About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Barbara Bradley Hagerty does it again, unfortunately

by Massimo Pigliucci
I’m really getting irritated with NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Recently I wrote about her inane piece on miracles, after which I found out that she wrote a book entitled Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (oh boy), and that — to no one’s surprise — she has been awarded a fellowship by the infamous Templeton Foundation as part of their Journalism Programme in Science & Religion. And now she’s done it again. On Saturday, May 7, she broadcasted an incredibly uncritical and uninformative piece on people who are predicting the end of the world (coming soon: May 21!). Let me give you a taste of the piece, then I’ll comment on why this is the sort of garbage I expect from Faux News, not NPR.
Hagerty starts out by featuring two poor deluded fellows from New Jersey, Brian Haubert, a 33-year-old actuary, and Kevin Brown, the owner of a nutrition and wellness business. We find them handing out pamphlets and trying to convince people that Judgment Day is around the corner. Their prediction is pretty specific:
“[On May 21] starting in the Pacific Rim at around the 6 p.m. local time hour, in each time zone, there will be a great earthquake, such as has never been in the history of the Earth.” This will result in the “rapture” of “true” Christians, while the rest of us will await behind for another 153 days, after which “the entire universe and planet Earth will be destroyed forever.” All right, then, time to convert and pack, not necessarily in that order.
How do these people know any of this? Naturally, because it says so in the Bible, even though theologians and most other (apparently “not true”) Christians disagree. Hagerty puts it this way, talking about Haubert: “Noah's flood to May 21, 2011, is exactly 7,000 years. Revelations like this have changed his life.” Well, he ought to know, he is an actuary, must be good with numbers.
Of course, doomsday predictions aren’t new (and guess what? They have all failed!), but apparently the latest craze was inspired by Harold Camping, the 89-year old founder of the Family Radio network (because as is well known, non-fundies really really hate families). Hagerty reports — without comment, of course — that scores of people have given up their jobs and their families to follow this crazy son of a gun, who’ll likely be dead before too many of his followers can get really upset at the bullshit he pulled on them.
Bradley features one such poor soul, 27-year old Adrienne Martinez, who listened to Family Radio with her husband and decided to quit everything and just wait out the end of the world in a rented place in Florida. And here’s the kicker: they budgeted things so that their money will run out on May 21, despite the fact that they have a 2-year old daughter and that Adrienne is pregnant. Oh well, the baby is due in June, after the Rapture (do they have good health care in heaven? One can’t help but wonder).
Now, as it turns out (surprise, surprise!) Family Radio’s Camping had already predicted the end of the world, for September 6, 1994. As you might recall, it didn’t happen. His excuse? Well, he hadn’t managed to finish reading Jeremiah, because, you know, it’s a big book (and one that to a large extent is concerned precisely with the end of time). Wait, he didn’t do his fracking homework and still went on the air and told the world to prepare for the end? Can we sue him for theological malpractice?
That’s it, that’s all Bradley says in her piece. Now, should journalists not cover end-of-time stories? Or stories about miracles? Of course they should. But they should also put them in perspective: explain to their readers or listeners that most sane people don’t actually believe these things. That faith in miracles undermines trust in science and medicine, and that faith in the coming end of the world can seriously hamper your retirement plans, not to mention the college savings for your children. (Here’s is a free idea to Hagerty for a follow-up story: go back and interview the same people on May 22. That ought to be, ahem, informative.)
Superstition hurts and kills, it is no joke. And serious journalism should at least try to put these human stories in a proper (i.e., sane) perspective. But I suspect if you do that, you won’t be getting much funding from the Templeton Foundation, nor would you be able to sell books about your “spiritual evolution.” Barbara, NPR, please, you really owe us something better than this.


  1. Massimo,

    The coincidental irony of it all is that Hagerty's radio piece aired on May 7th, David Hume's 300th birthday.

  2. I hope this wasn't on "All" things considered! I stopped listening to NPR years ago because of their one-sided reporting on important issues. They never reported on *why* Milosovich's message resonated with Serbs, and they kept referring to the break-up of Yugoslavia as "ethnic" tensions when in fact it was one ethnic group with three religions at war with each other.

    I'm tempted to look up this reportage to listen to it but I might be tempted to jab knived into my ears. Thank you for taking them to task.

  3. Another Windmill Don Pigliucci? You are an intelligent fellow. Surely you know that the truth will never interfere with the telling of a good story, and there is no story like the end times to fire people's blood.

    Personally I think this is because people, as inveterate story tellers, naturally gravitate towards the key points in a story and those are the beginning and the end, and since we obviously can't be there at the beginning being there at the end is the only realistic option.

    This will teach you not to lean on NPR for truth. Some time ago, and with some shock, I heard the host of Science Friday in all seriousness talking about homeopathic treatments for animals as if they were effective. Bastions of rationality are few and far between. Soon the technical journals will be all that is left and the medical technical journals are already partially compromised. I don't think getting angry or frustrated is an effective strategy to combat this though. I sleep much better simply expecting that everyone will be stupid and insane.

  4. This piece is about religion as mental illness and social irresponsibility - it is creepy, sad, and utterly unengaged with reality; I see NPR becoming more open to propagating woo; having grown up with NPR, I find this disappointing, even disgusting.

    Here is the link to the NPR Weekend Edition spot - Is the End Nigh?

    Please listen and write to NPR, if you have a mind to.

  5. I listened to the piece and I thought it was a fascinating and restrained look at people who share an irrational belief. Hagerty isn't promoting their view or saying anything about what she believes. She explored the motivations for this belief (the interview of the man who said it was less stressful to live as if the world were about to end was interesting) and she also pointed out that the minister promoting this irrational belief had been wrong in the past. What else was she supposed to do? Sneer at the deluded people? I like news stories that let me make up my own mind and this was one of them.

    I do think the story is incomplete without a follow-up interview, however.

  6. gatheringwater, as I mentioned in the post, of course these things should be covered, as human stories. But these people are seriously deluded, and the reporter should give enough context to reinforce that idea. They shouldn't be treated any different from people suffering from serious depression. Nothing like that was apparent in the piece, not to mention that Hagerty has now made a habit of doing fluff pieces on religion.

    Thameron, you may not have noticed, but this entire blog is dedicated to quixotic enterprises. That's just what we do. More seriously though, I don't actually share yours and others' cynicism. Just because NPR gets it wrong some of the time that doesn't disqualify it as a serious news source, arguably the most reliable in the US. That sort of cynicism is easy to indulge in, and not very helpful.

  7. I think there is no point in exposing or trying to show the foolishness of this kind of "prophesies". The valid points, rationally speaking, are in my view just two:
    1. That this sort of craziness is on NPR, a PUBLIC broadcaster that is paid with taxpayer's money and should at least be more neutral, and at best respect the separation of church and state, thus ceasing to promote specific religious beliefs (I am not American, nor a lawyer, by I wonder whether NPR could not be sued for infringing on the constitutional rule about church-state separation).
    2. These people, at all levels (from Templeton to Hagerty to the poor victims that are likely to be financially ruined by their folly), should be an object of study for relevant professionals (psychiatrists, sociologists, social psychologists, political scientists and more), not to demonstrate that their doctrines are crappish (they are) but to analyze the mental and social processes at play in these doings, and the curious paradox that the most advanced nation on Earth, with more than half the population reaching a college education, could still harbor such tremendous amount of craziness, not in some obscure recesses of society but in the likes of NPR.

  8. "I listened to the piece and I thought it was a fascinating and restrained look at people who share an irrational belief. Hagerty isn't promoting their view or saying anything about what she believes. She explored the motivations for this belief (the interview of the man who said it was less stressful to live as if the world were about to end was interesting) and she also pointed out that the minister promoting this irrational belief had been wrong in the past. What else was she supposed to do? Sneer at the deluded people? I like news stories that let me make up my own mind and this was one of them."

    I agree with all of this. I listened to the whole story and didn't have any negative reaction. Hagerty pointed out that Harold Camping did the same thing in 1994, which *completely discredits him*, and that everyone who has ever predicted the end of the world has been wrong. She probably didn't belabor the point even more, because she could safely assume that basically no one in the subtle & sophisticated NPR listeners would take any of this seriously (but perhaps not so safely, since Massimo seems to have missed it!). Here in San Francisco the pledge drive is on and the first line was "Well, that guy might think the world is ending, but we're planning to broadcast on May 22 and we need your pledges!"

    I have had problems with the uncriticalness of some of Hagerty's other reporting, but not on this piece. I think we are lucky that NPR decided to report on this bit of religious craziness, instead of ignoring it.

    "I do think the story is incomplete without a follow-up interview, however."

    Yes, I would LOVE to see the follow-up interviews. Here in Berkeley we're having a big End of the World party -- we have a follower of Harold Camping who has repeatedly fliered the life sciences building and stands on the quad every day with a countdown sign. We consider it free advertising for the party.

  9. PS: The guy on campus and his fliers:

  10. @Hector
    >I wonder whether NPR could not be sued for infringing on the constitutional rule about church-state separation)<
    How does what you see as a government sponsored entity discussing a religious view uncritically infringe upon that or any other religion's free exercise of their views?

  11. I listened to the piece, I thought it was fair reporting. If I were the journalist, I would be very interested in doing the follow-up story. If she did an all-out hatchet job on this group in the first story she did on them, there's no way they would give her an interview for the follow-up story.

  12. Wow, hadn't heard of this "prophecy". My "misunderestimation" of the amount of stupid people never ends. It would be funny, except that such people also vote. Shudder.

    Anyway, would Brown and Haubert and co. please send me all their money, since they won't be needing it on May 22nd? I mean, since I'm not even a Christian, let alone a true one (whatever that is... well, silly me, of course that is whatever the person using the expression is)... I could use the dough in the ensuing 153 days.

  13. Baron,
    I only referred to the constitutional rule of separation between religio and state, mandating that the US as a public entity, and its organizations (such as public schools and, I presume, also public radios) do not sponsor any particular view about religion.
    Of course, everybody has the right to express support for any view, religious or not, but not the US as such. You can defend whatever religious views you have, but not on a US public school, nor (I guess) through government-supported media. Perhaps even a public broadcaster may (conveivably) transmit news on current religious affairs, insofar as it does so as a report on news, not in a partisan view or advocating for certain religious views.
    However, I repeat I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not an American citizen, so my comment was mainly a question addressed to those with more knowledge in these matters.

  14. Now that I've read the whole piece (haven't listened to it, but I assume they are the same), I have to say I agree with some posters above who didn't think the report was that bad. Sure, I would have been more sarcastic and incisive, but that's just because I am not very nice sometimes. :-)

    That last line, specially, read like a final little parting jab at the whole thing: On the other hand, he will presumably have lots of company. (after Brown said he does not want to be here on May 22nd)

  15. Nick, lalawawa,

    I think you are being too charitable to Hagerty, given the obvious pattern she has been engaged in for some time. At any rate, I bet you dollar to donut that she will not do a follow up piece on May 22nd...

  16. I'm OK with this piece as long as Bradley Haggerty interviews all of these people on May 22nd and asks tough questions about whether it was wise to forget about 401(k) and spend all their savings on the basis of loony Harold Camping predictions. I won't hold my breath though.

  17. Probably I am making too big a deal of this, but I hope we won't see a spike in suicides in the days following May 21st, when some of these deluded people realize they have not been chosen between the raptured, and are left to face the end of the world with the rest of us.

    If that happens, then what seems a big joke now will actually turn quite tragic.

  18. Tragic? Not if Gilbert Gottfried has anything to say about it.

  19. I actually didn't think it was bad when I heard it. I think she was just reporting on these people, I never sensed at any point during her reporting that she was in any way lending credence to these nut cases. it was legitimate reporting of a seriously misguided group of people. As far a Fox, as someone that watches a lot of Fox and MSNBC, believe me, there's plenty of lunacy on both sides. One specializes in global warming denial and religion, the other in new age crap. I'm not sure which is worse.

  20. I got the pamphlet in the street in Stockholm over a month ago!!
    check it here:

    I'm amazed that Stockholmers are prioritized on Family Radio list of people to be "saved"!

  21. I think it would interesting to not only do follow up interviews on the 22nd but to actually report on what happens to Adrienne Martinez and her husband. Not just do an interview but follow her life and see what happens as a consequence of her delusions.

  22. Incidentally, here is how the New York Times just covered this story:


    This is the sort of tone that Hagerty completely missed.

  23. Hagerty did do a follow up on her story:


    Imagine that, most believers contacted did not answer the phone. One said that judgment day had in fact happened, but in the spiritual realm.

    Camping, apparently, was "flabbergasted," but his organization is going to re-calculate the end of the world. So stay tuned...


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