All that is wrong with the world…

June 30, 2011

How do people consider Astrology seriously?

Filed under: Issues...the world...etc.. — Tags: , , , , , , — allthatiswrong @ 12:13 am

It bugs me how many people I know that lend credibility to Astrology. So, I decided to rant about it here. People will probably point out I’m not saying anything new here, which is true. Even so, I want to rant and try to aggregate all the sources and arguments I have found in one place. People may find it useful – my goal is that for rational people to read this, they will no longer be able to make a rational argument justifying or defending modern day astrology. There have always been people skeptical of astrology, for example Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a papal adviser, wrote: How happy are the astrologers if they tell one truth to a hundred lies, while other people lose all credibility if they tell one lie to a hundred truths.Yet here we are in 2011 with horoscopes in every newspaper printed around the world, with people taking it seriously and to various extents using it to guide their life.

I have never understood how people can believe in astrology with any degree of seriousness. I understand some people just see it as entertaining except for many people it goes further than entertainment. Many people might get a tattoo of their horoscope honestly believing that their sign defines their personality. Others take it further defining selecting the people they date or have relationships with based on their compatibility or making big life decisions based on their horoscope. It’s interesting to me because people who believe in astrology are making exactly the same mistake as people who believe in various religions, yet often I hear people dismiss religion and claim to embrace science while also still subscribing to astrology. How can people be so stupid?

This year started off with an interesting astrology headline being in the news, when a Minnesota newspaper published a story claiming the signs had now changed dates to account for the moon’s wobble as well as a new sign, Ophiuchus, being introduced. Never mind the fact that western astrology is not affected due to using a tropical zodiac as opposed to a sidereel zodiac or the fact that the horoscope dates are about 3000 years off anyway, it still made the news and caused somewhat of a panic, highlighting just how ignorant people are of the things they put their faith in. So, western astrology uses a tropical zodiac which is based on seasons. What about the different hemispheres? Are the predictions reversed just as the seasons are? What I found interesting was people’s reactions to this story. It was clear that most people did not understand the system they decided to base their decision on, and that some people are so attached to it that they refused to accept the possibility that they may have to let go of their sign. Despite it being well known it was the first time many people had heard of it, yet it didn’t shake their faith at all.

Looking at various surveys it seems at least 1/3rd of Americans think astrology is a valid discipline with even more considering it to be scientific. That number isn’t too far removed from that of other western countries which isn’t so bad. It is far worse in other countries such as India where it was ruled to be a trusted science and is taught in universities. It’s just a shame to see so much of the world displaying stupidity to such a level. First of all (and this goes for religion as well) why would you consider the astrology of your culture to necessarily be correct? There are many different types of astrology and they tend mutually exclusive. What are the chances that the astrological system used where you happened to grow up also happens to be the correct one, given as only one can be correct?

Surely if there were anything to astrology, we would see some consistency in the observations made by all the different astrological systems. It doesn’t matter if they get some minor details wrong or personality profiles differ…., but there should at least be something quantifiable. That there isn’t would seem to support the theory that all astrological systems are purely interpretive and speculative deriving from the culture they develop out of. It’s hard to try and disprove some of the claims made by astrology due to them not being falsifiable. However every test we have done has demonstrated that any astrological prediction is no more reliable than what is expected by chance. Even the studies we have done with twins have failed to find any inkling of evidence for astrology. One study followed over 2000 people born just minutes apart for decades and failed to find any evidence of meaningful similarities. The closest we have ever come to finding something meaningful that may support astrology was the interesting correlation known as the Mars effect , although even this was meaningless simply being explained by selection bias.

It just seems so ridiculous that people take this seriously, and that it is lent credibility from governments and academics. It is a guarantee that most daily horoscopes with contradict each other rather than harmonize. There is no evidence for any terrestrial body having any causal affect on personality or events in life. At the most a sometimes meaningless correlation might be found. Astrology is only evidence of people having a desire to defer to fatalism, lessening the burden of life by taking solace in the fact that some decisions are outside of their control. This type of ignorance is dangerous and we as a society should take steps to correct it rather than embrace it. What can we do apart from educate people as to why it is bunk? People should be free to believe what they like, but we should prevent astrology being taught as though it were science.

On a somewhat unrelated note I always thought was interesting was that it always seems that far more women believed in astrology than men. Anecdotally that seems true, but I can’t actually find any information on this. It does seem that there is far more astrology advertising targeted towards women in magazines and on women’s television networks and I would wager that the advertising companies did their research. One theory is that women are not more likely to believe in paranormal theories than men, just that they tend to believe in more social paranormal phenomena while men tend to believe in creatures or entities. It isn’t really relevant but I can’t but help find that interesting.

What about the accuracy of signs for personality descriptions? Many people dismiss the daily horoscopes yet still cling to the idea that the zodiac personality profiles are accurate. Well, after searching several sources to try and find a consistent description for my sign, as a Cancer I apparently hold the following traits:

• I am a hoarder, collecting things and keeping for a long time, things which others would tend to discard.

• I am overly emotional, very prone to mood swings and showing whatever emotion I am feeling in expressively.

• I am artistic. As I am so emotional art serves as an outlet for my excess emotional energy.

• I crave and adore attention, like being the star of the party.

• I have a great sense of humor and it is one of my stronger points.

• I likely have a tendency to be patriotic.

Well….those traits are either entirely inaccurate or so general as to apply to far more than 1/12th of the population. I am far from a hoarder, traveling around the world with all but a messenger bag full of essentials. I tend to be less emotional than most people, not more, which is actually the cause of some problems in my personal life. I have literally zero artistic ability. I can’t draw even the most simplest of shapes with any degree of accuracy. It’s true that I like attention and many people think I have a great sense of humor, however I am not patriotic in the least, and don’t think much of those that are. So, the only two traits which are actually accurate are extremely general, probably occurring in other sign profiles as well. It’s based on these profiles that people are deciding relationships and making serious life decisions. Such a shame.

In my case my sign profile tends to be more inaccurate than not, however in many cases people will feel that their profile is eerily accurate. This is easily explained by what is known as the Forer effect, where a statement seemingly tailored to an individual will consist of entirely general statements, which the individual then interprets in a specific way relevant to themselves. The name comes from an experiment where the following statement was given to a group of people:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life

They were asked to rate it’s accuracy on a scale of 1 – 5, with the average score being 4.26. The statement is so general and vague that of course people are going to be able to relate it to themselves. The problem is that not enough people seem to be aware of this basic psychological phenomenon, thus wasting millions of money and fraud and continuing a cycle of ignorance which only hinders our progress.

We shouldn’t dismiss astrology entirely as it is a part of our history, but it should be relegated to the same status as alchemy. An interesting part of our history that we now know is false, but is useful is seeing how we arrived at the modern disciplines of psychology and astronomy. Much like alchemy spawned chemistry astrology played a part in initiating the science of astronomy. Looking at the parts of astrology that relate directly to astronomy, they were not bad for speculative guesses and the same goes for the psychological parts. It’s just that now we understand the two are not tied together at all. The idea that we were somehow controlled by the stars has been questioned ever since the idea was first proposed, to see it still being taught and practiced seriously in modern day when we know better is appalling. We should always dismiss astrology as 100% bullshit but this doesn’t mean the part it played in our history.

It is also important to consider the possibility of an as yet undiscovered force. To do this we have to look at Astrology at a more abstract level, which means disregarding all the various systems of astrology we have today or have had throughout history, and simply considering the possibility that there is a force that can have an impact on individuals born at certain times that is so far immeasurable. Well, that is extremely unlikely, but we can’t rule it out completely. By the same token, there is absolutely no reason to consider that as likely. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy does a pretty good job explaining why astrology could not possible be due to any known force or an unknown force here. I feel he prematurely dismisses that possibility of an unknown force by making a lot of assumptions about the hypothetical unknown force, however I don’t know nearly enough about physics or astronomy to say why he might be wrong.

While Astrology is often seen as harmless in reality it has consequences for society. It undermines real science and makes fighting pseudoscience such as this that much harder because people are not willing to accept that something given so much credibility may in fact be completely bunk. It makes it harder to defend vaccinations, to debunk homeopathy or anything similar. Ideally astrologers should be legally forced to have disclaimers saying astrology can only be considered as entertainment and there is no reason to take it seriously, although I don’t see that happening any time soon.

References

  1. http://www.randi.org/encyclopedia/astrology.html – Article on astrology from the Randi encyclopedia
  2. http://www.startribune.com/newsgraphics/113661579.html?elr=KArks7PYDiaK7DUoaK7D_V_eDc87DUiacyKUbPi87EK_g:D_GD7EaDh_0c:aD:aUr – Star Tribune article on new sign Ophiuchus
  3. http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/13/no-your-zodiac-sign-hasnt-changed/?hpt=C2 – CNN article explaining why peoples signs did not change.
  4. Forer effect – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Wiki page on the Forer effect
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1439101/Astrologers-fail-to-predict-proof-they-are-wrong.html – Article about the most comprehensive study done on astrology
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_effect – Wiki page on the Mars effect
  7. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/blogs/sceptic-science/do-women-want-to-believe-20110105-19fr2.html – Do more women believe in the paranormal than men?
  8. http://www.astrology-online.com/cancer.htm – Personality profile for Cancer.
  9. http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/astrology.html”> – Phil Plait on Astrology
  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haP7Ys9ocTk – YouTube – Derren Brown onAstrology
  11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iunr4B4wfDA&feature=related YouTube – Carl Sagan on Astrology
  12. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=patternicity-finding-meaningful-patterns Interesting article about how people find patterns where there are none.
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