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Aug 25 2010

The astrology conversation that DIDN’T happen

I would guess Robert looks something like this while posting any comment on astrology.

In the endless non-debate on astrology, I had held some measure of hope that, when Robert Currey resurrected the thread two weeks after it had abated, that there might actually be some discussion of the positive evidence for astrology. Robert has attempted to steer the discussion over the past 230 comments with little regard for the multiple attempts made by myself and my regular readers to redirect discussion in a manner more productive. (Mind you, others rejoined the field, including Jamie Funk and Marina, and there was a sidebar on rectification astrology by James Alexander, whom George W is dealing with elsewhere, so not all the 230 comments came from that discussion.)

Robert has, numerous times, flogged a piece he wrote on his own space claiming astrology to have an empirical grounding, though much of the content on the page seems like butt-hurt over certain skeptics’ tactics in arguing him and other astrologers in the past. There’s a hilarious passage about the “vested interests” line that skeptics use frequently that deserves addressing, mostly because (as is evident elsewhere in this conversation) Robert’s lack of reading comprehension skills causes him to miss the point of it by a very wide margin:

To try to undermine an argument by claiming that the proponent has financial, psychological or other motives rather than address the merits of the argument is a psychogenic fallacy. Many sceptics believe that astrologers make a lot of money. This may be true of a few Sun-Sign columnists who are more like media celebrities than typical astrologers. Most astrologers devote much of their life to studying their subject and still struggle to make a living but are motivated more by the pursuit of knowledge than money. This same argument could be turned to Paul Kurtz and senior members of CSICOP (CSI) who have a vested interest in promoting sceptical beliefs or anyone who has a test to defend.

If we were saying you were JUST defending astrology because you have a vested interest, sure. And if we thought your vested interest was money, okay. That’s a totally fair analysis. But I’m certainly not using it that way. The vested interest I believe Robert Currey and others of his ilk have, are that they have already put a lot of stock in astrology being real. They have convinced themselves that there’s something to the field that they’ve “studied” for the past five, ten, fifteen years. Some might think that if they’ve been in the field as long as they have, they have lots of empirical evidence — but think in terms of people who have been ardent believers in a particular dogmatic religion for very long periods of their lives. Every selection-bias-laden “hit” works the same as an “answered prayer” in bolstering their belief system, whereas an “unanswered prayer” or “miss” just proves they’re not doing their job properly (be it praying or tithing or paying tribute correctly, or interpreting the celestial signs just so). Once you’re as deep into a field as these folks are, there’s a lot of vested interest in maintaining the status quo, in not having someone come along and show them how it’s possible — JUST POSSIBLE — that they could be wrong, and that they could have been wrong for as long as they have. They fight hardest because they do not want to admit to themselves that they could have invested so much of their lives in something that pays no dividends outside of what meager income they make by convincing others of its validity — and of course, in the self-reinforcement that comes from convincing others of the very thing you believe so ardently.

Robert specifically came into the “fight” feigning collegiality. He complemented me on being better informed than other skeptics he’d encountered:
“Where you have an edge over most sceptics is that your comments on astrology (with a few errors) appear slightly more informed than usual.”

He followed it immediately with an out-of-bounds shot: “Is this is because your wife was an astrologer but later abandoned the study?” I took that in stride, and informed him that I had only mentioned Jodi in the thread at Funk Astrology because a commenter had claimed I must have had a dull life, having never known anyone that’s even had a chart drawn up for them. Hilariously, my explanation that Jodi and I are “separate entities, though, and you cannot assume her experiences color or inform mine” was later grossly misinterpreted as an explanation that it was my EX-wife (whomever that is — didn’t even know I was married before Jodi!) who was the ex-astrologer. But this is a sidebar.

Several times, Robert intimated that he was here “to learn”, and was not interested in adversarial debate. He’s also explained that he’s looking to publish a paper eventually, supportive of Ertel’s paper reinterpreting the Carlson double-blind study. To that end, he’s severally asked the skeptics in the thread to give him what paper or study they thought disproved astrology — as though there exists a paper so powerful as to deal a fatal blow to a self-feeding selection bias engine with as many adherents as astrology. Never mind our repeated requests for astrology’s POSITIVE evidence — or failing evidence of any positive correlation between the heavens and human fates, at least some plausible mechanism, which I argued was overstepping given several thousands of years of lack of evidence of any sort of effect whatsoever. I told him exactly what I found so damning about astrology, being the lack of positive evidence; the several studies showing astrologers performing no better than chance were merely gravy on my skeptical mashed potatoes. Robert’s line of argumentation has been since the outset of the thread to attempt to debunk the debunkings, which is a shame since there’s at least one study he could have pointed to, to which I would have no adequate knockout argument against.

He did, eventually, bring up this study, though he’s not particularly eager to discuss it. He only posted another link to that “astrologer’s manifesto” article I mentioned earlier claiming that there’s an empirical basis to astrology as a whole, but he mentioned the study that he had actually described in his post for the very first time in that comment. Comment number 413. He waited over two hundred comments before discussing the evidence for it, choosing instead to discuss flaws (or what he perceived to be flaws) in the studies done by Carlson and Geoffrey Dean (whom he’s repeatedly asserted that he knows personally). He’s done much to smear both studies.

But he’s gone a step further — he claims that the Carlson double-blind study, when the data (which he also claims is unavailable — yeah, he argues out of both sides of his mouth quite often) is massaged as Suitbert Ertel’s paper does, shows there’s a statistically significant delta showing the astrologers were marking profiles correctly. Thing is, this delta (if it even exists — I have just obtained Ertel’s paper, but haven’t read it yet) brings the results nowhere near close to the “50% accuracy” that the astrologers agreed they should be able to achieve in the study. Chance predicted they’d get roughly 33% right — they didn’t do much better than that, if at all. And they didn’t hit the target mark they agreed to, which frankly is grossly lenient for a practice that claims such exact knowledge of the reasons behind events as astrology. One would expect something super-significant — an 80% accuracy rate would knock me on my ass, in fact, and I’d probably declare there’s something to astrology after all. But the Geoffrey Dean meta-analysis wherein all the various studies performed over the years are aggregated, and the specific flaws in each are accounted for or circumvented (as is the strength of meta-analysis), showed quite effectively that astrologers performed no better than chance in over 100 studies.

We didn’t converse about any of this, because I’m guessing that was not Robert Currey’s gameplan. At least, it hasn’t been up until now, though I’m hoping this post opens the field to talk about that positive evidence. Most of it has been complaining about specific studies, claiming that because they haven’t knocked out astrology that should prove there’s something to it. The fact that the opening salvo was NOT the Michel Gauquelin “Mars Effect” study indicates to me not that the man was attempting to keep his powder dry, but rather that he feels it is not a particularly strong argument. Considering the study purports a statistically significant correlation between “champion athletes” being born under an ascendant Mars, and that Robert Currey agreed with James Alexander that “the effect size on single chart factors tends to be small (depending on the rules like orbs), you can only show statistical significance with huge sample sizes”, and that such sample sizes are difficult to obtain due to a lack of people meeting the criteria, I can’t help but think that arguing for a single-factor study like Gauquelin’s might reveal the lack of faith Robert has in the actual effects of the planets on people.

We also never discussed, though it was brought up more than once, how ancient astrologers could have sussed out so subtle an effect as astrology thousands of years ago, when sample sizes were exponentially smaller than they are now, and where every so-called “effect” appeared to be based on the properties of the gods these planets were coincidentally named after. Even if such an effect exists, if we are so hard-pressed to prove it today, it would have been impossible for the ancient astrologers to discover them or quantify them to lay down the foundation of this dark art, short of some sort of divine revelation. Since astrology is not truly a religion (though its adherents appear as dogmatically attached to its tenets), it does not have the benefit of a foundational text that laid bare the specific effects of the specific planets. The fact that thousands of new objects have since been discovered and each is supposed to also have an effect of some sort, one would think the sheer number of confounding variables in astrology would make it, even if true, fundamentally unusable by humans in the pre-computer age. The fact that Robert never engaged on these assertions, suggesting that he might do so at a later date, leads me to believe that he does not wish to tread down any path he hasn’t ever been on before with other skeptics in the past.

Frankly, judging solely by Robert’s demonstrated method of argumentation, any such foray into the actual (even if specious and not necessarily good-quality) studies showing statistically significant correlations between the heavens and people’s actual fates, would be colored by what I already know Robert to be as a combatant. He does not feel bound to answer all questions, often saying he wants to argue one thing at a time (and it’s always only something he feels he can win at, though he never manages — believing he could knock out my entire dissection of astrology by saying I was rejecting it only because of a lack of mechanism). He does not feel bound to answer the burden of proof. He does not understand the concept of the null hypothesis, and of how a study that does not show a statistically significant correlation must de facto fail, and therefore show the null hypothesis to be true. His arguments are filled with examples of misdirection and of ad hominem, in the sense of character assassination rather than confronting the presented counter-arguments. I consider him to be an untrustworthy opponent in a debate, because he does not feel bound to answer all the questions, or to stop flogging arguments after he is shown to be demonstrably wrong about them. I therefore would be hard-pressed to accept anything he presents as evidence, no matter how skeptically open-minded I am to reviewing the evidence and weighing it on its own merit. I strongly feel the well has already been poisoned against him, and that the poisoning was by Robert’s own hand.

Which is a shame, because I really would have liked to have a totally different conversation than we did. If he’s genuinely interested in astrology, he should have presented his case, instead of acting like the perfect troll that he did through this entire so-called debate.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Dan J

    U mad?

  2. 2
    chaosagent23

    Problem?

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Oh you.

    And you.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    I was kinda hoping for a “cool story, bro”.

  5. 5
    chaosagent23

    I’m more of a “glorious exposition commrade” kind of person.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Z

    ‘S okay. He’ll be back, you know.

  7. 7
    George W.

    Excellent summary, friend.
    I would really love to see Robert switch to this thread, as it is getting increasingly hard to deal with the nested comments, even though you have done a great job of cleaning them up. I, too am annoyed at Roberts constant “the water is coming” responses to myself and others. I get hopeful when I hear “I’m busy, I’ll get back to you.” or “I’m getting to that in a moment”, yet the dance continues.
    Agreed. It is sad that we never get a constructive debate, but as you know it’s “all our fault”.

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    Well, I was considering forcing his hand and closing the other thread, though I’m not seeing the database issues any more now that I’ve switched it to 50-per-page un-nested. If he wants to keep it all in one place, I don’t mind. It WOULD be nice to start fresh though, you’re right.

  9. 9
    DuWayne

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHA!!!11!11111!!!! You’re awfully loveable for a fucking Canukistanian. It makes me wish I had the time to fuck with people right now. I would really love to fuck with Jamie and Marina “You can’t proove it by gravity or any fancy science. Astrology just IS.” Funk, as they seem to get so very cranky about it. But alas, I shall just have to live my lack of fuckwithedness vicariously through you for the time being.

  10. 10
    Suitbert Ertel

    I am a lousy cunt

  11. 11
    Jason Thibeault

    For the record, this came through an AOL proxy, and though it apparently has his correct e-mail address, I have my doubts this is legit.

    Not that the fact that he’s calling himself a “lousy cunt” shouldn’t tip you folks off.

  12. 12
    men and

    heart to reveal people’s whole existence.

  1. 13
    Some code showing how the Mars Effect actually works « Lousy Canuck

    [...] Currey has not moved from the astrology thread that won’t die, nor has he deigned fit to respond to my charges that he is repeatedly steering the conversation away from his arguments’…. The fact that, when he came out swinging, he didn’t mention the Gauquelin study that [...]

  2. 14
    Why do astrologers even want to test astrology? « Spirituality is No Excuse

    [...] Yakaru Following discussions over at Richard Rockley’s Skeptico and Jason Thibeault’s Lazy Canuck blogs, I want to look a bit more closely at astrology. Both those guys have done a first-rate job [...]

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