A day or so ago, Matthew Currie posted an open letter to James Randi (and foundation) on BeliefNet.com, purporting to show how he was using unfair straw man arguments against astrology. Part 2 then arrived, where Currie goes through a JREF booklet page-by-page trying to show its errors. The only appropriate response is this:
I’m not even sorry, it really is that bad. It’s pages and pages of whining and moaning about either pedantic details or nothing at all. Currie even ends the article saying he’s not even going to go into:
…the false equivalency on Page 12, the deceptive test results on Page 13, the phony take-down based on The Forer Effect on page 14, the stunning irony of the invocation of Confirmation Bias on Page 15, and the ridiculous misuse of Sun Sign Forecasts on Page 16 and 17 and 18.
So yeah, seriously, Currie ends his “epic take-down” by saying he isn’t going to bother with the real meat of the skeptical opinion on astrology – the underlying psychology, the cognitive biases or the actual results data. As a result, responding to and refuting (in fact, merely even bothering to read) Currie’s article is what I would call “a complete fucking waste of my time”. But he did conclude by pointing readers in the direction of this piece. Considering the context, this should be the greatest evidence that astrology really works ever assembled, right? Yeah, you know exactly where this is going…
So, here are the first 4 of 7 supposedly surprising signs that astrology works.
Astrology & Your Love Life
Jung was a bit of a mystic and flake, so has become the go-to person for astrologers and New Age types when they want a “reputable scientist” to back them up. Yet, he’s hardly the be-all and end-all of authority on psychology – indeed, how can he, considering he’s been dead for over fifty years? Criticism of Jung can, and has, filled countless pages, and is hardly new.
He once noted that “astrology represents the sum of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity” – while his spiritual influence are well known, it seems that some of his approaches were to explain astrology with psychology, not the other way around. He did play a part in developing the concept of “synchronicity“, which states that events may be connected by a common meaning that human experience gives to them. This relationship may not necessarily be causal, but entirely within the mind. As a result, Jung’s psychological theory – one that has little evidence or predictive value associated with it – has been widely criticised as simply being apophenia, aka, seeing meaning in random noise.
As for Jung’s study of married couples, there are quite literally no sources that I’ve found so far outside of astrology websites (sigh…) and many of them conflict on the details. As a result, it’s near impossible to criticise in a meaningful sense – yet is impossible to take seriously, too. However, a more intuitive explanation presents itself if we take the qualitative conclusion at face value; if people believe that birth charts affect their relationships and put stock in it, is it a surprise to find married couples matched by astrological “predictions”?
Astrology & Weather
Astrology is known in skeptical jargon as a “protoscience” – something that, although it pre-dates the scientific method and methodological naturalism, still relied on some observational methodology to reach its conclusions. As a result, records kept by these protosciences can be of use; astrologers charted the position of planetary bodies, and alchemists recorded the first chemical reactions. However, this has no bearing on the supernatural predictions and assertions they make.
As for Sergey Tarasov and Alphee Lavoie, no link is given to this apparent study. After a few attempts at tracking it down, I kinda gave up. What I could figure out is that Lavoie and Tarasov sell astrology software aimed at market trading – little word on how effective it is, although it’s worth noting that “selling astrology software” is a common theme uniting many astrologers cited in this list. They do appear to be linked not to weather cycles, but predicting apparent tough economic times between 2012 and 2015. But considering these predictions were made about two years before, while planetary positions are known hundreds of thousands of years in advance (as the chaos caused by the n-body problem doesn’t kick in for a while), we can respond to this with “no shit, Sherlock”.
Astrology & Fertility
There may be a good reason that female fertility follows patterns related to phases of the moon – the moon orbits once every 28 days, while the female reproductive cycle coincidentally happens to also follow 28 days. Fancy that. Wait, this isn’t news to people, right? Okay, just checking.
Actually, fuck it, just read the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry. Basically, Eugene Jonas merely stumbled upon just another variant of the “Rhythm Method”, which isn’t, as it may sound, a prog R&B band, but a birth control method preferred by the Catholic Church because it doesn’t involve evils such as condoms (often referred to as “Vatican Roulette”). We all know how effective that can be – a failure rate of ~10% or so based on even perfect use. So, by telling couples who want to avoid pregnancy to have less sex, and couples who want to conceive to have more sex, while not offering any guarantees despite a claim of “100%” effectiveness, Jonas had stumbled upon a remarkable discovery; being able to sell the bleeding obvious for good hard cash.
Astrology & Family Patterns
Because this list insists on me looking things up myself, I found Bernadette Brady – an astrologer who says she has an MA in Culture (sic) Astronomy and Astrology from Bath Spa University, UK. Now, I don’t want to disparage a distance-learning course provided by an ex-polytechnic college that kicked their cultural astrology programme out of their prospectus in 2008 shortly after it gained “proper” university status but… never mind, that’s beside the point. You can find this study, and “extensive research” here.
The first thing you notice reading this study is the sheer number of astrological alignments that can be made. At any one point in time you have seemingly thousands of confluences and positions to take into account – making it a discipline ripe for data mining (this isn’t limited to astrology). Secondly, you’ll see that there’s no test that gathers people together and tests the proposal about whether similar groups have similar astrological charts and groupings – certainly the test is blind or randomised or anything that would seriously back up the assertion made in BeliefNet’s puff-piece there.
In fact, the main worked example in Brady’s paper is about the Kennedy’s. Considering it was written in 1997, and JFK was assassinated in 1963, you can hardly say this is generating new information – the second example is older and even more esoteric, looking at the Dutch royal family in the 19th century. Confluences in astronomical bodies are known centuries in advance – where are the infallible predictions of the future, where you’re not just stating the obvious?
Anyway, this is getting a bit long now. I’ll shove the last three into another post for later.