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August 26, 2006

The Danger of Astrology

Scientist Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, interviewed in Salon:

For most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs....I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle.

Could we add to this list various political paranoias and conspiracy theories? Shermer's explanation for belief in astrology and other "goofy things" might also apply to more mainstream beliefs, no?

They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 26, 2006 10:52 AM


"The Danger of Astrology"? Shouldn't that be "Astrology's Deadly Legacy"?

Posted by: Todd Sayre at August 26, 2006 12:21 PM

So true!! Nothing needs to be added or clarified; the slot machine analogy is perfect!

Posted by: whymrhymer at August 26, 2006 1:39 PM

I don't know that astrology is really so "deadly." But I agree that the comments, and the slot machine example, apply also to mainstream thinking in politics, economics, and, for that matter, in science and medicine. Certainly the beauty industry depends on such "faith." In defense of irrationality, who really can consistently apply statistical probability? I can say from experience (ha ha): Confirmation bias surely is not limited to "goofy" thinkers/thinking.

Posted by: george at August 26, 2006 4:23 PM

I think I agree with George, not only could this "danger" be attributed to more mainstream beliefs, it could be attributed to all beliefs.

Probably the most accurate and truthful statement possible is, "I know nothing."

Sergeant Shultz is God.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 26, 2006 4:50 PM

Very interesting interview, thanks for bringing it here. Think I'm with George too (thanks for bringing up the beauty industry: perfect example of how this does translate to other mainstream beliefs). Astrology hardly deadly (but then again there's a very well known, historic "spiritualist community" in my area); at least that's what the tarot deck told me tonight.

Seriously, though: what came through in the interview, and in the bit that Mitch tended to quote, was a still-disturbing residue that for me reflects some distinctly western values, methodologies and biases in the way we talk about (let alone 'do') science. It tends to discount as 'unscientific'--and therefore, illegitimate-- other ways of contructing and valuing 'knowledge' about the natural world, about human being. Is acupuncture one of those 'other goofy things,' for example? Thousands of years of evidence that it enhances health not enough because it doesn't conform to what people with credentials and corporate-funded labs have decided counts as 'scientific evidence' ?

Science has lent itself to all kinds of discriminatory, if not oppressive, social/political ideologies and cultural practices...you know, the ones that made imperialism legitimate as a white man's burden; that kept women out of the public sphere etc. because it would hurt their reproductive capacity...that continue to fuel racist theories about people's brain capacity (with all the implications)...

In other words, I'm still looking for some acknowledgement that 'science' has a western bias, that it isn't value-neutral.... that it's important obviously (duh) but that it needs, also, to be challenged on these grounds. Perhaps that's too dangerous in the current political climate (nationally as well as globally)?

Posted by: JM at August 27, 2006 1:01 AM

Look, I love fantasy, I go there often. But I live in reality.

Knowing the difference is a learned skill. Science is a methodology that acknowledges the difficulties in separating the two such as ego, confirmation bias and fraud. That is why double blind studies, peer review and independent confirmation are part of the process.

It doesn't help that our young people are taught that faith is a valid way of knowing. If feeling something is right is enough to affirm it is right then the door is wide open to whatever nonsense is out there.

To JM's point:

Is acupuncture one of those 'other goofy things,' for example? Thousands of years of evidence that it enhances health not enough because it doesn't conform to what people with credentials and corporate-funded labs have decided counts as 'scientific evidence' ?

No, thousands of years of anecdotal evidence does not trump scientifically valid tests. Corporate-funded labs should not be required for such tests. There are plenty of resources out there that have been trying to prove this stuff and have been for hundreds of years. That little of significance has come from them is telling.

Posted by: Boelf at August 27, 2006 11:34 AM

I shouldn't have stated, "Sergeant Shultz is God." I know I know nothing about that.

No, Sergeant Shultz is the perfect profit, the Buddha, the humble truth made human.

He is the perfect icon for humanity.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 27, 2006 11:35 AM

I have one foot in both camps….sorta.

You live in your reality, which is the one you imagine. Even though you believe it has a one on one relationship to what is out there, you have no way to prove it is not a fantasy.

On the other hand, look at the world, to me it appears science is transforming everything so fast it is simultaneously organizing life and destroying life.

The path we take down science road will determine whether we evolve or crash. Science cannot coexist with superstition. Science is an evolutionary force, the most powerful natural evolutionary force.
It can also be a devolutionary force. Say la V.

I have to go, my machines need care, I am here to service them. Just like billions of humans, every year I have more machines to care for.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 27, 2006 11:56 AM

On the other hand, look at the world, to me it appears ... - Jay Saul

Would that be "what is out there" or "the one you imagine". Just curious.

Posted by: Boelf at August 27, 2006 3:36 PM

"Believing in astrology" implies that it is a religion.

Astrology isn't a religion, it's a vocabulary - a language - so asking someone if she "believes" in astrology is like asking her if she "believes" in geography.

One could argue, by the way, that the language of geography is inexact, in that it describes a system of "flat" geometry that doesn't quite jive with the reality of our less-than-perfectly-round, ever-changing planet...

Do you believe in Psychology? Since it's been around forever...
: )

Posted by: Slade at August 27, 2006 4:13 PM

I promise I'll stop: classes start tomorrow and that will just about do me in as far as this particular recreational activity goes.

Boelf, thanks for your response. I'm going to keep at the "who decides and for what motive" line for a second, though, in response to your comment:

"There are plenty of resources out there that have been trying to prove this stuff and have been for hundreds of years. That little of significance has come from them is telling."

*Little of significance* according to who? based on what criteria? in whose interest? I still remember when "Our Bodies Ourselves" came out and caused great laughter from the 'established' medical experts because it attempted to legitimate 'alternative' kinds of knowledge. Such knowledge has been more or less "legitimated" now by those who have the power to determine what is and what isn't, but it's that kind of thing, the self-interested perpetuation of the status quo, that makes me flinch. The scientists themselves may be genuinely open-minded, but the institutional structures and practices they need to utilize (university credentialing including publishing of findings, the incessant search for research funding, the subjects/data pools and extrapolation of results etc.) all show up in forms of bias that I find troubling...

Obviously I'm not trashing science here or attempting to put superstition in its place. But the processes of what counts as 'valid knowledge'--and why, and for whom-- needs to be continually questioned, at least in my mind.

Posted by: JM at August 27, 2006 8:09 PM

There was a time I was really into astrology. I liked incorporating the aggressiveness of Mars and the harmony of Venice, project what might be the outcome of a possible square of trine relationship between such influences.

While I put a lot of time and imagination into this research I never believed for a second the fundamental premise of astrology, that the planets had any effect at all let alone the ones prescribed to them.

Like I said in a previous post, I love fantasy.

Slade, I'm not sure what you mean by astrology being just a language. The astrology I played with made very specific claims about planets, aspects, houses and such. Regretfully none of it has to my knowledge been scientifically affirmed.

Posted by: Boelf at August 29, 2006 1:34 AM

Hmm. I guess my last post, Boelf, was based on what I assumed to be your response to my example of acupuncture. For me, the arrogance of western presumptions about science has made acupuncture seem 'wacky', the equivalent of tarot and astrology... wasn't trying to defend astrology or tarot decks (though i'll admit to enjoying these recreationally). Your response wasn't, perhaps, engaging mine but if it was, just wanted to clarify it.

Posted by: JM at August 29, 2006 5:24 PM

funny, because Michael Shermer is a perfect Virgo.

Posted by: mark shulgasser at September 10, 2006 8:47 PM

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