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Archive for December, 2008

(Slightly pre-emptive) Happy New Year, yous guys.

I’m not really one for resolving things, especially when we’ve just had Christmas and it’s nearly my birthday, but if I were going to have a resolution for 2009, it’d probably just be “More words”. I actually did pretty well in 2008 in most regards, not least finishing a draft of a whole actual book, but getting more words written is the most obvious way that 2009 could aim to improve on its predecessor. Trying to keep up the daily blogging thing a bit more consistently would be one way to make that happen, so, I’ll see about giving it a shot. This will probably mean more brief entries linking to stories and articles that interested me, with a few comments of my own, and Skeptictionary articles whenever I get them finished, rather than just the long, nearly-weekly rants with nothing in between. Maybe it’ll work well and really get me creatively motivated. (I give it a month.)

Let’s make a start now. Before Christmas, I went to this show in London, called Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People. It was inspired by the frustration felt by comedian Robin Ince at a televised debate he attended, titled “Are they Taking The Christ Out of Christmas?”, during which a great deal of untrue but entirely typical “War on Christmas” bullshit was spouted, and he didn’t really have a chance to adequately respond. Possibly most grating was the inability of Stephen Green (whose organisation’s website makes him seem every bit as loathsome as he’s been described to me) to accept that there was anything about Christmas that an atheist like Ince could possibly approve of or enjoy. There’s a lot that I like about Christmas too, but it’s probably less hard to sound convincing when a constant slew of untruths all around you is rendering you incapable of making a cogent argument beyond “Look dickhead, when I see carol singers it makes me FUCKING HAPPY, and the delight on a child’s face as they watch a Christmas tree lighting up FILLS MY HEART WITH SHITTING JOY, okay?”

So, he decided to hold a Christmas party, bringing together comedians, musicians, and scientists, to perform comedy routines, songs, and speeches, with a generally secular (if not always profoundly atheistic) leaning. And there was much rejoicing.

It was a great night out. He’d got together an impressive line-up – Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins being probably the biggest names on the bill – most of whom also agreed to do more than one night at several different venues when the demand for tickets went through the roof. Stewart Lee still gets my vote for Funniest Man Alive, Tim Minchin is one of very few people I’ve ever been tempted to describe using the word “man-crush”, and Ben Goldacre is the kind of person that phrases like “made of win” were coined for. (Or he would be, in a just world, if they hadn’t actually been coined for pictures of cats with bacon stuck to them. (To the cats, not the pictures.))

It is, admittedly, a format that needs some refining. For a start, although it never felt to me like it was dragging, it did last three and a half hours. Even including twenty minutes of interval, I think that’s just too long. You could probably make it last for several straight days if you invited everyone with something funny to say (or sing) about Christmas or science or atheism and who’s up for putting on a show. Even if everyone on the bill had been an unmissable delight, it would’ve been worth trimming it down a little. (Not everybody was, in my opinion, but I’m not going to go too deep into subjective assessments here.)

And one thing that might help with this would be if they got a clearer idea of what themes were going to carry them through the evening, and had some sort of consistent thread that everything would connect to. Celebrating science and scientists is definitely a good start (the show was interspersed with quotes from and discussion about Carl Sagan, one of Ince’s heroes), and an irreverently irreligious approach is important to remind us that we’re not doing the usual Jesus-y thing here – but this seemed a bit sporadic, particularly in the case of the musicians, some of whom seemed to be there more because they were available (and because someone decided there ought to be some kind of musical interlude between any long periods of people just standing there and talking) than because of any relevance they had to the theme. (Not saying they weren’t good, just that they sometimes distracted from any scientific or atheistic thread that sometimes got going.)

Personally, I’d be tempted not to let things get too devoutly atheistic, keep it comfortably blasphemous, make it an hour shorter, and maybe throw in a proper sing-along or two, of some actual decent Christmas songs – I don’t imagine it’d be worth paying for the rights to use Fairytale of New York, though it’s a nice idea, but something to make it a more overtly Christmassy event might help.

But the only reason I seem to have so many paragraphs of critique is that I loved it despite it not being perfect yet, and would love to see it turn into an unmissable holiday tradition in years to come. They certainly seem to be on the right track.

Briefly summarising the rest of the year: Not long after the show, I went back to visit the family for Christmas, which was great, and nobody else turned up for me to have to socialise with, which was even better. And now I’m back, and it’s New Year’s Eve, which means my one resolution kicks in, in about four and a half hours’ time. Since writing the first paragraph of this particular overlong piece of blather, I’ve decided on my only resolution for 2009 being “More words than last year”, and to that end, I’ve added a layer of accountability by getting myself one of them there Twitter accounts. I’m yet to completely figure out how it works, but my username is writerJames, which I think means that if you go here you can start following me. The plan is to tweet daily updates about how much I’ve written, and anyone is encouraged to become a follower and poke me if it doesn’t look like I’m working hard enough. I like the idea of having followers. They’re practically minions, really.

Anyway, that’s quite enough for this year. 2009’s not far off. Good luck, everyone.

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A lot of people think that aliens have come visiting us and have all sorts of dastardly and/or sexy plans for us. Often, people think this because they reckon they’ve seen these aliens, in the sky, whooshing around in ways that definitely looked like a spaceship and not like anything else. Some skeptics say that these sightings might actually be of birds, aircraft, planets, even the Moon, and that there’s no reason to leap to conclusions about alien spaceships.

But how hard can it be to tell a UFO from a bunch of other stuff? Do a quick Google image search for a duck, then a flying saucer. They look nothing alike. How stupid would you have to be to confuse the two?

Well, you might just be stupid enough to get a PhD in astronomy. Phil Plait, author of the book Bad Astronomy and creator of the website of the same name, talks in his book about a time when he was actually waiting to watch the Space Shuttle take off at Cape Canaveral, and saw a pattern of lights in the sky that briefly unsettled him. There were maybe a dozen of them, in a steady pattern, apparently a few miles away and moving slowly. Planes wouldn’t have been allowed so near the Shuttle, birds wouldn’t have been glowing so visibly, and nothing else man-made could plausibly have been moving in the weaving pattern they were making.

This isn’t just some random being freaked out by the Moon, this is Dr. Philip Plait, Ph.D., a qualified astronomer, watching the Space Shuttle carrying up a camera for the Hubble Space Telescope that he’s just spent two years designing. He knows his shit when it comes to lights in the sky, and although he didn’t leap to any unfounded conclusions, he was actually pretty spooked by what he saw that day, as if a part of him really believed that he might genuinely be witnessing an alien phenomenon.

Until it flew over his head, quacking.

Yeah, it was a bunch of ducks. They were too far away to make out at first, they were glowing because of light from the spotlights on the Shuttle pad being reflected every which way, and they were flying straight towards him in the kind of way that ducks fly, in a fairly constant pattern but wobbling around from time to time. If anybody ought to know a duck from a possible flying saucer, it’s Phil, but at that moment the perceptive ability of his squishy human brain showed its limitations.

My point is only that seeing something weird in the sky and being baffled as to its origins is really, really easy, particularly for uninformed ignoramuses like myself who don’t spend much time looking up there anyway, and really don’t have much of an idea what we should expect to see. The planet Venus is way brighter than any stars (other than the Sun) in the sky, and is sometimes even visible during daylight – but I have no idea where to look for it right now, or what it would look like, so it has the capacity to take me entirely by surprise, wherever it is. And I still wouldn’t recognise it, even if I saw it; if I peered at Venus with my myopic and uninformed eyes, perhaps through some trees or out of a moving car window, it would be a vague light in the sky that I couldn’t distinguish much about. It might look like something a thousand times closer and a thousand times smaller than the Sun’s second planet actually is – how am I supposed to make an accurate judgment on perspective about something that’s basically a distant static dot?

The sky also contains aircraft, balloons, man-made satellites, birds, and a whole lot of other artificial or natural stuff, which is flying, relatively close to the ground, emitting light, making noises, and generally doing the kinds of things people expect from passing UFOs (if they’re the type of people to expect passing UFOs at all). If all they’re seeing is some strange lights in the sky, can anyone really be expected to distinguish between all the possibilities, when they’re just staring up from a great distance and squinting a bit? If even the sight of planets or ducks or the Moon can give an unexpected and seemingly other-worldly experience, wouldn’t any sight in the sky have to be really spectacular before it should convince anyone that it’s definitely not coming from any of the sources already listed? Or even probably not?

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It will probably surprise very few of you that I don’t believe in astrology. I don’t think there’s any significance to what sign I’m born under, but then, I’m a “Give way to oncoming traffic”, and that’s typical of us.

What’s The Score-pio?

Astrology is the idea that the positions and movements of the stars and planets have a direct effect on our manifest destiny. I’m far too apathetic to distinguish between the different kinds of astrology that exist, but my sarcasm can be applied to any of them with much the same effect. Depending on where Neptune happens to be at any given moment, and what direction your birth sign seems to be going relative to us, astrology might tell you that you’re going to clash with a friend over financial affairs, or you should take a risk in matters of the heart. Or something.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, and being dismissively facetious well ahead of schedule. What I was jocularly referencing a couple of sentences ago was the concept of a horoscope. This generally refers to a set of predictions or divinations made for someone, based on astrological measurements of stuff in the sky. How the current actions of Neptune (or Titan or Antares) affect you depends upon the celestial conditions at the moment you were born, sometimes measured to the nearest minute.

It’s not always that precise, though, and people are often conveniently grouped into one of twelve zodiac categories, based on which constellation is in the Sun’s apparent path through the sky at that point in Earth’s orbit, or something. Constellations, remember, are bunches of stars that have absolutely no connection to each other whatsoever, except that from this particular vantage point in the universe, some people who lived way back in the days before light pollution was invented, and who had all the qualifications that you need to look at the sky, thought that these stars looked like a guy carrying some water.

Aq-where-ius?

Yeah, this seems like a good time to get back on track with the sarcasm. There’s really nothing definitive or non-arbitrary about the twelve traditional zodiac signs; the names we have for them are based on what some ancient Greeks (probably) thought some of the bright dots in the sky looked like. They were looking for patterns, and were pretty creative. Case in point: that water-carrier. I don’t know how they got that. Even if you get rid of all the background stars, and put in some helpful lines showing you where the image is supposed to be, it’s still a bit of a stretch. Quite where this guy came from, I’ve no idea. And if you use a telescope to look toward Aquarius, and get a better, clearer view, which doesn’t depend on how much we’re squinting or how cloudy the sky is as we’re peering up there, it looks like this. That’s just a whole lot of stars. That’s what you’ll see pretty much anywhere in the sky, if you’re really looking. There are, like, thousands of stars out there, probably. (Let me know if any of those links are broken by the time you’re reading this, but they’re not hard to hunt down.)

I’m guessing that carrying water was a more respected and important profession, with a few more perks, back in the days of the earliest stargazers. Because it was important to people at the time, that’s what those people saw when they looked for patterns. One of the other, non-zodiac constellations they identified is of Orion, a hunter who was quite a big deal at the time, but would be unlikely to leap out at anyone from the surrounding bunch of stars these days.

My point is that the divisions of the sky into zodiac groups is entirely arbitrary; there’s nothing about the stars themselves which fits them into such convenient groups. But according to astrology, the boundaries of these groups define what personality type everybody on the planet possesses.

There’s a constellation called Ophiuchus which, although not recognised by astrology, is one of our zodiacal constellations – the Sun passes through it over the course of the year (though I’m still not clear on exactly what that means, astronomically speaking). It was identified by Ptolemy in the second century CE, and if anyone can explain why only the other twelve affect people’s lives in a way that the “serpent-holder” just isn’t able to, please go ahead. The sun is actually in the constellation Ophiuchus as I post this, and nowhere near Sagittarius, as the traditional astrological arrangement would suggest – but supposedly this doesn’t matter to the mysterious forces that use arbitrary groupings of celestial bodies to magically control our destiny.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hal-leo-s

I don’t call it magic only to be pejorative. If you look at how astrology is supposed to work, the only mechanisms to explain how it could possibly function as described are utterly magical. Occasionally, people try and bring in known physical effects to explain it, like the gravitational or electromagnetic fields exerted by these distant stars or planets. This sort of hopeless scrambling for any plausible rationale makes people who’ve ever passed a science test laugh in your face, and actual cosmologists want to bang your head into a table with a force proportional to your mass. Any known physical effects of any stars or planets in the sky are utterly dwarfed by those of the Sun, or simply of the Earth itself. And why would feeling a miniscule physical pull in a particular direction specifically affect something so general as how “diplomatic” or “individualistic” I turn out to be?

Most astrologers are fractionally wiser than to seriously suggest this (or have got fed up with all the headaches from the desk-smacking), but there’s really no way any physical laws could explain it all, even as-yet undiscovered ones. The whole premise seems to run on far more narrativium than has ever been observed in our universe. The reasoning appeals to our sense of narrative, and can make for a pleasing story with an aesthetically acceptable line of causality, but the causality of the universe depends upon the interaction of matter, not of concepts.

For instance. Your personal horoscope depends on when you were born, often down to the minute, or more informally to the day. What effect do the stars suddenly begin to have on you at this exact point, and what is it about being born that causes this change? It can’t be to do with the developmental process – some children are born weeks or months premature, at different stages of growth, and nobody reaches some perfect and precise stage of completion as a human being at the exact point the umbilical cord is cut. It’d be a strange physical force that can be obstructed by a human female uterus, but affects us all for the rest of our lives.

In many ways, birth is an idea, a moment defined by how people view it more than by any actual, definable physical changes. (The point at which a developing embryo becomes a living human being is even more nebulous, hence much of the debate over abortion.) Astrology relies on that conceptual, story-telling principle for the moment of someone’s birth to be a meaningful anchor for everything that follows.

Similarly, the planet Mars is a sort of reddish colour, because of the iron oxide (rust) on its surface, and its blood-coloured appearance has provided us with many of the planet’s associated ideas. The Roman god Mars was the god of war and bloodshed – and, correspondingly, the planet’s astrological connections today are to concepts like aggression, impulsiveness, and energy. This seems to be another entirely arbitrary link, derived from the stories an ancient civilisation told about their gods, inspired by the blood-red colour of an object in the sky. Mercury was the messenger god to the Romans, and the planet is associated with communication, information, writing, and apparently email (thanks, Wikipedia) by astrologers. Ceres was a goddess of agriculture and fertility, and astrology.com tells us that “periods of fertility and menstruation are under Ceres’ domain”. Asteroids are traditionally given female names; if the tradition were different, and this asteroid had instead been named, say, Dionysus, it would probably be said to have an entirely different effect on us (left as an exercise to the reader, because I can’t think of a snappy joke to make about it right now). It’s a magical, story-telling connection, and that’s not how the universe works.

The origins of the underlying concepts are easily explained, but what’s not explained is why we should actually believe any of this. Why should it be taken any more seriously than most people take the Roman gods themselves these days? Most people don’t anthropomorphise those particular gods in the same way any more, and assume instead that some people basically made them up. It seems that astrology should be taken the same way. It’s a necessarily story-based belief system, descended from ancient superstitions and religions, and there is no possible way it could work as its proponents claim, except by magic. Proper magic, not just a perinormal phenomenon that’s yet to be scientifically understood. Actual, real magic.

BUT.

Can-cercumstantial Evidence and Capri-cornclusive Proof

But, all of this is only a devastating criticism of astrology if it’s assumed that this explanation – the magical factor that could theoretically provide a causal link between patterns of stars and whether I’m going to win the lottery – is really as ridiculous and ineffective as I’m glibly making it sound. I don’t know for sure that magic doesn’t exist, and neither do you. And it’s vital to remember that all the above rambling about how implausible it seems is irrelevant if it actually works.

To reiterate: if astrology works, it doesn’t matter how ludicrous the notion seems to me, or how arbitrary the moment of birth that calibrates it all, or how mundane the narrative origins of the legends that surround it. If it works, then it works, regardless of whether it ought to.

So, is this the point at which I introduce the switch to the above two thousand words’ bait, and conclusively demonstrate that astrology definitely totally works, just like the people with newspaper columns on the cartoons pages say it does?

Go on, have a guess.

Astrology doesn’t work. It’s been tested. It’s failed. Repeatedly. It’s not science. It’s nonsense.

Why doesn’t everyone think so? Well, whether or not astrology works depends on what exactly you mean by “works”.

I’m Sure There’s A Perfectly Aries-onable Explanation

Now, don’t read too much into that – I’m not going to start vacillating and saying, well, maybe it has some merit, even if we don’t really know how. Astrology doesn’t work, in the sense that it is completely unable to demonstrate any of the grandiose, measurable, paradigm-shattering real-world effects that are attributed to it. Like being able to predict the future or determine someone’s personality by looking at the stars.

But if you’re asking whether predictions made by astrologers can sometimes line up with what happens to somebody, and whether some people really identify with their supposed astrological personality type, and whether sometimes the descriptions or advice your horoscope gives might seem spooky because they’re so much in tune with your life… then sure, astrology works.

The thing is, if your criteria are as loose as this, then a magic 8-ball can work great too.

It’s not enough that people sometimes just feel that the things in their horoscope apply to them with uncanny accuracy. That could conceivably happen, even without magic. If you don’t want to risk being horribly wrong, you have to ask things like: How hard is it to make a prediction, or an assessment of your character, which most people will relate to, while seeming very personal? And how often is your horoscope really that accurate? If you read it every day, are you just remembering the occasions, once in a while, when the scattergun approach happens to hit the target for you, and forgetting all those other times when you just went “Meh, not really”?

If you tell someone things like “You tend to be self-critical”, “You sometimes feel unconnected to everyone around you and withdraw into your own world”, “You find it hard to apologise when you know you were wrong”, “You sometimes wish you were smarter”, then there’s a chance they’ll be convinced that you have a deep and personal insight into them specifically, if it doesn’t occur to them at the time to think that these are almost universal feelings. I mean, who the hell finds apologies easy? It’s called the Forer effect, and it sets the bar for how impressive an actual personal prediction or evaluation would have to be.

It’s just as easy to make predictions that can’t really be wrong. If your horoscope says it’s a good day for taking risks with your romantic life, then maybe you’ll be inspired to do something daring and ask out someone you’ve had your eye on. If it turns out well, then yay, score one for astrology! If not, you’re probably going to be too preoccupied with some reassuring ice cream to keep a memorable tally of all the times the stars haven’t hit the mark. Or, maybe you just weren’t daring enough. It’s usually kept vague enough that there are plenty of get-out clauses.

Just because it’s in a newspaper column, or you know someone who’s into it who seems totally sincere, doesn’t mean it can’t all be bunk. I can say with confidence that there are some things you don’t believe in, which thousands of people are passionately committed to and take as a proven certainty. It’s still worth investigating whether something like astrology actually seems to be real; if it is, we should be able to tell for sure. “I know it’s been right for me in the past” doesn’t tell us anything, unless we’ve established that it’s been so right, in such an improbable way, that it’s not just a trick of anyone’s memory, or some generous interpretations of vague and general terms.

When Newton figured out gravity, people didn’t just accept it because they remembered seeing things falling down and decided it sounded right. He had to do pages and pages of really hard maths to prove it. I’ll let you off the calculus this time, but it’s up to astrologers to prove that it works, to demonstrate that they’re doing more than essentially making shit up in a way that makes some people go “Ooh, that’s so me”.

They’ve kinda sucked at this so far.

If there’s anything to this particular brand of astrology, scientific tests of its efficacy ought to work. Wikipedia reports some people claiming that “the scientific method does not apply to astrology”, but that’s bollocks. I won’t assume that this is a majority view, but you can’t both claim that this is a real phenomenon with measurable real-world effects, and then deny that any of these effects can actually be measured. Science works, bitches. However hard you try and stop force from equalling mass times acceleration, it’ll keep on doing it, and the universe will continue to hammer this fact into your skull, everywhere you look. If astrology also works (bitches), then we shouldn’t be able to make it stop working, however hard we try.

In practice, though, the effects seem to go away very quickly. There are a number of ways you can try some experiments, or just gather a large amount of data to look for significant evidence. SkepticWiki suggests a good one: have someone provide you with a list of horoscope predictions for different signs for the day that’s just passed, without telling you which one is supposed to apply to you. See if you can tell which was yours, based on which prediction best matched up with the day you actually had.

You’d have to do it more than once, obviously – otherwise you’ve got a 1 in 12 chance of guessing right anyway, and there are coincidences. But if you gathered enough data, and if these newspaper horoscopes are capable of making good predictions, then you should end up with some strong, supportive evidence. Why wouldn’t this work?

The only reason you shouldn’t be able to discover that people can pick their own horoscope from a mess of others, and deduce that these predictions must really have some genuine bearing on the lives of a particular one-twelfth of the population, is if this particular claim is crap. Of course, a lot of astrologers claim very different things, and it’s important to remember that we can’t just sweep aside the whole horde of practitioners, many of whom see the newspaper-column style of horoscope as being just as meaningless as I do, because of this one result which doesn’t apply to them.

But we can still sweep them aside and get back to ignoring them, because none of it works. However you define it, there’s not a shred of data supporting any kind of astrological claims, or providing results that rule out all non-astrological explanations (or at least make them seem less likely than the alternative). It’s been tested time and again, and sometimes comprehensively and with lots of maths that goes over my head, and it never succeeds in producing any actual results beyond the Forer effect, which can be replicated by any skilled trickster.

If I’m wrong, point me to the data. In fact, even better: point your data toward a scientific journal. Sure, they’ll probably have some annoying demands, like your methodology being peer-reviewed and your experiments reproduced and verified by independent parties, but the same demands are made of everything else in the entire domain of “science we actually take seriously”. If it works, it should continue to work even if people neither expect nor want it to.

Whatever astrology means to you, it starts off with a highly implausible-sounding view of the way the universe works, and with simple, rational, mundane explanations already existing for its only obvious “results”. Until someone’s shown that it can actually do something we don’t already have an answer for, the sensible thing is not to believe a word of it.

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