Friday, March 10, 2006


Contribution to a discussion in Newsroom-l:

ANon: >The same thing disturbs me about people who know nothing but " dimestore astrology " believing they are " above all that " as bothers me about those who believe political propaganda when they know little or nothing about the subject they are dissing. They don't even realise that their scorn originated from a socio-cultural bias. I am not an astrolger. but Many things ( atoms and germs among others ) are counter-intuitional that are not beneath thought inquiry and research.<

Yes, but the point is that research has provided evidence for those things, therefore it's quite rational, if counter-intuitive, to believe in them.

>And in fact some very serious statistical research is in fact happening ( work of Gaugueluin and Barbault come immediately to mind )<

You mean Gauquelin and his work is irrelevant because it is very specific - about links between planets and career choices - and provides no support for the general horoscopes giving supposed information about your prospects for that day, which is what Jules and Mark were talking about. The latter have been thoroughly studied and the results are as clear and as widely accepted in the scientific community as the evidence for climate change:

"Before 1950 almost no empirical studies of astrology existed. But by 2000 over one hundred empirical studies of astrology had appeared in psychology journals and four hundred in astrology journals, equivalent to about 200 man-years of scientific research. And they keep coming. The findings have been clear and consistent whether obtained by astrologers, by scientists, or by both in collaboration -- astrology has not contributed to human knowledge, it has failed hundreds of tests, it has no acceptable mechanism other than hidden persuaders (see below), and users do not usefully agree on basics such as which zodiac to use or even on what a given birth chart indicates. Today, for the first time in twenty centuries, we can say with some certainty that no, the heavens do not reflect our destiny."

"The casting of horoscopes provides a living to thousands of individuals and provides dreams to an infinitely larger number of consumers. ... [But] since the most painstaking studies have shown the inanity of horoscopes, there should be a strong rising up against this exploitation of public credulity"

Guess who said this - Michel Gauquelin, after analysing the horoscopes of 16,000 famous people, Dreams and Illusions of Astrologers 1969.

At best:

'In practical terms a warm and sympathetic astrologer provides low-cost non-threatening therapy that is otherwise hard to come by. You get emotional comfort, spiritual support, and interesting ideas to stimulate self-examination."

and many serious people including my friend Richard Tarnas who wrote ' The Passion of the Western Mind" a learned tome if there ever was one, has actually given conferences about astrology.<

A classic example of the fallacy of argument from authority; this isn't proof unless these conferences included some evidence to support astrology - did they? What was it ?

>One problem with prejudices has always been that they are not recognised as such by the person who holds them.<

You need to show that they are mere prejudices in this case.

>I am not an astrologer but I know there are many kinds of knowledge, aside from the factual or the scientifically verifiable ones such as psychological insights, symbolic and mythological truths and I think it is particularly important for journailsts to keep an open mind about those things they have not personally studied.<

They don't need to have personally studied them, they can use the results of respected authorities in the field in question, and the results are clear (see above).

> Jules was right, that my intention was to cheer him up and I used this tact because I had heard him mention astrology before. Unlike many people, he has never been afraid to espouse a controvertial or unpopular view publically. And he is also right that it has unjustly gotten him into trouble.<

But it's not unpopular and it's not controversial, just clearly false:

"Take sets of birth charts jumbled up with descriptions of their owners. Can astrologers match charts to owners? In astrology books they do it all the time. So we expect the proportion of successful matches to pile up close to 100%. To date a total of 54 studies have made this test using a total of 742 astrologers and 1407 birth charts. Despite these impressive numbers the average success rate was no different from the 50% expected by chance, see figure below. For these astrologers (many of them among the world's best) astrology performed no better than tossing a coin."

Traditional horoscopes, which was what was being discussed, are rubbish, just as are the claims of creationists/intelligent design advocates.

If it cheers Jules up to find a positive horoscope, fine, but don't go accusing those of us who dismiss traditional astrology as bunk of being prejudiced - except prejudiced in favour of rationality and truth, cf.:

"Skepticism's bad rap arises from the impression that, however necessary the activity, it can only be regarded as a negative removal of false claims. Not so... Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation, not as a nihilistic exercise. The alternate model is rationality itself, tied to moral decency — the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known."

Stephen J. Gould


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