Word came out recently that Dan Kennedy, the talented press critic, will soon be leaving his post at The Boston Phoenix to work on a book about dwarfism. Just in time: A recent article suggests media watchers of Kennedy's caliber may want to turn their guns on the Phoenix itself, whose sense of journalistic duty appears to be shrinking rapidly.
The story in question, a full-length feature by Chris Wright, is titled "Prophets of Doom" and bears this subtitle: "Jihad terrorists surprised America on September 11, but apparently more than one astrologer saw it coming." The evidence presented in the article, however, actually seems to prove exactly the opposite -- that astrologers didn't have a clue about September 11 before it happened. But don't tell that to Wright, whose loving citations of vague astrological predictions, without a single skeptical voice to serve as a counterbalance, may represent a new low in journalistic credulousness -- at least among outlets that don't aspire to supermarket tabloid status.
(Disclosure: I have written in the past for the Phoenix.)
"Prophets of Doom" devotes its attention to a handful of astrologers who, according to the article, either predicted or came very near to predicting the September 11 attack. Right off the bat, it's worth noting that the reporter only managed to cobble together a tiny group of seers who can even be said to have come close. This certainly doesn't speak well for astrology generally. September 11 was, after all, probably the single most important global event of the year 2001. As such, it was clearly an occurrence that any astrologer should have predicted -- that is, if astrology really works.
Moreover, if you read Wright's article closely, you'll note that most of the astrologers mentioned seem to have simply selected a vague pre-9/11 prophecy and, with the benefit of hindsight, retro-fitted it to the circumstances of the World Trade Center conflagration. None of them mentioned the World Trade Center or Pentagon. None of them mentioned Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. None of them even directly mentioned airplanes. Nevertheless, the Phoenix cites as "chillingly prescient" this litany of metaphorical vagaries by the astrologer Robert Hand:
Things pass away and then something new comes into being. We have times when things seem to reach a period of stability and permanence; then there is a period of decay, when they begin to break down and go wrong. . .It is as though we were driving down a well-defined road with a clear objective, and either something we did not anticipate is forcing us onto another road or the road itself is being transformed.
This prediction probably fits the average American's romantic life far better than it does the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. And if you think Hand's words are fungible, wait until you hear the expansive set of dates the seer attached to them: August 5, 2001 through May 26, 2002, a span of almost 10 months. That the Phoenix reports this as a stunning prediction suggests a very severe and possibly terminal case of open-mindedness on the part of its editorial staff.
And that's not the only vague prognostication dressed up as a glowing accomplishment for astrology by the Phoenix. Wright's article reports that another astrologer, by the name of Jim Shawvan, predicted a "surprise attack, a terrorist bombing," and further went on to observe that "Civil wars and conflicts in the Third World often build up slowly, with many warning signs; however, when the only remaining superpower is attacked, the preferred approach seems to be terrorist action with no warning." Shawvan continued: "[Bush] may judge it necessary to threaten or even use force in Afghanistan or Pakistan or both."
At first glance, this might seem reasonably impressive. But there are some serious complications. According to the Phoenix, Shawvan made this prophecy in April of 2001, and at the time suggested it referred to "'something sudden,' about to occur," which puts him off by half a year if he was really referring to the World Trade Center attacks. And consider the wording of the prediction itself, especially the bit about a "terrorist bombing." The 9/11 attack was not a bombing, except in the loosest of possible senses. It seems clear Shawvan was predicting a terrorist event of the more traditional sort; in no sense did he envision the use of airplanes as missiles, as occurred on September 11.
Granted, Shawvan isn't quite the best the Phoenix has to offer. According to Chris Wright, in June of 2000 the 69-year-old Las Vegas astrologer Lynn Palmer wrote: "Avoid terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001." This prediction, too, may seem striking until you consider two things: its lingering vagueness; and the fact that Palmer did absolutely nothing before September 11 to publicize her vision.
Palmer's prediction says nothing about New York, the World Trade Center, Al-Qaeda, or Afghanistan. It says nothing about the Pentagon. It says nothing, yet again, about using civilian airliners as missiles. So if her words were truly prescient, then why was her vision so incomplete? The truth is that, like the "Divination" teacher Professor Trelawney in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, astrologers are accustomed to hurling out myriad prognostications of doom and gloom. And they frequently predict trouble in the Middle East -- which means they often predict terrorist attacks. Indeed, given all the shots fired by astrologers in a typical year, what's really astonishing is that Palmer is the only one the Phoenix could find who actually connected terrorism to the date of September 11.
But perhaps -- just perhaps -- this is too unfair. Maybe astrologers are indeed capable of true prophecy, but sometimes only a glimmer of truth flits through from the murky alignments of the planets. Nevertheless, the question remains: If Palmer thought she had the germ of a genuine insight, why didn't she say anything beforehand? After all, she did know the date of September 11. Forget about the stunning astrological coup this would have been -- didn't Palmer have any interest in saving lives?
The reason Palmer said nothing, according to the Phoenix, is that she forgot her stunning prediction until after the event, and only afterwards went back and found it in a book she'd written. "I make all sorts of predictions and I forget about them," Palmer comments in the article -- which surely speaks for itself.
But if astrologers duped the Phoenix's Chris Wright, then Wright in turn fooled the left-leaning media clearinghouse and weekly newspaper syndicate AlterNet.org, which posted his article on their site on December 13. (In a voicemail message, AlterNet's executive editor Don Hazen said it had been put up by his managing editor and commented, "I read it, and I don't really have a strong opinion about it.") Thanks to AlterNet, we can expect a number of left-leaning alternative weeklies across the country to print the same paean to astrology in the coming week or so -- an article whose only hint of skepticism comes across in the author's occasional (and postmodern) wryness of tone.
The astrology binge by The Boston Phoenix and AlterNet.org is only the latest in a series of irrationalist responses to the September 11 attacks. It all began with sightings of the face of Satan in the billowing smoke of the World Trade Center towers and claims that Nostradamus predicted the attack in one of his murky quatrains (a hoax, as it turns out). The superstition then progressed to a nauseating attempt by the psychic medium John Edward to channel deceased 9/11 victims; more recently, it has even taken the form of a project by the FBI to use "remote-viewers" (i.e. psychics) to predict further terrorist attacks.
Obviously, immense human tragedies such as September 11 prompt deep-seated emotional responses and leave people grasping for understanding, whether in astrology, traditional religion, or even Bernard Lewis's writings on Islam. But the standards of journalism remain what they ever were. The award-winning Oxford evolutionary biologist and science writer Richard Dawkins has seriously suggested that astrologers, insofar as they sell a false and deceiving product to a credulous public, ought to be thrown in jail. That may be extreme, but there's simply no excuse for giving these dubious prophets a credulous hearing without ever quoting a skeptical voice.
Idea Log will not be published next week due to the holidays.