It all started with a silly article that had landed in my inbox on Friday morning via the platform called ‘Medium’. The lede of the article in the Pacific Standard magazine by Elena Gooray asked: How do you beat a curse? It caught my eye even in the middle of an eye-roll. I wish it hadn’t. Because inevitably I caught the sub-lede: A practiced Santa Barbara psychic weighs in on Lil B’s so far effective curse against basketball superstar Kevin Durant. And my hackles were raised.
Just so that there is no misunderstanding on this point, I had exactly zero clue about either of the two gentlemen in question. The first paragraph informed me that there was apparently bad blood between them; that there were words —Tweeted!— between the celebrated hoopster and the celebrated rapper; as a result, the rapper placed a curse on the former, preventing him from ever winning a championship. Up until this point, I had chalked this up to general weirdness of celebrities in the public eye; after all, there is a saying amongst my people, which roughly translates as: A Condor’s Curse Does Not Slay A Cow. Pretty self-explanatory.
That’s where it all imploded. The very next paragraph said:
… Some fans (like me) are worried about the reach of this curse. So Pacific Standard turned to an expert: Santa Barbara-based psychic Amy Katz, who has practiced professionally for 13 years (and is pursuing a doctorate in depth psychology, a field that draws heavily from mid-20th century psychiatrist Carl Jung)…
An “expert“. An “expert psychic“. Do words not mean anything anymore?
The article was basically an interview with the said expert psychic, who held forth on the possibility of a future friendship between the gentlemen in question. What followed from that point on was a load of superstitious claptrap, couched in pseudo-profound psychobabble – bedecked with gems such as:
… [A curse] reflects projections, like arrows being shot from another person. If we deflect those arrows by saying, “these are your own projections of your self,” that will stop it.
… there may be a rapper inside [Durant] that’s mirroring the other rapper, so his own inner rapper is cursing him, and this conflict may be causing him not to be the player he wants to be.
… curses are almost always linked to the transmission of transgenerational trauma.
So how does this expert provide a societal service to alleviate such trauma? Apparently there are psychics without integrity —no irony there— who tell
their marks the victims that they are accursed, charging mucho dinero to remove said curse. On the other hand,
[Our expert helps] remove a lot of damage that’s been done by less scrupulous psychics, first of all either by assuring that the person has not been cursed or by finding really simple remedies — something like lighting a candle, or saying prayers and calling in one’s ancestors.
And this is past the middle of the second decade of the Twenty-first century of the Common Era. Good grief.
The question of gullibility aside, this belief in psychics may seem harmless eccentricity to some. After all, looking up predictions associated with so-called zodiac signs is still a pastime with quite a devoted following. And people in droves harbor outlandish beliefs, such as homeopathy, naturopathy and/or Reiki can cure them of their illnesses. Even if we don’t actively encourage such nonsense, perhaps we could graciously look away?
Should we, though? This nation, an acknowledged global leader in science and technology, is being paradoxically consumed by waves of anti-reason, anti-intellectual attitudes, while its persistent anti-science philosophy and beliefs are eating away at the foundation of its vaunted democracy, and hurting the economic competitiveness of its businesses.
But why should science literacy matter in general? Last year, in answer to a question, Marcia McNutt –then editor-in-chief of Science– offered this succinct insight: “Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” And that is the reason why public understanding of scientific principles and issues has long been considered by scholars a metric of how informed the public is and how meaningfully they can contribute to the formulation of public policy in the 21st century when scientific and technological developments impinge on every aspect of our lives.
One of those scholars, Jon D Miller of Northwestern University —a longtime and well-respected investigator of public understanding of science and technology in the US— put this in stark perspective in a 2002 article on “civic scientific literacy” in FAS Public Interest Report, the journal of the Federation of American Scientists:
A strong technologically-based economy in the 21st century will require that a substantial portion of the consuming populace be scientifically literate. Of equal importance to these economic arguments, the preservation of democratic governments in the 21st century may depend on expansion of public understanding of science and technology. […]
It is clear that national, state, and local political agendas will include an increasing number of important scientific and technological policy issues in the 21st century. […] it is important to note that the public plays the role of final arbiter of disputes, especially when the scientific community and the political leadership are divided on a particular issue. As new energy and biological technologies move toward the marketplace, there will be important public policy issues to be decided and some of these issues may erupt into full-scale public controversies. The preservation of the democratic process demands that there be a sufficient number of citizens able to understand the issues, deliberate the alternatives, and adopt public policy.
With US K-12 STEM education lagging behind other industrialized nations (a fact that both US scientists and lay public seem to be aware of, according to a 2015 Pew Research Report), is it any wonder that this nation ranked close to the top in the 2014 Index of Ignorance, while consistently lagging behind its First World peers regarding the citizenry’s overall socio-political awareness/knowledge?
So, it is with this background that I posited a question on Twitter to Elena Gooray (@elenagooray), an editorial fellow with the Pacific Standard magazine and author of the curse-beating psychic interview. The following is a screencap of the conversation; I have Elena’s permission to quote her tweeted responses (I asked for her permission even though it is not customary to do so in order to quote publicly viewable tweets).
The last link refers to the What’s The Harm website, which keeps an ongoing compilation of serious and severe harms caused to unsuspecting victims due to their reliance on superstition, quackery and pseudoscience. It is quite illuminating, not to mention, sad. Meanwhile, my question remains to the wider journalistic community: is it responsible for journalists to promote such superstitious nonsense?