Astrology Simply Does Not Work

Submitted Fri Mar 21 17:21:44 2008 under tags "pseudoscience,science,astrology"

A friend said she could feel my stinger sometimes, since I'm a Scorpio. I was taken aback, and could only offer that I doubted the position of the stars had anything to do with my personality. (One could argue that my response confirms her statement.)

The stars in Scorpio only look the way they do from this planet, since they are all at extremely different distances in space. And how much can 18 stars look like anything? The Chinese thought those stars were part of the larger Dragon, the Maoris considered it a jawbone... Frankly I think it looks plain like a letter "J" if I tilt my head sideways a little.

Michael Shermer talked at TED about cognitive biases and people's inclination to find patterns in noise and believe things that make them feel good that otherwise would obviously be false.

I stumbled on a page today that lists 37 scientific tests that astrology fails. More specifically, the page goes into detail on one study and lists abstracts for 36 other studies in which astrology did no better than random chance for predicting people's behavior or life events. They actually tested it. They asked, does astrology actually predict anything, and they could not show that it did!

I note that about halfway through the comments is an interesting quote from "Cari": "As for the studies noted above, I find them very interesting though no one will ever convince me there is nothing to astrology." Read that again! Although no one has ever devised a test that indicates astrology works in any way, no one will ever convince her otherwise. What she's saying is that although 37 other people who study psychology, astrology, and astronomy for a living couldn't figure out a way to show that astrology works, she's not convinced, even though she doesn't offer a test that shows anything. What she does provide is the kind of anecdotal data that appears to contain confirmation bias and selective perception.

Now... It's not her point of view that bothers me. Cari and other people like her can live their lives any way they want, as far as I'm concerned. Cari might even be a nice person with which I would like to talk, dance, or play guitar.

But there are couple of ways in which it's a problem.

  1. She impacts my life. This is someone who I presume shares the freeway with me, may prepare my food, may be at my company in HR, or even a programmer, and probably even votes! If she thinks that she's right even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, why should I trust her to act in society's best interests when she's out and about during the day?
  2. She may have a child. In our society we allow parents an amazing amount of freedom, but we do draw the line at abuse. Do we allow a parent to make decisions for a child based on a horoscope? What if the parent has a horoscope drawn up which they really like, and then the child acts counter to it? Should we, the society at large, let a parent discipline a child based on something that has no meaning that anyone can prove?
  3. It just saddens me about the human race in general. I've sort of felt my entire life that we were inexorably going forward. We've progressed the rights of citizens and have been steadily moving away from dictatorship and monarchy and intolerance (Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, Gay Marriage), we've discovered that bacteria and virii cause disease and we've applied the scientific method to reducing their effectiveness, and we've allowed people to have freedom of religion or no religion at all. But here's someone who simply thinks that if she believes it's right, then it is right. It seems sadly backward.
(In the above paragraphs I say "she" but I don't have any reason to think women are any more likely to be this way than men.)

Ordinary people just don't incorporate "I don't have to be right" into their worldview enough. I agree, it's a tough statement for a person to make. In our society, being right is viewed somehow as more important than the end result of our actions, to the point of being pathological. People will insist they are right long past the point where they have been proven to be wrong.

What if it was okay to question yourself? What if it was actually good to say, every so often, "what if I'm wrong? I'll think about ways in which I could be wrong." What if it was even a good idea to measure the effectiveness of actions? This is very similar to the formal scientific method.

When a person states "the measurable effectiveness of my actions is more important than being right," they become more than they were. They leave being a zealot and become a force for change, for realizing their goals. I wish I could really get this into people's heads. (And into my own a lot more than I have!)

I think some people do test themselves sometimes. Just not enough of us do it.


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