Publicly-Funded Superstition

Recently, public activities came to my attention which, given the source, I found both surprising and startling. The publicly-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) – a crown corporation which serves the public as the national broadcaster – is also a platform for superstition; disguised as astrology.

By publishing weekly horoscopes, the CBC – worse than its mere promotion – is perpetuating superstition. In the words of the once Torontonian, Emma Goldman: “Superstition – along with Ignorance and Bigotry – is one of the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on Earth”.

Emma Goldman, like many of humanity’s greatest heroes, was an ordinary person with extraordinary ideas. However, she wasn’t the first to publicly denounce superstition. More than two millennia before Emma, the Sage Epicurus did the same.

Epicurus was famously attributed – by David Hume, among others – with a compelling argument against divine providence; widely known as the problem of evil. Divine providence is really just another form of anthropocentric superstition. Such notions – though, seemingly unique to the human condition – are found universally across cultures. However, significant progress has been made; the geocentric solar system was overthrown and replaced with the heliocentric system, divine creation of human beings – like the genesis account of Adam and Eve – was overthrown and replaced with evolution. The universe turned out to be materialistic and purposeless.

Despite progress, such anthropocentric superstition continues on with, for example, astrology, a pseudoscience – not to be confused with astronomy – that purports special extraterrestrial relationships with earthly human affairs and claims special knowledge concerning the supposed mundane effects on individual lives.

For example, the most recently published CBC horoscope, for the week of April 22nd, 2019, asserts that the changing motion of Pluto will impact your personal life here on Earth and quells fears of this change by then characterizing – if not personifying – the protective nature of Pluto. Personally, I do think Pluto could be protective, indeed, if it intercepts potentially catastrophic asteroids from making impact with Earth.

My main concerns with such instances of publicly-funded superstition, are whether they do more harm than good and how one can possibly justify the perpetuation of societal superstition?

Epicurus thought it’s misguided to approach problems of human suffering without offering any truly beneficial remedy. I’m sympathetic to some astrologers’ horoscopes because I cannot discount the potential for a sort of placebo effect. But some astrologers include lucky numbers in their horoscopes and therefore encourage gambling. Epicurus strongly discouraged leaving our well-being to chance. Epicurus also thought it rather ridiculous to pray or wait for things to happen, especially for things easily within your means of securing for yourself. To me, it does seem tragic to wait for a horoscope to prescribe you a positive outlook. Epicurus kindly encouraged us to never delay for enjoying, as far as I’m aware, our one and only life. Every second is the opportunity of a life time. This sentiment was later echoed by another hero of humanity, Charles Darwin, who wrote to his sister: “a man who dares to waste one hour of time, has not discovered the value of life”.

Here are three more concerns worth sharing: Epicurean philosophy advises against the use of empty words and recommends we call things by their proper name, so, perhaps, half-jokingly, my first concern is whether astrologers have updated their definitions of planets to now exclude Pluto from their planetary considerations of our solar system?

My second and third concerns come after some reflection on my own education. My high school history teacher, certainly overqualified – with a PhD – to be teaching at a secondary school, taught me an importantly elegant definition: “culture, simply put, is just learned behaviour”. A major problem I have with the CBC horoscopes is that they’re published under the culture column of the life section. Beyond the potential placebo effect, what good are they in terms of societal cultural best practises for setting positive examples of permissible or acceptable behaviour?

Thirdly, reflecting even further back to primary school, during the health and physical education components of our curriculum, I vividly remember the anti-drug workshops. The takeaway message was that some drugs are viewed as gateway drugs. There exist drugs that, if regularly exposed to, can lead to other, often harder, drugs. Does astrology desensitize or normalize superstition? Does the popular and national exposure through CBC stimulate the exploration of possibly more dangerous superstitions?

I think publicly-funded superstition is scandalous for two, non-mutually exclusive, reasons; the national media losing its credibility and the potential gateway-drug effect.

I think it’s now appropriate to consider the wisdom of another personal hero of mine – who likewise I’d extend as being a true friend and hero of humanity like Epicurus and Emma Goldman.

Reflecting on the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, considered one of the worst human-made disasters, Dr. Michael Crichton reminded us all of the potential public safety and health consequences from the broadcast of false, inaccurate or misleading information.

Dr. Crichton shared the disturbing conclusion of the later UN Report, which suggested that the most harm from the fallout came in the form of the psychological effects, as a result of inaccurate and grossly misleading information reported by various media outlets – including the CBC – that manifested as negative self-assessments of health, a belief in shortened life expectancy, a pervasively felt incapacity to take initiative and dependency on assistance from the state.

In his fearless 2005 testimony before the US Congress against the politicization of science, at which then-Senator Hillary Clinton was present but played no helpful part, Dr. Crichton advanced that the proper function of government is to set standards for the integrity of information: “In an information society, public safety depends on public information, only government can perform that task.”

In a time of so-called fake news, how can anyone be expected to know who to trust and what to believe if the main Canadian media source is currently the home for astrology and therefore perpetuating societal superstition? I therefore ask that members of the CBC carefully reflect on their code of conduct in order to restore public trust and regain mutual respect.

Both the CBC and Ethics Commissioner were reached for comment. When available, an update will be provided.

I’ll sign off with an appropriate song: Best of You by Foo Fighters

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for your first full posting on this blog, Oscar, and very welcome it is, an original take on horoscopes, and an interesting application of the ideas of Epicurus to contemporary culture. Despite education humanbeings still retain their secret superstitions

    In general , I agree with you – horoscopes should not be perpetuated with the aid of public corporations. However, I must say that I have reservations about how much damage they do. The reason for this is that they are universally pabulum, nonsense stuff you forget within seconds of reading them. What is so amazing is that there are truly people out there being paid for composing this tripe. Can you imagine the mental gymnastics required to think up twelve collections of words for every star sign every day of the year? Every entry has to be vague and unspecific, able to be owned in some form by the gullible. It’s a very real achievement, if you like doing things like this. But so generalised and vague are the daily entries that they could be used, or re- used for any of the other star sign, and no one would be the wiser. It’s entertainment, I suppose, and might give momentary hope to the frail and unconfident. In the scale of the actual horrors being foisted on the world, it’s harmless stuff otherwise. Don’t ask the taxpayer to subsidise it, but don’t ban it either.

    • Thank you Robert. I do my best to balance my view by looking for the positive aspects of such issues. I agree, it would take praise-worthy perseverance to make it in the field of astrology 😉

      Like with many other controversial things, I don’t think banning it is sensible. I think that education and a healthy exposure to it goes a long, long way.

      The quick and short solutions are often too quick to be well-thought out and too short-sighted to have a meaningful and lasting effect on society.

      I do, however, find it inappropriate behaviour of the public broadcaster and irresponsible use of public funds.

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