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Norman Sperling
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Norman Sperling's blog

See me at Wonderfest Nov 6 & 7

Wonderfest is the San Francisco Bay Area's free science festival. wonderfest.org . I'll be at Stanford's Hewlett Teaching Center on Saturday, 4-7 PM, for the Amateur Science Forum, and at UC Berkeley's Stanley Hall Sunday, Noon-4 PM, for the Science Expo. I have a delicious array of new and used science books (back to the 1800s) and some other neat stuff to sell at Berkeley. I'd love to know what you think of my new blog!

Why Mass Media Keep Running Horoscopes, and How That Shows You Who Not to Heed

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p6.

For many years – decades, now – I've criticized mass media for continuing to publish horoscopes. Scientists and skeptics have demonstrated repeatedly, scientifically, logically, persuasively, that those published horoscopes are junk. They're not valid. They mislead readers. They even influence some readers to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn't, and to that degree they harm their audience.

I've worked in several mass-communications media, including a daily newspaper in a big chain, a web-based general news outlet, an authoritative independent scientific magazine, and now an independent science humor magazine. Colleagues in other radio, television, and assorted media tell me what those are like. Outside of specifically-scientific media, neither scientific literacy nor scientific mindset prevail. The vast majority of media owners and employees don't know science, and don't care much about it. Neither science literacy, nor gullibility for pseudoscience, seems relevant for hiring or promotion. Anywhere that science is concerned, they literally don't know what they are doing.

Profit-Driven Corporate Media

Corporate owners are notorious for being driven by the near-term bottom line. They aren't far-sighted enough for the long run (by contrast, some family-owned newspapers count by generations, not quarters).

Some owners make it clear that their principal purpose is to make money. Rupert Murdoch obviously puts profit foremost throughout his empire, so his Fox outlets, for example, may place journalistic standards second (or lower), and scientific validity third (or lower), along their way to lowering cultural standards generally. When Murdoch retires, I hope his successors will prioritize for greater public responsibility.

It's almost as bad outside Murdoch's empire. Most local newspapers are parts of large chains, which achieve economies of scale by operating non-local factors by corporate dictum. The corporation picks the cartoons and non-news features to run, including the horoscope column. The local news staff gets to fill the "news hole" on each page, but has zero influence on anything else. They funnel their attention to what they can do something about. Most newspapers don't have a science writer, and simply copy Associated Press reports, though AP is depressingly careless. I know a science writer who professed to not know whether her newspaper even ran a horoscope because she never looked at the non-news pages ... in which their horoscope runs every day. Most readers don't distinguish the different sources of what that newspaper prints on different parts of different pages.

Editing from Ignorance

I don't know any science writers or science editors who favor running horoscopes. But none rise high enough to make grand corporate decisions. Most stay within their subject. They report to general-journalism veterans, who are usually knowledgeable about public affairs, but emphatically ignorant about nature. The general-news media I worked for published horoscopes, and I carped about that, but gently enough not to threaten my employment.

Those senior editors impose templates of ignorance on the science coverage. I once had to put all my science coverage through a senior editor who was utterly ignorant, who kept failing to understand anything significant, and kept directing me to irrelevancies.

Another senior editor declared that "all stories are people stories", thus crippling coverage of, for example, a comet hitting a planet. That's how reporting about that comet and that planet gets shunted aside for personality-pieces about whoever happened to discover things.

Science coverage is likely to remain poor in corporate mass media. The bean counters don't understand science. The moguls don't understand science. The journalists in general don't understand science. They'll probably remain disgustingly ignorant for disgusting decades to come. So the presence of a horoscope will keep indicating a medium's scientific invalidity: media that publish horoscopes pander and profiteer; they don't understand science, and don't respect the reader enough to report reality.

Less-Filtered Voices

Now, however, little voices have a far better opportunity to be heard. I run an independent magazine, and I can print anything that won't alienate my subscribers. My contributors are often delighted to find an outlet where science, validity, and humor dominate decision-making. Horoscope-free specialty newsletters and magazines abound – seek them at your newsstand and library.

But the biggest influence by far is the World Wide Web. Small media have a far louder voice when you read what they say. For a horoscope-free, non-corporate take, follow links from these among your explorations: disinfo.com; projectcensored.org; transparency.org; eurekalert.org; quackwatch.org; debunker.com; csicop.org; utne.com. I don't agree with all their views, but I don't think any of them features a horoscope.

Because media like those – and of course your own favorite alternate viewpoints – can no longer be stifled, corporate influence is actually limited. If corporate media don't serve your needs, stop buying them, and find your own horoscope-free inputs instead.

Science Askew: A light-hearted look at the scientific world

By Donald E. Simanek and John C. Holden
Bristol, UK: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002. 0-7503-0714-5. xii + 310 pages. Hardbound.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p34.

If you like JIR, you'll love Science Askew. Science satires, cartoons, puns, and parodies range from chapter-long tales down to punchy 1-liners.

Among the rules of the lab:
Experiments must be reproducible; they should fail the same way each time.
Experience is directly proportional to equipment ruined.
Teamwork is essential; it allows you to blame someone else.

My reaction upon reading most of the articles was "we should run this item in JIR!". But we reprinted an entire chapter in the last issue, and we published 2 of the articles (by the illustrator, retired geologist John C. Holden) in the 1970s, and the whole thing is already in a nifty package – this book.

From the computer expert's glossary:
On-line: The idea that a human being should always be accessible to a computer.
Machine-Independent Program: A program that will not run on any machine.
Documentation: Instructions translated from Swedish by Japanese for English-speaking people.

Simanek and Holden include fuel for debunking pseudoscience, and teaching students the distinctions. Ever the teacher, Simanek takes several opportunities to "talk straight" and point out legitimate science lessons. The pair of articles arguing opposing sides of the DHMO "controversy" afford chuckles, as well as stimulation for student exercises. "Di-Hydrogen Monoxide", of course, is H2O.

What engineers say and what they mean by it:
"Test results were extremely gratifying": It works, and are we ever surprised!
"The entire concept will have to be abandoned": The only guy who understood the thing quit.
"The designs are well within allowable limits": We just barely made it, by stretching a point or 2.

Holden contributes many clever and witty illustrations. Several other authors appear too, along with some items that have circulated worldwide on the Web which could not be traced to their original authors.

Some of Simanek's Laws of Statistics:
Anyone who trusts in statistics is taking a chance.
When 2 lines of a graph cross, that must be significant.
Once human subjects find out what you have discovered about their behavior, they begin to behave differently.

There are no important typos, and the trivial ones won't distract or confuse anyone. An illustration is mis-numbered, as is a footnote, but context makes the meanings clear. The illustration on page 110 misspells innumeracy and misperception. Page 273 gives the wrong dates for astrophysicist Thornton Page; they should be 1913-1996 instead of 1884-1952, which are the dates of physicist Leigh Page. At the time I found these little errors, none of them was posted on Science Askew's website, www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/askewcom.htm. All the tiny errors posted there, I missed.

Among the "do-it" 1-liners:
Professors do it absent-mindedly
Cosmologists do it with a bang
Logicians do it symbolically

Institute of Physics Publishing produced this book extremely well. The type is clear, the illustrations crisp, and all the parts are where they ought to be, except that there is no index. The paper is very high quality. The binding is excellent, comfortable, tight, and ought to last a long time. That's essential for this book, because the owner, friends, students, visitors, and everyone else lucky enough to happen upon it will dip into it time after time.

Despite excellent achievements by the authors and producers, this book has not been reviewed or advertised as much as it merits because the publisher refuses to send out many review copies, advertises very little outside its own periodicals, and discourages retailers. It took JIR considerable extra effort to wrest copies from the publisher, but this book is positively worth it.

Science Askew belongs in academic libraries, both for amusement and to stimulate classwork. Scientists, doctors, and educators will love this book. And it makes a splendid gift for anyone with technical knowledge and a sense of – or need for – humor.

Bright Blues

Music CD Review
Approved But Not Funded. Composed, produced, arranged, mixed, and largely performed by Marc S. Abel. Musica Scientifica Esoterica, www.hippus.net, 2002. $12.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p31.

This disc offers a witty take on Science, featuring sympathetic lyrics, strong harmonies, and professional blues musicianship and production by Dr. Marc Abel and 18 colleagues, all from the Chicago area.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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