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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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Monday, June 19, 2006


Coulter Makes Me Cringe

I like to think of myself as a pretty reasonable guy. I try not to make snap judgments or let my anger get the better of me. I try to think things through and draw conclusions based on the facts as I see them. I'm always willing to admit I could be wrong about the facts, that I might have made a logical error, or that I let my prejudices blind me to the truth. I'm also willing to say "I don't know" when I don't have all the facts and haven't done enough research on a subject to come to a conclusion. But, once in a while, something really gets under my skin, and I just have to respond. Few things can set me off, but Ann Coulter just makes me see red.

Never have in my life have I encountered such a combination of disregard for facts and truth coupled with towering arrogance and self-righteousness, with a dollup of extreme hate-mongering thrown in for good measure. But this isn't what really rankles me. There are lots of odious people spewing lots of lies, distortions, and hateful rhetoric all over the place. And they have the right to do so. Freedom of speech is a concept I wholeheartedly endorse. Even when the speaker is Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh, or even the execrable Fred Phelps (the link goes to his Wikipedia entry; I can't bring myself to actually link to his hate-filled website).

The problem with Ann Coulter, and what personally frustrates me, is that she is treated with kid gloves by the "liberal media" and regarded as a mainstream pundit, when her views and rhetoric put her to the far right of Pat Robertson. Coulter's rhetoric should be marginalized, ignored, and dismissed by the media and the public in the same fashion that hate groups like the KKK and neo-nazis are ignored. Her writing is just as offensive and filled with untruths, but no one calls her on it. And any righteous indignation directed at her just adds fuel to her fire. Which is why I'm conflicted about writing this post. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that very few people read my blog anyway, so I can safely vent in relative obscurity.

Well, looking back at what I've written so far, I guess it's not really Ann Coulter than makes me so mad. It's the state of rational public discourse in America. We've become so polarized that people will support a horrible demagogue regardless of whatever outrageous lies they tell, as long as that demagogue can convince them that he or she is on "their" side. The fact that Ann Coulter's latest book is a bestseller is a symptom of the disease afflicting American politics.

Journalist David Neiwert has insightfully identified Coulter as one of several right-wing "transmitters;" someone who can take the outrageous views of the extreme far right, package them up and put a nice pretty bow on them, and present them to the mainstream as normal, reasonable "conservative" views. This has the effect of radicalizing the right more and more, since "mainstream" conservatism becomes increasingly extreme. This also creates a polarizing effect which contributes to radicalizing the left as well, as Coulter surely generates as much, if not more, contempt as she does admiration.

The net effect is that we're left with an untenable catch-22 situation. Sure, I can ignore Coulter and dismiss her rhetoric, but a significant portion of the population is swallowing her crap like it's filet mignon, and the media is giving her national TV coverage. If no one speaks out against her propaganda, she stands completely unchallenged to reach as many people as she can with her "arguments." On the other hand, if we refute her work and call it the hate-mongering BS that it is, we're feeding into her notoriety and will be marginalized simply as "Coulter-haters." Is there any way out of this?

Well, maybe, just maybe, if we can refute her work with the facts alone, calmly, rationally, even dispassionately, that may convince enough people that she's not worth listening to. Stick to all the errors, distortions, and half-truths she spins, and refrain from name calling or speculation about her gender traits and/or sexuality, and these rebuttals might just be able to get through to some people. I know, I'm dreaming right?

Currently, all the press is reporting on her vicious statements about the 9/11 widows. While this is another lovely bit of hateful rhetoric from Ms. Coulter, her critics' indignation is still just feeding her fire. I can't believe some New Jersey lawmakers didn't realize how much they played right into her hands with that talk of banning her book in New Jersey. Now she can claim she's a "victim" of liberal censorship!

A better avenue of attack may be what the folks at the Panda's Thumb are doing; they're shredding the third of her book she's devoted to "debunking" evolution. I have little direct familiarity with Coulter's work, but my observation of her past attacks is that she's limited herself to political targets. Thus, she may distort the truth and misrepresent people's views and political agendas, but she doesn't directly challenge objective reality and call it a "liberal myth." Well, it seems now that's exactly what she's doing with her screed on evolution. And the evolution guys aren't calling her names or getting pissed off; they're calmly, rationally, and dispassionately dissecting her statements one by one and exposing the crapload of errors and distortions to the light of day. In the wake of the Dover decision outlawing the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classes, this has to put at least a little bit of a dent into her credibility with her fans, right? I know, I know, I'm still dreaming. But go read the rebuttals to her writing on evolution. They're very informative with links to several resources on the science of evolution.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006


Happy Blog-O-versary!

Today, Unsolicited Opinions is a year old! I haven't been posting as frequently as I 'd like, but I'm glad I was at least able to keep this hobby up for whole year (please ignore the lack of posts from September to December). Anyway, to commemorate this happy occasion, let's take a look back on some memorable (to me at least) posts:My traffic has grown appreciably since I participated in the 35th Skeptic's Circle last month. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you find my ramblings interesting. My resolution for next year: stick to a schedule of at least one new post per week. Hopefully in 2007 I'll still be around spewing opinions no one asked for.

P.S. Another significant event today: My son went poo-poo on the potty for the first time! It was a real relief for his mom and me, since he's almost 18! Kidding! Kidding! He's such a great little 2-year-old kid.