Sunday, January 2, 2011

Astrology Discussion on Twitter

I got into a chat on twitter with an astrologer last week. Long story. Anyway, during the following night, one of her aquaintances sent a whole bunch of tweets as a followup to our discussion, so I thought I'd blog my response instead of a tedious twitter back and forth. Feel free to discuss in the comments! Oh, and apologies for the delay in responding, it's been a hectic few days...but then, you already know that :)

First: Check out this video, it's a classic:
Richard Feynman on what science is:

In Black below are the tweets I received overnight, in blue, my responses. I was originally going to post a single piece, but figured it would be interesting to see the original tweets also.

Science is "Flick the switch, light goes on." Faith is "I hope the Power Co. didn't cut me off - ok
I don't have to have "faith" in astrology, because it observably and repeatedly works.... who's observing, and under what conditions? If we're only taking your word for it, then I'm sorry - not good enough. 
And I know there's little "scientific" evidence for it. -like.....magic, then, no?
Of course they used to pack wounds with cow dung before anyone heard of "penecillin"
 ...and not understanding hydrogen fusion never stop the Sun from shining.
Most skeptical arguments seem to boil down to "I haven't seen any proof that fits my worldview." -no, the view is that if there's sound evidence to support the claim, I'll change my mind AND my worldview.

In other words, Sagan's "Extraordinary proof (etc)" statement may be true, but it also mentally sets
the bar pf "proof" as high as you want it to be. -it should be high. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the proof required. If we accept astrology as valid, it means that the fundamental laws of nature as we understand them today are completely wrong. These laws have been challenged again and again, and any predictions made using them have been verified and replicated the world over. 

Consider all the many, many, many studies -
about the effectiveness of antidepressants. Antidepressants are a crap shoot, but since we like
to think of the psyche as being the result of chemistry, we want to use chemistry to change it
Billions in research, and the best antidepressants can do is about 60% effectiveness -not aware of this, but I'm sure it's more complicated than a sweeping general statement like that. At a guess, I'd say efficient marketing by manufacturers, incorrect prescriptions to people that don't actually need antidepressants etc. More of a business ethics problem than a scientific one, IMHO. But then again, I don't have the whole story and I'm sure it's VERY complex. 

 But when I as an astrologer come up with 8 or 9 out of 10 predictions right, a skeptic starts with
"The Forer Effect" or "The Barnum Effect" or the "well, that's not how planets work" argument. - these are well documented phenomena. When you say you're "right" - based on what kind of prediction? Specific like "you'll slip on the stairs at work at 2.30pm on March 23rd, but it'll be only a mild sprain) Or vague like "there'll be big changes in 2011" , ie Barnum-type cold-readings? Who decides you're right, you or the client? Under what conditions? 

We've stopped throwing virgins into volcanoes, yet the "superstition" of astrology persists.
Now that just couldn't be because maybe astrology works or something. Noooooo. :) -correct :) 

Every argument I've heard against astrology can be applied to any branch of psychology. -Confusing pop psychology with clinical psychology and psychotherapy. Work by Skinner, Pavlov, and Milgram are among the best known examples of predictive, peer reviewed studies that stand up to the test of time. Psychotherapy doesn't have a lot of fans in the hard sciences as there are problems regarding falsifiability. 

Do I understand the mechanism by which astrology works? Hell no. -does anyone? So why are there no astrological research university departments to discover how it works? Surely uncovering the mechanism of astrology, if there is one, would be a monumental discovery. Einstein, Newton, Feynman, Dirac, Fermi: so long, farewell. Countless Nobel prizes await the discoverers of such a mechanism. I may not understand how every part of a car works, but I can find someone who does. If I want to, I can go all the way up to the engineers that designed it using the cumulative results of centuries of scientific research. 

But peasants packing wounds with cow dung weren't microbiologists either
 ...they just saved lives. Is that "scientific"? Well, they observed results...
 ...and (surprise!) found they were repeatable. No lab involved, but still "scientific." -not sure about the facts of cowdung, but the process is sound. Hypothesis, experiment, replicate. Science is not a body of knowledge, it's a process. The knowledge changes, and in fact does when new evidence contradicts previous observation. The process is to get past the human factor. Ego, error, sloppiness, and fraud can all slip in. Peer review is designed to catch this. It's not perfect (nothing involving humans is!), but in the long run it works. The fact that I'm typing this on a computer that could've run the entire Apollo Program is testament to that, as is the Apollo Program itself. 

Meanwhile, billions of $ pouring into "String Theory," and many careers built on it
So where are all the correct predictions made by String Theory"? Anyone...? Anyone...? -String theory is controversial even in the scientific community. It makes plausible claims but at this moment in time, they are untestable experimentally. Because of this, some physicists claim it's more like philosophy than science. I have no opinion; it's completely over my head, although I did enjoy the Elegant Universe! In the meantime, in mainstream science, astronomers have discovered planets outside our solar system (any incidence for astrology, by the way?) we've rendezvous'd with comets (how do they figure into horoscopes?), the Cassini mission has spent years studying the Saturn system, New Horizons will get to Pluto in a few years, and Messenger will get to Mercurian orbit in March of this year. In the 20th century we discovered that we live in a galaxy, one of billions, in a universe far bigger and older than any of our ancient ancestors could possibly have fathomed. We discovered that the anomalies in Mercury's orbit (precession of perihelion) was due to relativistic effects and can be explained by General Relativity. What advances has astrology made in the last century? Where are the predictions made by Astrology?

Astrology should have nothing to fear from science, any more than any other pursuit
Sadly, most of the skeptics I hear seem to use the "scientific worldview" as the club
they use to dismiss anything that doesn't suit their preconceptions. In other words, they
Make Science their Dogma, and (paradoxically) become as benighted as those they like
to feel superior to. No surprise, really: skeptics are humans too. Humans do that.
But if Science is a controlled, logical search for the truth, I like to think it DOES
apply to Astrology. It *should*. It's just that I rarely if ever see it applied.

This "scientific worldview" that you seem to lament created the world we live in today. The computers we work on, the cars we drive, the medicine we take, the clothes we wear, our telephones, food, longevity. It's true that some skeptics get on their high horses about views inconsistent with science. I know, I'm sometimes one of them. But the scientific method has gotten humanity this far. It's improved our lives (at least in first world countries; geopolitics is another matter altogether) immeasurably in the last century. Imagine our great-grandparents hearing of today's world: mother and child will most likely survive childbirth; all of your children will most likely live to adulthood. You'll most likely live to at least your mid-seventies. We can speak with anyone, anywhere in the world instantaneously. We can get anywhere in the world within 2 days. The body of knowledge we call science changes regularly as new discoveries overturn old ones. The "scientific worldview" means that if you present me with evidence for a claim, I'll listen to it and I'll sincerely evaluate it. If it's convincing, then I'll change my mind. Simple as that. 

Here's a previous post of mine on astrology.

Posted via email from John's posterous

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