Saturday, May 19, 2012

Weekend Post - Bad ideas stick around. Like astrology.

I find it amazing how certain ideas stick around, way beyond the end of their natural lifetimes. There are still people who believe in witches, evil spirits and mysterious forces controlling our destiny. There are still people who believe, fundamentally, in fairy tales. However, perhaps the longest running nonsensical and straightforwardly WRONG belief is in astrology.

Astrology is based on the belief that the planets have some sort of effect upon our daily lives. It suggests that the date and time of your birth and the position of the planets at that moment have an everlasting influence on your life and the events it includes.

Most astrologers also suggest that we can all be grouped according to the month of our birth into so-called star signs. These signs are named after a range of astronomical constellations like Cancer, Libra, Taurus and Sagittarius. Apparently people in each of these groups share similar personal characteristics and, if you believe the astrological predictions published in newspapers over the world, identical life experiences each week.

Where to begin on this one?

To begin with let's think carefully about each of the issues. Firstly that the planets have a direct influence on our lives. How do they do this? The only force we know of that might do this is gravity. Gravity can act at a huge distance, it holds the planets in orbit around the sun and the sun in it's place in the galaxy. There’s no point in going into the physics of this other than to point out that there’s a greater gravitational attraction between you and your husband or wife than you have with Jupiter. The moon has a much greater gravitational influence on our planet than all the planets combined so why do astrologers ignore it's influence?

So, given that the gravitational effect of the planets on us is insignificant isn't it also stretching our credibility a bit too far to believe that the effect they have on us is at the moment of our birth and not at any time later? Oh and why don’t astrologers consider the moment we were conceived rather than the moment of our birth? Surely that would be more logical? However logic is not something that astrologers seem to rate very highly.

So perhaps there is some other force that has this effect. Some force that we don't know about yet? If astrology is actually a good predictor of life's events maybe that would be good enough proof? If astrologers could show us that their predictions were accurate that would be a good thing wouldn't it?

Unfortunately it's simply not the case. Every truly scientific analysis of astrological predictions has shown that astrological predictions are nonsense. They predict nothing. If they did why didn't astrologers tell us about 9-11, the banking crisis or who was going to win Big Brother? And why aren’t they all multi-millionaires having predicted lottery results?

Experiments that looked at couples who got married and analysed their star signs showed that there was absolutely no relationship between the so called compatibility of their signs and whether their marriages lasted or not. The same thing happened when researchers examined people in various professions and found that their astrological signs were in no way related to their professional success.

However my favourite experiment has been undertaken several times, notably by the French researcher and astrologer Michel Gauquelin. He gave a large group of people a horoscope and asked them to rate how accurately it described their personality. Ninety-four percent of the people said it accurately described them. The bad news though is that they had all been given the very same horoscope, that of Marcel Petiot, one of France’s most vicious psychopathic serial killers.

This is an example of the so-called "Forer effect", the tendency people have to consider general statements about them as correct, particularly when they're flattering. It's our nature to believe this sort of garbage when we hear it. But that doesn't mean we have to give in to idiotic temptation.

So why do so many people read their horoscopes and feel that they actually mean something? Why do they genuinely seem to believe they predict what will happen and give guidance on what they should do?

I think it's quite simple. We all want certainty. We want to be able to understand our lives and astrologers give us this. They give us simple, amazingly broad generalisations that can apply to pretty much anyone. A horoscope in a newspaper here recently stated that any Capricorn should"
"Use your time as productively as possible. Individual achievements are possible within a working team structure. A game of one-upmanship might ultimately benefit everyone."
What utter rubbish. What on earth does this mean? What sort of a prediction is that? Notice how deliberately vague that all is? Couldn't it apply to anyone at any time?

People believe astrology because they seek simple explanations for a complex life. Fortunately life is much more complex and interesting than this and astrology is utter nonsense.

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