Friday, September 17, 2010

Debunking the Debunker - Flawed Attempt to Disprove Astrology

When I went to do a search on Astrology on Youtube, one of the most popular posts comes from James Randi (260,000 plus views), well known for his million dollar offer to any psychic who can prove, under scientific restrictions set up by Randi himself, that the psychic phenomenon is valid.  Astrology is often one of Randi's whipping targets and his favorite test is one of the weakest and mostly discarded forms of astrological reading, the physical characteristics by sign (Aries have prominent foreheads, Virgo keep their appearance neat and groomed).  Some novice astrologer will be brought on to identify 10 random people by sign by looking at them.  As expected, they do no better than guessing (statistically speaking).  And Astrology, once again is debunked.  The video below is another technique for proving that astrology is smoke and mirrors; however, the "scientific method" applied is deeply flawed and I will explain why after you watch the video.

There are a number problems in the design of this experiment.  First, there is no control group.  A control group would include individuals who received actual astrology reports based on their actual information.  This way you could have members of the audience who could disagree with a chart and raise a much more profound problem for astrology than a vague chart that could be broadly applied into a particular life so that the reader could make the chart fit his or her circumstances.  This simplistic experiment does proves something, but nothing profound; it proves ignorant people are easily deceived.  Another way to strengthen this experiment would be to have 20 or so professional astrologers in the room and try to hand them the horoscope Randi handed this audience.  Again, this attempt would likely fail miserably because the astrologers would begin to ask what technical information was used to come up with the interpretations.  And, again, if he could pass the chart off on a professional astrologer successfully, then he would have a much stronger experiment and result.

Something interesting, but not intended, does emerge; two things actually.  One, I think it is interesting that you can provide 20 plus people with the same narrative and they all think it applies to them.  Does this say something useful about the human condition; maybe we are all more alike than different.  Would it have mattered if, among the people in the group, some were from different countries, especially ones that have a strong astrological tradition ... Middle Eastern or Indian.  Again, the group shown here is too homogeneous (in terms of culture) to really provide a good test result.  Second, is a question of the narrative provided and its level of generalization.  It's one thing to say, astrologically, "that this is a time of financial struggle" knowing that even in good times most people feel they struggle in some way financially.  It is another thing to say, astrologically, "that you will experience financial challenges in matters of personal concern and the formation of your identity; you may, at this time have to devote extra effort to the work that matters most to you and that helps you find your career path (Saturn transiting your 1st House)".  If you are retired or a homemaker or a teenager receiving the second reading you might have reason to raise your hand and say, "um, this doesn't really apply to me."

I think it would be possible with a certain kind of generalization to make the experiment about debunking the medical community by saying things like, "do you have trouble concentrating, finding you start projects you do not finish, perhaps trouble sleeping through the night."  If the group gave mostly 4 and 5's to this reading, they would all be diagnosed as ADD.  I'm sure I could find general language to make everyone in the group depressed too.  It's obvious that one thing the horoscope did NOT include was the most basic starting piece of information in any chart reading, Your Sun Sign is in X; therefore, you life path is guided by Y.  Had that information been prominent, several of the participants would have immediately sniffed out the ruse.  You could not make everyone the same Sun Sign and get away with it.  No professional astrologer of any note would leave this information out of a professional reading; it is the very way we put our selves on the line as practitioners.  We allow our clients to know the information we are using so they can verify it for themselves.

Additionally, I read through the comments of the people very much enamored of Randi and this particular experiment.  Among the comments was a personal favorite of mine that again shows misguided thinking, though it does sound rather damning.

@camij79 - astrology has not cured any diseases, or provided any means of improving sanitation or water supplies, has not assisted in exploration of our world or the cosmos, has not improved living conditions for anyone, has not provided any improvement to infrastructure anywhere, the list goes on.

Astrology has lined the pockets of astrologers and astrological pretenders, and preyed on the gullible.

Well, in point of fact, I would not hire an Astrologer to build a rocket ship, I would hire a rocket scientist; and I would not hire an Astrologer to operate on my appendix, I would hire a surgeon.  But it also follows that I would not hire a surgeon to provide me with spiritual guidance or psychological help.  Astrology does help people, individually, not collectively.  Science great contribution is its collective application.  Astrology's great contribution is its individual application.  Astrology, really, is all about you.  This point does lead me to a final topic that I am sure will challenge some Astrologers.  I do not consider Astrology a science, not even a "Cosmic Science".  I know it sounds good to throw "Science" in there because science has really made tremendous inroads into human life, almost as if Astrology can co-opt the word and get the benefits of "acceptance" or "success" or "reliability" that science offers (water boils as 100 degrees Celsius, a bridge designed with these materials and supports can handle a specified amount of weight). I do accept that we use science, specifically Astronomy, as an underpinning, but once we enter the realm of interpretation, we  enter the realm of imagination and narrative.  Astrology is a narrative psychology, a psychological art form, a creative dialogue between a client and astrologer.  It is humanistic, not scientific.  And I know its quite fun to talk about Astrology and Quantum Physics or theoretical science as the place the two merge, but let's be honest, when we throw Science into a title for an astrological text we can expect that it is being done (maybe by the editor and bookseller) to ride the coat tails of mechanical science and its "provability" and "repeatability", both of which are doggedly effective and, well, reliable.

And finally, the debate only really matters, or can matter if the scientists in question are spiritual and the spiritualists appreciate science.  Randi strikes me as the Atheist of the highest degree.  There is only this lifetime, consciousness is a product of chemical/electrical evolution, and death is nothingness.  People do not have a destiny, spiritual path, calling, or any other "woo woo" way through the world.  In that case, there's really nothing to prove to this man.  If he wants to take to task charlatans in our profession, I'm all for it.  But if he thinks the charlatans are the profession, then I feel compelled to write a blog entry like this one.  I think he would certainly think I am somehow a sophisticated delusional person,  if he would be willing to grant that I am intelligent, having earned a PhD and all.  And it does not help that some astrologer is willing to take on his badly designed "Astrological Test".  Maybe if Randi were to use a better methodology, I would be more inclined to think his conclusions worth considering.  In the end, I do want to respond because his video has 260,000 hits and Steven Forrest's excellent video on the current T-square has less than 3,000.  And here, I would say we have a case where the volume of hits does not necessarily reflect the quality of content.

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