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Posts Tagged ‘astrology’

Brian Cox is great. Hey, I can’t always be controversial. He is. He’s doing so much to get people interested in cool sciencey stuff, with his Wonders series and the BBC Stargazing thing and whatnot. The first time I saw him in person was at his lecture for 2009’s TAM London, and it was also the first and only time I’ve felt like I was starting to get my head around this whole Standard Model business.

It's so beautiful... What does it mean?

But I’m wondering about something. Critical thinking blogger Crispian Jago recently recounted a thing on Twitter which, without his kind permission, I’m going to share with you now:

The tale of science communicator and the fortean in 4 short tweets…

Despite liking astronomy my father-in-law believes we never landed on the moon and the world will end in 2012

On Monday he tuned into to BBC Stargazing live just as Brian was talking about moon landing denial

Brian said something to the effect of all the idiots who believe we never landed on the moon will be watching ITV

Apparently my father-in-law muttered “fuck you Cox” and promptly switched to ITV.

So Brian was completely right

Now, first of all, the theory that the NASA Moon landings were faked is utterly ridiculous. The reasons people cite for doubting the accepted story cannot possibly be grounded in a thorough and intellectually honest assessment of the evidence. There’s a lot of idiocy surrounding the conspiracy theories, without a doubt.

Brian’s antipathy to such piffle while he’s trying to talk about real and interesting science is understandable. There are countless fascinating things awaiting to be learnt about the Moon and mankind’s efforts to visit it, without being distracted by such fatuous and implacably recurrent drivel.

On a similar note, Stephen Fry once went so far as to ban anyone who believes in astrology from watching his interesting-factoid-based quiz show QI. Once again, I can entirely sympathise with the frustration.

And yet…

And yet while it undoubtedly does succinctly communicate an important scientific point to dismiss astrology or Moon-landing hoaxery as worthless bullshit, it’s not the only thing we need to do to fix the problem that millions of people still believe it.

In the case of Crispian’s father-in-law, I don’t know whether he’d be open to learning more about why he’s so badly wrong about everything, or whether he’s so firmly committed to his preferred nonsense that no approach, however diplomatic, will ever shake him from it. But insofar as Brian was absolutely right about him, it feels like a fairly hollow victory.

Some people will cite a few individual bits of trivia about the flag on the Moon waving even though there’s no wind to blow it. Some people will point to the time their horoscope told them to expect a financial windfall, and they found a fiver on the pavement. Some people will laud a homeopathic preparation for curing their headache, after about the length of time during which headaches will normally go away.

And although it might not always be possible, I don’t want these people to switch over to another channel and be wrong somewhere else nearly as much as I want them to understand why these are terrible and unconvincing arguments.

I don’t want to sound too censorious here. Brian Cox really is great at talking about important stuff in a way that’s engaging and makes sense, and part of that should sometimes involve calling out irrelevant bollocks that doesn’t deserve any further attention.

But it’s worth remembering what the real victories of science communication are, when considering people who believe the wrong things. Maybe they’re just not right yet.

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If you’re not regularly listening to The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC Radio 4 show about science hosted by Robin Ince and Brian Cox, then you are an execrable excuse for a human specimen and I despise every molecule in your worthless body.

Sorry. Bit harsh. I don’t mean that. But you should listen to it, it’s really good. There’s a free podcast. Go on, try it.

The latest episode featured, among other guests, comedian Katy Brand. She wasn’t by any means anti-science, but she may have thought that the others on the show sometimes went a bit far with their ideas on science’s scope and importance. For instance, when Brian Cox described science as:

the means by which we… come to the best possible view, given the available data and the understanding of a particular issue or question,

she thought this should be amended to “the best possible scientific view”. Brian disagreed, and I’m basically on his side; when it comes to establishing the correctness of facts about the world, any view that hasn’t been reached scientifically doesn’t even seem worth considering. But Katy Brand was making a more thoughtful point than the tedious post-modern idea of science just being “one belief system among many”, all equally valid.

She told a story about someone she knew of, who’d always start the day by reading her horoscope. This person didn’t believe in any of the nonsense often put forward to justify astrology, and was well aware it was bunk, but tended to find that:

If I read my horoscope in the morning, I have a better day.

It was an entirely psychological effect, as well this person knew, but it was a real one. Katy thought that this was something which science can’t really involve itself in. Science misses the fact that “people find ways of pragmatically getting through their day… and science doesn’t have to be involved in that”.

She’s partly right. But science does have a responsibility to be involved to some extent. It is sort of obliged to point out that astrology is bunk. But the person Katy was telling this story about knows that it’s bunk. She and science are in complete accord there. If she’s not claiming anything implausibly supernatural, but is merely acting in a way she’s discovered benefits her, then rationality is completely on her side. Science isn’t going to snatch the newspaper out of her hand. Some scientists might not appreciate people’s pragmatic attempts to deal with the world at large, but science itself has no problems with it.

One of the other guests a little later brought up another point about the unique power of science to help us understand the world – it was either geneticist Steve Jones or other geneticist Paul Nurse, I’m afraid I’m not sure whose voice it was. At any rate, somebody brought up some some interesting data:

Children who are born in July and August… are worse at athletics, do less well in school, and have a higher rate of suicide than children born at other times of the year.

This is a genuine effect, and although there may be some variance and dispute over exactly what months have the greatest effect on what factors, there’s some sort of real phenomenon going on.

As the links in that paragraph explain, we have some ideas about why this might be. Primarily, it’s to do with the fixed cut-off point for being placed in a particular school year. Given that a new batch of children ascends to each new grade level once a year, the youngest in each class will be nearly a full twelve months younger than their oldest fellows. This can make a big difference to interaction among peers when you’re young, and results in some kids being disadvantaged in a number of unfair ways.

Katy Brand argued that, valid though the scientific explanation for this state of affairs may be, “it doesn’t help that individual person cope with the fact of their birth”. They might need a “different solution” to the problems they face – such as, presumably, reading their nonsense horoscopes.

The final edit of the show didn’t really respond to this in a way I found satisfying, which is why I’ve written all this and dragged you through this whole tedious escapade. The horoscope-reader Katy mentioned earlier is not at all at odds with a scientific approach, as I described. She may have been arguing that some people need to believe their horoscopes, as some kind of emotional crutch, which I don’t agree with at all. I certainly support a humane understanding of why some people might feel that way, but science still has a responsibility to improve the accuracy of our collective worldview as best it can, and calling out the bunk of astrology is a necessary part of that.

But, perhaps more importantly, I’d argue that being scientific is the most useful way we can help people who’ve been disadvantaged by, say, this birth-month school business. Because once we understand what’s going on, then we have the capacity to examine how the system can be improved, and come up with ways to effect real change.

If we guessed it was because of their star sign, and didn’t use science to work out the answer, then our ability to help make anything better for anyone is seriously impaired. If we’d kept assuming illness is caused by demonic influence, we’d have no modern medicine; it doesn’t help a sick person cope with the fact of their smallpox for science to tell them that there are these tiny invisible things called “viruses” inside them, but science can unquestionably help in a way nothing else can.

In conclusion, we should all be listening to more Radio 4. It’s quite entertaining, even if you don’t believe in Sandi Toksvig.

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I told you yesterday I was having trouble keeping up the earnestness.

It all seems barely less terrible in that part of the world than it was yesterday, but there are other petty things worth getting annoyed about, in between just feeling sad.

Ben Goldacre has pointed to an article in the Daily Mail which is dripping with even more bullshit than you’d expect.

It suggests that a “supermoon” – basically the moon being closer to us than it usually is – could have caused the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And by describing this as “the latest natural disaster” of its kind, it seems to take it as read that the moon has already been wreaking havoc in numerous other ways.

“Astrologers” are credited with predicting that, in just over a week, the moon will be closer to Earth than it has been in years, and so its gravitational impact will be increased, causing “chaos”.

The first problem with this is fuck astrologers. Astronomers – the ones who actually do science instead of just making shit up – have kinda been on top of the moon’s perigees and apogees – that is, the times when it’s closest or farthest from Earth – for quite a while now. And yes, at the upcoming perigee it will be a smidge closer than it has been for a few years, but not by much. It’s less than half a percent closer than it was in the February perigee, and it’ll be a while before it’s that close again.

The second problem is that this upcoming perigee is due on March 19th. Saying the extra gravity could have caused disasters on Earth in the past few days is like saying “Hey, better watch out for werewolves, it’s only a week and a half till the full moon!” It was at its apogee – the furthest point – less than a week ago. That means the moon was further away from us than usual when the earthquake hit.

All credit to Phil Plait for explaining all this to me so that I can re-explain it all to you. As well as for putting up some repetitive and monumental stupid in his comments thread.

But what’s even more hilarious and/or murderously infuriating is that the Daily Mail posted another article, TWO DAYS previously, which describes “bizarre rumours” about a supermoon triggering “tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes” being put about by “conspiracy theorists” and “lunar-tics” (which, by the way, isn’t even a pun, because that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ fucking comes from).

They actually apply some moderately competent skepticism further down that article, quoting actual scientists who do much to debunk the exact same bullshit that the same newspaper is quite happy to regurgitate barely 48 hours later once something scary happened.

Never mind that the moon isn’t at the perigee for more than a week, meaning it’s currently further away than usual, and so the earthquake in the pacific isn’t what the astrologers predicted at all. Come yesterday’s scare-mongering, all the science gets relegated to way down the page, below the picture, where they know most people probably won’t look. And the last word goes to the “small and vocal minority” who are daring to defy the stodgy old scientists by believing whatever fantasies they want.

Donations are still needed and appreciated at the Red Cross and Save The Children.

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I’m really not interested in this story, but it’s starting to feel a little remiss of me not to at least mention it.

Recently, the media made a big hoo-hah over the fact that the constellations aren’t where they used to be in the sky, because of shifts in the way the Earth moves.

This was old news – it’s been going on for centuries, and has been trotted out in the media before – but someone wanted to sell some newspapers, so it’s back again as if something had only just happened. It hasn’t made any noticeable difference to anyone’s lives this time around, either.

Then, someone did some data analysis on popular horoscopes, and found that they all tend to say the same bland generic crap regardless of what sign they’re for. (For some reason the words “keep”, “feel”, and “sure” seem to leap out at you across the board.)

This is also not even slightly news to anyone who’s had much practice at thinking.

And, to the continued surprise of nobody, astrologers have responded by down-playing the importance of basing what they do on anything so drab as reality.

Phil Plait‘s write-up of this points to this article on astrology.com, which offers some revealing advice (just before happily admitting that astrology is pseudoscience) to readers who, while happy to base their life choices around some imaginary pictures in the sky, are worried that they’ve been using the wrong ones:

If it’s always been easy to link predictions to actual events using your sun sign, continue to follow that. If you’ve been reading your rising sign like me, and it works, continue that. If you feel your “new” zodiac sign coincides more. You just may even want to give that a whirl!

Doesn’t that sound inclusive and progressive and non-dogmatic and lovely? Astrology can be about whatever works for you.

These new signs are a load of nonsense because scientists don’t understand us, but if they suit you better, then go for it!

There are so many different kinds of astrology – which just means there are loads of different ways for it to be right! Just ignore all the ones that don’t work for you.

If you’re usually a Libra but you’ve read the horoscopes for all the signs and feel more like a Sagittarius today, just follow your heart!

In fact, why not start by deciding how you feel, then find a horoscope which sounds like that, and that’s what sign you are today! You can even go back and look through readings for the past few weeks, if you like! It’s probably ascendant or in retrograde or something so that’s totally allowed if it works for you.

Sorry, but sarcasm is the only thing I have that’s strong enough to overpower my stifling lack of interest. I’ve written about astrology already as much as I want to, and it’s still just as much bunk as it was then.

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So, I guess I should’ve done this one sooner. Pseudoscience is pretty much the pinnacle of anathema to everything I’m struggling for on this blog (hey, writing dozens of words about stuff as often as five or six times a month is a real struggle sometimes). I’m all about science, and a worldview based on empirical data and testable theories. I’m an atheist, but the interesting fight isn’t just against religion, it’s against the irrationality and flawed thinking that underlies all kinds of non-reality-based beliefs and ideas, religion included.

Pseudoscience is what you get when a hopeful but misleading patina of science is used to try and smarten up some ideas which, however nice they might be, have no connection to the real world. It’s some phenomenon or notion whose fans will stand by it unwaveringly, regardless of whether it’s actually supported by any evidence. Astrology, for instance, is widely regarded as a pseudoscience. Its claims can be shown to be empty and meaningless once you bring a few actual scientific investigative techniques into it, and its adherents have to sacrifice intellectual honesty to scrape together a flimsy charade of supporting evidence.

Obviously nobody ever thinks that what they’re doing is pseudoscience. People don’t believe that they’re deliberately ignoring contradictory evidence and sticking to unsupported claims long after they’ve been shown conclusively to be untenable. They’re much more likely to think that they’re steadfastly fighting an uphill battle for a truth that the rest of the world is too blind to accept. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to untangle good, healthy debate and disagreement on the one hand, from actual pseudoscientific nonsense on the other. When people have conflicting ideas, how can you tell if there’s a reasonable, scientific difference in opposing parties’ interpretations of the data, or if one side’s just full of shit?

Well, despite what contradictory views different people might have on Ufology, or Bigfootonomy, or the current deadness-to-aliveness quotient of Elvis Presley, there are some definite protocols and standards which you have to adhere to if you want to legitimately call what you’re doing science.

When addressing pseudoscience, it’s not really constructive or desirable to simply declare “This entire field of study is bunk”, regardless of how tempting it might often be. There’s always the possibility that someone may come along and provide a robust scientific theory about something we might have written off as complete crap – and if there’s ever any evidence that this is what’s happened, we need to be open to it. But a lot of stuff is bullshit, has no supportive evidence, and isn’t likely to anytime soon.

So, rather than simply listing a number of disciplines which are stamped irreparably with the label “Pseudoscience” and may never be taken seriously by anyone who values their scientific credibility, more common is to provide a list of “red flags” – things which generally indicate poor methodology, irrational and ideology-driven research, and that you would do well to be more than usually doubtful about.

What follows is a list of these things to look out for, which should warn you that proper science might not be at the top of the agenda. I’m taking a lot of cues from similar lists at Skeptoid, and these three wikis, but with my own suggestions for how best to calibrate your bullshit detector.

Decrying the scientific method as inappropriate or inadequate to apply to this particular claim

Look, science is just awesome. As the internets are so often keen to point out (and score geek cred for referencing xkcd), it works, bitches. If you’re doing science, you really ought to have a pretty good understanding of how it works (which isn’t hard to grasp), and why it’s important to apply these principles to any new hypothesis before we credit it with being probably true.

This means that, if you’re going to claim that your new idea will revolutionise our understanding of the universe, you can’t get all touchy and offended when people start asking for proof, trying to knock it down, poking holes in it, and bringing up whatever pesky facts might cast doubt upon it. They just want to know you’re not as full of shit as all those loons with their own Grand Unifying Theories, who share your passion but whose ideas don’t make a lick of sense.

If you want people to take you seriously, and believe that you’re any different from the loons, you should be doing everything in your power to help them with their knocking and poking. Because however much this hypothesis is your beautiful darling baby, and you know it will change the world and make you a hero and persuade everyone to shove that haggard old Liberty bint out of the way to make room for a statue of you, you must never forget the crucial and constant scientific principle that it might all be total bollocks.

If you’re wrong, you should really be keen to find that out. If you’re right, you’ll have a theory that’s all the stronger and more convincing for having withstood everything that humanity’s current scientific understanding could hurl against it. This has been the path of every established theory in the whole of science. You are not above this process.

This includes medical practitioners who claim that they don’t have time to waste performing rigorous scientific tests on the alternative treatments they’re dishing out, because they’re “too busy curing people” to bother with any of that. As if all those researchers painstakingly performing controlled studies to determine the actual effects of their treatments are just trying to find ways to pass the time.

One person’s subjective interpretation of one small set of data points – say, how an individual doctor remembers the general feedback he’s got from a handful of patients about a particular pill he’s been giving them – is a far less effective way of finding out the real effects of a treatment than a proper, blinded, scientific study, which can include information from thousands of people and rule out countless potential sources of bias. These studies are why you’re not likely to get a prescription of leeches or thalidomide from your GP anytime soon. They’re the best way we have of finding out what reality is like. (Read Ben Goldacre‘s book for a more thorough discussion of things like the placebo effect, observer bias, and the numerous other phenomena which can make our personal judgments totally unreliable when it comes to the efficacy of medical treatments.)

Being batshit crazy

Now, granted, some batshit crazy stuff does in fact turn out to be real, like quantum mechanics or Mr. T, but these examples are relatively few. You can label yourself a mould-breaking freethinker unfettered by the constrictions of current paradigms, but that won’t stop people calling you an ignorant jackass. Yes, Galileo was right, even though he was viewed as heretical by an oppressive establishment dogmatically set in its ways. But just the second thing on its own isn’t enough.

It might not sit well with the part of us that wants to cheer on the underdog, and see some high-and-mighty ivory-tower types collapse under their own hubris, but most claims which totally contradict established science are going to turn out to be completely wrong. In most cases, such science is established for good reason, and has a lot of data backing it up. If all of this is going to be overturned, it probably won’t be because of a single set of results from one new experiment – particularly given how easy it is for the ignorant, scientifically illiterate, and borderline mentally unstable to make scientific claims.

Obviously this new claim may end up being borne out over time, and the old ideas will then need to be abandoned – but for every Galileo, there’s a thousand whining ideologues, raving lunatics, or honestly mistaken researchers who thought they might’ve discovered something they could publish a career-making paper on but are finding it too painful to admit to themselves that they’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Science by press conference

Good news, everyone! I’ve invented a new type of fish which completely vanishes when left unattended, leaving no decaying and unhygenic remains behind at all! It totally worked this one time, when Reid and Hofstadter from the physics lab challenged me to an office-chair race, and I left it completely unattended. Except for my cat, who’d been asleep by the test tube rack, but he definitely wasn’t involved. He’s not a scientist. He hasn’t even got a PhD. The point is, I’m a groundbreaking genius, and now I need substantial funding for further research. Yes, mine is the only lab to have produced any such results so far. Yes, it’s just the one result. But we’re all very excited by the empty, slightly greasy plate which constitutes our lone data point, and we look forward to developing this technology into something accessible to everyone. Did you hear what I said about funding?”

There’s a reason very little actual science tends to turn up this way, in sudden monumental bursts, where whole long-standing paradigms are suddenly overturned in one brief newscast. If someone gathers together a horde of journalists, camera crews, and other sundry spectators, to make some grand announcement about a world-shattering scientific accomplishment never before mentioned in the public sphere, then there’s a good chance that they may have taken one or two short-cuts in the actual science.

Science depends on peer review and replication of results – if you give the details of your experiments to other, independent researchers, they should be able to do the same stuff as you did, if they recreate the same conditions. You have to give other scientists a chance to try it for themselves, and maybe tighten up the protocols (like not letting the cat inside the lab) to see if there might be an explanation for your results which doesn’t imply that everything you know is wrong. A good scientist doing credible work will understand and appreciate the need for this kind of scientific rigour, and welcome the opportunity either to further bolster their claims with independent evidence, or to falsify their own findings before they do something silly like call a press conference over something that will turn out to be easily disproven by the emergence of a well fed cat.

Heads I’m right, tails you’re wrong

My first point was that the best way to prove the scientific merit of your idea is to go through all the usual rigmarole of the scientific method. One specific example of this is that you need to make sure that your idea is potentially falsifiable.

There should be a constant attitude in science – especially with regard to new and unproven ideas – which goes along the lines of, “Take THAT, supposed laws of nature!” You should be trying to bitchslap every contending theory down with the most awkward facts you can muster, and be prepared to chuck it out, if it can’t take the heat and collapses into either inconsistency or tears.

You need to be doing the kinds of experiments where you can say in advance, “We’re going to do this, this, and this, and we predict that will happen. If that does indeed happen, then great, we might be onto something – but if the other turns out to happen instead, then we’re going to have to rethink this theory.” You need to be able to point out, ahead of time, what observations could be made, which would blow your theory out of the water if they were ever reliably demonstrated. You try your damnedest to disprove it, and let everyone else have a go, and if they can’t, then you’ve got yourself a respectable theory.

All good science has something which could totally screw it up like this. Evolution? Precambrian rabbit. The Standard Model of particle physics? If the Higgs boson doesn’t turn up where it should be in the LHC. Science.

But how do you prove homeopathy doesn’t work? Well, you might have thought that repeated analysis of experimental data showing it to have no significant clinical effect beyond that of a placebo would count as disconfirming evidence, but its proponents don’t seem willing to take this as a sign that they need to seriously rethink their ideas. In actual medicine, new treatments are constantly being tested against those already in use, and if they don’t show a significant effect, nobody keeps pushing for them to be widely adopted. They scrap it, or make some significant changes before testing it again, and don’t keep prescribing it to people in the meantime as if it worked. Homeopaths don’t seem to work like this. If someone isn’t willing to suggest what results would falsify their hypothesis if observed, and genuinely rethink their ideas if what they predicted would happen didn’t happen, this should cast doubt on how scientific they’re being.

The pseudoscience, it ain’t a-changin’

It’s never a good sign when your supposedly scientific field goes for a long time without making any significant developments, or adapting to new information and more recent research. Any useful scientific theory makes predictions about future observations, and will generally gather supporting evidence over time as these predictions are vindicated – or, it will change and refine its ideas when new data contradicts the predictions it made.

Astrology is an excellent example in this case. There’s been almost no noticeable change to it in centuries, despite repeated disconfirming evidence, and the fact that the traditional astrological arrangement of zodiac signs simply doesn’t apply any more. I remember one day at school over a decade ago, we were discussing in class a newspaper article about the actual positions in the sky of the constellations of Leo, Aquarius, and so forth, in the modern world, compared with when the standard arrangement of western astrology was first put together. Technically, based on where the constellations actually are in the sky, it was said that my birthday should fall somewhere in Sagittarius, rather than Capricorn. But there’s been no actual progress in the study of astrology resulting from this or any other development in our understanding. It’s completely static, and oblivious to new data. This does not bode well for scientific integrity.

“Energy”

Whenever some new supposedly scientific practice or product throws the word “energy” around, take a shot. Wait, I mean, be skeptical. In science, “energy” is a term referring to a well defined concept, describing how much work (itself a well defined thermodynamical concept) can be performed by a force. In pseudoscience, it’s usually just some vague, wishy-washy notion of “life force“, which some subset of animate objects is assumed to possess, but which can apparently never be quantified, directly measured, or observed in any other way that might actually be useful. It can supposedly be “felt”, by those attuned to it, but this kind of claim doesn’t stand up even to a nine-year-old’s investigations.

If a new claim is based on harnessing “energy”, but never really explains what that means or how it’s consistent with our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, that’s a big red flag. It should never be enough that you’re expected to “feel” something working, because there are many, many ways that your “feelings” can be misleading.

“Natural”

Another magic word which, when it comes to a large number of alternative medical products, health supplements and the like, shouldn’t be nearly as persuasive as it often is. “From the ecosystem that brought you such previous best-sellers as arsenic, smallpox, cocaine, and HIV, comes our new all-natural sensation…”

Obviously that last one’s not such a great example, since we all know the AIDS virus is actually a divine punishment for gayness and/or was created by the government as a means of population control. But the point still stands that Nature’s a bitch, and you should not expect her to be on your side. Chemicals designed specifically to be as beneficial to humans as possible, on the other hand, might be a better option.

Don’t go too far the other way and assume that natural = bad, or your diet will take a serious downturn – but if the “natural” quality of some remedy is being touted as a plus, there’s a good chance it’s meant to be emotionally persuasive, because there’s really nothing rational or logical to be persuaded by.

It cures cancer, makes the bed, and house-trains your unicorn

If something’s too good to be true, then it’s tautologically bullshit. And if a new scientific development comes overflowing with promises of the many wonderful ways it will change your life for the better, the problems it will solve, and the quick fixes it will fix quickly, then that should be a hint that the people making these claims might be more interested in parting some fools from their money than genuinely breaking new scientific ground. (This is especially true if the grandiose promises are being made in a high-profile public announcement, and the practical results are all still yet to materialise.)

Does it work? TRY BUY IT AND SEE FOR YOURSELF

If the people doing the research are also the people taking your money for the product whose efficacy they’ve been researching, that’s not a great sign. What should be even more suspicious is when they can’t provide any actual data to suggest that the product works, and their best suggestion is that you spend your own money (or even just your own time and effort) on performing a non-blinded and unreliable study by yourself, with a sample size of one. (That one being you. And nobody is a statistically significant sample size all on their own.)

If they’re promoting or selling it, and making claims for its effectiveness, there should really be data by now supporting the idea that it actually does something. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” might be a fine way to approach, say, oysters, or bungee jumping, or homosexuality, but it’s not a sound principle on which to base scientific research.

It’s a conspiracy!

The usual reason for ideas not being accepted by the scientific community is that they’re bad science. People who claim that their amazing findings are being suppressed by a conspiracy are much more likely to fall into the “batshit crazy” category mentioned above, than to have actually achieved anything that anyone could possibly have reason to suppress. It’s much more likely that they just don’t have the data to suggest that their hypotheses are anything other than wishful thinking, and so the scientific community is justifiably uninterested.

It profoundly misunderstands the nature of science and the motives of scientists to suggest that there exists any kind of grand conspiracy which is innately hostile to new ideas, and strives to preserve the status quo. Science is all about discovery, and improving our understanding, and scientists love discovering new stuff they can’t explain, and for which they’ll have to come up with a new theory. If you’re even dimly aware of something called “the past”, and have an idea of what things were like there, and how different were the levels of technology and our understanding of the world, then it should be clear that science is anything but stagnant and unchanging.

Sometimes, an individual scientist will be too attached to their preferred, established theory to accept new data which should prompt them to update their ideas. But the process as a whole is geared entirely around going where the evidence points, and people complaining about their ideas not being accepted probably just don’t have any such data.

foorp fo nedruB

That’s a reversed burden of proof, for those of you busy trying to translate it from Klingon or something. If someone comes along with a new product or scientific claim, you’re under no obligation to take them seriously until they’ve demonstrated that it works. You’re not obliged to prove that it’s completely impossible before making any kind of judgment, or give them the benefit of the doubt until then.

Homeopathy and astrology, for instance, are both claimed to work by mechanisms that seem entirely implausible, based on our current understanding of multiple areas of science. This doesn’t prove with absolute certainty that nothing will ever come of them, but nobody’s interested in doing that. You can’t absolutely prove that my pet unicorn Hildegaard isn’t spying on you right now and telepathically reporting your every move back to me, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat it like a credible theory. These ideas all fail a number of basic tests for scientific plausibility, so until someone actually produces some convincing, repeatable, rigorously scientific results, you can ignore the crackpots continuing to promote them. If you’re not being presented with any data, but still being told to “trust” this idea, or told that your skepticism isn’t appropriate or justified, then you might just be looking at a big ol’ steaming pile of pseudoscience.

Impedimentarily obfuscatory collocution

As is so often the case, things go much more smoothly and productively in science if people know what the hell you’re talking about.

Science has jargon in almost every field, and this is fine and necessary. Physicists, for instance, often talk about neutrinos, and quarks, and bosons, and fermions, and many other terms not in common usage. But this doesn’t make them needlessly technical and opaque; they’re just labels for things which don’t often come up in discussion outside of particular scientific circles. Someone not familiar with the sport of badminton might not know the word “shuttlecock”, but they could probably get to grips with it and use it appropriately after being shown what one is. They wouldn’t insist on everyone avoiding the technical talk and referring constantly to “the ball thingy with the feathers on”.

Expecting physicists to go without these terms would be like abandoning the words “man” and “woman”, and attempting to describe people’s gender in terms of factors like their shape, or anatomy, or whether they smell nice. It doesn’t add anything to transparency, or simplify the discussion at all (in fact, quite the opposite).

Corporate jargon is an endlessly fun object of mockery, even though a lot of the phrases involved seem to be perfectly acceptable idioms communicating useful concepts that our language doesn’t otherwise account for. People usually start taking objection when it’s not really being used to communicate anything – when pointlessly verbose and grandiloquent language is used as if to deliberately obscure the meaning. (“Synergy” can actually mean something, but it can just be something to say if you want to sound business-savvy.)

A common sign of pseudoscience is to see lots of technical language being thrown around which looks plausibly scientific, but can’t be consistently reconciled with any other scientific field, or which doesn’t explain its jargon expressions in more mundane terms. SkepticWiki has some good examples, including “quantum biofeedback”, “Counter Clockwise Molecular Spin of Water Molecules”, and “total consciousness of the universe”. There’s also a lot of technical-sounding variants on the ill defined concept of “energy”, as mentioned above. This sort of thing should raise your skeptical hackles still further.

I’ll add more in future, but this seems like an adequate start.

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It’s logical fallacy time again, here in Skeptictionary corner, just because I feel like it, and because these are usually fairly light on the research, which is useful when I’ve got a headache. These fallacies tend to be the sort of thing your squishy primate brain isn’t innately equipped to handle intelligently, but which you can comfortably deal with using just a dash of good sense.

First, I’m going to blow your mind with something hugely improbable. I’m currently shuffling a deck of cards in between keystrokes, and once it’s more or less randomised (or close enough for our purposes, anyway) I’m going to deal out the top few and see what we get. Watch closely now: I am about to defy some astounding odds. Nothing up my sleeve…

Seven of clubs. Eight of hearts. Jack of clubs. Nine of diamonds. Two of diamonds. Queen of hearts. Jack of spades. And, miracle of miracles, the six of hearts.

I could go on, but that’s impressive enough right there, isn’t it? Do you know what the odds were against my drawing that exact sequence from a shuffled deck? It’s up into trillions to one against, literally. (And I mean “literally” literally there, not figuratively, or non-literally, as it’s often used.) But I laughed in the face of improbability, and went ahead and did it anyway, first time. I barely even broke a sweat.

Now, I admit, it may have been a bit more impressive if I’d predicted or aimed for this particular sequence before making the draw, but get off my back, I’m making a rhetorical point here.

Obviously, any sequence of cards in a deck is equally unlikely to appear at random – there are about 80,000 billion billion billion billion billion billion billion different ways of arranging them, after all, so that’s pretty stiff odds against any one particular combination – but somehow arranging them in such a sequence is never a hard thing to do. The point, of course, is that they have to be arranged somehow, and you’re not flying in the face of probability if it’s only afterwards that you point out how unlikely a result it is.

By the same reasoning, some lucky sod won the Lotto jackpot again last week. And we’re supposed to believe s/he just pulled off a millions-to-one shot by chance? I call shenanigans.

This is all fairly easily understood, and the story that gives the fallacy its name – a gunman shoots a hole through a wall, then carefully draws a target around wherever the bullet happened to go – is obviously comical. But it can be a surprisingly insidious mistake.

It’s bad practice to base a hypothesis on certain information, and then point to that same information as evidence that your hypothesis is right. If you flip a coin a hundred times, the odds of the heads/tails split being exactly 50/50 is actually pretty slim; chances are that you’d get a few more of one than the other. So, some sort of uneven leaning is more likely than not, even with a completely fair coin; obviously you can’t start claiming that it’s biased just because you got a few more heads than tails.

If it only came up tails twice in 100 trials, then that may be significant – even if you were just idly flipping coins to waste a boring afternoon, rather than testing a hypothesis (For Science!), you were still probably doing so under the assumption that heads and tails are both equally likely, so this would definitely look weird. But ideally a result like this should be repeated and verified, to make sure the original data hasn’t been cherry-picked, or that this exact fallacy isn’t making you read too much into a simple coincidence.

A study on whether people with some star signs are more likely to have road accidents than others is not necessarily justified in assuming any kind of correlation; if no hypothesis was proposed before the data was collected, then the differences observed could be nothing more than expected random fluctuations. It’d be weird if accident rates were split entirely evenly twelve ways. And apparently the most dangerous sign, Aries, was responsible for “nearly 9% of all road accidents”. When you consider that one-twelfth is about 8.33% anyway, this doesn’t sound so impressive. If it was a big enough change, observed in a big enough sample size, then maybe it could be significant if there’d been a hypothesis to begin with, but going “Ooh, that number’s bigger than that other number” doesn’t qualify as a statistical analysis.

(The explanations attributed to astrologers, for why these results would be expected, seem entirely post-hoc and deeply selective; Aries being fiery and headstrong makes sense, but “prudent and over-cautious” Capricorns were the 6th most dangerous, “protective” Cancer was 4th, and “adventurous and careless” Sagittarius were the safest of the lot.)

In a more subtle variation of the origin story, our sharpshooter unleashes a tirade of multiple rounds against the poor unsuspecting wall (who was only standing their doing its job, after all), and then draws his target around a cluster of several holes, which just happen to be closer together than most of the others, and which look like a fairly convincing series of hits (particularly with the target drawn in after the fact). But although it can sometimes look weird, this kind of clustering is only to be expected when the data is flying all over the place.

People tend to have a clear idea of what randomness ought to look like. It should bounce crazily and unpredictably all over the place, with heads coming up as often as tails (or whatever the variables are), and recognisable patterns definitely aren’t allowed. A string of heads amidst an assorted mass looks “less random”, and might stand out. But there are quite a number of “non-random” patterns that could be found in a series of coin-flips – a run of heads, a run of tails, a run alternating between the two, consecutive short runs of each, and so on – and the odds of some of these turning up in a long enough series might not be that long. It’s the monkeys/typewriter/Hamlet principle on a smaller scale. Spend a few hours tossing a coin, eventually you’ll get ten heads in a row, and probably stumble across a few other interesting patterns on the way.

If you watch random noise long enough, you will see patterns appearing. If you only point them out afterwards, though, it’s a lot less likely to be impressive or interesting. The results of the Global Consciousness Project would seem to be a good example of this, but my lengthy digression about them has been cut, and I’ll try and put that in a separate article soon.

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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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