Pharyngula

The Dumbening of America continues

Somebody shoot me now. The Washington Post tallies up congressional votes, and in an astounding display of technological mastery, allows you to sort and display them by the congressperson’s astrological sign. If you’ve ever wondered whether Scorpios were more likely to vote for highway appropriations than are Virgos, now you can find out.

I really want to know what the conversations the editors or publishers had about this decision were like. I’m thinking they were getting worried about how idiotic and cowardly the press has been looking lately, so someone decided to do something bold and exciting and revolutionary…and this is what they came up with.

Comments

  1. #1 Grumpy
    February 19, 2007

    The movie “Network” included an astrologer for its revamped news show. But that was the cynical view of how television would degenerate. Paddy Chayevsky probably never dreamed that daily newspapers would do the same (outside of the funny pages).

    Then again, the WaPo can blame its shame on the Interwebs.

  2. #2 Andy Groves
    February 19, 2007

    On the bright side, an enterprising high school student could do a nice school project showing that the birth sign of politicians has no bearing on how they would vote for…. well, anything really.

  3. #3 erik
    February 19, 2007

    As someone who (sort of) works with the implementer of the project, I assure you it’s all in good humor. :P

    (not speaking for WaPo, of course)

  4. #4 Bill Dauphin
    February 19, 2007

    Now that I’ve been linked to from Pharyngula I can die happy! ;^)

  5. #5 Great White Wonder
    February 19, 2007

    Geebus, take a pill PZ.

    I would avoid reading the news until Jupiter moves out of the second house, at least.

    Oh, and you’re going to make an important decision today.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2007

    They did the yarrow-stalks thing, read the I Ching.

    Ka-ching!

    [overheard at editorial board meeting: "gentlemen, I have a thoroughly debugged system based on binary arithmetic which can solve this problem. 2^6 = 64 hexagrams, with moving and fixed lines 2^12 = 4096, better resolution than the newfangled Decimal-based demographics, and we saved money by outsourcing to China..."]

  7. #7 SteveF
    February 19, 2007

    I assume dumbening is an intentional typo?

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2007

    “I assume dumbening is an intentional typo?”

    Google: “Dumbth”

    My son contends that Horror movies are dreamed up by taking a harmless prop and inventing a new word. He suggested a Horror/slasher film about a dranaged broom-wielding maniac: “THE SWEEPENING!”

  9. #9 abeja
    February 19, 2007

    That might have come in handy when my son did a school project years ago on astrology. Firm disbelievers, we aimed to do our part at debunking it. We looked up the personality traits that astrologers said people with each sign should have, then we listed those traits (5 per sign) on a paper and asked people to put a check by the traits that fit them. We also asked for their birthday, but we didn’t tell them anything about the subject of the project. We got about 200 responses (and we didn’t have the internet, it was all done by hand!), then we tried to find some correlation between people’s astrological signs and their personality traits. Of course there was none. He/we got an A.

  10. #10 CL
    February 19, 2007

    I guess I just don’t see why this is the dumbening of anything. Who cares how you can sort this stuff? Sometimes the utterly meaningless statistics are the most fun.

  11. #11 MrKAT, Finland,EU
    February 19, 2007

    Here in Finland there was an uncritical interview of professional astrologer Maarir Laurento in teacher’s (!) trade journal (“Opettaja”) some years ago. She has PhD in education.
    http://findastrologer.com/Referrals-Alphabetically/Referrals-L.htm
    Often when interviewers are women I find articles(in local papers) more positive/uncritical..

    On the other hand it was funny to see Paul Nelson’s surprised (hi Paul!;) face when I told him about our PhD astrologers in Europe ;)

  12. #12 Coathangrrr
    February 19, 2007

    I’m sure you could use their astrological sign as some sort of control variable.

    maybe.

  13. #13 Jim Lippard
    February 19, 2007

    They’ve been doing this at least since July 2006.

  14. #14 s. zeilenga
    February 19, 2007

    Well, I don’t know about you all, but I am only voting for someone who refuses to use the word scrotum in any of their literature.

    heh heh. yeah, exactly.

    z.

  15. #15 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    February 19, 2007

    I really want to know what the conversations the editors or publishers had about this decision were like.

    Probably something like this:

    “It’s all in a database; we can code it in five minutes; and someone might think it’s amusing.”

    “Okay. Go for it.”

  16. #16 Righteous Bubba
    February 19, 2007

    This year I got an excellent horoscope about how it was going to be a great day at work and how it was going to lead to good things in future, blah blah blah.

    The horoscope was for January 1st. If you’re just going to pull random crap out of the cookie jar, checking the calendar might be smart.

  17. #17 beepbeepitsme
    February 19, 2007

    The desire of mass commercial media to keep us entertained and open to the purchase of new product also encourages ignorance and fuzzy thinking.

    I decided quite a long time ago, that my thinking didn’t need to be any “fuzzier” than it already was, and I certainly didn’t need to be any more ignorant than I already was, hence the television is turned on rarely.

  18. #18 BennyP
    February 19, 2007

    Of course astrology is bs… but isn’t it a way to get some of the more ignorant citizens interested in(or simply aware of) the gov members?

  19. #19 beepbeepitsme
    February 19, 2007

    When you live in the southern hemisphere, as I do, it is much more obvious as to how astrology is a heap of crapola. Astrology is based on the anthropomorphism of constellations as viewed in the northern hemisphere and that these constellations with human or animal desires and attributes, impact upon the personalities of humans on earth. To translocate this superstitious mumbo jumbo so that it applies to the southern hemisphere and to the people who are born here, requires not only an act of absolute faith, but that faith must be coupled with absolute gullibility.

  20. #20 Mike
    February 19, 2007

    I watched a funny movie last night about the dumbening of America. Idiocracy
    I was amused by the intro when there was a skit showing a couple with high IQs waiting… and waiting… and waiting to have kids until the time was perfect while the less intellectually gifted family tree’s branched and branched.

    Anyway 500 years in the future the world is a very different place.

  21. #21 Adrian Holovaty
    February 19, 2007

    Hey there, PZ Myers,

    I’m the guy who implemented that at washingtonpost.com. As previous commenters have noted, we did it because it would get people talking about the votes database, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a fantastic resource. (I mean, you can sign up to get RSS feeds for your members of Congress, and you can browse voting records all the way back to 1991.)

    And due to this blog entry, along with dozens of other ones, I can safely say: Mission accomplished! Thanks for writing about it.

  22. #22 robin andrea
    February 19, 2007

    Come on everyone knows that sun signs don’t really predict anything. They needed to list the moon and rising signs. The Post just didn’t do their homework. I think Nancy Reagan’s astrologer is probably looking for work. Just don’t vote for anyone whose venus is in uranus.

  23. #23 Ed Darrell
    February 19, 2007

    It’s probably easy to set it up — just run a program that matches birth dates and use that to sort into signs . . .

    I haven’t checked, but can you sort by real useful stuff? How about votes sorted by net worth, or votes sorted by major in college, or by profession, or by whether the Member speaks Spanish. Each of those, of course, would require someone to actually read the biography of the Members, and plug something into a table.

    I’ll bet the Washington Post cannot tell me how closely Darwin and Lincoln were in birth times, though (they were born on the same day, recall). Useful information for fun superstitions, they aren’t so good at.

  24. #24 Evil Bender
    February 19, 2007

    Lisa Simpson: “Wait a minute, that’s not how you spell dumbening. Wait a minute, dumbening isn’t even a word!”

    For those of you who weren’t in on it.

  25. #25 Zeno
    February 19, 2007

    I’m sure the San Francisco Chronicle is just sick that the Washington Post beat them to it. Some newspapers just wallow in this sort of stuff.

    In fact, I just saw where the Sacramento Bee did a completely credulous article on Christian colonic evangelist Danny Vierra. (I mean, he evangelizes for the importance of colonics, although he undoubtedly tosses in some Jesus stuff, too.)

    I wrote about him last year. He thinks you have to poop once for each meal or your bowel backs up. Yeah, he’s full of shit, but not for the reason he thinks.

    Oops. I used a naughty word and I almost never do that. Damn! Scrotum! (But it was le mot juste.)

  26. #26 Adrian Holovaty
    February 19, 2007

    Ed Darrell: We’ve got several sorts on the site now, but we’re working on adding more, including some of the ones you mentioned. Stay tuned!

  27. #27 Ron Chusid
    February 19, 2007

    Speaking of dumb–Deepak Chopra is at it yet again with part 2 of his current attack on science and evolution.

    My response at Liberal Values:
    http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=1104

  28. #28 Jeff Chamberlain
    February 19, 2007

    I’m actually rather taken with the idea of sorting politicians by astrology.

  29. #29 Trinifar
    February 19, 2007

    I really hate it when I don’t/can’t follow the meme. Is this just sarcasm or is there some truth to it? None of the links seems to bear out that the “Washington Post website, which she uses to check congressional vote roll calls, offers readers the ability to display votes sorted by astrological sign!” How about a direct link or a disavowel or explanation?

    Especially peeved since I actually know and like the song.

  30. #30 Krystalline Apostate
    February 19, 2007

    Well, obviously, it’s the barfly’s answer to the cliche question, isn’t it?
    Probably more telling, would be sorting congressional votes via their favorite scripture.
    I’d think that would be most telling, indeed.

  31. #31 Craig O.
    February 19, 2007

    Trinifar:

    Here is an example:

    http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/110/house/1/votes/73/

    (Note: The WP requires a free registration for many of its articles. I don’t know if this particular link requires a registration or not.)

  32. #32 Loren Petrich
    February 19, 2007

    What’s most interesting here is why some pseudoscientists are political and others are not. Creationists are well-known for being VERY political, while astrologers and vitalists and many others are not. There have been some other notable politicized pseudosciences, however, like Hoerbigerism and Lysenkoism, and corporate “bought” science like global-warming denial might also qualify.

  33. #33 Tom
    February 19, 2007

    Happy Chinese New Year to us all! Is the sorting done based only on western astrology, or are they inclusive enough to calculate the data for our Asian legislators using the Chinese calendar. In this Year of the Golden Pig, it could make all the difference.

  34. #34 Ron Chusid
    February 19, 2007

    Actually this might present an opportunity. Challenge those who believe in Astrology to predict before a vote how those with different signs will vote. While all votes might not divide by sign, if astrological sign really predicts anything about a person there must be some issues by which votes will show a signficant pattern by sign. On the other hand, if all we see is a relatively random mix on each vote, it would argue that a person’s sign doesn’t say anything of significance about them.

  35. #35 Trinifar
    February 19, 2007

    Craig O., thanks for the pointer. It is, truly, amazing — and ridiculous. Looking at the options provided on that page it seems the astrology sign option is provided with a sense of humor — a point not conveyed in PZ’s post.

  36. #36 mss
    February 19, 2007

    I can’t think of any better way to illustrate that signs have no consequence than to show their utter lack of correlation with behavior. As far as I’m concerned, this is a potentially good (and certainly amusing) thing.

  37. #37 Jessica Guilford
    February 19, 2007

    Jonathan Vos Post:

    I would really, really, like to produce The Sweepening for you. I see Jake Gyllenhall as the Sweepener, with Scott Caan as the loveable but eccentric lead. Love interest to be named later (Are there any really short actresses free right now? Caan’s only 5’5″.). Have your people call my people. You’re fabulous.

    Ciao,

    Jessi G.

    P.S. Maybe Drew Barrymore. I don’t know how tall she is, but we can put the F/X guys on it. Maybe stand Caan on crates. She’s America’s sweetheart, for God’s sakes.

  38. #38 Ick of the East
    February 19, 2007

    beepbeepitsme –

    The signs/constelations of the Zodiac are all quite visible from the Southern Hemisphere (excepting below the Antarctic Circle in Winter), since they are the ones that are traversed by the Sun.

    Still crap, of course. But equally distributed crap.

  39. #39 AL
    February 19, 2007

    It’s obvious why astrological information was included. It’s to encourage more women to take an interest in politics and voting.

    [I keeeed! I keeeed! I love you women. =P ]

  40. #40 Kristine
    February 20, 2007

    Well, I don’t know about you all, but I am only voting for someone who refuses to use the word scrotum in any of their literature.

    I’ll be happy just to vote for one who keeps it out of his instant messages.

  41. #41 Bill Dauphin
    February 20, 2007

    Trinifar:

    None of the links seems to bear out that the “Washington Post website, which she uses to check congressional vote roll calls, offers readers the ability to display votes sorted by astrological sign!”

    I tried to link directly to an example, but couldn’t get it to work (Craig O. seems to have had better luck); that’s why I included a screenshot.

    As for the humorous intent, blame me, not PZ, for missing that… though in my own defense, it’s not at all obvious that it’s intended as a joke. Rachel Maddow — a Rhodes Scholar, not just some typical radiohead — didn’t notice, either.

    The fact that it was lighthearted play makes me feel a little bit better… but only a little bit: I used to think it was just fine to treat astrology as a harmless bit of fun, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that even that tends to support the gathering demon-hauntedness of the world we live in.

    As for Adrian H.’s point about using the astrology angle as a way of drawing people into this admittedly very powerful tool… well, I’m not convinced the astrology believers (or even the astrology tolerators) are the people I want to see empowered!

  42. #42 beepbeepitsme
    February 20, 2007

    RE ick

    Except, of course, that the constellations and their supposed effects on the lives of humans are not synchronous with the seasons of the southern hemisphere, nor with the major times of the year, such as the summer and winter solstices and equinoxes.

    Pisces, for example, my starsign is viewed in the southern hemisphere in spring, yet in the northern hemisphere it is an autumn constellation.
    http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/the_universe/Constellations/north_constellations.html

    But in Australia, we have adopted the northern hemisphere model. Which means that even though Pisces is a spring constellation in the northern hemisphere, those born in Australia in autumn are considered Pisceans. As, the dates for Pisces, according to northern hemisphere mythology are 19 February – 20 March. (as fixed by the northern gregorian calendar)

    When the sun moved through the signs, the signs were linked to the seasons. So in November in the northern hemisphere, they supposedly experienced the nature of Scorpio and in winter, that of Capricorn. This makes some sense for the northern hemisphere whereas in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are opposite, it makes no sense at all as the seasons and the movement of the sun through the signs is opposite.

    For the star signs to have any sort of relevance from a mythological point of view, which they don’t anyway, they would need to be reversed for the southern hemisphere.

  43. #43 Zeno
    February 20, 2007

    I would really, really, like to produce The Sweepening for you. I see Jake Gyllenhall as the Sweepener, with Scott Caan as the loveable but eccentric lead. Love interest to be named later

    Do you really need a third party as the love interest? Why not just Jake and Scott? We know Jake can handle it.

  44. #44 Krystalline Apostate
    February 20, 2007

    Well, a tad off topic…Gong he fat choy.
    My sign is the Year of the Dog. I however don’t go knocking over garbage cans, sniffing people’s crotches, or chewing on shoes.
    Of course, I was housebroken at an early age. ;)

  45. #45 Mark S
    February 20, 2007

    I do believe the word you meant to use is “endumbening”.

  46. #46 Hipparchia
    February 20, 2007

    I am proud to work in maybe the only newspaper in my country which will not print a horroscope.

    Of course one will always find people who say “Well, sun signs are really bogus.” And then they add: “But birth charts are such an exact science, they are like mathematics.”

    Suffice is to say the above statement made me doubt the level of critical thinking taught to Bulgarian lawyers.

    I like “endumbened”, though…

  47. #47 Jessica Guilford
    February 20, 2007

    Do you really need a third party as the love interest? Why not just Jake and Scott? We know Jake can handle it.

    Well, Zeno, he might not want to get typecast, but it’s worth considering. Let me see how it focus groups. We’ll be in touch.

    What I’m really interested in, frankly, are the merchandising tie-ins. I see an America in which every child five to eighteen years of age has their very own Sweepening broom (possibly with Ninja-dustpan action!). You suppose Swiffer would be interested in this?

    Jessi G.

  48. #48 Saint Gasoline
    February 20, 2007

    To be fair, the idiots that find it plausible to vote for candidates based upon their astrological sign were probably going to vote for the wrong candidate anyway. At least this may sway them for voting for the wrong guy because he’s…well, a scorpio.

  49. #49 Bill Dauphin
    February 20, 2007

    To be fair, the idiots that find it plausible to vote for candidates based upon their astrological sign were probably going to vote for the wrong candidate anyway.

    Yeah… if they vote. But I’m afraid giving the demon-haunted among us tools like this will foster their false sense of actually having information, and encourage people to vote who might otherwise stay home reading tea leaves on election day… thus increasing the chances that evil scorpios might win.

    I’m afraid I’ve never bought into the everybody-ought-to-vote idea. I think all reasonably thoughtful, well-informed people ought to vote, but people who don’t know –or care — anything about the facts in play should stay the hell home! IMHO, of course.

  50. #50 stogoe
    February 20, 2007

    Pairing the killer romantically with the lead won’t work, I’m afraid. We’ll need another male love interest. Maybe an older male (40-65ish), to bring in the older crowd.

    Incidentally, what’s so special about this broom that it can kill people? Is it covered in black mold? Is the bristle made of straight razors? Was it made from evil straw and an evil tree under an evil moon?

  51. #51 Jessica Guilford
    February 20, 2007

    Incidentally, what’s so special about this broom that it can kill people? Is it covered in black mold? Is the bristle made of straight razors? Was it made from evil straw and an evil tree under an evil moon?

    Naw, it’s just (let’s bring the subthread back around to the main topic) a Pisces.

    But seriously –

    I’d be interested to look at your treatment, stogoe. Crank out a couple sample scenes for a screenplay and I’ll have my staff take a look. Could be some bank in it for you. I’m seeing dialogue like,

    EVIL GUY: Sure is [significant pause] dusty around here, isn’t it?

    STARLET VICTIM 1: Um, yeah. ‘Cause it’s an old abandoned barn.

    EVIL GUY: Doncha think somebody should — sweep it up?

    [EVIL GUY reveals broom. Soundtrack violins go crazy.]

    STARLET VICTIM 1: It’s the broom! Aaaaiiiiiieeeeeee!

    The Shatnerian pauses in EVIL GUY’s delivery might make it all a little hokey. Some polishing would obviously be entailed. But that’s my general vision for the project.

    Speaking of Shatner: he’s 45-60ish, isn’t he? I’ll call his agent, see if he’s available.

  52. #52 'As You Know' Bob
    February 21, 2007

    On the 300th anniversary of Albany (NY)’s first city charter, the local newspaper hired an astrologer to use that event as a natal day and cast a horoscope … for the city.

    The Albany Times-Union ran this as the top story – it was literally front page news.

    I picked up the paper off my stoop, stepped inside with it, and picked up the telephone to cancel my subscription. I’ve never paid money for it since then.

  53. #53 Caledonian
    February 21, 2007

    William Shatner was born in 1931, so he’s about 76 years old.

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