Tanya Luhrmann and the decline of the New York Times

As newspapers throughout the U.S. go belly up, there are only a few—actually one—that still represent high-quality journalism. And that one is The New York Times. Yes, it is still the go-to paper if you want substance and intellectual viands, but it seems to me to be on the decline as well. The science pages are slowly going downhill, dominated by superannuated writers (with notable exceptions like Carl Zimmer and Natalie Angier), and are increasingly heavy on “health and medicine” rather than pure science. Its opinion columns, too, seem lamer than they used to be.

Perhaps this is a “get off my lawn” moment, but having people like Ross Douthat as the best of conservative opinion speaks poorly for either conservatism or the paper itself.

But what cannot be excused is the Times’s signing of anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann from Stanford as a regular op-ed columnist.  I had thought that her lucubrations appeared only online, but I read a paper copy of the Times yesterday and, to my shock, saw a completely lame column by Luhrmann called “Ghosts are back!”

Apparently this is supposed to be some Halloween-themed piece that yields some serious conclusions, but it seems totally muddled to me. Read it: it’s very short.  Maybe my faculties are dulled by a miserable cold, but I can’t make heads or tails of what she says.

Here are her points:

1. Before the 19th century, ghosts were perceived as solid spirits.

2. After that, ghosts were transformed, as in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” into translucent spirits. This change apparently has great sociological import for Luhrmann.

3. This change in the solidity of ghosts, says Luhrmann, may reflect the decline in belief of the supernatural, so that ghosts became less tangible. She has another theory that is hers, too: the fake “spirit photography” of the era needed a way to distinguish ghosts from real people, so they were made transparent.

4. Changing gears, Luhrmann notes that modern culture is saturated with supernaturalism in the form of ghosts, sci-fi stuff, and the paranormal.  One explanation (mine) is that the Internet has disseminated this stuff, as it has cat pictures and atheism. But Luhrmann has another theory:

Scholars sometimes talk about this supernaturalization as a kind of “re-enchantment” of the world — as a growing awareness that the modern world is not stripped of the magical, as the German sociologist Max Weber and so many others once thought, but is in some ways more fascinated than ever with the idea that there is more than material reality around us. In part, I think, this is because skepticism has made the supernatural safe, even fun. It turns out that while many Americans may think that there are ghosts, they often don’t believe that ghosts can harm them.

Well, first of all I’m not sure that the modern world really does entertain more belief in the supernatural component than, say, it did 50 years ago. Seances and Ouija Boards are out of fashion, and past-life regression seems to be disappearing. Where’s her proof that “supernaturalization” is increasing? And what is this about making the supernatural “safe and fun”? This seems to be an idea pulled out of one’s nether parts. Really, we believe more in ghosts (an unevidenced assertion) because we now think that they can’t hurt us?

This is apparently what passes for Deep Thought in the New York Times’s op-ed columns. Remember, Luhrmann gets paid actual money to write stuff like this. Can the Times find no writers that can actually have meaningful things to say?

But the worst part of Lurhmann’s column is its ending

There is, however, a deeper reason. Just as spiritualism became a means to hold on to the supernatural claims of religion in the face of science in the 19th century, the supernaturalism of our own time may enable something similar. The God that has emerged in the post-1960s “renewalist” Christianity practiced by nearly a quarter of all Americans is vividly supernatural — a Jesus who walks by your side just as Jesus walked with his disciples. This assertion that the supernatural is natural helps to make the case for God in a secular age, because it promises people that they will know by experience that God is real.

Perhaps technology plays a role as well. Our world is animated in ways that can seem almost uncanny — lights that snap on as you approach, cars that fire into life without keys, websites that know what you like to read and suggest more books like those. The Internet is not material in the ordinary way. It feels somehow different. Maybe this, too, stokes our imagination.

This suggests there may be even more supernaturalism in years to come.

Happy Halloween.

What? We have a revival of supernaturalism (which, by the way, is in her characterization nonreligious) because there is a new brand of Christianity that makes Jesus your personal friend? What the hell is that about? The recognition that people accept the supernatural (the religious brand) because they have a personal, transformative experience was the thesis of William James’s  The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book published in 1902.  It is nothing new to claim that Jesus walks by your side, for that concept of a personal God has been going on for decades.  And it’s not a claim that “the supernatural is natural,” either, regardless of what Luhrmann says. It’s a claim that “the supernatural is right here with you.”

As for the paragraph about automatic light switches and websites, that’s just padding. Really, does the existence of the Internet and advertiser-tracking really promote a belief in the supernatural? “Wow, Amazon suggested that I buy a book by Christopher Hitchens. That’s supernatural, dude!”

One gets the feeling here that Luhrmann is either casting about for things to fill a column on deadline, or that she’s trying to apply her studies on one Christian sect to other areas where they don’t belong. Either way, she’s filling up newspaper space with tedious and unsupported speculations. There is nothing here to stimulate one’s thinking.

I’ve written a fair bit about Luhrmann (see here, for instance), not because I dislike her—though I don’t sense a particularly deep thinker—but because I think she instantiates a new phenomenon: a secular analysis of religion conducted in a way that allows religious people to remain comfortable with their beliefs. Although Luhrmann’s stance is one of an objective anthropologist who just gives us the facts, in reality she is more like Elaine Ecklund, someone whose research implicitly buttresses the importance of religion. Both Ecklund and Luhrmann, I think, know exactly what they’re doing, and what they know is that espousing “belief in belief” will bring them renown, like getting columns in the New York Times. You won’t see someone like Sam Harris writing regularly in the NYT op-ed section, for his thoughts aren’t soothing enough for Times readers.

“Happy Halloween,” indeed!

 

74 Comments

  1. Xuuths
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    You live and work in Chicago, but don’t like the Chicago Tribune?

    • Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      No, it’s a crummy paper. Am I supposed to like the hometown paper? Sorry!

      When I read a paper, I read the Times. If I want local news, I’ll watch the local news on t.v. The Trib and the Sun Times are lame.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Do I correctly gather that it was a much better paper back in the day of Mike Royko? (Or was he at the Sun-Times? Or both?)

        My experience of local TV news is that it is breathless, “edgy,” yammering, shallow, preening and gossipy. Of course this is becoming more and more also true of the major national morning shows, at least one of which having an underlying continuous edgy fuzz-rock audio track. When I find myself inescapably taken hostage by one of them, the word – and the need for – “Valium” comes to mind. There’s a TV in the dental suite. Staff seem relieved when I ask them to turn it off.) Also true of the major evening news broadcasts. At least with a hard-copy paper I don’t have to endure keening tones and fatuous laughter.

        Could Cronkite, Severeid, Huntley, Brinkley, Schorr be hired today?

        • Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

          Just watched an episode on the Kennedy assassination from a series called The Sixties which we taped months ago. Cronkite, Rather, Chancellor, MacNeil, Brinkley reporting. WHAT a difference from today.

          • darrelle
            Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

            I am currently reading a book called Citizens of London about Americans who stood staunchly with England from the earliest days of WWII, and were influential in persuading the US government, and people, that England must be saved. Ed Murrow is one of the three main “Citizens of London” that the book focuses on, along with many other notable news people from US agencies and the BBC. It is a very stark contrast to today’s news outlets.

            Murrow and his ilk could probably provide half the world’s energy needs if we could only figure out how to tap into the rotational energy of their bodies spinning furiously in their graves.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              Wasn’t there appreciable effort by some “Isolationists” in the 1939/40/41 period to cast the “Citizens of London” group as traitors to America?
              While I’m extremely wary of the lies and deceits used to justify the current bout of Western wars in the “Middle East”, in the case of the anti-Nazi wars of the 1940s can at least make a worthwhile case for being a “just war”.
              And sometimes I look, gloomily, at today’s news and wonder if I’m going to have to deliberately go and kill people while having politicians [hawk, spit] lie to me about my motivations.
              Other worrying news off my Tw###r feed has a crash and explosion of a Virgin Galactic test flight. No news of the pilots. Ungood. Hopefully quick.
              Too bloody depressing.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                RE Citizens of London being cast as traitors by isolationists, I’m sure it was done routinely as I have run across many references to such, but beyond that I am not knowledgeable about specific incidents.

                WWII was quite different, I think, than nearly all of the military adventures of the West since then. For most of the West, including England (and much of the rest of the world as well, for that matter), it was very literally an existential war. And the enemy was not amenable to reason or a diplomatic resolution short of giving up everything you had. I think the only reasonable course of action for a Westerner in that time was to attempt to aid the war effort against the Axis in whatever way they could.

                But given your heritage I doubt you needed me to tell you any of that. You likely know more than I, rather than less.

            • Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

              Or churning in their urns…Someone else recommended that book to me recently.

          • Filippo
            Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

            In my stack of (only half-read) papers, there is a comment by some NYT writer, if I recall to the effect, that journalists of that era were too – what? – serious, possessed of gravitas, proper, professional, level-headed, too mindful of demeanor/decorum. Again, one is not privy to how the writer knows this.

            Re JFK: “FRANK McGEE OF NBC-TV SIGNS OFF THE AIR ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963” on Youtube.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

          They probably could, but ironically, it would only be on Al Jazeera America.

          • ploubere
            Posted November 2, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

            Sadly true. Al Jazeera is now my chosen TV news, they are doing excellent coverage of world events in the way that the networks used to do decades ago. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to ever gain much audience share in the U.S. They have a branding problem.

        • ratabago
          Posted October 31, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          My experience of local TV news is the same, if it is owned by a corporation. We also have 2 government funded broadcasting services, which the conservative side of politics have been trying to get rid of for yonks. Neither are as good as they once were, but both still provide some depth and analysis.

          On the other hand, my TV antenna suffered an act of crow about two months back. I haven’t bothered to clamber up on the roof to repair it. Even my kids haven’t asked me to fix it. They don’t miss the TV at all. Maybe that strategy of dumbing down is partly responsible for the networks loosing market share to other entertainments? I really hope it is.

  2. Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    You’re absolutely right. About everything. I took a fast read of the beginning of the Luhrmann column and when, after a few paragraphs, I noticed that she was not easing off her wispy proposition that ghosts are real things — like angels, in which I’ve heard a heap of Americans believe — instead of default Halloween costumes, I stopped reading.

    The Times remains the paper of record — if only because what else is there? — but it requires a daily application of a great lesson I learned in (public) high school, from our wonderful (public school) teacher, Larry Fink: how to read newspapers. He showed us how to separate news and fact from opinion.
    Sounds simple. It remains one of the most powerful and endlessly relevant educational experiences of my life.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      I perceive that over time more reportorial opinionating is getting inserted in NY Times news stories, which are putatively objective. (It is much more blatant in other, more regional papers I’ve read.) I understand that no one can be purely, solely objective. But “egregious” seems to apply. Is the Times trying to be more “relevant,” engaging, “edgy,” “infotainment”-oriented and social media/hipster/”Millenial”-conscious?

      I perceive that more and more, NYT reporters state that something “seems” a certain way, or is “odd” or “eccentric,” or is not “relevant,” among other descriptors. They never say just how they know this.

      These are reporters’ comments; they’re not quoting someone. Occasionally one reads an article called “news analysis,” which “seems” (ha) to open the spigot of opinionating.

      One relatively-recent reportorial conceit is “signaling.” E.g., the Times will report that, by taking a certain action, the (Obama) Administration is “signaling” its response/reaction to the action of another party. I’ve yet to read a reporter explain just how s/he possibly knows that. Why not simply ask the Administration for an explanation, or report that the Administration refuses to give an explanation? The reader can than make her/his own judgement as to what if any “signaling” is occurring.

      I try to remember that reporters are at the mercy of editors; could it be that editors are responsible for not a little of this opinionating/bloviating?

  3. Grania Spingies
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Someone needs to show Tanya the big refrigerated rooms where hundreds of humming machines reside in company after company so that she can see where the interwebz comes from.

  4. GBJames
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    The neighbor’s outside light kept coming on and off during the night. I thought it was because the wind was blowing the weeds and triggering the motion sensor. Turns out it was ghosts! Who knew?

    • Marella
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Which brings me to my feeling about the magical nature of modern technology; how very badly it works much of the time, which come to think of it is just like magic!

  5. Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Aaaaaarggggghhh

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      There’s a Unicode entity for that, but this margin is too small to contain the 90-odd reference tables.

      • Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Guess I’ll have to stick w aaaarrrrrrggghhhh.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 5:55 am | Permalink

          … huurgh! What is it good for? Abserlutly nuffing, say it again.
          Or words to that effect. The sun being both invisible, and probably below the yard arm, I’m not in a fit state to sing. You do not know how lucky you are (though you can make an educated guess).

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

            Probably as lucky as you are that i’m not in a fit state to sing🐸

  6. nickswearsky
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    “Well, first of all I’m not sure that the modern world really does entertain more belief in the supernatural component than, say, it did 50 years ago.”

    I’m not so sure — there are more psychic shops in my neighborhood (Chicago) than ever. Facebook is full of ghosts caught on camera. Ghost Hunters is running strong on cable TV (as are shows seeking Bigfoot, Megalodon, and other legendary creatures). Sure, not all supernatural, but I think TL has a point that such beliefs thrive in the internet and skeptical movement age.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Luhrmann cited a statistic in support of her claim:

      A 2013 Harris Poll found that 42 percent of Americans believed in ghosts — but only 24 percent of respondents 68 and older.

      It would have been better to compare this poll with a similar one from 50 year ago, instead of simply pointing out the difference between older and younger people (age may bring wisdom), but iirc magazines like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer have tracked a rise in certain forms of supernatural beliefs. The plethora of shows which purport to provide documentary evidence for ghosts, esp, and other supernatural beings and forces may be partly to blame.

  7. Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I saw Tanya Luhrmann walking through the streets of Soho in the rain … and her hair was perfect.

    • HBB
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Send lawyers, guns, and money; the Times has hit the fan. The ghost of Zevon this Halloween?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Lawyers and guns go together – not necessarily ammunition, as many guns function well as clubs. So the money is for the post lawyer party? Can we de-politician too?

  8. Goliath Field
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    It has been on my mind that supernaturalization has been increasing over the years. It is nearly impossible to see a movie that has no supernatural aspects, whether purposely, as in Alien or the Matrix, or incidentally, as in impossible car chases or characters surviving impossible situations.

    And belief in homeopathy and energy medicine, which is also supernaturalism, appears to be spreading.

    Finally, the growing disregard for scientific explanations implies supernatural substitutes, if any.

    • Posted October 31, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      The supernaturalization of movies is easily matched by their sci-fi-nification. And don’t get me started about the bloated sequalization of movies. These formulas are what puts butts into seats, plain and simple.

      Still looking forward to The Avengers II, however.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        I myself crave more of “Firefly” and “Serenity.”

  9. Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    We are steadily losing the NYT as both the ‘paper of record’ and the champion of an intellectual approach to culture and society. Each week that I pay 6 bucks for the Sunday edition, I find less substance and more cotton candy. One can understand this in such sections as ‘Sunday Styles’ (which is now printed on higher-quality stock than the rest of the paper, no doubt in order that the fashion ads look shinier), but the ‘Sunday Review’ is itself a distressing hodgepodge of jejune personal memoirism and mostly mediocre political opinion columns. Lurhmann’s lucubrations fit right in with the American ‘it’s all good’ mentality that the NYT now seems bent on emulating.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Agree that the Sunday Review is only a shadow of its former self.

  10. John Dentinger
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Hmm . . . I can only guess, but I believe (alas, without any evidence–don’t shoot me) that Prof. Ceiling Cat has overlooked the Tampa Bay Times (nee St. Petersburg Times) when he writes that the NYT is the only newspaper extant that represents high quality journalism. This may be because, unlike me, he has never lived in the St. Pete area; there are millions of current & former Floridians, though, who trust the TBT. It truly is journalism at its finest–just check out the website.

  11. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Ross Douthat as the best of conservative opinion speaks poorly for either conservatism or the paper itself.

    I’m afraid it’s conservatism because David Brooks isn’t any better.

    As you have noted several times recently, liberalism is infected with putting such as high priority on multiculturalism, that an alarming number of liberals will deny reality in its name. Still, I don’t yet sense that it is a requirement that one overlook the dangers of religion, for example, just so we can all “get along” to be a liberal.

    Not so, I’m afraid, with conservatism. You must accept that tax cuts are an unalloyed good; supply-side economics is a law of nature. You must deny that climate change is happening and/or that its caused by human actions, Obamacare can not represent an improvement in American health care, and the Second Amendment requires zero regulation of firearms, and people on welfare – or even unemployment insurance – are there because they want to be.

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      You must accept that tax cuts are an unalloyed good…

      For the rich, maybe, especially if they’re part of a corporation. I somehow doubt anyone at the other end of the socioeconomic scale is getting the same benefits. They aren’t in the UK, and the US is even worse in terms of financial inequality.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Stop trying to introduce evidence into the testimony of someone’s faith.

        • Filippo
          Posted October 31, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          In Valle Crucis today, I saw on the wall of the Mast General Mercantile Store a picture of a chicken crossing the road, with the following caption:

          “I look forward to the day when a chicken can cross the road without her motives being questioned.”

          I also saw one that said, “You are mistaking me for the maid we do not have.”

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

            I mis-read “Valle Crucis” (I infer, some local “weird stuff” store) as “Valles Marineris”. I doubt that the Management would be devastated to hear of the mistake.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        “For the rich, maybe, especially if they’re part of a corporation.”

        Mitt Romney’s sentiments notwithstanding, I’ll believe that a corporation is a “person” when it can be drafted into the military and sent in harm’s way to be killed or maimed for life like a flesh-and-blood human being.

        • reasonshark
          Posted November 1, 2014 at 1:16 am | Permalink

          Romney likes to present himself as a self-made entrepreneur, but he got rich mostly by crook:

          http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/greed-and-debt-the-true-story-of-mitt-romney-and-bain-capital-20120829

          “And this is where we get to the hypocrisy at the heart of Mitt Romney. Everyone knows that he is fantastically rich, having scored great success, the legend goes, as a “turnaround specialist,” a shrewd financial operator who revived moribund companies as a high-priced consultant for a storied Wall Street private equity firm. But what most voters don’t know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune: by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back. This is the plain, stark reality that has somehow eluded America’s top political journalists for two consecutive presidential campaigns: Mitt Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth.

          “By making debt the centerpiece of his campaign, Romney was making a calculated bluff of historic dimensions – placing a massive all-in bet on the rank incompetence of the American press corps. The result has been a brilliant comedy: A man makes a $250 million fortune loading up companies with debt and then extracting million-dollar fees from those same companies, in exchange for the generous service of telling them who needs to be fired in order to finance the debt payments he saddled them with in the first place. That same man then runs for president riding an image of children roasting on flames of debt, choosing as his running mate perhaps the only politician in America more pompous and self-righteous on the subject of the evils of borrowed money than the candidate himself. If Romney pulls off this whopper, you’ll have to tip your hat to him: No one in history has ever successfully run for president riding this big of a lie. It’s almost enough to make you think he really is qualified for the White House.”

          http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-federal-bailout-that-saved-mitt-romney-20120829

          “Romney likes to say he won’t “apologize” for his success in business. But what he never says is “thank you” – to the American people – for the federal bailout of Bain & Company that made so much of his outsize wealth possible.

          “According to the candidate’s mythology, Romney took leave of his duties at the private equity firm Bain Capital in 1990 and rode in on a white horse to lead a swift restructuring of Bain & Company, preventing the collapse of the consulting firm where his career began. When The Boston Globe reported on the rescue at the time of his Senate run against Ted Kennedy, campaign aides spun Romney as the wizard behind a “long-shot miracle,” bragging that he had “saved bank depositors all over the country $30 million when he saved Bain & Company.”

          “In fact, government documents on the bailout obtained by Rolling Stone show that the legend crafted by Romney is basically a lie. The federal records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that Romney’s initial rescue attempt at Bain & Company was actually a disaster – leaving the firm so financially strapped that it had “no value as a going concern.” Even worse, the federal bailout ultimately engineered by Romney screwed the FDIC – the bank insurance system backed by taxpayers – out of at least $10 million. And in an added insult, Romney rewarded top executives at Bain with hefty bonuses at the very moment that he was demanding his handout from the feds.”

    • Filippo
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Also, one must claim that there is no such thing as too many human beings; that there is no such thing as a maximum carrying capacity for the planet Earth.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Re David Brooks: he religiously employs the terms “human resources,” “human capital,” “social capital.” I have to wonder in what circumstances he would use the terms “humans,” “human beings,” “people,” “persons.”

  12. nickswearsky
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    “The science pages are slowly going downhill, dominated by superannuated writers (with notable exceptions like Carl Zimmer and Natalie Angier), and are increasingly heavy on “health and medicine” rather than pure science. Its opinion columns, too, seem lamer than they used to be.”

    Luhrman is a cultural anthropologist, which I guess you may not consider, along with health and medicine, real science. Her piece is a op-ed, and does not appear in the Science section (at least online), which may have been inappropriate the way it is written.

    Angier has written plenty of clunkers for the NYT (I know she does have a Pulitzer). Then, of course, they also had the loathsome Nicholas Wade for way too long.

    • Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Cultural anthropology can sometimes be real science, but less science-y than physical anthropology. I know, for crying out loud, that it was an op-ed, and not a scientific report. My comments about science in the NYT were separate from what Luhrmann wrote. I do have the ability to discriminate between op-eds and science reporting.

      • nickswearsky
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Of course, in the Online NYT today is an article “Magic May Lurk Inside Us” that is in the Science Times. It includes the line:

        “Several streams of research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy are converging on an uncomfortable truth: We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit. ”

        This is really not much different from what Luhrmann is saying. She is simply looking at it from a different view.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          Being susceptible to a line of thought does not mean giving into it.

  13. Drbrydon
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    What the hell is a “solid spirit”? I’ve never heard of that. There was a link on Fark the other day to a James Randi foundation study on ghosts. Of course, there were believers in the comments. One suggested that “perhaps they were echos…”. Amorphous nonsense.

    I notice, looking at her article, that Luhrmann does not mention the history of fakery in the rise of 19th century spiritualism (i.e., the Fox sisters).

    • GBJames
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      I think the idea is that a ghost of someone would appear and be indistinguishable from an actual living being. As opposed to being something that you could partially see through.

      • Doug
        Posted November 1, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        I’ve heard people talk about angels in this way; supposedly, angels walk among us in human form, doing good deeds. By this, they mean actual angels, not just good people.

        “My car got a flat on a back road late at night. A man came along and changed it, and when I went to thank him . . .he was GONE!”

    • nickswearsky
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Archaeologist Timothy Taylor (UK) writes about the origin of ghosts in his book The Buried Soul. He discusses the origin of some funeral practices, which seem designed to prevent the dead from returning. A fear that he agrees is no longer of much concern, but was for ancient people.

      • Drbrydon
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        I am familiar with the concept. The solid spirit just seems a confusion, like an incorporeal body.

      • reasonshark
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        He discusses the origin of some funeral practices, which seem designed to prevent the dead from returning.

        Does that mean a solid spirit is basically a zombie?

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted October 31, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          Well, zombies have a hankering for brains…

        • nickswearsky
          Posted October 31, 2014 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          Zombies, vampires, ghosts — all the same, basically. He points out that being buried alive is not something we worry about today, but was much more possible back in the day.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      A solid spirit is frozen ethanol and water. Best to let them thaw – otherwise a severe cold-headache awaits.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 31, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Better than frozen methanol, where blindness awaits. Interesting what a difference one -CH2 group makes.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          Interesting what a difference one -CH2 group makes.

          In so many properties, except for boiling point in (moderately dilute) aqueous solution.

  14. Posted October 31, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I sometimes still read the Washington Post. The Times is the only one we subscribe to though. Most of their Op/Eds drive me crazy and their magazine has been on the downhill for a while…I used to really like it but they seem to be dumbing it down with lots of ridiculous features/

    • Posted October 31, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      The NYRB is still very good.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I too find the WaPo a frequently worthwhile alternative.

  15. Jeff "jeffran" Rankin
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Does the popularity of supernatural programming reflect people’s belief in the supernatural?

    I’m not sure. I read and enjoy supernatural fiction, but I don’t think it’s real. Maybe I’m unusual in this respect. The article did say 42% of Americans believe in ghosts – which I find amazing and sad.

    I think the popularity reflects a desire of some people to live in a world where the supernatural is natural, but this seems different to me than belief.

  16. Posted October 31, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Thank Ceiling Cat, I’ve yet to come across an interviewee for a Software Engineering position who attributes internet ads to the supernatural rather than algorithms.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Yet.

      • Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. Nothing would surprise me. I just hope that this is an extended yet, but judging by the batshit crazy stories we have about rejected candidates, it is only bound to happen sooner than later…

  17. Frank Bartell
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    The NYT is one of the few barely acceptable US papers. By international stds. it’s clearly right of center, old line, what was once called moderate, Nelson Rockefeller Republican.
    Luhrman is probably just filling space for a deadline, but she uses it to illustrate 2 major perspectives in cultural Anthropology, Cultural Relativism and the functionalist approach, the idea that everything in culture, every element in the social ecosystem, has a function/purpose.

  18. JoanL
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    “There is, however, a deeper reason. Just as spiritualism became a means to hold on to the supernatural claims of religion in the face of science in the 19th century, the supernaturalism of our own time may enable something similar. The God that has emerged in the post-1960s “renewalist” Christianity practiced by nearly a quarter of all Americans is vividly supernatural —”

    It may be muddled; I may be obtuse. But did she just say Born-Agains use ghosts to prove God and deny science?

    • Sastra
      Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      No, I think she was saying that Born-Agains have turned Jesus into a ghost. That’s how they think of him, hovering around like a spirit and involving himself in their daily lives.

      “I just found my glasses under the couch! I bet Jesus put them there. What could he mean by it?”

  19. Sastra
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t have as bad an impression of the article as you did. For one thing, it seemed to be ‘explaining away’ the supernatural by showing how the phenomenon change according to cultural beliefs and expectations. Believers are portrayed as people “trying to hold on to the supernatural” any way they can, not enlightened beings having genuine experiences. Their “imagination” is being “stoked” by the internet the same way their imagination was stoked by mind, light, electricity, and all the other analogies which fall apart under examination. A few more skeptical sentences and it’s a Dennett-style debunking.

    This assertion that the supernatural is natural helps to make the case for God in a secular age, because it promises people that they will know by experience that God is real.

    I translated the phrase “the supernatural is natural” into “the supernatural is normal” — or maybe “the supernatural is personal.” As we know, when the cosmological and ontological and design and historical arguments all fail, the last resort is usually “well, I know it’s true because I can FEEL it’s true, that’s all.” The case for God in a secular age has been reduced from “here is why one should believe” into “here’s why I believe.”

    Yes, she’s taking a neutral tone, but imo articles like this one are insidious. They smile and explain faith … and gently undermine the things people are having faith in. What’s really making the supernatural “safe, even fun” is the secular suspicion that it’s all really just playacting, isn’t it? This is how you’re going to ‘hang on’…

  20. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Luhrman is one my least favorite apologists for (generic) religion, simply because she fails to miss out on the ways that the religion she evangelical religion she semi-eulogizes in “When God Talks Back” is patently psychologically harmful and crippling.

    It’s because of folks like her that I often find psychological (or moral) critiques of Christianity even more interesting than scientific ones. Even if one was agnostic about naturalism vs supernaturalism or theism vs atheism, an excellent psychological case can be made evangelicalism is mentally and emotionally harmful. Recent books by Valerie Tarico (“Trusting Doubt”) and a neglected classic “The Mind of the Bible Believer” by Edmund Cohen make the case superbly.

    You could in general believe the world view of William James and still acknowledge the validity of the critiques of Tarico and Cohen. Luhrman’s eulogizing of supernaturalism smacks of desperation!

  21. Posted October 31, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    If there were real ghosts then how come the ghosts of the murder victims don’t march into the police station and tell the officer; who committed the murder, what the weapon was, where the body is hidden, what the motive was.
    It would be really handy to call the ghost to give evidence in court at the trial.
    Seem more likely that ghost stories are based on mischief making or hallucinations.

  22. Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    This article that just popped up in my alerts shows some hope for the paper. Though, they couldn’t resist giving props to Pope Frank (a nickname I’ve lifted from Maher) at the end.

    • Grania Devine
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      I think of the last one as “Pope Rat”.

  23. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    The lowering standards of all newspapers has been ongoing for some time and has to hit the good ones as well. Paper journalism begin to slide long ago and they said it was television and now the internet is blamed.

    Journalism is being replaced by the entertainment business and it is a sad death. It’s a good bet you won’t see the NY Times getting better.

    There was a time in our history when news print mattered and it was even thought the public should and did finance the newspaper business. It would be essential to get and maintain high standards and give the literate public the information they deserve. But all we do today as the public is complain the newspaper sucks and watch the money men buy up all the papers and ruin them.

    Television news is even worse and guess where the only reasonable news is available — Public TV. How about investigative reporting, only Frontline, again on PBS. So, if we want to save this dying business, only the public can do it.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 1, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      So tragic!

      I want to save it, & I’m doing my part–still subscribing to our local wreck of a paper & the Sunday NYT. Plus online subscriptions to the Times & WaPo as well (though the latter is free). I’m very pessimistic about newspaper survival, though.


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