Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Astrologers and 'Imaginative' Logic

While atheists are no strangers to being called unimaginative and dull, the accusation of narrow-mindedness is occasionally offered up by pseudoscientists when they are questioned on discrepancies in their technique or treatment. In a recent blog post on the Guardian’s website, Dr Rebekah Higgitt of Greenwich National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory proposed that we should ‘debunk astrologers more respectfully’. Many questions were asked about astrology and indiscrepancies queried, but certain allegedly well-regarded supporters of astrology seemed content to exclude any evidence which they perceived to be part of a ‘debunking agenda’. Considering that this highly-regarded astrologer, Deborah Houlding, is so quick to criticise attitudes of close-mindedness in those who don’t believe in astrology this approach seems very hypocritical indeed.

Another tactic used on occasion by practitioners of alternative sciences and medicines is to paint themselves as the unjustly oppressed party and heroes fighting for their perceived truths. This tactic is often seen in discussions about alternative medicines and sciences when practitioners are questioned about certain aspects of their respective arts. While debates about alternative sciences can become very heated on both sides, the astrologers are often seen to portray themselves as the party without fault – in a follow-up to the article by Dr Higgitt on the Guardian’s science pages, Houlding accuses the skeptics of ‘rudeness, crude 'noise', accusation, and evasion of the relevant points’ while failing to acknowledge instances of utilising these tactics herself throughout her posts (see earlier references).

In this case Houlding even goes as far as accusing those opposing the idea of astrology as having ‘clearly-defined tactics’ and using ‘debunker manuals' – quite a claim considering that the ‘enemies of pseudoscience’ were in fact amateur skeptics with no personal connection commenting on an obscure science thread on the Guardian’s science website. This idea of being the victim of an organised scheme is similar to the paranoia expressed by homeopaths about Big Pharma corporations fixing results of clinical trials to try and discredit their medicine for financial gain. Rather than accept the results after thorough explanation, the practitioners of the method in question will try to paint supporters of the opposing view as charlatans mindlessly pursuing their own agenda.

When considering a scientific theory the burden of proof lies with the person making the assertion, largely due to the difficulty of proving a negative result. This is one of the key mistakes which people make about the scientific validity of a hypothesis – failing to prove a negative is occasionally taken to mean that there must be a positive result. Using the example of astrology, the astrologers assert that the positions of the planets in relation to the Earth (and in other systems in relation to our Sun) has an impact on a person’s personality and at times even their financial dealings. The following information was given by an astrologer on the Higgitt article in defence of astrology:

‘I can prove it works because my husband and I bought lotto tickets based on planetary information each week and managed to win a million dollars in 2001. I know astrology works on a personal basis and I couldn't give a hoot what anyone thinks - you won't change what I have observed in my lifetime - you can't give statistics for all the little, everyday occurrences that build up a picture of one's life over time.’

This extract is a very good example of confirmation bias mistakenly presented as proof of an effective method. The author of the comment claims that astrology helped them win the lottery because they won $1 million after predicting the outcome using planetary information. This is a very fortunate turn of events, but the author also fails to admit that they never won on any of their other lotto tickets which were also influenced by planetary information. Although the astrologer was questioned numerous times about how they used planetary information to determine which numbers would be selected at random from the number generator, they never provided this information.

Skeptics were offered an image of the winning ticket and the cheque (which could be easily forged for the sake of the argument) but they were also challenged to prove that it wasn’t astrology which helped the lucky astrologer to win the $1 million prize. The argument that it is impossible to frequently predict a sequence of randomly selected numbers to a high degree of accuracy could be made but it is impossible to effectively refute this claim when nothing about the planetary information used is supplied. The difficulty in refuting this claim is often taken in place of a positive result as proof of an effective tool of prediction or alternative medicine and unfortunately many people are taken in by this broken logic.

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