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Jan 23 2011

A bias for reality

Astrologers are in a tizzy after Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain called astrology “rubbish” and “nonsense” on BBC2′s “Stargazing Live.” The Astrological Association of Great Britain (yes, they have an organization) released the following announcement, along with a petition to BBC:

The Association will be requesting that the BBC make a public apology and a statement that they do not support the personal views of Professor Brian Cox or Dara O’Briains on the subject of astrology. We also request that the BBC will commit to making a fair and balanced representation of astrology when aired in the future.

The BBC is certainly biased…toward reality. Martin Robbins has the spot on response:

On the second sentence at least I think we can all agree. I’d love to see the BBC give a fair and balanced representation of astrology. In fact sod it, let’s extend that to all newspapers as well.

Such a representation would depict astrology as a pseudoscience with no real basis in evidence that was already being ridiculed in the Dark Ages, and note that after thousands of years astrologers still can’t produce statistically meaningful results.

It would observe that any apparent successes of astrology probably owe more to the use of cold-reading techniques, convenient vagueness, and the exploitation of psychological quirks like confirmation bias or the Forer effect, and express amazement at the continued ability of the astrological industry to lift hundreds of millions of euros, pounds and dollars out of the pockets of customers each year.

Finally, it would make the point that intellectually-speaking, the pursuit of meaningful predictions in astrology isn’t so much flogging a dead horse as punching a piece of rock and wondering why it won’t say anything. Fair and balanced reporting is not the best thing to ask for when your views have about as much credibility as Andy Coulson’s future in journalism.

Ah, beautiful. If only the media would give such a fair representation of hokum like astrology. Maybe we could extend that to religious claims as well, so reporters don’t have to report miracles and end of the world prophecies like they actually have a grain of truth to them.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    JT the Girl

    I think astrology is harmless fun. I can’t say I ever believed in it, but I certainly used to talk about it more. An accident of culture more than anything. I sometimes use my sign as an excuse.That being said, astrologers know they are pedalling bullshit and should really just shut up. It’s not helping their cause to open their mouths. The more they try to make it serious, the less fun it is to talk about. I know people who believe in ghosts that think ast. is nonsense.

  2. 2
    Hilary Mark Nelson

    Not entirely harmless:http://whatstheharm.net/astrol

  3. 3
    BEG

    Wow. Sounds like we’re starting to export our notion of “fair and balanced” back across the pond.Awesome response by BBC. Wish our media could do something like that :-/

  4. 4
    syl

    “General Ne Win’s astrologer and numerologist told him his lucky number was 9 and he would live to be 90 if he was surrounded by 9s. He reissued the currency in multiples of 9 causing mayhem and new insurgencies. He resigned within a year.”BUT he DID live to be 90.

  5. 5
    breadbox

    I wish that what you said was true. Unfortunately, I’ve known a couple of people who’ve practiced astrology professionally, and they most certainly did not “know they are pedalling bullshit”. They believed in it quite, quite firmly.

  6. 6
    JamesPaulWhite

    So much certainty, yet so little information. I imagine you’re quite satisfied with QED as a theory of the universe and that you assume that a little more work by some smart person will resolve the small problem involving the lack of unification with gravity. The current theory and practice of astrology may indeed be as deeply flawed as you and Martin claim, but you haven’t got any way to show that advancing the state of their knowledge is any more intractable than that of the rest of physics. In fact if you believe the history of the universe involves anything like the Big Bang and/or supernovae and that there is some physical law like quantum entanglement then you’ve acknowledged all that is necessary to be certain that synchronous events as posited by astrological theories are as real as any other phenomenon predicted by QED. There’s a reason Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance”.

  7. 7
    Peter B

    James Paul White said: “So much certainty, yet so little information.”You talking about astrology? ;-)”I imagine you’re quite satisfied with QED as a theory of the universe and that you assume that a little more work by some smart person will resolve the small problem involving the lack of unification with gravity.”I don’t know how good QED is at explaining the universe, but let the experts say what they will, *based on the evidence*. I’m fairly sure that most relevant experts accept that as time passes we’ll never get a complete understanding of the universe, merely a more accurate one.” The current theory and practice of astrology may indeed be as deeply flawed as you and Martin claim…”If you accept that, then what astrologers are doing at the moment is little short of a scam.”…but you haven’t got any way to show that advancing the state of their knowledge is any more intractable…”That’s quite true. But until such time as that advance takes place, astrologers are effectively peddling nonsense.”…than that of the rest of physics.”The *rest* of physics? How does astrology bear the slightest resemblence to physics? What does explanations for how the universe works have anything to with astrology?”In fact if you believe the history of the universe involves anything like the Big Bang and/or supernovae and that there is some physical law like quantum entanglement then you’ve acknowledged all that is necessary to be certain that synchronous events as posited by astrological theories are as real as any other phenomenon predicted by QED. There’s a reason Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance”. Quantum entanglement is called that because it operates at the quantum level – not at our level. Anyway, could you please explain how quantum entanglement relates to astrology.

  8. 8
    benjamin_sa

    Beware quotes bearing Einstein quotes and quantum references. Yes physics can be strange, and it hasn’t figured everything out, and yes all theories (currently) have limitations. BUT the theories we have, as flawed as they are, actually make accurate testable predictions (if you use them in the domains applicable). Astrology doesn’t. The important part of that “spooky action at a distance”, is the distance part. The action goes down by 1/r^2 (where r is the distance) making your local pigeons more significant than the stars in your constellations.

  9. 9
    UrbanWildCat

    That’s why if I don’t like my horoscope, I adjust it with 14 torches hanging from a child’s mobile.

  10. 10
    EdenBunny

    >>Anyway, could you please explain how quantum entanglement relates to astrology. Quantum entanglement is actually very relevant to astrology. In fact, the whole concept of astrology is based on manipulations using entangled photons. Astrologers look at obscenely huge numbers of entangled photons from ancient stars and apply complex astrological stultiloquence to extract money from gullible people based on the claim that these photons affect human life in ways that have no rationally acceptable connection with quantum physics (or any other legitimate science).

  11. 11
    JT the Girl

    If someone is going to be scammed to the tune of $200,000, some of the blame is gonna have to be on the victim here. It may be a cliché, but the ol’ adage “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” is the phrase that comes to mind. Presumably at least one person fell for the Nigerian prince email scam back in the day? There must be some line in the sand wherein if you fall for a scam that is so blatant, I don’t have to sympathize..

  12. 12
    JT the Girl

    You’re right. I’m subscribing my own thought processes to other people again. Even though I outwardly “firmly believed” in the religion I was taught as a kid, I avoided trying to defend it to many people, and certainly not in public, because I knew how silly I sounded. If only from the looks on other’s faces.

  13. 13
    Toadslick

    I love it! Simply because there are existing phenomena that science cannot fully explain, astrology is a valid as physics?I’m assuming you typed that response into a computer, via a web browser software application that took your response and formatted it into an HTTP request. The response was then sent from your router to your modem via TCP and then to a host server, probably in another country, via IP. The server interpreted your request, sent back an HTTP response of its own, and, like magic, your blithely ignorant comment appeared on this website.All of this occurred across multiple software applications, operating systems, computer chips, logic gates, and electrical circuits. Thousands of years of advances in civil, mechanic, and electrical engineering are working smoothly together just so that you can claim that astrology has as much to offer as physics.As soon as you respond to this comment via a computer that runs off of the predictions made by astrology instead of the predictions made by physics, I will concede that physics and astrology are equally valid.

  14. 14
    Valhar2000

    Has the BBC responded? Jen only linked a response printed in The Guardian, and according to Martin Robbins the BBC has not responded yet: he merely predicts that they will reject the criticism.Nonetheless, the BBC is run by the same government that used to provide government-funded homeopathic care to patients, so the rot runs deep.

  15. 15
    Harry

    I used to work for a well known ISP. The contract to supply our daily horoscopes ended and I was tasked with finding a replacement. In the intervening period before our new “celebrity” astrologer took over I wrote the daily readings myself. I just made them up. They were complete balls and often I switched them round from sign to sign so I didn’t have to do as much work. We got more emails from astrology fans (nutters) praising our readings and accuracy during that period than we ever had when we used “proper” astrology. What a load of guff the whole thing is.

  16. 16
    Gus Snarp

    Any time you see quantum mechanics posited as the explanation for something that operates above the atomic level, you know the person suggesting it has no clue what they are talking about, knows less than nothing about quantum mechanics, and that whatever they are trying to justify is BS.

  17. 17
    Mike O'Brien

    Has there ever been a double-blind study regarding Astrology? I hate Astrology as much as I hate other scams, and stupidities. It would be great to see someone debunking it using a science based test.

  18. 18
    Peter B

    I don’t know about double-blind studies, but research in general has been done.Here’s one: http://blogs.discovermagazine….And Geoffrey Dean did some major research about 10 years ago: http://www.rickross.com/refere…In the Skeptics group I belong to, we used to occasionally get people to try to guess which of a magazine’s 12 horoscopes belonged to their star sign. Success rates were about 1 in 12.

  19. 19
    FatBigot

    Obligatory XKCD reference: http://www.xkcd.com/808/Also, in a recent public lecture on TV (but quite late), Prof. Brian Cox was damming of astrology etc. “This new age drivil is undermining the very fabric of our civilization” was one phrase. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v… at 10 mins 40 secconds)

  20. 20
    Eric_Rom

    Googling “double blind astrology experiment” gives 29,000+ hits, so, yeah.

  21. 21
    Menno

    Fun Fact: The Netherlands might soon have the first higher education(bachelor level) in Astrology. Let’s hope our government doesn’t accredit this joke. Good thing public opinion is massively in opposition.Tried to find an English source, but so far, this news appears not to have left the Netherlands. Phew. Google translation: http://bit.ly/f9vMAX

  22. 22
    A-M

    I watched that at the time (I’m in the UK) and found it pretty funny. It was a great piece of programming to bring the joys of astronomy to the masses. It’s the type of thing the BBC does brilliantly. The fact that astrologers feel the need to complain just make it funnier. How one can defend a system based on arbritarily grouped stars, and then expect to be taken seriously, is beyond me.

  23. 23
    Sam Barnett-Cormack

    I do love the BBC

  24. 24
    Skywalker

    ^peddlingThey may very well use bullshit bicycles as transportation, but I don’t think that’s what you were trying to say!

  25. 25
    EnglishAtheist

    See, the BBC does also have a show with astrology on, as a regular feature. So whilst it’s not balanced in the way we would like, it is “balanced”.http://furtherthoughtsfortheda

  26. 26
    Sarah Furbank

    My father works as a journalist and has been an editor and deputy editor at a few newspapers. There were countless times when he made up the horoscopes, because Mystical Margaret (or whoever wrote the usual rubbish) was ill.

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