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Pandemic Moment: your guide to critically thinking about information

When the News moves into the profession of Astrology

"The virus will continue to make waves for 'some time to come,' especially while the planets are cycling through Pisces, a circuit that comes to an end in the spring of 2021." This future telling example came out of a Globe & Mail article written by Lia Grainger, entitled, Seeking comfort: Astrologers are watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold with the rest of us. (March 28)

Grainger begins her article by noting that people turn to astrology for comfort and answers to questions such as "is this going to affect me? [and] Do I have to worry?", especially when "turning to traditional figureheads does not yield much clarity: Few in positions of institutional authority are willing - or able - to prognosticate." (p. P1)

When working with clients, astrologers stress a need for calm reassurance, intermixed with a responsibility to speak honestly, and following the guidelines of public health.  

Indeed, according to Jessica Lanyadoo, one of the astrologer subjects of the article, covid-19 hasn't changed anything.  She says, "'My approach is already oriented towards psychologically and emotionally supportive work and social justice.  It didn't require any pivot.'" (p. p.12)

it is fascinating that the field of study keenly aware of future telling has taken a very conservative approach to seeing into the future!

The same cannot be said for those "traditional figureheads" and some elements of journalism.

Ethics and Journalism

Writing for the Globe & Mail, Andre Picard, (March 28) begins his article, Will this pandemic make the unthinkable a reality? with, "Doctors and nurses are writing their wills."  This ominous statement characterizes the whole article which is peppered with doom-centric questions, (where a dreadful answer is implied), cloak and dagger government conspiracy musings, and poised future telling statements.

"When people go for coronavirus testing, they need to be asked if they have advance care plans that include DNR instructions."

"It [coronavirus] is now about to reveal the precariousness of the health system..."

Unfortunately, there is very little discussion and evidence given to complement these question-statements. Picard draws on no knowledgeable human experts, and his question-statements are uttered as though the dreadful answers are implied.

Is this ethical journalism?  In fairness, Picard has written an Opinion article, and I guess everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Buried in the middle of the article is, in my opinion, the only useful piece of information: "The simple answer is we don't know..."

However, as we might speculate, fewer people read simple answers, and simple answers are often less provocative, and sell fewer newspapers!

In his own way, Picard has tried to look into the future, a place, in our pandemic moment, where even the astrologers hesitate to tread!

But, then again, astrologers aim to comfort more than they aim to inform clients of bad predictive news.

Reporting future telling

Besides questioning the ethics of future telling in journalism, we expect journalists to report and analyze information coming from political and health authorities and from the wider world. Sometimes, in this reporting, the reader might take a step back and observe the order of future reporting.  Often, a journalistic report begins with the most provocative piece of future predicting and walks (writes) backwards from that position.  What a strange way to see into the future!

As an example, John Fritze, USA Today, (March 31) wrote the following article, Trump warns of 'very painful' time as aides predict US coronavirus death toll could reach 240,000.

The staggering figure of 240,000 possible deaths appears in the headline as the 16th word.

Fritze goes on to say that according to Trump's aides, death toll predictions would likely have been between 1.5 and 2.2 million without social distancing measures.  However, if Americans keep up their social distancing practices, the death rate prediction changes, and falls to between 100,000 and 240,000 lives.

These numbers are reported at the 77th word and the 101st word, respectively.

Reading further, we learn from the top health experts (not surprisingly) that predictive modeling can easily change, and that there is a belief and a hope that the number of deaths can be brought somewhere lower than the lowest predicted estimate.  This discussion begins at the 240th word in the article.

There are a few things worth noting as we bring our critical thinking eye to information.

1. As the story progresses, the number of predicted deaths decreases.  Provocation takes the lead! (and sells newspapers)  In fact, the most ancient future telling profession, the astrologers, have shied away from uttering a number, let alone such a big number.

2. Given the vastness of the predicted range, how useful is this information for the general public?

3. While some health authorities are willing to provide a death toll range, and journalists jump at opportunities to report the numbers, the authorities refuse to supply actual numbers that are more truthful. "Below the low end of the estimate" is the best they can do!

4. Journalists back away from reporting information that is closer to the truth.  "Below the low end of the estimate" begins after the 240th word, whereas 240,000 is given as the last word (a standout position) in the headline!  Is it helpful to report the real story near the end of the story?

In our own backyard

On April 4th, media outlets reported on the Ontario government's modeling of the expected human health damage of the virus.  Reporting for the Globe & Mail, Ivan Semeniuk lead with the following headline, Ontario projects thousands will die over course of pandemic.

Perhaps the reference to the unspecified thousands in the headline is intended to encourage readers to keep reading.  However, pandemic reporting is long past the saturation point, and such headlines may only bring more fear, or add to a building sense of fate directed resignation.  In such a scenario, the typical reader likely stops reading.

By the 25th word, Semeniuk introduces us to the provincial government's projected range of dying from the pandemic.  The range is between 3,000 and 15,000. As you can see, this range is close to a very low range of what could be implied in the unspecified thousands headline. Upwards of 50, 60, 70, and 90 thousand deaths could be implied in the "thousands"  headline.  Therefore, it is a principle of engaging critically with information that we keep reading!

By the 597th word, Semeniuk finally provides the standard qualifying note about predictive covid-19 modeling.  He writes, "Many experts caution that such 'baseline' figures, while important as a starting point for mathematical models, are difficult to equate with reality because so much remains unknown about the transmission of the virus..."  Essentially, weather reporting may have a higher accuracy rating than pandemic death forecasting.

It took Semeniuk nearly 600 words to tell us that the modeling may be unreliable, and therefore likely unhelpful for the general public. In fairness, the qualifying note is repeated in the last part of a caption under a photograph showing the premier delivering the modeling news briefing.  Immediately below the caption is a bar graph displaying the projection of 100,000 potential deaths across the province without social distancing measures.  Sandwiched between two visuals, perhaps the qualifying note will be missed!

Once again, we are free to question the usefulness of such a broad range.  It is not until the 496th word of the article that we learn something truly interesting.  Semeniuk writes, "On Thursday reporters pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to release best and worst-case scenarios for the pandemic across Canada but the federal government has not yet done so."  While it may seem clear why reporters may want these modeling numbers released (hint: the numbers sell more newspapers), the federal government has taken a thoughtful pause.

Judging by the significant difference between 3,000 and 15,000, along with the gulf of uncertainty in the calculations, the numbers are perhaps useful for the private use of public health authorities, and detrimental for public consumption at large, creating even more disproportionate fear.

The take-away from this box:

1. Keep reading!


Grainger, L. (2020, March 28). Seeking comfort: Astrologers are watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold with the rest of us. Globe & Mail, pp.P1, P12.

Picard, A. (2020, March 28). Will this pandemic make the unthinkable a reality?. Globe & Mail, p. A3.

Semeniuk, I. (2020, April 4). Ontario projects thousands will die over course of pandemic. Globe & Mail, p. A4.

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