Monday, July 25, 2011

Astrology: An Immoral and Harmful Pseudoscience with the Potential to Devastate Lives

Well, time to get back on my soapbox.

Astrology is something that has troubled me for years for reasons similar to what troubles me about religion and "psychics".  The practice is based on nothing substantial and yet has many, many people taken in to the point that it can influence, or even outright make, life-changing decisions.  Those thoughts alone contain mountains of problems but before I get to that, I should review what astrology is.

Astrology is the proposed concept that the position of the stars, with particular emphasis on constellations, relevant to the position of the sun and the moon at the time of your birth affect or determine what kind of personality you will have.  Some teachings in astrology even say that these factors can decide your destiny.
I can only hope that you are already scoffing at the concept.  If not, please keep reading because this is important.

Astrology is, always has been and always will be a load of complete rubbish.  Basic, rational thinking can arrive at this conclusion.  First off, the concept is obviously ludicrous for a plethora of reasons.  Just in case you are not figuring out those reasons on your own, the following is a very condensed list:

1.  The stars are not where we perceive them to be.  The closest star to us other than our sun is Proxima Centauri, approximately 4.24 light-years away.  The constellations are, in the smallest cases, thousands of light-years apart and thus would have no gravitational effect on each other.  The important bit to remember here is that the stars are moving and the light we are seeing from them is at least several years old.  Where we perceive the stars as being when we view them in the night sky is not where they actually, currently are.
In case you are wondering, the nearest star in any of the Zodiac constellations is almost 8 light-years away.

2.  A basic one:  No valid, scientific evidence has ever been found to show that starlight or gravitational effects have any influence on a human's personality.

3.  Astrology relies on there being a sign for every month, hence why there are 12 astrological signs derived from the Zodiac.  The problem with this is that there are 13 constellations in the Zodiac.

4.  Some astrological teachings, and astrologers themselves, say that the time of birth, down to the minute, can make all the difference.  This would heavily depend on every clock ever used to determine a time of birth to have been perfectly set.

5.  The stars' distance from us renders their physical effects totally inert.  This would have to mean that distance does not matter in astrology.  Why then do far more influential, astronomical phenomena, such as black holes and quasars, have no astrology built around them?

6.  How come the moment of birth is the decisive point in our personalities?  We began developing before that.  Should not the time of conception be the deciding point?  Or even the moment the sperm cell that would go on to become us is initially produced?

7.  The stars of the constellations do have a gravitational effect but, again, they are too far for that to have any physical effect on us.  To paraphrase Carl Sagan: 'The obstetrician present at your birth had a greater gravitational effect on you than the stars.'

That list could go on for a long, long while, but I am a Virgo and we like 7's.  You might notice that some of these points were counteracted recently when we had that whole "adjusted astrological sign" thing going on.  Well, you might be interested in knowing that the people who brought that about are scientists who consider astrology just as stupid as I do.  In fact, they probably consider it even more stupid as they are, after all, scientists.

Of course, every rant has a motive, and this is no exception.  Just like with religion, I have an adamant nature against astrology; with good reason.  As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, many people are so taken in with astrology that they trust it to make life-changing decisions.  If you can not figure out why there is a horrendous problem with this, please check if your heart is still beating.
An individual who decides to change their entire persona and career based on pseudo-scientific nonsense rather than on rational thought and logical planning could potentially ruin their life in doing so.  It is not the gullibility of these individuals that angers me; these are the kind of good, trusting people I desperately want to help with spiels like this.
What brings my blood to a boil is the astrologers who take advantage of the gullibility.  They are performing very basic tricks, known as 'cold reading' and 'hot reading', for some cash with the possibility of absolutely destroying a human being's life.
The following is a clip from Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, from an episode on astrology that took place during the series' seventh season.  The entire video is great but if you want to save time, skip to 5:37 when an astrologer is doing a reading on a grief-stricken mother of a very ill child.  You are going to hear Penn flip out in the voice over in what is probably a tame version of how I would have reacted had I witnessed the reading first hand.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pl1Bke5j-l4&feature=related

Anger and depression fill me every time I see that.  There is no way I can justifiably trivialize that with a segue but I have a lot more ground to cover so let us move on.

Simpler, less morally grotesque issues come with the procedure that goes into writing horoscopes.  They always have general and vague statements that could apply to really any human being on the right day.  In fact, they are so general that you could easily mix them up and reprint them under different signs and people would still take them as accurate readings...which is exactly what several publications that run horoscopes do.

Even the most specific of horoscopes apply to approximately 50% of the people who would read them.  The people who receive accurate horoscopes are not necessarily in greater numbers but they certainly have bigger voices.  This comes from one of the most basic concepts of trickery; a magician performing the classic trick of guessing your card.  When the magician does the trick right, you get excited and want to tell people.  If the magician botches the trick, you would likely move on and hardly ever mention it.

All evidence in favour of astrology is anecdotal.  To the rational, logical and/or scientific mind, anecdotal evidence is worthless.

Just for fun, because we really need it now, let us take a look at my own astrological profile and see what it has right...and what it has wrong.  This is anecdotal as well but, again, it is for some much needed fun.

"Your most likeable traits:  Consciencious, Organized & Energetic"
Well, I am conscientious (which you might notice is spelled incorrectly in the quote) and that is the very reason I'm even writing this spiel.  As for 'organized' and 'energetic'...that could not be more wrong.

"Your symbol represents purity, modesty, industriousness, service to fellow workers"
Anybody who has an affinity for purity would likely be driven mad by some of the things in my head.  As for modesty, I go by 'Erik The Awesome' on this blog.  How's that for modesty?  And industriousness?  Well...I guess I used to really like playing with Lego.
The final bit about 'fellow workers'?  Sure, it got me there.  I like to help people around me.

If you happen to be keeping score, that's 2 out of 7 points that this profile has been correct about.  That's still an F.

"Your special flower is the Morning Glory and the Pansy"
...What does "special flower" even mean?

"Lucky Day: Wednesday"
Neat.  I hate Wednesdays.

"Part of the body ruled by Virgo:  The Nervous System and the Intestine"
Would now be a good time to mention that I used to have constipation problems?

Well, that was my profile.  What about day-to-day horoscopes?  Surely they must have had some tremendous ability to predict how my day would go.


Friday, July 1, 2011: You are eager to discuss your thoughts and plans with others at this time and you may have a very fruitful brainstorming session, a spirited debate, or a very active meeting with others in which things really get accomplished. You are verbally assertive and can present your own plan or idea quite convincingly."
 Wow, that's rather impressive.  It predicted that I would be passionate enough about something to express it in a debatable way.  Now, if only that horoscope had not been over three weeks too soon.
Actual Analysis:  Every single person on Earth has days like this.  Some of the Virgos who read it probably found it mind-blowing how accurate it was.  For me, it happened to be dead wrong.

Let's try again with a more recent one.
"Wednesday, July 13, 2011: You are in a dreamy, romantic mood. Yearnings for love, feelings of compassion, or even religious devotion accompany this time period. You are definitely more idealistic, tolerant, and selfless in your relationships, which may cause you to act against your own interests. Decisions involving money or important commitments to others, therefore, should probably be made some other time. A desire for loveliness and beauty in your surroundings is also strong."
On Wednesday, July 13, 2011, I spent my free time sitting in a group of guys sketching, telling penis jokes and carrying on extensive conversations about Power Rangers.  Yeah...what a romantic night that was.

Now, I know what you are all thinking:  "Shut up already!", but your secondary thought is "What about today?"

Here is my horoscope, as posted by homepagers.com, for July 25, 2011:

You feel expansive, enthusiastic, and optimistic now. You want to reach out, do more and experience more. You benefit greatly from the opportunities that present themselves at this time, and a person who will be very influential and helpful to you may come into your life."
Oh yes, I am so enthusiastic and optimistic as I sit here, typing out a lengthy rant about an evil, cultural poison.  I especially like the "may come into your life" bit at the end there; unfalsifiable hypotheses to the extreme.

Hopefully that last section cheered you up a little bit.  I, in fact, have good news to include now.  There is hope.  As long as the rational skeptics are around, willing to speak out when they see these immoral atrocities performed, there is hope.  A wonderful man by the name of James Randi is just such a skeptic.  If you have not heard of this man, you have not been paying attention to my recent blog posts.
I am going to do my best to explain the whole deal with James Randi but you really should look him up regardless.  James Randi is a world-famous skeptic and magician who founded the James Randi Educational Foundation.  He's made a name for himself the world over by debunking myths about psychic powers and other trickery.  Some time ago, he began offering a cash prize of $10,000 to anyone who could prove to have any sort of supernatural abilities.  It has been decades now, the prize has grown to over $1,000,000, and nobody has even come close.

What makes Randi wonderful for the topic at hand is that he has dealt with astrology...many times.  You may have even heard of one of his famous tests even if you have not heard of the man himself.
One test went something like this:  Randi had a class of college students of whom he asked for their astrological signs.  He returned later with an astrological profile for every student, handed them out and insisted they not share them among each other.  He asked the students to rate their profiles' accuracy on a 1 to 10 scale, 10 being perfect.  He asked for a show of hands as he called out each number.  Almost no hands were raised before he called out the number 8.  A rating of 9 had an even larger reception.  Finally, 10 received the largest show of hands.
He then asked the students to pass their profiles to the person sitting behind them; of course the students at the back would have to bring theirs to the front.  Randi then asked them to read the profiles they had just been handed.  The classroom briefly went silent before the students began to chuckle.  Every last profile said the exact same thing.

The majority of the students, regardless of their sign, rated their profile to be at least 80% accurate.  In addition to all the profiles having the same text, every sentence of the text came from a horoscope.
In case you think this is an isolated incident, it is not.  The exact same experiment was done by a different person on a different class of college students in the astrology episode of Bullshit! that we looked at earlier.  Even aside from that, Randi has performed similar tests to discredit astrology time and time again.
In one case, James Randi read off a horoscope for Virgos, or so he said, during a lecture.  He asked the Virgos in the audience to stand and raise their hand if the horoscope was accurate.  Of course most of them raised their hands.  He then said something along the lines of "oh sorry, that's not Virgo, it's Cancer!"  He then repeated the process with Cancer and, once again, revealed he was lying about what the real sign for the horoscope was.  That went on for a little while and yet never significantly affected the number of people who would claim the horoscope was accurate.

If you have been following me so far, you know these people attesting to their horoscopes' accuracy are not dishonest but are being taken in by the vague wording and generalizations that astrology loves so much.  However, a few of the horoscopes James Randi used in the previously described experiment were predictive.  The people were attesting that the horoscopes were accurate about things that had not even happened yet.

Now back to that million dollars James Randi has up for proof of this kind of thing:  In one of his lectures, which you can find on YouTube, James Randi recalls his experience with an astrologer who attempted to win the money.  The astrologer confidently made the bold claim that he could tell the astrological sign of anybody through simple inquiry about the subject's personality.
Randi took him up on his proposition and gathered several young adults to be the test subjects.  The astrologer met with each one, made his predictions and left them with Randi.  Later on, Randi had set up an area with different locations marked by the different astrological signs.  He handed the subjects the predictions that the astrology made and asked them all to move under the sign the astrologer determined was theirs.
Moments later, Randi asked the test subjects to move under their proper signs had they been misplaced.  All of them moved.

We have now come as far as I care to go on this subject.  The world, the real world, is an amazing and beautiful place; we do not need to pretend that there are fairies behind every garden or magic behind every burning ball of gas in the sky in order to see that.

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