Letter writer: Astrology article needed journalistic skepticism

Graphic by Lori Deaton

In February 2015, [Xpress] published — without even a hint of incredulity — a story on “medical intuitives” who claimed literal X-ray vision [“Medical Intuitives: Seeing the Way to Better Health,” Feb. 11 ]. I submitted a letter calling this out as obvious garbage and criticizing Mountain Xpress for failing to exercise even the most minimal degree of journalistic skepticism. In response, you defended your story: “[W]e are not in a position to evaluate the efficacy of any healing modalities.” You claimed your job was merely “letting readers know what practitioners are doing and saying as part of covering the entire wellness scene in Asheville.” Many online comments excoriated you for that lame justification and pleaded with you to abjure such shoddy journalism in the future.

This was all repeated the next month with a story on “stone healing” [“Stone Medicine: Healing Power From the Earth,” Feb. 18, 2015, Xpress], a scathing letter by Jim Willmot [“‘Stone Medicine’ in Recent Article Isn’t Backed Up With Science,” Letters, March 4, 2015, Xpress] and another outrageous, self-serving defense from you: “As journalists, our job is to inform readers about what healing modalities are being practiced locally, not to evaluate them.”

Finally, after yet another similarly themed blast from reader Mark Bloom [“‘Xpress’ Should Practice Responsible Journalism,” March 18, 2015, Xpress], you appeared to relent: “[W]e can do better in terms of providing multiple perspectives and being more skeptical in our approach … [O]ur reporters can serve readers better by probing and challenging the local practitioner’s or spokesperson’s statements. In response to the feedback we’ve received, we have incorporated these goals into our process.”

Fair enough.

Yet here we are one year later, and Mountain Xpress is at it again. The March 2 issue contains a story about “Vedic astrologers,” who, for a fee, will chart the planets at the time of your birth, and, armed with that information, tell you to do things like wear certain gemstones on certain fingers, or utter mantras of “Sanskrit words for each planet” [“Written in the Stars: Local Vedic Astrologers Decipher Map for Healing Inner Cosmos”] This, they assert, will bring one back “into balance with the planetary phenomena and energies. … The remedial measures could be thought of as a doctor’s prescription for making planets happy” — whatever the hell that could possibly mean. …

I read the story carefully, searching for even the faintest hint of journalistic skepticism, for any contrary voice that might explain what complete gibberish and nonsense this is. I found none.

Suppose somebody sets up a shop claiming to be able to see your future in a crystal ball or a deck of tarot cards, and, for a fee, to perform an incantation that will prevent the predicted terrible things from happening. This kind of business is functionally indistinguishable from the people you wrote about this week. Both are making similar types of claims. Both claim legitimacy from being “ancient” arts. Both charge money for it. And both utterly lack any demonstrable connection to reality.

I ask this seriously, and in earnest hopes for a reply: Would you report on this hypothetical new business with the same credulity and lack of critical questioning that characterized your story on “Vedic astrologers”? If not, why not? What objective feature distinguishes the two, such that you deem one, but not the other, worthy of being treated as a serious, worthwhile commercial service that your readers should know about?

You promised a year ago to “do better in terms of being more skeptical in our approach” and to “serve readers better by probing and challenging the local practitioner’s or spokesperson’s statements.” I was encouraged by that response. Now, however, I see that it was complete bullsh*t — just like the ridiculous claims you continue to publish uncritically. Nothing has changed.

Shame on you.

— Robert J. Woolley
Asheville

Editor’s response: We don’t believe we erred in covering Vedic astrology in the March 2 issue. The Wellness section is intentionally wide-ranging, covering everything from mainstream to fringe therapies, including both scientific and spiritual approaches. Some modalities are evidence-based, and some are not — especially the spiritual ones. Vedic astrology was described in this article as “a spiritual art,” and the practitioners denied that they were engaging in medical diagnosis. While part of our job is to remain skeptical, it may not be necessary to publish a detailed account of the controversies that can easily be read elsewhere. In the case of astrology, we believe our readers have formed their own views and don’t need us to warn them that it is considered by many to be baseless. We also believe that many of our readers appreciate learning about the variety of approaches to wellness available in the greater Asheville area — some of which are controversial and/or not accepted by mainstream science — and readers seem capable of deciding for themselves what to think about them.

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18 thoughts on “Letter writer: Astrology article needed journalistic skepticism

  1. M.

    I bet Robert doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, either. Seriously, though, your belief may not be someone else’s. While certain modalities lack scientific research and evidence, it doesn’t discredit the fact that there are actually people who participate and believe in things you deem as “gibberish and nonsense”. I bet your political views are equally amusing, and I can imagine you blast people for supporting the candidate you don’t agree with. To each his own, fella. I’m sure some would say the same about your ideas and belief system. Let it go, bro. Just let it go.

  2. boatrocker

    Hilarious- just as I finished reading this very well written, articulate and spot on letter, what do I find in the new letters section? A guy plugging his astrology business.

    It’s hilarious that M’s response is simply that just because people believe in something it makes it valid before he goes on to criticize
    Woolley’s political beliefs that he does not even espouse in his letter. Would Flat Earth types, creationists, moon landing deniers, climate change deniers and Holocaust deniers fall into the same category as “there are actually people who participate and believe in things”?

    It really is a great scam- open and maintain a business that fleeces the gullible, offer no concrete scientific proof, criticize those who would point that out, demonize them and get free advertising in the letters section!

    Brilliant! Kudos on the New Age business model! And kudos to The Xpress for not taking a more solid journalism approach for fear of losing readers!

  3. The Real World

    1 – Robert wrote a very well-reasoned and appropriate letter.

    2 – The M. person above is emblematic of an obnoxious child. I find it outrageous that some letter writers on Mtn X (although, thankfully, it seems to be less so in the last several months) decide they understand the whole of person based on 1 letter they submit! How superficial can you be? That takes the cake. Not to mention that M. doesn’t seem to grasp his/her own intolerance to a different view. We have alot of those in this town. Time to grow up.

    3 – Agreed, boatrocker, but what is just as important as not wanting to lose readers is not wanting to lose advertisers. Muy importante!

    • Megan Archer (formerly known as M.)

      First of all, you don’t know me, so calling me an obnoxious child based off one internet comment hardly makes you any bigger than your own finger-pointing and name calling. And for the record, I DO grasp my own intolerance. I choose to pick my battles though, because life is short and there are far more important things to focus my time on rather than get worked up about someone else’s beliefs. As an employee of the Mountain Xpress, I know firsthand that our writers strive to give everyone a fair platform, as Asheville and the surrounding area is full of various views and belief systems, and it’s only fair that we give everyone equal and ample opportunities to express those views and beliefs. Sure, maybe I don’t agree or believe in astrological healing modalities, or the things you all are being so judgmental and critical about, but I don’t spend my free time getting worked up about the little things. Some people believe in God (or something similar) and there are plenty of folks who don’t value the same belief system, but who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s all relative. It’s awesome you disagree- this planet would be boring if we were all on the same page- but to criticize someone personally based off what makes them feel good is a low blow. Furthermore, it takes away from what makes this town great. If someone believes in something that doesn’t cause harm, who are you to judge? I’m sure there are things you all believe that others might deem as “gibberish”, etc. I’m a grown woman, and I like to think I carry myself as such. I was simply pointing out that personal wellness takes many forms, and Mountain X is simply offering equal rights and opportunities to share those belief systems with the region, no matter how farfetched they may seem. And I’m sure we can find other words to describe our thoughts, rather than resort to name calling and foul language. “Time to grow up”. Just be respectful.

      • boatrocker

        1) As an employee of the Mtn X, allow me to introduce you to something that may make your writings more palatable- paragraph breaks.

        2) Thank you for admitting in print to your own intolerance.

        3) Please elaborate on what foul language has been used towards you- last I checked ‘obnoxious’ is neither foul, obscene or anything but an adjective.

        4) Please explain to us less enlightened types how claims can be made and the onus to prove them true is not on the maker of said claims, That’s how debates, journalism and just plain talking work.

        5) Please feel more than free to address any points I’ve made in my first response so as to prove to our fair readers that what you claim is true. I still say (as have many other responses over the years) that plugging New Agey pseudoscience without a shred of concrete proof is still just plain old snake oil, and the Mtn X runs such letters plugging such businesses for fear of losing not only readers but the almighty advertising dollar.

        6) At the risk of using ‘foul language’, I’d have to call your responses (not you as a person , mind you, merely your responses in print as you said for never having personally met you) thin skinned and again as you claimed yourself, intolerant. If that is what astrology is all about, then count this agnostic out.

        Here’s a quote that one can take or leave-
        “Every newspaper in America, with few exceptions has a daily astrology column. Astrology is bunk. Astrology is fraud.
        How many of them even have a weekly science column? Why the disproportion?”
        -Carl Sagan

        • boatrocker

          Addenedum to #1- that should read “As you claim to be an employee of the Mtn Xpress”- my wording made it look like I was an employee for them- not the case fo’ sho’.

          • I could be wrong, but this is the first time I’ve seen an Xpress staff member reply in this fashion.

        • Megan Archer

          1) I should have been a little more clear in regards to the foul language- that was directed towards Mr. Woolley. Apologies.

          2) Thank you for the constructive criticism on our writing. I’ll make sure your comment is heard.

          3) I have nothing to hide. I don’t like everything or everyone on this planet. Sometimes your only choice is to tolerate something. That’s life.

          4) We don’t do anything out of fear at Mountain X. We are here for the community and support various views. We don’t focus on the almighty dollar. While it is necessary, it’s not why we are here.

          5) Call me thin skinned if you will. Again, you don’t know me. And EVERYONE is intolerant of something. Even you. And if you aren’t aware of the definition of agnostic: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” So, in all reality, you don’t actually know who’s right and who’s wrong.

          “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
          ― Isaac Asimov

          • boatrocker

            Way to sidestep all the points I brought up in my original response. I’ll ask one more time if you’d care to address salient points brought up by every other poster on this thread:

            1) Woolley used no foul language whatsoever refuting your (ahem) position. If being called an obnoxious child is foul language, then yea your posts confirm every stereotype about New Agey woo woo types- aka they’re thin skinned. The Mtn X policy on obscenity and hateful language is quite clear in that regard, so if he had used it, his response would not have been published, right?

            2) Thank you so much for quoting one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20 th century- I hope you’ve enjoyed his works too. If you had, then you’d know Asimov deals in hard science and not emotional/ ‘spiritual’ vagueness. He leaves that to L. Ron Hubbard.

            3) Anyone who makes an assertion does have the onus on them to prove their point with facts and sources- you have thus far not done so.
            Journalism, debates and science will not concede that point to you- sorry I had the be the bearer of bad news.
            If needed, I can provide source links about gravity, the world is round, thunder is a sonic boom caused by lightning, crystals applied to skin don’t cure anything, as well as numerous articles about the power of suggestion and the placebo effect as examples.

            4) Let’s play what if- If I wrote a letter denying the Holocaust happened and offering only my sincere belief as proof, and then directed readers to websites that parroted my beliefs (non violent or hate based mind you), would that be any different than what some letter writers are dong? Would fact checking finally occur at the Mtn Xpress? How about if I wrote a letter expressing that the earth is 6,000 years old, Noah’s Ark was real and then directed readers to the Creationist Museum in KY’s website? Is that any different if I offer no factual proof?

            5) Yes, Mtn X overlooks obvious shameless plugs for pseudo science in its letters so as not to scare off advertising $.
            Let’s let that point sink in a moment. Feel free to peruse the ample examples of such advertising in that fair paper.

            They’ve been called out many times on this by well written articulate and factually based responses and the editors’ replies, while usually disingenuous, do not contain false accusations of foul language nor do they tear down political or religious beliefs that are not even mentioned.

            6) On a personal note, sorry, as an agnostic I simply don’t give crap about wasting (for all we know) the only life I have wondering if wearing a crystal can make you hear the planets singing, if there is a higher power or anything like that. I do my good work in the here and now, like calling horsepuckey on pseudoscience and encouraging those who believe that stuff to pony up with evidence so as to hold to the ideals of critical thinking, which I hold higher than chanting to the sun every morning or getting a zodiac symbol tramp stamp.

            You seem to demonstrate a lot of anger in your posts, and as a lover of peacey harmony, might I direct you to a website that might help?

            It’s a local small business that deals in anger management through spiritual exercises involving writing sacred checks to our practitioners so they can prepare a small collection of pamphlets to be mailed to your home. We at Hokumn’Namaste.com sincerely believe with all our sacred mystical golden energy hearts that our methods cure anger issues, therefore we do not place on ourselves the oppressive burden of providing any such proof as to the effectiveness of our methods, scientifically or otherwise. Wehave a letter to the editor pending review hopefully for the next print issue- check us out!
            (Disclaimer-please read carefully)- Anyone who questions the effectiveness of Hokumn’Namaste is (we believe, therefore it is true) closed minded, judgmental, foul mouthed, finger pointer meanies who just don’t get it and probably torture small mammals for fun. Caveat emptor.

      • Peter Robbins

        Give people a platform on the editorial pages, Megan. Reserve the news pages for truth, as best you can determine it. Expose phonies; don’t enable them. It’s okay to be fair. It’s okay to be balanced. It’s okay to give context and make allowances for human eccentricities. It’s even okay to be polite, if you must. But a con artist should always feel terror at the approach of a journalist. Anything less shows disrespect to the reader.

        • The Real World

          Wow, way to jump in there, boatrocker! Well argued and generous of you to take the time to explain to Megan. As you’ve likely discerned, much of it has probably fallen on deaf ears.

          Let me open Pandora’s Box (it’s a good thing!): for reasons I’m not certain there is an issue in the Southeastern USA of understanding the difference between fact and opinion. Yep, there definitely is. I’ve encountered it continually for over 25 years and it still boggles my mind. I figure like most else here it’s related to Bible teachings. Maybe in the sense that your opinions aren’t relevant b/c the Bible is “the plan” and that’s it, end of story. It’s an extremely narrow way to view this big, wide world. Not to mention that the Bible can hardly be proven factual. So, now that I think about it, I guess people would be confused if they were raised to believe an ancient text is factual but no one can prove it AND don’t bother with individual opinions b/c that text is all you need to know. Discussion not necessary. That seems to be how the formative years are in the BB.

          B/c of all that you wind up in alot of, what I call: circular conversations — which is an exercise in futility (and disrespect from the person doing the spinning). I refuse to engage in those anymore and will most definitely restate: time to grow up.

          Peter – very good comment and suggestion.

          • boatrocker

            Well thanks for the shout out but it wasn’t like I cured polio- I just spelled it out for the world to see or ignore. That took maybe 8 min to type I’d guess? How sad we look at that and compare it to 140 character ‘communication’- it did give me a temporary break fro boring worky stuff.

            I’m not sure the SE United States has a monopoly on circular conversations like above- sadly in this age of
            ‘citizen journalism’ and getting your hyper specific set of news online that only re-enforces the opinions one already has, I’m saying critical thinking isn’t dead, it just smells really bad like its been left in the sun too long. I think the kids call it an echo chamber.

            Whether it’s the New Agey set, the bible thumpers, your favorite sports team, FAUX News viewers or whoever, hearing myself saying “good luck trying to stick to the facts” really makes me worry about the state of the world.

            Sadly I just get riled up when someone tries to pee down my back and call it rain, and at the end of the day nobody has an aha moment for figuring out their local paper kneels before New Agey advertising $, but hey, we’re all plant food at the end of the day.

  4. luther blissett

    Asheville has a lot of woo-peddlers, and a lot of people who’ll pay to be peddled woo, and as long as it’s not hurting people, then that’s fine enough. (Vaccinate your kids, people.) It’s mostly less insidious than Biltmore Baptist megachurch or slithery huckster Franklin Graham pretending that his pop in Montreat has any kind of mental capacity left to issue political endorsements. It’s also less problematic than Mission buying up every medical provider in town so that you’re left paying for Ron Paulus’s Biltmore Village manicures every time you get sick.

    Still, ‘Wellness’ as used by MountainX and others is a kind of linguistic mush, a hand-wavy refusal of meaning. Is it healthcare, is it fitness, is it ‘feeling vaguely happy about things’, is it having someone realign your chakras and tell you that you’re fantastic? It’s whoever wants to advertise within that blurry space.

  5. Andrew

    This has all been an interesting lesson in the placebo effect. Now, if only it had been framed that way the skeptics amongst us may have been satisfied. Supplying journalistic legitimization to quackery that plays on the human quality of imbuing the unknown and unverified with magical effects is unfair to and in fact, de-informs the reader, and that is in opposition to editorial ethics.

    • boatrocker

      Pardon me, may I cut in?
      If not, for complying with Mtn X’s posting policy, thank you indie, you gave me the perfect ‘in’,

      I’m not a scientist, but I know the difference between science/critical thinking/real journalism vs.
      kneeling and parting the lips for advertising $.

      Yes, I have better things to do than post here.
      No, I won’t stop with this until the X reclaims the title of journalism.

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