I’m curious what people think: which is a poorer example of science?
A hypothesis that is tested and proven wrong, or
A hypothesis that is so nebulous that it can’t even be tested?
I ask because Nature has just published a letter describing a very simple experiment to test one of the predictions of astrology, that people born in certain months share predictable personalities and experience similar events. Here’s how Steven Lower (Nature 447, 528: 2007) of Ohio State University tested the validity of horoscopes:
I present the students with 12 randomly numbered horoscopes from the previous day, with the corresponding signs of the zodiac removed. I ask each student to record the horoscope that best describes the day she or he had, and the astrological sign (for example, Aries) corresponding to her/his birthday. My scientific hypothesis is that planets may exert a force on our bodies, but it is purely random — 1 out of 12 (8.3%) — whether a horoscope foretells the events of one’s life.
I am pleased to report that, as Shawn Carlson has noted, “astrology failed to perform at a level better than chance” (Nature 318, 419-425; 1985). The results from my classes are: 8.0% (n = 163 students), 8.4% (n = 155), 7.0% (n = 143), 8.0% (n = 138) and 8.0% (n = 100). In other words, as John Maddox has commented “astrology is a pack of lies … There is no evidence that the positions of the planets can affect human behaviour” (Nature 368, 185; 1994).
Michael Behe infamously stated that under his definition of science, both astrology and Intelligent Design creationism could be accommodated. If you ask me, I’d say astrology has better cause to be called a “science”—it at least makes specific claims (which, I know from experience, astrologers will hastily back away from when they are shown to be wrong), where ID creationism seems to propose absolutely nothing, other than that evolutionary biology is incorrect, offers no hypotheses, and subjects none of their proposals to testing.
Scott Hatfield says
Without reading the rest of the post, let me be the first to say ‘b’.
(comes back 30 seconds later) OK, that’s a nice rhetorical flourish!
Binary Jones says
Well of course you would see it that way, PZ, you’re a scorpio.
Millimeter Wave says
is that a rhetorical question?
I think Dembski is the High Priest of the examples option B. That hasn’t stopped me from trying to show he’s wrong, but it’s painful. I think that trying to decipher his attempts at mathematics puts me in very real danger of a massive aneurism.
At any rate, b might be the better example of bad science, but if you try to employ b, it makes it hard for people to prove you wrong. I think that’s the slant the DI has been taking for a while now.
(a) is a perfectly good and normal example of science.
Promoting the hypothesis after it was proven wrong would be bad science, but that isn’t mentioned in (a).
(b) is rhetorically clever anti-science. A trap for the unwary, or the uneducated.
There would be plenty to learn from a), even if it’s only what not to do next time, but b)… Where and when would you be able to do science with b)?
I am in full agreement with llewelly– with the caveat that (b) is actually a very real barrier that we are running up against these days in theoretical physics. I would say that anything has value so long as you strive as hard as is humanly possible to eventually enclose the concept in the verifiable. Without empiricism, we have no philosophic integrity, but that doesn’t mean that if an empirical route isn’t immediately available that we should abandon the search. That being said, I think that fluff concepts such as astrology, creationism, and sacrificing virgins to make the sun rise, ran past their statute of limitations several centuries ago. It’s remarkable the appeal that otherwise modern people living in industrialized nations find in the concepts offered by magical thinking. With any luck cultural maturity and universal public education will outmode such inanity.
What if there were no rhetorical questions?
Has anyone ever studied the effects of differing seasonal conditions at various stages of life (particularly very early childhood) on personality? Because I’ve noticed that children who are born in the spring are very different, generally of course and it could just be chance, than children born in the late summer or fall. Could be a correlation there without the pulling of planets or some crazy mumbo jumbo.
Proof that astrology doesn’t work is that my step-father was born on the exact same day as George W. Bush, and he’s an intelligent, hard-working commie witch.
Susan B. says
Haven’t we asked, and asked, and asked, for some kind of actual testable hypothesis from these people? They’re not stupid (some of them aren’t, anyway). They know they’ll get much farther publishing books for nonscientists to read than actually making a claim concrete enough to be tested, so they respond to our requests by ignoring them, and whining about censorship.
I really don’t understand how any of them could get PhD’s without an understanding of the scientific method. I first learned about it in elementary school, and we did a whole section on it in seventh grade. Sigh.
Chris Ho-Stuart says
(b) is the poorer example of science.
I agree with you all the way here. The intelligent design movement is vapid fluff, obtained by taking perfectly conventional young earth creationism, removing explicit reference to God (unless you are speaking at a church) for political purposes, removing any positive testable claims (so that they can’t be as trivially falsified as the YECs), and painting a superficial veneer of jargon over the skeletal remains of what is left (packaging to assist sale of the end result to credulous dupes who ache for a scientific basis to their religion).
Cheers — Chris
Robin Zebrowski says
I used to do this same astrology experiment with my Critical Reasoning students. They were always truly awed with the worthlessness of the horoscopes they were so used to consulting. (I would also take horoscopes from 2 or more different sources for the same day to point out the contradictions.)
I would also do similar evolution v. creationism experiments with predictability, but they never seemed to pack the same awe-factor that horoscopes do. Evolution doesn’t have a daily column that promises true love that day.
I suppose the obvious problem with this Nature study is that the author probably used common astrological predictions culled from newspapers and magazines. Using my best, almost Sylvia Brown like psychic ability I predict that he will be criticized for not addressing the ‘sophisticated’ astrology that the true followers of this system use .
Of course the 2nd option is worse.
But it’s when either happens and people go on believing anyways that is truly absurd behavior, and when these people want to indoctrinate, deplorable.
Randy Owens says
I believe everyone who says b is the poorer example of science is wrong. After all, for that to be the case, it would have to be an example of science. Therefore, by default, a is the poorer example of science.
Isn’t A) the only option which could be considered an example of science? Is it possible for it to be considered the poorer example when there is no other example of science with which to compare it?
yes, i would agree and say it’s a trick question. a) would have to be the poorer example of science, as b) is not an example of science.
thought i feel the need the point out that the reason astrology “works” is that its claims are so nebuluous they generally are not tested — simply accepted by human biases. thought this is certainly an interesting way to test it.
Timothy @ #9, I often thought of that. Obviously, the study should include subjects from both hemispheres, otherwise, in the case of positive results, the astrologists are going to claim that their theory has been confirmed.
Naturally, but there’s really no way around it. Astrologers have an even easier time using the courtier’s response than theologians, since they don’t even have to pay lip service to any holy scripture. The emperor’s real new clothes are exceedingly fine, whether they purport to reveal the secrets of Heaven or of the heavens.
Oh, fishy, fishy, fishy, fish! says
I think both propositions are different, but as applied to astrology and religion, they are the same bullcrap. Both astrology and religion apply both propositions. Religion has been proven wrong in most of its claims, as astrology, and every time they are, they both back away to some nebulous definition or some esoteric, untouchable by reason woo woo. They are the same superstitious bullshit.
Oh, fishy, fishy, fishy, fish! says
Of course, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.
I used to do this same astrology experiment with my Critical Reasoning students. They were always truly awed with the worthlessness of the horoscopes they were so used to consulting.
You’re lucky. When I run this experiment, I get a not insignificant number of rude notes from my students, accusing me of deliberately picking vague horoscopes to discredit astrology. That, or comments to the effect that it is bad manners for me to be calling into question things that many of the students may deeply believe in. Sigh.
Ronald Brak says
Timothy #9, season of birth has been shown to affect the incidence of mental illness such as schizophrenia. This is generally considered to be the result of the mother’s exposure to diseases such as influenza while pregnant and possibly do to nutritional effects.
People in general need to make “sense” of things that are emotionally, physically, and intellectually out of their control. They also need hope; they also need to feel loved as in the love of idealized parents.
Re: above most people just go with coping mechanisms drum-beat into the society in which they live. That is, woo-woo of some sort.
Atheists (to use a term) have learned:
1. it is ok to not have an answer… it is ok not to understand… (meaning not every question must be answered now and in present! just keep looking .. eventually your questions will be answered .. it just may take 1000’s of lifetimes)
2. shit happens.. sometimes because good humans do stupid things, sometimes because bad people do, sometimes because nature happens.. look for root causes and correct if you can — but shit happens it just does
3. the only hope we really can trust is the hope in the good honest hard working intelligent loving people and institutions that surround you
4. love is mostly earned … those that have unconditional love are damned lucky… treat love, your loved ones, and all that show love and kindness as the TRUE wonders and treasures they are
5. No gods/woo-woo need apply given 1-4
You’re having a go at string theory now? Too nebulous to be tested? Be careful, Lubos might show up.
“I am pleased to report that, as Shawn Carlson has noted, “astrology failed to perform at a level better than chance””
This guy was biased – also why did he hope for a negative result? Imagine the furor and fame that would have resulted in the experiment going the other way.
I hand out a personalized horoscope to each, but all with the exact same predictions, and ask them to tell me how much it applies to them. It works as long as they don’t look at each others’ papers – in one freshman class it failed entirely. Good thing I wasn’t doing any in-class tests with that bunch.
Those of you who said (a) is the poorer example of science because (b) isn’t science at all are only partially correct. If there is only one example of science, then it cannot be the poorer example since there is no better example given :-)
Regardless, to me, (a) is what science is, the testing of hypotheses and disproving most of them, and will thus always be the better example of science. Even the ones that aren’t disproven keep getting tested. The very wording of “successful” experiments is “we failed to disprove” rather than “we have proven”.
Interesting question. There are lots of ways it can be interpreted. If the question is which of the two is worse, or less scientific, to continue to believe, then probably believing something with clearly false content is worse than believing something with no content.
Still, normally the biggest problem with pseudo-science is not that it falls in one or the other of these categories, but that it invariably falls into both. Bold, entirely testable claims are made, but when the tests go badly, the views quickly mutate so as to make weaker claims not affected by the tests. Once the tests are forgotten, the claims quickly get stronger again. Often, this occurs in the course of a single conversation; a retreat is made from certain strong claims in the face of one set of tests, and when the topic turns to another set of tests, covering different claims, the strong claims which were previously withdrawn are shamelessly asserted again.
It is such chameleon doctrines which are clearly the worst. An extremely vague claim which has no testable consequences is also not going to impede the pursuit of truth much; it can’t contradict anything testable, as if it’s possible to test for something which contradicts the claim, that’s a test of the claim. Vague claims can also be sharpened, and new tests can be devised.
Insisting on a claim contradicted by the evidence is more likely to get in the way, but while if one believes a claim in the face of strong evidence (presumably out of a conviction that the evidence will turn out to be misleading), one will not always be wrong; only usually. If one attempts further tests to make sure of the evidence, this may or may not be a waste of time. The further tests may reveal other valuable things even if the refutation of the problem claim remains intact or becomes stronger.
Thus, either a or b is better than shiftiness, and it probably depends on the particular case which of the two is worse. Of course, there may be trends toward one or the other being particularly unproductive or particularly likely to lead to shiftiness, but if so it is not obvious which way the trends would be likely to go and I don’t know of any studies which have sought evidence one way or the other.
Now while I agree that Intelligent Design creationism as pushed by the US Christian right is a bunch of hogwash, it is certainly not the only theory attempting to bring together science and religion. While no one can test the following theory, the idea of evolutionary creationism completely agrees entirely with all facets of science, including evolutionary biology and appreciates the complexity of scientific laws as gifts from a Creator. In fact, proponents of this theory, are apt to have an insatiable hunger for scientific discovery, as every more complex discovery further reveals the glory of God. While there is no way to test this theory, obviously, there is also no way to test the theory that all scientific laws arose entirely by chance. No matter what side you take, you are taking a leap of faith.
I think the answer is (c), “It’s a damned poorly worded question, though I understand what you’re getting at.”
The history of science is replete with speculations that could not be proved or disproved with the technology then available, going back to Giordano Bruno and beyond. (Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics” has some excellent examples.) The fact that a hypothesis can’t (yet) be tested is no reason to suppose it won’t one day be proved or not.
The question also apparently assumes ID can’t be proved wrong, which I don’t think is true at all. The big, fat contradiction at the very heart of ID, which has been pointed out by Dawkins and others, is that it starts with the principle that something as simple as a bacterium is far too complex to arise by natural means; then answers that problem by proposing bacteria, etc., arose as a result of the actions of a Designer, an inconceivably complex and powerful being that arose by nat…oops. Beyond this simple but fundamental philosophical problem with the very formulation of ID, every advance in evo-devo, every one of the hundreds or thousands of good, careful papers published in peer-reviewed journals every year, helps disprove ID’s conceit that the features and characteristics of the life we see around us could not have arisen by natural means. The fact that ID proponents react to this research with the intellectual equivalent of fingers in the ears while shouting “Neener! Neener! Neener!” does not in any way lessen its probative value.
I’m probably going to hang myself now, but I’m going to “out” myself as someone who holds out some hope for astrology. Yes, I’m very skeptical, and yes, I am totally aware that it is easily manipulated, abused, used as a scam…etc.
So I don’t really want to get into a big argument about all this. It’s not a faith thing with me, it’s just something I’m intrigued by.
But anyways… there’s a major flaw with this experiment, and its that when you draw up an astrological chart for anyone, you need a bit more detail than just the month of their birth. Think of an astrological chart (usually called a natal chart) as something like a decoder ring– you have an outside ring, and an inner ring. You match them up to get the right letters. If you only have the month of someone’s birth, it’s like only having the outer ring– it would be ridiculous to expect any sort of accuracy with this method, and it only shows that the scientist hadn’t taken much effort to use a proper method. I am VERY MUCH in favor of some good, solid science work being done on astrology. If they can put it to bed, or find some germ of truth in it, I’ll be pleased either way.
Anyhow– they would have needed the people’s birthdate, time, and place of birth to be properly accurate.
The problem is that old-style forms of astrology were scientific – and disproven quite effectively.
The newer forms, designed to get around the vast amounts of contrary evidence, are not subject to testing and thus are meaningless (and non-scientific).
For the record, a “hypothesis” that cannot be tested (and thus has no implications) is less scientific than one that can be tested but is shown to be false.
This study only disproves “microastrology”, the notion that day to day events are regulated by the positions of the stars and planets.
It does not address “macroastrology”, which posits that personality structure is determined (in part) by season of conception. Having the “right” personality at birth may have optimized survival during different periods of human evolution, depending on seasonal weather and what type of mothering style could be invoked by the “right” infant personality.
Timothy #9: Every now and then a paper comes out looking at seasonality of something or other in humans and such studies are interesting but none I know of have been done very well so far, e.g., the latest one:
Dave X points out a major problem with this so-called experiment: the researcher doesn’t understand astrology well enough to test it. As an example of what he calls the decoder ring, it’s the rising sign that supposedly exerts the most influence on a person’s life, not the sun sign. You also have to look at the moon sign, and which planets were where at time of birth. If people want to test a pseudo science it might be good to first acquire a basic understanding of its guiding principles.
The problem I see with astrology is a person’s horoscope becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re told repeatedly that because you’re a Capricorn you’re exceptionally frugal, over time you may turn yourself into Scrooge McDuck.
I don’t like astrology; I wish it would go away. Having said that, I wonder if Nature would have gotten any different results testing the 5-day weather forecast from the same newspaper?
“Astrology is just the Playboy philosophy of Hugh Hefner restated in the idiom of cosmology.” (I just made that up.)
Ed Darrell says
In my latest economics class I had a kid who said he thought economics is all mumbo jumbo (his words). It became a mantra, and it was his excuse for not doing the work.
Fridays were stock report days: Pick some stocks, manage an imaginary $100,000 investment. “Mumbo jumbo,” he said. But when the newspapers came (with the previous day’s stock numbers), he went right for the horoscope. It bothered him that I found the act so humorous. I challenged him to see if he could “beat his fate” by picking stocks, and he thought that reasonable.
Within a couple of weeks he’d stopped reading the horoscopes at all. Success in studying economics came slower.
Bronze Dog says
PZ, that’s exactly one of the points I made about a year ago. :)
I tried a test once as well, Ed. I decided to find the birthday, time, and location for the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I chose him because I had seen a skeptic’s article using only his birth month as proof against astrology. I also figured I’d have to use someone famous in order to have enough biographical information about the person to see if the results made any sense.
I used a computer program to print out his chart, cut out the location (just in case Detroit might ring any bells) and spent the day reading about him online. When my wife came home from work that evening, I told her that I’d printed out a chart of a famous person, and would she look it over and write down what she saw. I gave her about 15 minutes to look over it, and didn’t let her use any reference books– just her sitting at the kitchen table with a pen and the chart, and me leaving the room while she worked. At the time, I sent the results to a friend, so I’m grabbing them from my old e-mail. Here’s what she wrote in the margins of the chart:
–cold and detached
–keeps crap friends, keeps bad company
–in prison towards end of life, leads to death
–average height, considered good looking
–delusional, considers self psychic
–lots of ideas, burdened with thoughts
–thoughts looming over this individual
–detached from family
–too much going on mentally to think/communicate, easy burnout
–prone to violence
–naive with relationships
–thinks about sex and dying too much
–thought of as odd
–very quirky career
–symbolic death of mother (my note: mother abandoned him)
–public life, hit it big suddenly?
–likes color blue
–attracted to the head of relationship partner
For 15 minutes, out of the conceivable 6 billion people worldwide (and I suppose the countless millions already dead), I’d say these results aren’t too bad. Certainly not what you would write down if you were trying to play up to the only info I provided: “a famous person.” It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if there might be some truth in astrology, and I wish scientists would just give it a good shot to make sure.
Mike Haubrich says
Wow, DaveX, you have illustrated very well The Courtier’s Reply in relation to astrology.
I’ve had precise charts done, just I’ve had tarot read for me, using very specific factors such as the precise moment of my birth and the number of my siblings and their birthdates. And guess what? The predictions of the astrologer were just as vague. “You’ve been hurt by a former trusted one, but someone new will come into your life.”
I would rather have known what day she would come into my life, what she would look like, whether she was rich or poor, sober or alcoholic, had kids, what kind of work she did and if she were naughty or nice (naughty being my preference.)
It was just as vague as the tarot card reading. The tarot card reading was just a focus for the reader to give me standard advice that anyone could have given just by using common sense.
Astrologers were pissed off that they weren’t consulted about the status of Pluto as a planet, because they claimed it would affect all of their charts. (?) If what they did was any type of predictive science, then it doesn’t really matter whether it is a major or minor planet. Ask Shakespeare whether a name changes the substance or the perception of the substance.
ID proponents claim that they can prove the designer using naturalistic methods only, but when there methods are shown to fall short, they fall back on the canard that science rests on a naturalistic philosophy. How is astrology any different than that?
I’m going to join the chorus and vote for position (b.)
Newtonian physics is the most famous example of a hypothesis that has been tested and shown wrong. You won’t find a physicist today who believes it correct. Yet it is so useful, that they all teach it.
Isn’t it also equally likely that you just had some people doing these services for you that just want to make a buck and don’t care about the results at all? It’s hardly uncommon that tarot and astrology be a huckster’s trade!
Anyhow, I shouldn’t argue this stuff. I’m not an astrologer, and I’m not a scientist. I did my part to try testing it, so I’ll leave it up to better qualified persons.
Actually, I am somewhat surprised out how the results all came out below chance in the astrology test. I would expect slightly better than chance, because sometimes horoscopes contain clues. For example, when the horoscope says, “Today is a good day to meet an Aries” then you know that it is not an aries horoscope, and it increases the chances of getting your horoscope right to 1/11.
Ah, but Newtonian physics is right, within the margins of error and a specific context – a context that includes most uses of the hypothesis.
It only fails when applied to circumstances that just don’t occur in everyday life. You can easily send probes to distant worlds using only Newtonian mechanics, and Relativistic physics will never become an issue.
Name another hypothesis outside science that has been shown wrong and is yet so powerful. Even the errors science produces are more powerful than the best results of other ‘methods’!
Incorrect. One can be an Aries without the horoscope being wrong. It might be a good day to meet an Aries regardless of what your sign is. Or (by horoscope logic) it might be an especially good day for an Aries to meet an Aries, with no other signs receiving this benefit.
“Or (by horoscope logic) it might be an especially good day for an Aries to meet an Aries, with no other signs receiving this benefit.”
But that would probably be tipped off by saying “another Aries” at which point you know the horoscope is Aries.
I still think there are enough clues given to make the chances better than in 1 in 12.
Isn’t there a million dollar prize for proving stuff like this? I would have thought that if there was a single genuine astrologer on earth, (s)he would have claimed it by now.
Seriously, if there was any evidence for atrology, any at all, it would revolutionise science. You’d have people lining up to get in on the ground floor of this new field – it’d get more money, graduates and media coverage than string theory and animal accents combined. You would be rich and famous – at least, as rich and famous as scientists get.
It’s not been done. This should tell you something.
I think you may have missed the point of Mike’s reply. You may be right that a careless astrologer would not worry about accuracy. Mike’s point was that astrologers are careful to avoid being precise.
So what you’re saying is, “evolutionary creationism” is an example of (b) as well, right?
I agree with this, but only trivially. Caledonian’s point is equally valid – and logically correct – because we can at best assume (but not know) that “an Aries” cannot possibly mean “another Aries.”
Horoscopes are rarely that specific anyway. I can’t remember ever seeing such a thing in an horoscope. There may be other, more subtle clues available (“…take advantage of your airy nature today, and go find…”) that can help a zodiac-aware reader narrow it down, but the survey subjects were instructed to chose the horoscope that “best described the day” the subject had, so if the instructions were scrupulously followed, any such clues would likely be irrelevant anyway.
Right. The ToE is robustly supported by all available evidence. The first life on Earth was created by The Undetectable Creator, and “random” mutations are guided by the Invisible Hand of The Undetectable Creator. Go ahead, prove me wrong. :-p
Nathan Parker says
I did some Googling on Google Scholar looking for studies to demonstrate the silliness of astrology to a friend, but unfortunately found a few studies that gave some support in general to birth month and personality. Here’s an example:
I’d be interested any feedback on the validity of these studies.
Actually, (b) reminds me of Wolfgang Pauli’s famous criticism about a paper that he was reviewing that its thesis was so bad that it was “not even wrong.”
Apikoros– You’re definitely right. I’m very much aware that a vague statement can sound like a lot of things to a lot of people, and surely, much of the common sentiment towards astrology is based on such experiences. However, just going with what my wife wrote on those comments– and she’s not a pro or anything– are you saying this adds up to nothing more than general statements? They certainly don’t sound like anyone I know personally! I doubt that I could apply them to a stranger I met on the street, and have him or her say “gee, that sounds like me”…
uh-oh. Worse than chance? Perhaps that means there IS something to astrology..perhaps they just have their signs mixed up. Once astrologers account for procession, perhaps they’ll get it right! ;)
The only horoscopes ever worth reading were the ones in my undergrad student newspaper. They contained such nuggets of wisdom as “today you will feel an irresistible urge to feed kitty litter into a neighbour’s mail box”.
Adam Cuerden says
I’m going to go with a, since b usually is not science, unless it has strong hope of gaining focus and being testable in future. (String theory, say)
Robert Bell says
Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy!
David Schoonmaker says
I very rarely read horoscopes, despite their prominent location directly above the Jumble and the crossword puzzle in my local paper. Yesterday was different, about which shortly.
I don’t have the text at hand, but a summary would be that this Sagittarius, through his best efforts, would achieve significant success.
Why was I reading the horoscope? Waiting to have a colonoscopy.
I was going to post a comment, but raj @57 got there first.
So, how’s the colon?
Wasn’t it Edison who said, after trying something like five thousand different materials for lightbulb filaments, that he was happy because he now knew five thousand ways that didn’t work?
Here’s an example of a fine test of astrology:
It avoided the usual “pitfall” of overemphasizing sun signs not only by doing a full chart, but by asking the astrologers being tested to also estimate the accuracy of their readings. Predictably, the astrologers all gave a very high estimate of confidence in their answers. Predictably, the astrologers overall did no better than chance. More to the point, imho — the astrologers also did no better than chance in matching each other’s answers.
More info on these matters can be found at astrology-and-science.com.
Arnosium Upinarum says
DaveX #42 says: “It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if there might be some truth in astrology, and I wish scientists would just give it a good shot to make sure.”
Of what? That nebulous generalities are specific? Those traits are common to everybody.
What would your horoscope reading produce if you looked at, say, a trilobite? (Good luck finding the Zodiac). If you want to restrict your readings to humans, what happens if someone in the future is born on the moon or on Mars?
Or, which of the 88 constellations would you prefer to select as THE sign under which a person was born on some interplanetary spacecraft on a trajectory that is near perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic? How would you determine which sign that person was born under, when all the constellations are “overhead” and the Sun could reside in any of them (depending on the orbit)?
Never mind interstellar travel, when you’ll have all the planets of the solar system constricted to a spot in the sky full of ever-increasing distortions of your familiar constellations.
However you manage it (and that would provide a fascinating insight into the delusional gymnastics that the human mind is capable of) I bet your friend comes up with much the same list of traits.
For students? Yeah, pretty much.
Arnosium Upinarum says
PZ, it seems that you’ve got a significant number of responses here that reflect a mindset which can’t or won’t accept the premise posed in a simple question, namely, which is the POORER example of science, period.
To those respondents: there is no need to enlarge the pool of definitions. Which is less scientific: “A” or “B”? Period.
For crying out loud, PZ isn’t putting these two items before his readers as a wholesomely defining dichotomy of science vs non-science. He’s just asking which is worse, that’s all.
Again, one gets a different sort of information serendipitously from a simple question one may not expect: I’m afraid that this contingent says quite a lot about how well people comprehend sufficiency within a particular f-f-framework.
Ugh, sorry about that.
Detroit? The internets say he was born in Milwaukee. Astrology must be really powerful if it produces the right results from the wrong input?
The biggest problem I see with this anecdote is the strong possibility that you unintentionally gave a subtle cue or cues to your wife that the “famous person” was a Bad Guy of some sort. Married couples know each other very well, can often guess the way the other one is thinking or feeling (not ESP, just familiarity with non-verbal body language or common triggers for certain lines of thought.) In this single test, there are no controls and an obvious opportunity for what’s called “leakage.” I would also add that I suspect “Jeffrey Dahmer” is probably a popular subject picked for this kind of test. Ditto for “Hitler” or “Charles Manson” — and many of the answers would have fitted them too.
No, I’m not saying this is the real explanation, or only explanation, for why your astrologer wife was able to come up with so many specific hits for Jeffrey Dahmer. One possibility is still that there is “something to” astrology. But this is the sort of thing a skeptic would consider, and want to control for on re-test.
Randy Owens says
Or Rupert! Don’t forget Rupert!
Although I’ve never read horoscopes, I do identify as a Gemini and with the character traits that are supposedly linked with that sign. I strongly suspect this is only because I was told I was one at a young age and it became part of my identity, just as my first name is Anthony, I’m left-handed, enjoy long romantic walks–er, sorry, wrong forum. Anyway, I suspect that if I had been told from childhood that I was a Leo, I would identify with that sign just as easily. As potential evidence for this, I offer a friend of mine who was adopted from an orphanage in Asia and doesn’t know her true birth-date and consequently, her astrological sign. If there was a link between personality and zodiac sign, one might expect that she would think of herself as having the characteristics of one sign or another, or have been assigned one or two consistently by astrologer friends and such.
As you might expect, every friend who has tried to identify her ‘true’ sign has come up with a different answer, and she herself feels no affinity with any sign whatsoever.
Although I’ve never read horoscopes, I do identify as a Gemini and with the character traits that are supposedly linked with that sign. I strongly suspect this is only because I was told I was one at a young age and it became part of my identity,
Which is funny, because even when I went through a woo phase in fourth grade, I immediately rejected astrology because I was nothing like the Leo I was supposed to be. I spent my time on more promising areas, like… fortune telling through physiognomy. Is it the mole on the left cheek which means you will die far from home, or on the right?
I strongly suspect this is only because I was told I was one at a young age and it became part of my identity,
funny, I thought it was only a useful thing at pickup bars.
Another problem with the Dahmer anecdote is that there must have been other people who were born very close to that location and time – did they all have the same personality and die in prison? (but I’m sure astrology has some “plausible” explanation for why those people’s fates and personalities differ)
I’d like to ask DaveX whether his list of his wife’s predictions is complete, or if he has selected the ones that fell near the target. It sounds like the entire list may no longer exist, unfortunately.
The best way to increase your chances of a successful prediction is to make a lot of them. Just ask Jean Dixon.
Anyway, DaveX, if your wife is game I could send you the birthdate of another unknown subject–if you’ll agree to publicly post the predictions. (And as long as we specify that date and year are sufficient without time of day or location.)
Keith Douglas says
b., though what happens after the hypothesis is demonstrated to be either (a) or (b) is also very critical.
It seems to me that all this business about “well, we don’t really use just the sun sign” to be very disingenuous – if that were so, what’s up with all the astrology columns in newspapers etc. that do just that?
The only way that something like astrology could work, was by “something” affecting neurodevelopment in the growing fetus. That “something” is going to correlate with time of different stages of neurodevelopment, not necessarily birthday because not every pregnancy is exactly the same length and/or proeceds on exactly the same neurodevelopmental path. That correlation may have been better a thousand years ago with birthday because premature infants didn’t survive.
Schizophrenia is a neurological abnormality, that would likely not correlate with astrology, which (if it is correct), is “normal” neurodevelopment as modulated by the season of conception.
We know that exposure to some influences does affect in utero development. Dietary restriction causes the programming of multiple organ systems including heart, liver, kidneys, endocrine, lung, skeleton, reproductive axis, and affects adult parameters of all of these systems.
It would be surprising if the brain (the most important organ) were not programmed too.
Might there be in utero effects other than dietary restriction? Would there be an advantage? We know that women who are exposed to violence during pregancy give birth earlier and to smaller infants. We know that there is a “cycle of violence”, where exposure to violence in utero and early childhood predisposes a person to be more violent as an adult. I presume this is an evolved “feature”, where the brain of the violence exposed fetus and child is “programmed” to be violent to “better cope” with a violent world.
Might there be seasonal effects on neurodevelopment? We know that over evolutionary time, the average woman had exactly 2 children survive and reproduce. We know this because if the average woman had a different number the population would have become very high, or would have gone extinct. Women with no access to birth control become pregnant many many times. If only 2 survived, the rest died, or she died. What were likely causes of death? Infection, preditors, starvation, parasites, infanticide.
It is likely that the most likely cause of death changed during the year as the seasons changed. A behavior pattern that optimized survival at one season might not be optimal during another season.
Infants are neurologically active at birth. They have quite complex reflexes (Moro), they look at and bond to adults, they recognize their mother’s voice.
I consider it likely that in the “wild”, the optimum personality at birth would likely be different at different seasons. By what mechanism? Certainly not via gravitational influences of the stars and planets. But other things do correlate with the seasons, temperature, magnetic field fluctuations, foods of different types, weather, rainfall, dust, length of day/night. Might in utero neurodevelopment be affected by these things in subtle ways?
Perhaps, or perhaps not.
This is not known to be the case. It may in fact be correct, but we have no knowledge to support the claim.
Will Von Wizzlepig says
What if there were some kind of mild correlation between birthdate and personality?
I tried to come up with an explanation which did not go against science, and I came up with something reasonable- it’s a little fuzzy and certainly not testable, but better than giving people random daily atrology readings and seeing what one they liked best…
“Might there be seasonal effects on neurodevelopment?”
Well there might, but it wont help astrology because not everyone has the same seasons. For example north americans have four seasons. In many tropical climates there are two or more wet and dry seasons. The effects of these, if any, would be completely different, so even if seasons did have an effect there would be no univesal laws, but only local ones depending on the climate. Also in the southern and northern hamispheres the seasons would be reversed.
Sailor, no, the “seasons” that would be important are the ones where the dependence evolved, and would produce the behavior traits that would be survival factors for those seasons. The “trait” and the “season” are displaced by what ever time factor there is in neurodevelopment behind that trait. Neurodevelopment during a period of cold, might actually “program” physiology to deal with heat because if you are in utero during winter, you will be born and/or be an infant in the summer.
Presumably the seasons that are important are those in Africa where humans evolved. Probably the last 2 million years or so are the most important. The Moro reflex is thought to be a residual reflex from when our acestors were still in trees, and an infant that flung out its arms and looked startled would be caught by an adult (who have the reflex to catch such babies).
Which is why dolls in the position of the Moro reflex are startling to adults.
People not living in Africa might have a local seasonal dependence if their ancestors lived in that area long enough to evolve one. People from different areas might have different developmental paradigms which may or may not interact in ways that reinforce or counteract specific effects.
Of course what ever the “signal” is, modern living might disrupt it. If it is a characteristic frequency of magnetic field variations during sleep perhaps mediated by the angle of the solar wind on the Earth’s magnetic field, then being exposed to ELF from power lines, analog alarm clocks, or heating blankets in utero might cause problems. If it is temperature, central heating or AC might disrupt that. If it is day/night length, artificial light might disrupt that. If it is the NO from skin bacteria during sweating, bathing might disrupt that.
There could be any number of reasons why an experiment today might not show a positive effect. An experiment that would be interesting, would be to clone someone, and have multiple fetuses develop at different times. If they all had “the same” personality, that would be one data point, if they each had a different one, that would be another.
Looking at similarities between fraternal twins vs siblings might show something.
Randy Owens says
Especially since, if you look at the name, astrology is about the stars. The seasons, even if they are caused by our orientation with regards to a particularly close star, aren’t really covered by that, in normal astrological explanations. And it would certainly rule out any revelance of particular date and time of birth; heck, it would make the tendencies for adjacent signs to have rather contradictory natures… well, contradictory.
In short, if there is any such longer-cycle tendency, it just ain’t astrology.
To almost contradict myself, though, what about the effects of reduced vitamin D production in the winter, when your skin is seeing less sunlight? I don’t remember what the D deficiency does to adults, much less in utero.
b) is much worse. Hypotheses that are tested and falsified are necessary byproducts of scientific progress. Really, PZ, how many ideas have you come up with that were later disproven? Probably quite a lot. Disproven hypotheses are the result of the self-correcting nature that makes science better than “other ways of finding out,” like faith, drugs, schizophrenia, and randomly throwing a Scrabble set against a wall until you have a vaguely coherent idea or at least one that uses real words. Disproven hypotheses are actually helpful to scientific progress– if the “God created the Earth from nothing 6,000 years ago” hypothesis is falsified, you don’t need to bother testing the “Vishnu created the Earth from nothing 8,000 years ago” hypothesis.
A tested and disproven hypothesis is a sign of progress and a necessary byproduct of it. A nebulous and untestable idea treated by its proponents as science is pseudoscience that may get in the way and muck up real science, especially if its proponents have a massive PR campaign with which to convince the gullible. As such, b) is much worse than a).
Of course, a few rationalizations by a proponent who doesn’t want to give up his pet idea can easily turn a) into b), as seen, for example, in the transformation from creationism to “Intelligent Design.”
G. Shelley says
And yet when such experiments are carried out they fail. People are unable to pick out their own chart from others more than chance would dictate, they assign the same “accuracy rating” to their own chart as they do to random ones (even those of notorious murderers), astronomers are unable to match births with personality tests.
Every way astrology is tested, it fails
That test was absolute rubbish. Testing the validity of astrology against one particular horoscope? Come on! Take the scopes from several different prominent sources and run one test per source on a decent sized test group (larger than one “class”), and repeat the tests for multiple days. I’m sure a better test could be come up with, but the one outlined above is an order of magnitude better than the one described in the post.
Could someone quickly explain the results using n? It’s been a few years…Is ‘n’ the amount of students who found a horoscope that fit themselves?
Actually, no. You always need the birthtime, date, and location. You’d also want to make sure this isn’t a famous person, as you don’t want to think I’d google the info or something.
As for the Milwaukee thing, that was just my slip-up typing. I have the e-mail I sent to the friend on my comp still, but I was working on memory for the city. And as for giving my wife subtle clues, I’m aware this was a possibility, which is why I just left the room and let her work.
I’d address a lot of the other commentors technical questions about astrology, but like I said– I’m not an astrologer. I’m about as knowledgeable as you’d expect someone to be who hears about it occasionally, and doesn’t mind asking questions. As far as I know, though, being born on Mars or something would definitely affect someone’s chart– there is after all, a need to know where on the globe you are. The thing I wonder is if its possible that it’s not the stars or planets that actually CAUSE these changes among people, but that they’re something more like large “easy to read” gauges. I’m just trying to keep an open mind, here.
Everyone born in Detroit on that day died in prison?
Why single out Babylonian astrology? Why not Chinese or Mayan (I’m sure there are many others)?
The observed positions of the stars have changed a bit since 3000 BCE.
There’s no such thing as a constellation.
"Q" the Enchanter says
All that Lower’s experiment shows is that most of his students should convert to a different sign.
Oh, fishy, fishy, fishy, fish! says
OK, no one has said this yet, I think, except maybe for some reference to Newton earlier.
If there is some personality trait or condition that arises more than what chance can account for in relation to the birthdate (and time and place), which I find very implausible because of the utter lack of evidence and any meaningful observations of that, the further possibility that it’s in the stars or planets is as close to nil as the possibility of Jesus (and I mean the Christ one) delivering my pizza tonight (and I haven’t ordered a pizza).
Have those people ever heard of the inverse square law? The moon has more energy influence (and by “energy” I mean energy as gravity, not the nonsense New Agers babble about), on us than the nearest star to our solar system, and if you stand close to a car, the car will have more gravitational influence on you than the moon.
jordin — “n” is the total number of subjects in the experiment. So the first class listed had 163 students, of whom 8% (13 students) picked the correct horoscope.
I would like to see and experiment done where astrologers are tested based on the horoscopes of ten other astrologers. Just follow an astrologer around and see if his or her day match up with the predictions of colleagues, none of whom can be chosen by the test subject. That way, the experiment will show how silly this all is, and it might even convert a former practitioner to the ways of reality.
However, if an astrologer actually consistently lives up to horoscopes, then that may be a reason he or she believes in them to begin with, when no one else is affected by them. That person would be more sensitive to the stars then others. My hypothesis is that that wouldn’t happen.
ID could easily be science…all you need to do is assign a probability to an act of God. Collect data on every verifiable act of God…oh, wait, sorry, we’re in a reality-based community. There are no known acts of God. Ok, then we’ll just assign Godidit a probability = 0.0
No matter how improbable the IDists consider something to be, no matter how they try to stack the deck, something with a zero probability still ends up as being more improbable.