Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Is Astrology Harmful?

Too many skeptics suffer from the delusion that belief in anything that has not been 100% verified by formal science is fundamentally dangerous to one's well-being. For years, the James Randi Educational Foundation has been calling on newspapers to ban horoscope columns. This is because even though any astrologer will tell you that they're basically useless without more information, they somehow nonetheless pose some poorly-defined existential threat to modern civilization.

Today IO9, which I usually enjoy, has an article up that once more tries to explain why astrology is harmful. For the purposes of this post I'm not going to get into whether or not astrology works. I do make use of it in my spiritual and magical work, but the fact is that it has yet to be verified by orthodox scientific research. So for the moment I'm willing to play in the skeptical sandbox to point out that even if we operate under the assumption that astrology is 100% nonsense, the idea that it is somehow especially harmful is just plain silly.

To start with, basic psychology tells us that people are wrong about things all the time without necessarily incurring any real harm from their inaccurate beliefs. In fact, as a perfect example of this, the author of the article clearly doesn't have a solid understanding of how astrology works. I get that he considers it nonsense and not worth his time, but presumably he was paid for this article. Couldn't he have done a little more research? Statements like this one show that whatever he did was inadequate.

It didn't help the astrological cause back in 2011 when an entirely new version of the zodiac was proposed, thus shifting everyone's sign from its mythical original position. Indeed, the whole premise behind astrology is predicated on some rather flimsy parameters; what we call "months" are actually cultural — and not cosmological — constructs. Moreover, our expanding universe, and all that's within it, is in a constant state of flux.

The truth is that most actual astrologers didn't care about this "controversy" one bit. The difference between tropical and sidereal astrology is well-known, and is one of the main differences between Western astrology and its Vedic counterpart that's practiced in India. The "new order" is just the sidereal order, and if you got a chart from an Indian astrologer it would match the "new" schema, aside from the supposed "13th sign."

As far as that goes, the only way in which you even get an extra sign is if you conflate astrology with astronomy, which skeptics are always telling people not to do. Tropical astrologers don't treat the signs as the literal result of a planet overlapping with a constellation. Rather, they divide the year into twelve parts and use the constellation names as convenient labels. So pointing out that a thirteenth constellation touches the ecliptic doesn't mean anything to an astrologer, especially a Western one.

The IO9 article also discusses this study, which I blogged about back in February, complete with the media misrepresentation of the results that I complained about at the time.

A recent poll by the National Science Foundation showed that more than 40% of Americans think astrology is a science — a rather shocking result (and no, it wasn't because respondents were conflating astrology with astronomy). Equally as frustrating is the news that it's at its highest level since 1983. The NSF uses this survey as a kind of metric for "the public's capacity to distinguish science from pseudoscience."

The author of the IO9 article is flat-out wrong here about what this survey actually says. Claiming that everyone who gave an answer other than "not at all scientific" in fact believes that "astrology is a science" is pure spin. The survey actually had three options - "not at all scientific," "sort of scientific," and "scientific." One of the primary points of the skeptic movement is that pseudoscience shares some characteristics with formal science, and thus the two are easy to confuse! Hence, by that definition, shouldn't pseudosciences be thought of as "sort of scientific?" I was trained as a scientist and know the differences and similarities, which is precisely why I would say "sort of" is the most accurate answer.

Clearly the "harm" here isn't just from being wrong. If that were true, the author of the IO9 piece would have already indicted himself. So it must be something more serious than that. Sexism, perhaps?

Other surveys have shown that women are more drawn to astrology than men. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 28% of women believe in astrology, compared to 23% of men. In Canada it's even worse, where 33% of women buy into it. But as York University sociologist Julia Hemphill tells io9, there's more to this statistic than meets the eye: women are specifically targeted by the popular media.

"Astrology is an unempirical epistemology that's peddled to women as a way of understanding themselves and the world," she says. "All you have to do is open a 'women's magazine', and you'll inevitably see at least one or two pages devoted to astrology. The same pattern, she says, is evident in television programming for women.

"While shows about 'mediums', and other supernatural phenomenon can be found on virtually any network whose mandate is to attract and keep the viewership of women, such shows are a rarity, if utterly nonexistent on the schedules of 'men's' networks," she says. "These networks are more likely to air shows that tend to focus on actual science."

And yet, the author isn't trying to tell us that television programming targeting women is harmful, just astrology. I would in fact add to this that most popular culture gender-segregates. I actually do think the way that our culture approaches this is problematic, but to confine it to a single subject shows a great deal of shortsightedness. The real harm here seems to be gendered marketing itself, which I'm not about to defend.

How about fatalism?

Indeed, astrology works hand-in-hand with sentiments suggesting that the events in our lives are a "matter of destiny" and that certain things are just "meant to be." At the same time, it obfuscates the role of nature/nurture in the development of our psychologies, while ignoring the open-ended nature of the future (unless one subscribes to a rigid version of cosmological determinism — a rather heady philosophical problem about free will that's undoubtedly not on the minds of astrologers).

As a matter of fact, from a traditional astrological perspective, the elements of the chart are conceived of as forces acting upon the life of the individual that he or she should work to transcend. There's nothing fatalistic about that. The media's image of astrology is more similar to what the author describes, but again, any astrologer will tell you that's just not accurate - even according to astrology.

So is the real problem here that the media gets it wrong? This is starting to drift into the same territory as the case for sexism - that the problem isn't astrology itself, but rather a twisted, inaccurate view of it. You can say the same thing for actual science, though, which is misrepresented in television programs and popular news reports all the time.

How about encouraging prejudice?

Which brings up an excellent point: people who subscribe to astrology are often victims of an observational selection effect, a cognitive bias in which we observe those traits we've been primed to notice, while remaining blind to other characteristics. This causes us to assess people the way we either want to perceive them, or the way we expect to perceive them. Either way, it's typically a skewed — and biased — impression.

Horoscopes work the same way. They're often crafted to work in tandem with our supposed "personality types," and the observational selection effect does the rest. Though perhaps I'm giving the horoscope writers too much credit; their daily "predictions" are often so vague and open-ended that they could apply to anybody at any given time.

Especially with regard to newspaper horoscopes, this is 100% correct. But as I mentioned above, many astrologers would agree there as well. What's interesting about personality type and Sun sign, though, is that there may be something to it. A recent study that I blogged about back in March has found that birth season does appear to affect the structure of the brain. As I mentioned above, Sun sign astrology divides the year up into twelve parts and labels them with constellations, but it may be that what's really being tracked are personality traits related to the time of year people were born.

The birth season link is only the result of one study and requires more research to see if it holds up, but what if it does? I can see where early childhood experience would be different for the various seasons, especially in parts of the world with a lot of seasonal variance, which is a possible and totally non-paranormal explanation. If it were shown t9o be true, would the author of the IO9 article then concede that Sun sign astrology is "sort of" scientific?

At any rate, it seems to me that in a society where we're already dealing with discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, social class, disability status, sexual orientation, and so forth, are we really going to start worrying about discrimination based on Sun signs? If, say, somebody was denied a job because of their birth month I would defend their rights without question, but is this something that employers really do?

The reality that I've seen in communities that believe in astrology is that people pretty much back-rationalize what they want to do and just go with it. So if they like somebody, the vagueness of astrological aspects means that they generally can find a reason. The same is true of those they dislike, and that being the case, I have trouble seeing how the result is different with or without astrology in the mix.

And here's another question - are you going to have a better attitude about life in general and the people in it that you dislike if (A) it's because of how their chart interacts with yours or (B) they're just a jerk? I have a hard time answering that one, and I don't think the answer is nearly as clear as the author seems to think.

How about having undue influence over life decisions?

It's also important to note that astrology is also potentially harmful to our sense of self. If we feel that we're supposed to behave or feel a certain way, it could run in conflict with our "natural" or ingrained predispositions. Disturbingly, it could also lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, changing our personalities, behaviors, and even decision-making processes in those directions which fall in accord with our astrological expectations.

Indeed, it's very upsetting to hear about people who defer to their astrological sign or horoscope when making important life decisions. Online dating sites are a good example of this, where it's not uncommon for a prospective partner to literally turn down a potential match based solely on an "incompatible" sign. Talk about missed opportunities.

Now at the risk of incurring the anger of prominent skeptic Richard Dawkins, couldn't you say the same thing about the gene-centered evolution model that he's largely responsible for popularizing? I can't count the number of times that I've seen people (generally men) online assert that men should do X and women should do Y because human genes evolved for millions of years on the African Savannah to occupy gender roles mysteriously identical to those of 1950's America.

I know, Dawkins would take me to task and tell me that's a totally wrong and distorted take on gene-centered evolution, and he would be right. But believing that Sun signs are compatible or incompatible, and that this determines the nature of a relationship, is likewise a misunderstanding of astrology. Signs aren't compatible or incompatible on their own, even if astrologers believe that whole charts can be.

The bottom line here is that many people believe a lot of inaccurate stuff whether they're skeptics or not. Furthermore, it seems to me that most of the "problems" outlined in this article have to do with media distortion of what astrology is, even if we operate under the assumption that it doesn't really work. But as formal science gets the same treatment, perhaps we've now uncovered the real similarity between astrology and science - popular media culture doesn't understand either one of them.

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V.V.F. said...

Thank you. This was like a Frankenstein's monster of every deeply misinformed article about astrology to date. The real kicker for me, though, was the part where they compared it to racism., guys. Wow.

Nerd said...

Randi and Dawkins are the biggest hypocrites on the net.

REAL skeptics challenge the establishment. They don't hide behind it, while casting stones at people who put out cutting edge ideas or therapies.

And they certainly don't take money from the pharmaceutical establishment to "debunk" any health modalities that don't ensure billion dollar profits for the establishment. That's why they come across as implying that Astrology is somehow dangerous. They're used to positing that acupuncture or nutrition is an irresponsible form of murder.

Randi in particular. Let's say he paints the ceiling blue. Thus, he shows it's possible to FAKE that the sky is blue. From this he concludes that the sky could never be blue, and that anyone who says it is in an irresponsible murderer (like acupuncturists) or an asshole (like Randi's personal stooge, Uri Geller.) I call this "Discovery Channel Epistemology."

Allow me to challenge two of the most closely held beliefs of Randi and Dawkins:

1: Efficient Causality.

2: The proposition that the universe functions according to "Laws."

3: The proposition that these "Laws" are objectively knowable.

If anyone can prove any of the above, I will give them ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

Scott Stenwick said...

Recently I've seen the skeptical attacks on acupuncture decreasing. I'm probably nowhere near prominent enough to take credit for that, but as there's actual validated scientific evidence that it does work I've been taking any skeptic who brings it up to task for awhile now.

I disagree with Dawkins on quite a few things, but he's not dishonest the way Randi is. The "million dollar challenge" is (1) no such thing, as Randi doesn't actually have the money, and (2) only proves that paranormal phenomena have a lot of trouble beating a 1000-1 probability gradient (which is the threshold for the preliminary test).

Anyone who thinks about that for a minute should realize that even if you can only beat a 500-1 shift with magick you can still do a lot, especially over time. An influence would certainly pass the "existence" threshold.

I don't seriously think either is being paid by the pharmaceutical industry. That sounds like flat-out conspiracy BS to me unless you have actual evidence. Strong personal prejudice against anything "irrational" seems a perfectly adequate explanation for their behavior.