Monthly Archives: October 2010

The skeptic

No offence, but you’re a loon, says Wendy M. Grossman

“I am offended,” a friend instant-messaged me recently, with a URL. I clicked. (Why? So I could be offended, too? So I could give offensive stuff more traffic, to encourage the owner to be offensive some more?)

The story was a little (an appropriate word, I think) opinion piece on the Web site shared by the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner (www.sfgate.com), members of that endangered species, metropolitan US newspapers. It was, to be fair, on the astrology part of the Web site, but it was way wackier than anything else I’ve ever seen on an astrology page (let’s face it; like it or not, astrology is mainstream).

The gist: some Japanese scientists had scheduled the lunar orbiter Kaguya to crash into the moon to generate debris that the scientists could study to understand the moon’s composition. The writer, Satya Harvey, compared this to a schoolboy cutting up a live frog, and noted that the moon “represents the feminine” and that women are “connected to the moon by their menstrual cycles”.

Then she demanded to know: “Did these scientists talk to the moon? Tell her what they were doing? Ask her permission? Show her respect?”

It’s worth noting that all the comments basically called her a loon.

You really don’t know where to start with stuff like this. A dignified silence seems the most logical response: deliberate stupidity on this level isn’t worth debunking. There are a few snide things to say, such as that if this is what newspapers are going to publish the sooner they die off the better.

There is also the principle of respecting free speech and not advocating censorship. But this presumably wasn’t free; I assume the paper actually paid her to produce this bit of nonsense. And for good reason: extreme stupidity, like extreme opinions, behaviour, or stories of any kind, gets people clicking, commenting, and linking. Stupidity may be bad for the soul and bad for society, but if it gets a struggling newspaper hits on its Web site that means advertising revenues. The “journalist” who pulls in hits is the one who’s worth paying. That astrologer may be stupid, but she’s not stupid.

From the newspaper’s point of view, stupidity is also a lot cheaper to produce than quality. Quality requires research, legwork, and effort, all of which has to be paid for. Stupidity a writer can dream up not only without ever leaving the house but without ever moving off the first news story they find on the Internet.

The same piece could have been more expensively but less stupidly written had Harvey bothered to look up the history of the ideas she was citing. She could, for example, have noted that taking things apart to see how they work is a long-standing, respected technique of science that has, among other things, enabled her to grow to maturity and live a rich, fulfilling life in (one presumes) reasonable health. In the IT field, it’s known as reverse-engineering.

Alternatively, she could have taken a moment or two to find out what Kaguya was doing up there in the first place. In fact, as Phil Plait posted in his Bad Astronomy blog (http://is.gd/1U7jG), the orbiter was up there collecting some kick-ass video of the moon’s surface. The controlled impact was just the final word in a two-year mission collecting data. Would Harvey rather the Japanese had let the orbiter just crash any old way? It would have hurt the moon’s feelings just as much but given us no new information. What a waste.

What I resent most is the implication that this is all being said in some kind of defence of Woman. It’s bad enough that techies constantly use older women as examples of the technically challenged. Do we really need our own players making us look bad?

There is apparently a school of thought that believes that because “menstruation” is etymologically related to “moon” the Moon influences menstrual cycles. There is no clear evidence that suggests this. My favourite debunking of this one comes from Cecil Adams’ The Straight Dope column (http://is.gd/1U7no). The Earth is affected by the pull of the Moon, but somehow I don’t think gravity is capable of distinguishing between male and female.

I really do think this kind of thing is at least partially a failure of feminism. When I was a child in the 1960s, the common belief, even among many teachers, was that girls were biologically second-rate when it came to math and science. You would think that feminists seeking equal pay for equal work and seeking to knock down barriers would have sought to get more women into science as an imperative. Instead, many seem to have decided that science is male, rational, and evil and instead embraced the cult of the goddess. No wonder an astronomy writer of my acquaintance once said to me in exasperation of the astrology columns in every women’s magazine, “If women want us to take them seriously, they’ve got to stop reading this crap.” Amen, brother.

As for the question of why my friend sent me the URL to click on: some mysteries are too deep to penetrate.

Wendy M Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine.