Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Astrological philosobabble

I really get annoyed when apparently intelligent people do something that lends credence to nonsense.

I know it's probably a waste of perfectly good ire.  Confirmation bias and the believe-what-you-want-to-believe tendency of the human brain make fighting this sort of thing a largely fruitless pursuit.

But man, my job would be so much easier if smart people didn't go to such lengths to defend pseudoscience.

The latest attempt to legitimize bullshit comes from British philosopher Martin Cohen, who in his recent book Paradigm Shift: How Expert Opinions Keep Changing on Life, the Universe and Everything describes why we scientific types should give another look to astrology.  (And honorable mention goes to The Irish Times for writing an apparently serious article praising his stance.)

The Twelve Astrological Signs, from Opus Medico-Chymicum by Johann Daniel Mylius (1618) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Cohen is basing his claim on a slightly more sophisticated version of the na├»ve question I hear from high schoolers; "If science changes all the time, this could all be proven wrong tomorrow, so why are we learning this stuff?"  "Expert opinions" -- including not only opinions about what is right, but what is wrong -- fluctuate.  So we shouldn't dismiss astrology, even though Cohen admits it "is easy – laughably easy – to debunk using conventional methods and ideas."

After this glimmer of sense, he goes on to say:
On the other hand – and this is really the subtext of the entire social science debate over Paradigm Shift – convention is a poor guide to anything. 
Mainstream science regularly rules definitively on things about which, in fact, the state of knowledge really only allows tentative opinions.  In science, the measure is usefulness; we should give astrology the same chance.
No, sorry.  In science, the measure is consonance with the evidence -- usefulness be damned.  Any utility to scientific discoveries comes after they have been supported by hard data.

What about the fact that astrology traffics in broad-brush predictions that can be interpreted any way you like, leading believers to overestimate its accuracy?  This, Cohen says, is a strength, not a weakness:
By presenting ambiguous, vague answers, astrology pushes the seeker to extract information that is really not so much there in the answer but in their own subconscious. It unblocks our minds and frees them to see things in a new way...  Actually, I’m not sure that I do want to give the nod to the description of astrology as a poor predictor, as that reinforces the stereotype image of the subject as given in newspaper columns.  My suggestion is to see it as a tool for interpreting the world, and in particular each individual’s relationship to it – I mean, in psychological terms.  This way, I think, astrology is full of rich and subtle insights.  How it arrives at them is of little importance.
In other words, as long as you feel the answer is right for you, it's right.  To hell with whether there's any mechanism by which it could work.

He then goes on to tell us about the "spooky coincidence" that the "Four Horsemen" of atheism -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens -- are all Aries.  The chance of any four randomly chosen people all being the same sign is (1/12) raised to the fourth power, or about one in 20,000.  Which seems like slim odds, until you realize that given the current human population, there are 350,000 such "spooky coincidences" in the world.  Look for long enough, and you'll find more than one cluster of superficially similar people with the same signs -- it's just the law of large numbers at work.

Of course, the claim also ignores a huge study done in England twelve years ago of "time twins" -- people born within minutes of each other who, if any of the claims of astrology are correct, should have similar personalities, tendencies, and fates.  Unsurprisingly, the study found no support whatsoever for any of it.

No matter, Cohen said.  This isn't about physical mechanisms or hard data, it's about "mystical correspondences."

"Why should [the predictions of astrology be accurate], though?" Cohen goes on to say.  "The world changes in innumerable ways at every instant. So what might have been going to happen in one possible world no longer needs to happen in the next....  If astrological predictions really were true, then they would be useless.  The conceit is that we can both benefit from a prediction and still be free to change the future."

Which should win some kind of award for Mushy Philosobabble, and also is awfully convenient.  It doesn't matter if your model accurately predicts anything, or has a basis in reality.  If you find it useful in guiding your life, then whether it lines up with what we know about the real world is irrelevant.

Being a rationalist materialist type, it's no wonder that I read this entire piece while making frustrated little growling noises.  I'm sorry, Mr. Cohen; the truth does matter, and I'm not defining "truth" as being "whatever you decide sounds appealing."  Science gives us an algorithm by which to determine if a claim has validity.  It may well be the only such algorithm that actually works.

So my general sense is that what Martin Cohen is urging us to do is to abandon evidence as the sine qua non of understanding, and look for "mystical knowledge" in whatever bit of pseudoscientific horseshit happens to suit our fancy.  Which is about as opposite to my standard for approaching the world as it could be.

But I probably only say that because I'm a Scorpio.


  1. Mr. Cohen probably got the Flu. When he comes out of his cough-syrup fever dream he'll realize he just endorsed astrology as a potentially legitimate way to predict the future.

    Really, though, Mr. Cohen is just looking in the wrong place.
    Hello... McFly! You don't need astrology when there's a more legitimate answer to prediction. What we, as a people, really need to explore is the possibility of installing Flux Capacitors on DeLorean motor vehicles and achieving a max speed of 88mph. I know it seems like it wouldn't work, but all you have to do is apply science, reasons, and a bit more science, and voula... The Universe reveals itself to you.

    Just keep an open mind.*

    (*Disclaimer: Individuals must remain upright while keeping an open mind, to prevent their brain from falling out.)

  2. Only just came across this blogpost. I take a great interest in all paraphilias, so I hope you won’t take my response to your comments as an attack. It was I who introduced Martin Cohen to the coincidence of the birthdays of the Four Horsemen, which I developed in an article that he published. I have not seen the book you refer to so I don’t know how accurately he represented my material. I never suggested that the odds were in the vicinity of 20,000/1 – in fact they are only 1728/1. The former odds would only pertain to the instance of 4 individuals having one particular, pre-specified sign of the 12. The odds that they would all share any sign whatever is only 12 to the third power. Even this is still a striking coincidence, no matter the fact that it is far from impossible.

    However, to say that because such coincidences do happen, even must happen, does not immediately rob it of significance. For one thing, significance is a commodious concept that one should not assume can only mean statistical significance. When a fairly improbable event is forced on our attention it is natural among we meaning-seeking creatures to wonder whether there is any significance. You may say this is ‘probably’ merely a coincidence but scientifically it’s far from proven. You may attempt an experimental proof by checking the birthdays of a large number of quartets (say, consecutive names in a phone book) to see how many quartets fit the bill. But even if you were to find 10 in 17,280 no more no less as you seem to be predicting, have you made the four horsemen that much less remarkable? Because the four horsemen have much more in common than their birth sign. If it is necessary to have a remarkable commonality in addition to sign among the quartets, the probability becomes much smaller, incalculably so, since defining and weighting that commonality adds a major factor of imprecision.

    Now, if you ascertain the signs of the next 4 strangers you run into, then repeat that 1728 times there is a good chance that more or less once they will all be of the same sign. You will not be surprised when it happens, you will if anything be delighted to have triumphed over my nonsense, but if each of them has an egregiously bulbous nose (or some other outstanding characteristic far less common even than a particular sign of the zodiac, such as being a prominent crusading militant atheist) then I think any sane person (as opposed to rational person) will be quite surprised. ( con't)

  3. (con't)
    I am verbose. You put it this way: “Look for long enough, and you'll find more than one cluster of superficially similar people with the same signs -- it's just the law of large numbers at work.” “More than one” is misleading – no one claimed that this coincidence is unique. But “superficially similar” is way off. The Horsemen are far from that – they were a world-famous posse riding together in a televised attack on deeply-held age-old, world-wide philosophical positions. You consider your critique ‘rational’; I see it as a slapdash and dishonest application of ‘reason signaling’ to foreclose further examination of an intriguing phenomenon.

    Like a judge, then, who has the power to fairly or unfairly exclude certain evidence from the jury – sometimes evidence considered crucial – you retreat to age-old anti-astrological banalities and divert attention from the principle new evidence here presented for astrology, the fact that the sign shared by all four horsemen is Aries. The remarkable thing is not that they are all under one sign and I certainly would not have pursued the matter very far if they were under any other sign but Aries, which is traditionally (and I also claim, demonstrably) related to belligerence and atheism. Following that argument via the humanities (history, literature, philosophy, popular culture, etc.) rather than via scientism requires actual thinking and reading, not just high school math. It does not require acquiescence to any theories about prediction. My material from which Martin Cohen borrowed elaborates the subject of Aries and the Four Horsemen in greater detail here:

    Best wishes, Mark Shulgasser (