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Posted by on Dec 22, 2013 in Humor, Pseudoscience, Skepticism, Teaching | 18 comments

Zodiac APOCALYPSE!!!

This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.

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Zodiac APOCALYPSE!!! by Adam Braly

I have something to confess — I have changed the stars! Okay fine, I haven’t really, but you sort of believe me, right? No? Well, fine…..

This may be old news to you gentlemen/women and scholars of GPS but the zodiac has been rearranged. A 13th sign, Ophiuchus, has entered the ranks of Sagittarius, Cancer, and Virgo. At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking ”By Zeus, what in the world is happening? My sign has changed!!?” (personally, I quite enjoyed being the physical embodiment of a lion).

Now, you might be thinking “What exactly does this mean for me?” No? Wrong again? Bollocks…

Well, humor me for a moment dear readers. In my earlier post, I gave a brief mention to the slight deviation in the Earth’s axis of rotation that causes it to wobble. More specifically, astronomers observe a slow and continuous shift in the orientation of the Earth’s axis of rotation that is induced by gravity. This phenomenon, known as axial precession, might be best visualized as a wobbling top, and is responsible for the zodiac apocalypse.

“Brace for the worst: You may be a Virgo, scientists say.” Scientists, eh? What scientists? Perhaps they left the pseudo- part out of that?

batmanslapastrologyAnyway, as actual scientists, my colleagues and I set out to enlighten our own campus on the woes of pseudoscientific practices. At the astrology booth, we wanted to gauge how many of our fellow students held beliefs in astrology. Seventy-five students (42 female, 35 male) responded to a 6-item questionnaire that attempted to discern whether students thought that the characteristics associated with their sign accurately reflected their personality and whether they considered astrology to be scientific. Of the 75 students, 80% (M = 60) claimed to read a horoscope daily, over 70% (M = 52.5) considered astrology to be “somewhat scientific” and 21% (M = 15.75) considered astrology to be “very scientific.” Holy science, Batman! If you would have asked me before the pseudoscience fair whether I considered our students to be knowledgeable of scientific practices, I would have undoubtedly given you a “Hell yes, we are very awesome!” I’m quite perplexed at the numbers we received. Why is it that everywhere I turn, I am shocked by the number of respondents who literally believe in the tenants of astrology? To address this issue, I’d like to examine some of the actual scientific studies.

Social psychologists have suggested a number of separate hypotheses that attempt to account for the prevalence of astrological beliefs. Does astrology inherently attract those individuals with intermediate levels of scientific knowledge? Is there a ‘metaphysical unrest’ within those individuals? Carlson (1985) has provided perhaps one of the most detailed tests of astrology using a double-blind study. Interestingly, Carlson sought out “professional astrologers” to design the tests in his study and to predict what would be deemed as successful test in advance – 28 astrologers from the NCGR took the bait. The first task consisted of 83 participants whose task was to correctly identify their own astrological chart from three choices. A correct chart was prepared prior to each task and was based on the current participant’s date of birth, time of birth, and birth place. Of the 83 participants, a mere 28 were able to accurately identify their own astrological chart. With only 3 choices, that’s exactly the success rate we would expect from random chance alone (27.667). Though, the professional astrologers had predicted more than half of the participants would be able to select their own chart. In the second task, 116 participants completed the California Psychological Inventory (an objective measure of psychological state in the same fashion as the MMPI) and provided their date of birth, time of birth, and birth place. This time, a professional astrologer was presented with the data from a single participant and 3 separate personality inventories (one of which matched the participant who provided natal data). The astrologers were tasked with discerning which personality inventory matched the data provided by the participant. Of the 116 cases, only 40 were able to accurately choose the correct CPI. Funny how this works out, but that’s nearly the rate of random chance yet again (38.667)! Yet, the astrologers predicted that they would be correct more than half of the time. Carlson remarked

Despite the fact that we worked with some of the best astrologers in the country, recommended by the advising astrologers for their expertise in astrology and in their ability to use the CPI, despite the fact that every reasonable suggestion made by advising astrologers was worked into the experiment, despite the fact that the astrologers approved the design and predicted 50% as the “minimum” effect they would expect to see, astrology failed to perform at a level better than chance.

It would appear as though the professional astrologers failed their own test… and the list goes on dear readers. In testing astrological signs and personality traits, no correlations were found (Illingworth & Syme, 1977; Tyson, 1977). Mayes and Klugh (1978) compared MMPI results to natal charts of 196 participants. Across 13 personality traits, astrological signs, and planetary aspects, no correlations were found. On June 7, 1989 the television show Exploring Psychic Powers… Live was aired in which James Randi set out to examine the claims of several individuals with “special power.” His offer was $100,000 to anyone who could demonstrate such power. An astrologer claimed that he would be able to tell the sign of person after talking with them for a few minutes. To prove that he was indeed supernatural, he would need to get 10 out of 12 correct. He was able to manage exactly none. James Randi currently offers $1 million for anyone able to perform this type of supernatural feat.

It’s quite disturbing to think that the nonsense of astrology has developed into a multimillion dollar industry with paid subscriptions, telephone services, and sketchy websites. In a seemingly cruel world, we strive to discern meaning that would give us an advantage, or at the very least, some glimmer of hope. There are those individuals who will make life-changing decisions regarding their finances, career changes, and health based on the pseudo-babble advice from astrologers. Scientific studies from two decades prior were unsuccessful in determining a link between astrology and personality, so why should it still be prevalent now? Let’s not blame the stars for our misgivings.

For the final word on this, I give you the ghost of Carl Sagan (be sure to watch until the end, I laughed so hard I spit my coffee out).

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    It’s been great fun getting back from a vacation where I had no internet access and catching up on the blogposts at GPS. It makes me feel like I’m still on vacation. (Carl Sagan’s ghost is hilarious!) Thanks!

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      Thank you for continuing to read. I’ve got about 25 or so more student posts that I’m editing now, so there will be plenty to keep you feeling like you’re on vacation :)

  • Matthew Currie

    Is there any chance you used the JREF booklet on Astrology when you’re teaching this?

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      I didn’t, Matthew (mostly since I first developed by Science vs. Pseudoscience class in 2006), but it’s a great resource. I’m not sure if Adam (author of this particular post) used it or not.

      • Matthew Currie

        You should probably take a look at some of the errors in the JREF booklet.

        http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/ohmystars/2013/12/dear-skeptic-part-two-please-curb-your-dogma.html

        • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

          Ah, you’re Matthew Currie the astrologer. I had seen your “take down” of the JREF’s astrology lesson plan before, and was not impressed. What I’m mostly unimpressed with is the fact that neither you nor any other astrologer is able to actually demonstrate that you can predict the future or tell what someone’s personality will be, or any of the other claims made by various astrologers. That’s pretty well documented in the above-linked studies, and I’ve yet to see any empirical (non-antecodotal) evidence suggesting otherwise.

          • Matthew Currie

            Can you tell me why it is whenever I’m seeking honest answers about the questions I posed about the JREF booklet, it always comes down to moving the goalposts and proving astrology?

          • Omid Nowrouzi

            For those of us who must be ignorant to the supposed authenticity of
            astrology, please tell me what the operational definition you hold as
            “honest” is. We can use Socratic method or false dichotomies until we’re
            blue in the face but please allow us less educated individuals the
            fairness of creating a clear and persistent framework for your
            discussions so that the outcomes may be held to the light of day and
            resist the scrutiny of our peers.

          • Matthew Currie

            I’m guessing that based on your response you haven’t read what I’m talking about.

            http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/ohmystars/2013/12/dear-skeptic-part-two-please-curb-your-dogma.html

            JREF has a booklet out for teachers to encourage Critical Thinking skills. One of those booklets is about astrology. I read this booklet and, speaking as an astrologer, the booklet contains all kinds of misrepresentations about what an astrologer actually does… to the point where it seems to me they can’t have actually even bothered researching what they were debunking.

            I love thoughtful skepticism, but setting up straw men and knocking them down isn’t thoughtful skepticism. And this isn’t the first time Randi has been deceptive about astrology either. Ever heard why Dennis Rawlins quit CSICOP?

            http://cura.free.fr/xv/14starbb.html

            So: In my blog entry, i examine the evidence presented by Randi. I look forward to honest responses. I’m not going to convince anyone here to rush out and become an astrologer… I know that. But if you’re proud of you’re critical thinking skills, can you at least base it one something other than the Straw Man of Ophiuchus and the Low Hanging Fruit of newspaper astrology forecasts?.

          • Omid Nowrouzi

            I understand what you are trying to say, but it seems in this instance you are taking a separate issue and placing it in a different forum to air your grievances or possibly re-frame the issue being discussed.

            There is nothing but “thoughtful skepticism” in this post. A defense should be placed properly in the discussion of relevance. The poster has already shown that his knowledge and stance have been developed long before the development and publication of this booklet.

            As for your quest for honest answers, perhaps this is not the right forum. It’s akin to getting mad at your significant other for not getting off the phone to help you find your keys. It may be a question of significance (however loosely related) but only on the forefront of your thought processes and not of others.

          • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

            Fair point, Matthew, fair point. I tell you what, I will try to get one of my astrophysics buddies to do a critique of your critique. No promises. I’d do it myself, but am busy trying to wrap a couple of books up.

            I do think, though, that I would (as an astrologer) be more concerned with the fact that there’s not any empirical evidence to support my job, than with some booklet put out by a small foundation.

          • Matthew Currie

            Thank you. That would be appreciated.

            The whole issue of empirical evidence backing astrology is another matter, and for those who are looking for a convenience pull-quote: no, I don’t think that there is any science out there definitively showing astrology works… but I think that’s because there’s been a lack of study on the matter overall, and the studies I’ve seen are flawed. That would be a matter for longer discussion than any comments section of any blog could accommodate, though.

            My main problem with JREF, in this particular case, is that the booklet is marketed as an aid to Critical Thinking skills, but (whether or not you agree with astrology, I at least have experience with it) in fact shows the same kind of unthinking dogmatism JREF purports to be against.

            It’s a shame when a guy heats on his wife… but much more so when a preacher does the same thing. Going my that analogy, it’s more of a shame when a group like JREF appears to fall into the same sloppy thinking they decry in others.

            Just as it’s worse when Jimmy Swaggart uses a hooker than if the guy down the street does, I think it’s worse when JREF isn’t using their head. Just as we demand better from our local moral authority, I demand better from my skeptics! :)

        • Eshto

          “But I haven’t heard of whole lot of people who’d refuse to hire a well-qualified Leo because of their Sun Sign…”

          But Matthew, I do know people who disqualify potential dating partners based on stereotypes about their birth signs. Additionally, there are such things as positive stereotypes, that won’t necessarily get you denied a job, but they are still dehumanizing. “Asians are good at math, let’s get an Asian for this job that requires math skills” would actually help a minority land a job. It’s still flattening them into a two-dimensional caricature of a person at the expense of their individual personality and quality of character.

          • Matthew Currie

            Eshto: I’m sure you know people who wouldn’t date someone because they were a Scientologist, or an astrologer either. That’s not the same as firing an employee (or not hiring someone) because they’re a Scientologist or whatever.

  • Matt Korstjens

    Astrology is probably one of the silliest pseudosciences to ever exist. Well, maybe it’s a close second after homeopathy.

  • portentous pretence

    Holy Scientism Batman! Attention GPS Scholars! Here’s something to consider… rename the signs! https://www.facebook.com/precessionproblemsolved/info

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      I’m afraid that changing the names won’t actually change the fact that astrology is bunk.

      • portentous pretence

        Changing the names of the constellations only points to the fact that the witting or unwitting confusion between constellations and signs is bunk. You have to like this because it demolishes a major misunderstanding.