Guest Post: Sorry But Progressives Are Not Immune To Nonsense

This post is from Selena Neumark. Selena has a degree in Philosophy from the University of British Columbia and hopes to pursue a Masters in Media Development. She blogs about secularism and science at Free Thinking Activist Types.  You can follow her on Twitter here: @VeeEyeEm

I live in a liberal leaning city, in a wealthy country with entirely secular laws. My community is not particularly religious and tends even to perceive religion as tiresome, out-dated, and entirely too traditional. However, I’ve found that in such places, the superstitious and egotistical nature of humanity is insidious and intent on carving new avenues of cultural domination. Astrology is particularly popular in these self-identifying hyper-progressive circles. In its most popular and mass subscribed form, astrology is the two millennia old idea that the movement of planetary, lunar and solar bodies around the earth impact human personalities, life trajectories and intimate relationships.

Though it may at times appear almost scientific, what with its intricate star charts and descriptions of this alignment or that House, I for one am altogether fed up of hearing otherwise rational people fall prey to the fallacious claims of astrology. As much as it seems an admittedly frivolous yet harmless pastime, one must not forget the millions of dollars shelled out all over the world in the sustenance of this business. Like religion, that’s what astrology is- a business dressed up in spiritualist or scientist clothing, depending on your preference.  Some people trust science, so they call astrology science. Some people trust spiritualism, so they call astrology mystic or magic.

Influential philosopher Karl Popper was among the first notable scholars to voice the problem of finding the demarcation between a science and a non-science or pseudo-science. His work in epistemology of science made standard the notion of falsifiability as a distinguishing property in just this task. If a field of study, hypothesis or idea is unfalsifiable, if it can’t be proven wrong, even theoretically, it is by definition unscientific.  For example, I could claim that there’s a very shy gnome who lives under my bed. He’s so shy in fact, that his greatest skill is avoiding human detection. To that end, he’s both immaterial and invisible. The fact that my claim is immune to falsification (you can’t see or measure the gnome? Duh, that’s part of his nature!), is not to its merit. It means that nobody need take my claim seriously because there is no possible way to verify whether it’s true or false, and likewise no evidence that could conclusively disprove it.  

This is precisely the problem with Astrology. The “predictions” of astrology (that is, when they are actually predictions rather than just prescriptive advice like “make an effort to listen more this week”) are expansive and vague. They are not nearly specific enough so as to be falsifiable. Suggesting that in the coming month I will feel overwhelmed by my duties does not a prediction make. That’s just a common facet of human life. What would be more impressive and also constitute falsifiability is if an astrologer predicted that next Tuesday, my boss would give me an assignment at 4pm PST titled “Make This Happen” and I would subsequently feel very overwhelmed by it. Notice that horoscopes never look like this. I’d hasten to guess this is because in the vast majority of cases they’d be instantly falsified. Or falsified come next Tuesday as the case may be. This fact alone renders what I like to call magazine-astrology a pseudo-science, but we’re not done there.

Approximately 2000 years ago, when Claudius Ptolemy invented horoscopic astrology, astrological star signs depended upon the position of the sun as it rose on ones birthday. Due to an astronomical phenomenon called axial precession, those original zodiacal assignments are no longer accurate. The earth has wobbled on its rotational axis, shifting (from our perspective) the position of the sun as it rises. Technically, we’re all off by a sign. Scorpios are currently Librans and that will change again in another couple thousand years. This inconvenient truth doesn’t seem to phase all those Scorpios who insist their sign is just “so them” though.

I could go on and talk about how there are 14 constellations, not 12 or how illogical it is to assign human properties like violence or creativity to planets, but that really is not the point of this piece. In every controlled environment so far tested, astrology has failed to meet its standard of evidence and I really wish people would wake up to that fact. But these points have been presented multiple times, and yet here we are. And here I am being asked by new acquaintances, “so what’s your star sign? You seem like a Taurus to me.” Wrong.

Perhaps it is an innate human need to feel in some way connected to the wider universe. To feel like the movement of celestial bodies is relevant to our small lives, short as they are here on Earth. Carl Sagan conceded that astrology offers this novelty to some. However, there is a more profound way to feel at one with the cosmos. Astronomy is a gift of this kind because it comes bearing the full weight of scientific evidence and rationality. It’s also just way fucking cooler. More startling, more magnificent and grand in every way.

At a recent event in Portland, Oregon Richard Dawkins was asked by an audience member why he thought in otherwise liberal communities new age beliefs in astrology, tarot cards, crystal healing and the like remain so prevalent. His explanation was simply that people don’t value evidence and that teaching them to do so would go a long way in remedying this trend. As much as that may be the case, I don’t think encouraging an evidence-based worldview in such simple terms is necessarily enough.  I doubt believers in astrology proudly espouse any conscious distain for evidence. Ask them if they value evidence and I’m quite certain they’d be adamant in the affirmative. The trouble is, I think, that such people have a preconceived notion that there is some evidence behind their beliefs. Astrology in particular has become such a common staple in our collective diet that why wouldn’t people assume it had some value?

The issue isn’t that people strictly don’t value evidence. Rather, it’s that the vast majority of people haven’t been taught the critical thinking skills needed to recognize what constitutes good evidence and how to spot a confirmation bias in action. As I’ve said, astrology is designed in such a way that it seems to work as long as you just don’t examine it too closely.

Even if you break through to someone and they acquiesce that astrology maybe kinda sorta doesn’t actually work the way they thought it did or you know, doesn’t work at all, the question usually becomes “so what?” If it’s not doing any discernible harm, or at least very little compared to the death and destruction waged by religion, what does it matter if it’s not actually true? This is where Professor Dawkins and myself are in complete agreement. It’s not always enough to ask, “What is the harm?” Beyond a value judgement, shouldn’t we also care whether or not something is true? Just for the pure enterprise of bettering human knowledge, surely that question matters. Perhaps then, in the fight against superstition, supernaturalism and mysticism of all kinds we should, as secular activists and free thinkers, devote more time to convincing people via good argumentation and reasoning that truth does in fact matter.

This may seem like an obvious point but it’s one that I think warrants some attention. After all, I can conceive easily of a number of discoveries humanity may be better off not knowing, provided of course that they were actually true. Daniel Dennett has suggested for example, that if there were an empirical truth about differing levels of intelligence between races, we would likely be better off not knowing it. Can we discern between the former and the latter type of truth- those that we should know and seek to know, and those that we’re better off remaining ignorant of? Being both scientifically minded and progressive I’d like to think so. Though a reliable mechanism beyond trial and error by which we might do this remains elusive to me. It is by starting a dialogue around this very issue that I hope we might answer that question.

This post is from Selena Neumark. Selena has a degree in Philosophy from the University of British Columbia and hopes to pursue a Masters in Media Development. She blogs about secularism and science at Free Thinking Activist Types.  You can follow her on Twitter here: @VeeEyeEm

GM is helping Godless Dad at work this week and will be posting guest posts until next week. If you want to see yours posted this week, click here to submit it.


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