open to the possibility of hope?

[Note, the author self-identifies as homosexual, so the term isn't being used here as a pejorative. JA]

First to the subject about knowing "anything about anything": Even though in 2018 it should go without saying, it apparently needs saying that all of the subjects which this article centres around — astrology, crystal healing, tarot cards — is nonsense. It is an entirely uncontroversial scientific fact. Just to make the point, smashing a walnut with a sledgehammer, here is an excerpt from a lecture given by Professor Richard Feynman (who happened to win the Nobel Prize for work which is still widely used today) gave in 1964 explaining the state of scientific knowledge. 

That statement is naturalism in a nutshell and perhaps one of the most profound discoveries in human history. This clip is 50 years old and is even more true now than it was then. 

We're allowed to call nonsense nonsense. But that's what makes the article troubling. It seems to be a call to take these ideas seriously, but rather a plea to be politely ignored so they can believe nonsense in private. 

It's an interesting moral dilemma. At what point does the value of being polite and courteous trump the value of being factually accurate? After all, if we're really supposed to have liberty, doesn't that include the liberty to believe things that aren't true and be left alone? And the answer would be a solid maybe but for the fact that she's published in the New York Times and therefore every silly thing she says is fair game.

Deep down, this is an article written in defence of The Placebo Effect — epistemological hedonism — if it makes you feel better, believe it. But this is something that needs to be fought, fake news aside. The reason she is in this situation is because of health concerns:

...after seeing a doctor and two chiropractors, I was referred to a massage therapist/energy worker who worked out of a chiropractor’s office.

So it's not reasonable to make the argument that these beliefs aren't causing harm. Because even if they themselves have no effect, she's wasting time that would otherwise be spent getting actual medical care. 

So perhaps we could (politely) try and put a stop to this.

The profession can't take much more of this

Last year, I listened to a long form interview where an investigative journalist likened Donald Trump to a magician. He was referring to the way he managed attention to pull focus away from... well... what ever the embarrassment-du-jour was.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed, The Dark Magic of Kellyanne Conway, where Trump's most prominent spokesperson is likened to David Blaine. 

She’s more like the David Blaine of political spin, intent on working feats of magic that few others would attempt and surviving situations that would cripple any ordinary mortal. He catches a bullet in his mouth; she makes Donald Trump sound like a humble servant of the common man. He lasts 44 days in a plexiglass case over the Thames; she lasts 40 minutes with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

I'm not sure that our profession can take much more of this.