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Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Does The Left Pander to Astrology?

Via Pharyngula, I came across this article by the Comissar, a conservative blogger who runs the Politburo Diktat. He asserts that there's evidence to indicate that liberals and Democratic politicians are hypocritical in their support of science since they are "soft" on the astrology proponents in their own camp while they are harshly critical of creationists and Intelligent Design (ID) proponents from the Right:
"Does the Left have a segment of their base that believes a certain pseudo-science, a segment their leaders are reluctant to antagonize? Is astrology quietly acceptable within the "progressive" community? The Left takes great pleasure in bashing Republican Creationists and ID advocates (quite appropriately, and I join them in this, as my readers know)."
He then presents the case of Jerome Armstrong, the Internet advisor to Democratic Virginia governor and potential presidential candidate Mark Warner. To be sure, this guy seems to have been involved in some nutty stuff with using astrology "predictions" to plan political strategy. Conservatives have been having a good laugh at his expense after unearthing some pretty wacky stuff he wrote a few years ago. Jerome Armstrong is also apparently closely affiliated with DailyKos, a prominent liberal blog.

I confess I'm not really plugged in to the liberal/conservative blogosphere, and there appears to be several layers of sniping back and forth between these bloggers (I spend most of my blog-reading time on ScienceBlogs and Panda's Thumb). I would consider myself a "liberal" and "progressive" but I'm not familiar enough with the positions of these bloggers to defend or criticize their positions on either side. So I'll stick to the Commissar's main argument rather than delve into the side issues of liberal vs conservative blog integrity.

So, the Commissar has presented what seems at first to be a claim worth investigating further. Does The Left tacitly give a free pass to the psedoscience of astrology while vigorously attacking creationism and ID so as not to antagonize a segment of their base? Is this a blow to liberals' pro-science image? The Commissar presents a challenge to "the Left's 'Defenders of Science'":
"An advisor [referring to Jerome Armstrong] to a serious Democratic presidential candidate is an astrologer, as well as an admitted stock swindler. [bold in original] 29% of Americans believe in astrology. I think a little distancing would be in order, from the Left’s “Defenders of Science.” (If they have in the past, I’d be delighted to correct this post.)"
He specifically calls out PZ Myers, DarkSyde of DailyKos, Ed Brayton, and Brent Rasmussen as liberal science bloggers who have not publicly denounced astrology. Curiously, he doesn't mention Chris Mooney, the author of The Republican War on Science. I'd think he'd be a prominent liberal science supporter who should be included, no? Well, searching his blog, I did find a post that conveys his attitute toward astrology. Short answer, he thinks it's crap.

Anyway, true to his word, after most of these people responded to his post, he updated his article and linked to their responses:
"Prompt posts that display real integrity on this issue from PZMyers and Brent Rasmussen. Along with his usual overdose of personal and childish invective, Myers documents his previous denunciations of astrology. Fair enough. DarkSyde contents himself with 'Bush is worse,' and declines to exercise his much-ballyhooed independence at dKos’ front page by denouncing astrology there.
Or maybe astrology is just one of 'several different predictive mathematical disciplines?'"
In fact, I found his post via the link from PZ Myers' response. Ed Brayton also has no tolerance for astrology, and is a libertarian to boot. The Commissar also admitted to mistakenly labelling Ed as a liberal and apologized in his post.

In addition to these points, the Commissar also links to a comment by Jay Ackroyd somewhat supportive of Jerome Armstrong's astrology at Glenn Greenwald's blog and to a couple of "Leftie politics/astrology sites of interest" as further evidence of the influence of Astrology on the Left: HPLeft and the Democracy Cell Project.

So, to recap, the evidence that "astrology [is] quietly acceptable within the 'progressive' community" includes:The case the Commissar has assembled seems a bit thin to me, to put it mildly. The most persuasive bit of evidence is this Jerome Armstrong guy. I would agree that in light of his apparent dabbling in astrology, I would like to see Mark Warner come out against such foolishness and make it clear that he doesn't endorse using astrology to guide policy. But is one prominent Democratic politician (even a "serious presidential candidate") having a possible tenuous link to astrology enough to indict the entire "Left" as being "soft" on astrology? I'm unconvinced.

The fact that 29% of Americans believe in astrology is an interesting data point, but it doesn't make the case. Especially when another commenter on the Commissar's blog points out:
"A quick google of a Harris poll show 21% of R[epublicans] and 28% of D[emocrats] admit to believing strology. Hardly a matter of 'our pseudo-scientists'."
Since I'm not familiar with DarkSyde, I have no idea how much his views are influential to the Democratic party or liberals and progressives. Even a prominent liberal blogger seems to be of limited influence to me. Anyway, he's already declared he thinks astrology is crap, but he hasn't put a new post on the front page of DailyKos. The Commissar finds this significant, but it's a rather weak bit of evidence on its own. DarkSyde has already responded in the comments of the Commissar's post several times with what seem like reasonable answers as to why he hasn't put a post on DailyKos.

I have no idea who Jay Ackroyd is, but if he's a mover and shaker in the Democratic Party, I'll give more weight to his comment on Glenn Greenwald's blog. Otherwise, he's a private citizen who doesn't represent the Democratic leadership or liberals in general.

Looking at the two "Leftie" organizations that are into astrology, HPLeft does appear to be a bit loony and endorses astrology as one of the "wisdom technologies" that are returning from obscurity. And the Democracy Cell Project, while saying nothing about astrology on their site, is running articles by Matthew Carnicelli, the publisher of the HPLeft site. So maybe the Democracy Cell Project doesn't endorse astrology, but they haven't gone out of their way to denounce it. Are these organizations significant among liberals or the Democratic Party? Do their members hold positions of influence among the Left? Would Democratic politicians be reticent about calling astrology crap for fear of losing the support of these groups? I see no evidence of this.

It seems to me that astrology is pretty much a non-issue for both Democrats and Republicans. Astrologers on the whole seem to be less interested in gaining political power by influencing Democrats and more interesting in separating the gullible from their money. The Commissar sees the general silence of liberals on astrology as evidence of their tacit acceptance of astrologers in their camp and of their unwillingness to "rock the boat" by denouncing astrology as pseudoscience.

However, if we are to take this assertion seriously, we must eliminate the alternative hypothesis that Democrats don't address astrology because astrology is simply not a pressing political issue that deserves attention. And if we're going to posit that the analogy that astrology is the "Left's Creationism" then we need to show that astrologers have an organized lobby that has significant influence in the Democratic agenda that is equivalent to how much influence creationists and ID proponents have on Republican politicians. Well, let's compare creationists on the Right to astrologers on the Left.

Creationists and ID proponents ...Astrology proponents ...The score sheet seems a bit uneven to me. Downright one-sided in fact. These criticisms of the Commissar's arguments have been made in the comments of his post. He brushes them off with this response:
"My visitors from Pharyngula are unanimous: 'Our pseudo-scientists are not as bad as your pseudo-scientists.'

and, oh yes, 'Nancy Reagan … Nancy Reagan .. Nancy Reagan'"
Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that the most well-known story of astrology's impact on politics seems to be the fact that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer to plan her appointments while her husband was president? But that bit of data is apparently irrelevant.

The point that the Commissar seems to miss is that astrology is not a partisan phenomenon. Astrologers aren't the "Left's pseudo-scientists," as the Harris poll shows. Astrology adherents cut across the entire political spectrum relatively evenly. Creationists and ID proponents, on the other hand, are firmly aligned with Republicans and are pandered to by Republican politicians. This seems to be a significant difference that undermines his argument.

Well, at least I do agree with the Commissar on two points: creationism and ID are bunk, and astrology is bunk. But I fail to see the point of trying to tie liberals to astrology in the same way conservatives are linked to creationism and ID. The evidence he's presented just isn't compelling and doesn't support his thesis.

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I've been banned by the cry-baby Kommissar for asking a question he can't answer
How long did it take for brain, optic nerve and eye to evolve?
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