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Monday, May 17th, 2004 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Dark Energy Astrology:
New New Theory Trumps New Theory

The story below (by Jonathan Leake) just broke yesterday in the Sunday Times, in which British Royal Astronomical Society astronomer Dr. Percy Seymour has published a book presenting a theory to explain astrology. I have not seen the book yet, but the problem with proffering a new mechanism to explain the power of astrology, is that Seymour is assuming there is something that needs to be explained. There isn’t. Astrology does not work, plain and simple:

  • It has not made accurate predictions (“there will be an earthquake in southern California” or “I see dark clouds over the White House” does not count).
  • It does not adequately describe people’s personality (“you are an outgoing person who enjoys the company of others, yet at other times you prefer the peace and tranquility of alone time” does not count).
  • It is not successful in match matching (“Virgos get along well with Pisces” does not count).
  • It is no better than a dart board at picking successful stocks on the stock market (“buy low, sell high” trumps any astrological stock system ever invented).
  • It cannot tell you your future (“I see travel” or “I see a career change” or “I see danger lurking ahead” does not count).

In short, a theory is superfluous when there is nothing for the theory to explain. This is why James Randi’s million-dollar prize (www.randi.org) is not interested in hearing about the theories behind astrology or ESP or telekinesis and the like. As Randi always says, “I just want to know if it works or not.” Once a phenomenon has been proven to be real, then we can work on the theory to explain how it works. Astrology does not work, so it doesn’t matter whether the earth’s magnetic field influences our brains in the womb or not (Seymour’s theory), or whether gravity influences us (the usual theory), or some future conjecture (why not dark energy, or dark matter, since together they make up 95% of the universe?).

How about a new branch of astrology? We’ll call it Dark Energy Astrology. Since Dark Energy is an anti-gravity force apparently causing the cosmos to expand at an accelerating rate, this form of astrology causes people to do the opposite of what they would normally do, like the bizarro Seinfeld episode where George, who is fat, balding, jobless, and living with his parents, suddenly becomes irresistable to beautiful women. Dark Energy Astrology. My next book. Publishers are standing by… —Michael Shermer


Top Scientist Gives Backing to Astrology

by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
Sunday Times, May 16th, 2004

The planets may control your future after all. A renowned astronomer has broken with scientific orthodoxy to claim that astrology could have some basis in fact.

Long dismissed as little better than fortune telling, astrology has been attacked as a pseudo-science by the Royal Astronomical Society.

But one of its members, Dr. Percy Seymour, has reopened the debate with a provocative book claiming movements of the sun, stars and planets can influence the brains of unborn children in measurable ways.

Seymour is a former principal lecturer in astronomy and astrophysics at Plymouth University who has been a researcher at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. While stressing he has no time for star-sign horoscopes, he does believe human brain development may be affected by the Earth’s magnetic field, especially during growth in the womb.

In his book, The Scientific Proof of Astrology, he suggests that the Earth’s magnetic field is affected by interactions with those of the sun and the moon. Other planets such as Jupiter, Mars and Venus also play a part because their magnetic fields affect solar magnetism.

Seymour said: “It means the whole solar system is playing a symphony on the Earth’s magnetic field. We are all genetically tuned to receive a different set of melodies from this symphony.”

His claims will infuriate other astronomers. They have suffered the humiliation of seeing astrology rising in popularity with top astrologers’ earnings surging beyond those of even the most eminent of researchers.

Until now they have at least had the comfort of being able to dismiss any suggestion of scientific support for the idea that people’s lives and personalities are influenced by the planets.

Among the most outspoken figures against astrology are Sir Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, and Professor Stephen Hawking. Rees has described astrology as “absurd”, adding: “There is no place for astrology in our scientific view of the world; moreover its predictive claims cannot stand any critical scrutiny.”

Seth Shostak, a leading American astronomer, was also scathing, describing Seymour’s theory as “nonsensical”. He pointed out that even though large planets like Jupiter had magnetic and gravitational fields far greater than the Earth’s, they were massively diluted by distance.

“Jupiter’s magnetic field is about a trillion times weaker than the Earth’s,” he said. “You would experience a far stronger field from your lights and washing machine.”

Shostak works for the Seti Institute in California which is building a powerful radio telescope to seek alien life. “By 2025 we will have surveyed a million stars and I believe we will have found intelligent aliens,” he added.

Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, has said that astrology became impossible as soon as early scientists found that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, an idea on which astrology was founded.

However, Seymour’s theories won qualified support from an unexpected source. Richard Dawkins, professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, who once suggested that astrologers be prosecuted under the trades descriptions act, said that although he had not read the book Seymour’s ideas sounded interesting.

Astrologers were delighted by Seymour’s claims. Russell Grant, the astrologer, said:

At last someone is not just saying: “It’s a load of poppycock”. If the moon is connected with the ebb and flow of the tides, and humans are 70% water, then why can’t the moon be affecting us? So we have good moods or bad moods depending upon the position of the moon?

Others seem to agree although few will discuss it openly. Several years ago it emerged that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was using astrology to help manage its £5 billion investment portfolio—programming computers with crucial dates such as lunar eclipses and planetary conjunctions.

This year’s Sunday Times Rich List included an analysis of the star signs of Britain’s 1,000 richest people—finding significant differences with 110 born under Gemini but only 73 under Pisces.

Among the powerful who have admitted consulting astrologers to make decisions are Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who allowed the astrologer Joan Quigley to dictate the presidential agenda, including the take-off times for Air Force One. Reagan’s chief of staff reportedly had a colour-coded calendar around which he was expected to organise the President’s schedule: green for “good” days and red for “bad”.

Even Margaret Thatcher once told MPs: “I was born under the sign of Libra, it follows that I am well-balanced.”


Origins of “Debunking”

eSkeptic reader Tim Rasmussen (rasmussent@charter.net) sends us this fascinating bit of skeptical trivia:

I don’t know if this is common knowledge at the Skeptics Society or not, but I just read about the origins of the word “debunking” and I thought it was interesting, so I’m sending this excerpt from the book I just read. The book is Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 2004).

In the excerpt, the author uses the word “Filiopietist,” which he defines as a person who has excess reverence for the founding fathers of the United States.


Debunkers

an excerpt from the book Washington’s Crossing
by David Hackett Fischer

A year after President Warren Harding dedicated the Princeton Battle Monument, Americans invented another new word to describe a contrarian school of historical interpretation. They called it “debunking,” a term that rose from an interview that Henry Ford gave to reporter Charles N. Wheeler of the Chicago Tribune in 1916. That great industrialist declared,

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present. The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.

The Tribune ran an editorial that called Ford an “ignorant idealist,” and was sued for libel. In the courtroom, a lawyer for the newspaper cruelly tested Henry Ford’s knowledge of history in general and the American Revolution in particular:

“Have there ever been any revolutions in this country?” the lawyer asked.

“There was, I understand,” Ford replied.

“When?”

“In 1812.”

“Did you ever hear of Benedict Arnold?”

“I have heard the name.”

“Who was he?”

“I have forgotten just who he is. He is a writer I think.”

The jury awarded Henry Ford damages of six cents. But the idea that history was bunk began to grow. With it came a new school of anti-historians called debunkers. A favorite target was the American Revolution and the spirit of filiopietism that flourished in America. Debunking took many forms. Some of it sought to explode national pieties as erroneous myths and legends. Others argued history had no teleology and insisted that it was a series of accidents without a plan or purpose. They rejected large visions and made a mockery of idealism.

Many debunkers in the early twentieth century were conservatives who were hostile to Whig or Liberal history. More than a few were Americans of old family who were not happy about what had happened to their country and felt that they had been displaced by vulgar upstarts. A leading debunker was a prominent Philadelphian, Sydney George Fisher, who attacked what he called “The Legendary and Mythmaking Process in the History of the American Revolution.” The members of the Adams family in Massachusetts debunked the story of Paul Revere’s Ride and deeply resented the adulation of George Washington.

The history of the battles at Trenton and Princeton began to be debunked in this spirit. An early example was an essay by Charles Kendall Adams, who argued that it all happened because of a small mistake by a British general. Adams wrote,

Cornwallis was so sure of his game that he made the most stupendous blunder of the war, and decided to refresh his men by a night’s sleep … It appears to have been simply this mistake that enabled Washington not only to draw his army out of extreme peril, but also to fall upon the enemy at Princeton.

Adams concluded that,

if the British commander had attacked vigorously on the afternoon of his arrival, as Washington, Grant, Lee, or any other great general would have done, the chances seem to have been more than ten to one that Washington and his whole army would have been taken prisoners.

So much for the generalship of George Washington.

A few brave debunkers went after Washington in a more rounded way. One of them was William E. Woodward, the son of a southern tenant farmer, and a writer of strong radical opinions. He first used the verb “debunk” in a novel called “Bunk” in 1923 and defined it as “taking the bunk out of ideas and opinions.” In 1926 he published a debunking biography of George Washington, which argued that Washington was a stupid, ignorant, greedy, selfish man who combined the vices of a modern businessman, a southern slave driver, and a western Indian fighter. Woodward insisted that he was a poor general and owed his successes merely to luck.

Woodward gained a brief notoriety, but the debunking of George Washington was uphill work. The difficulties appeared in the career of English writer Rupert Hughes, who started a multivolume biography to debunk Washington. By the end of volume III, Hughes was celebrating his subject more enthusiastically than the filiopietists did.

A more successful approach was to debunk the filiopietists themselves by comparing them with the Revolutionary leaders of 1776. The leading example was a painting by Grant Wood, in which Washington’s Crossing had a part. Wood was an artist of the American Middle West, who lived all his life in Iowa and painted the world he knew with deep affection that was combined with a sharp critical edge. His favorite subjects were the American myths that he loved and celebrated and criticized in paintings such as American Gothic, Paul Revere’s Ride, and Parson Weems’ Fable.

One of these paintings was about the battle of Trenton and Princeton. It rose from an event in 1929, when Grant Wood installed a handsome stained glass window in the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It combined an allegorical image of the Republic with stained-glass images of soldiers from six American wars. To the artist’s amazement, members of the Daughters of the American Revolution attacked him as un-American, for having the window manufactured in Germany. The controversy grew so bitter that the dedication was postponed for twenty-five years, when tempers had cooled.

The artist took his revenge in a painting called “Daughters of Revolution.” It was done for the Washington Bicentennial, a flood of filiopietism. Much of it came from the Daughters of the American Revolution who claimed to be the true keepers of the Revolutionary memory. Grant Wood did not agree. He called them “Tory Gals,” and condemned them as “the people who are trying to set up an aristocracy of birth in the Republic.”

His painting showed three Daughters of the American Revolution, with smug expressions and unseeing eyes. One holds an imported blue willow teacup in an affected way. Behind them Grant Wood painted a faded image of Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” as a symbol of the true Revolutionary spirit. The artist was not debunking George Washington. We used Leutze’s image to debunk the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The painting was widely exhibited and much discussed in the press. The San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution reviled it as “scandalous” and “destructive of American traditions.” Grant Wood claimed that the Baltimore chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution tried to have him deported as a “Red.” But other Daughters loved the satire, and the painting gave many Americans a much needed laugh during the Great Depression.


My friend and long-time Skeptic subscriber, Frank Araujo (artzau@pacbell.net), sent us the following letter in response to last week’s eSkeptic on my debate with Young Earth Creationist Kent Hovind. —Michael Shermer


Roman Catholic Atheist

by Frank Araujo

By God, Michael (no pun intended), you got guts. I’d no more walk into a bunch of bible-thumping born-agains with some wannabe Amway Fuller brush Jobber, awash with zeal, verses and completely devoid of reason, than I’d take up kissing mambas. I especially liked the breakdown of true-believers, fence-straddlers and skeptics. However, as you noted, there were likely damn few straddlers there as most stay the hell away from the zealots. I was at Whole Earth Day in Davis on Saturday. It was my birthday and my wife loves to go and buy hippie clothes. When I passed the Jews for Jesus table, I was asked to take a survey. I said, “Sure. Why not?”

Q: Do you belong a religious organization or consider yourself a member of a recognized faith.

A: Yes.

Q: What faith?

A: I’m a Roman Catholic.

Q: Do you believe that when you die, you’ll go to heaven?

A: No.

Q: (some surprise expressed) Why?

A: I don’t accept the concept of heaven.

Q: (silence and stares) Huh? Do you mean that you don’t believe in heaven?

A: I think you could say that.

Q: Do you believe in God?

A: If you mean an anthropomorphicized spirit who created the universe by some magical deitic fiat, no.

Q: (eyes narrowing at this point) Do you believe the bible is the word of God?

A: Certainly not.

Q: (eyes very narrow at this point) Then, what do you believe the bible is? A: A collection of writings written by men with a political agenda, compiled and edited by men with political agendas and used by people with political agendas.

Q: How can you consider yourself a Catholic, if you don’t believe in God or the bible?

A: Culture. It’s part of my ethnic identity. Besides, I enjoy going to mass and losing myself in the mystery of the moment. It’s just that I’m willing to leave the my idealogy where it belongs: at the church’s doorstep. It’ll be there when I come back next week.

Q: Does your priest know this?

A: It’s really none of his business.

—at this point, the “survey” ended. I was thanked and told by body language that the conversation had ended. Man, that was MILD from what you went through. But, I do applaud you for having the guts to speak to the strength of your convictions in a public forum.


The following letter from professional magician, writer, and scholar David Alexander (dalex421@dslextreme.com) is in response to the endorsement of the paranormal by physicist Freeman Dyson. It’s a good lesson in critical thinking for all of us. —Michael Shermer

Letter on Freeman Dyson’s
Endorsement of the Paranormal

David Alexander

Poor Freeman Dyson. For all his education and experience thinking about the physics, he doesn’t have a clue how the human mind, specifically memory, works. He thinks that anecdotes are evidence, when then are just stories of supposed human experience, filtered through an individual’s nervous system. If he understood even faintly how magicians accomplish their work, he would understand (perhaps) how foolish he appears.

For all their highly developed cortex, human beings are generally poor observers. (Even trained observers like scientists are easy prey for a skilled magician/mentalist). Any magician who knows his stuff (and there are fewer than you would suppose) knows that a spectator’s attention, his perception of what is happening is completely malleable. A competent magician, especially a competent mentalist, creates the illusion in the mind of the spectator as to what the magician wants the spectator to think happened.The spectator then has “evidence” (according to Dyson’s definition) of what occurred when the truth is the spectator’s “memory” has been crafted, shaped, poked and prodded into what the magician or mentalist wanted. Of course the spectator has no knowledge that this has happened. He or she thinks their “memory” is pure and unadulterated when the truth is, it was manufactured like any other consumer product and placed where it will do the most good for the performer.It does not happen by accident. It is a deliberate process that a few like Dunninger and Steve Banachek have mastered.

Later, in recounting the story a host of other factors color the recounting of the experience and influence the “witness”, including the desire to be special in having had this unusual experience. Further, theSociety for Psychical Research “investigating” a specific case, working from the a priori belief that psychic phenonemna are real, could easily lead the “witness” into telling them what they want to hear. See the recent “Satanic Panic” and “recovered memory” hoaxes as evidence of leading witnesses.

As the late Tim Leary once said, “Convictions cause convicts.”


The following is a great letter on skepticism and the media from Jeff Hester (JHESTER@asu.edu, http://eagle.la.asu.edu/hester/). Jeff Hester is a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Arizona State University. –Michael Shermer


Letter on Skeptics and the Media

by Jeff Hester

Your story of your appearances as “token skeptic” on an ABC production reminds me of a similar occurrence that happened to me some years ago. Having just been interviewed for a documentary, the cameraman working with the crew approached me with questions about another project he was working on. The other project involved about a dozen videos that had been taken of supposedly “miraculous” events, including a video in which the Sun appeared to be “flashing”. He asked if I, as an astronomer with a good knowledge of optics and images, would look at the videos and comment for him.

The videos that he showed me were amusing. They were all clearly faked, and badly faked at that. Had George Lucas’ special effects been this bad, Star Wars would have been laughed out of the theaters. In the piece with the “flashing sun,” for example, there were reflections in the video that indicated that the aperture on the camera was being manipulated to cause the intensity of the image of the sun to change. Then, when the camera was panned to the crowd of onlookers who were staring at the sky pointing at the sun, the brightness of the scene illumination was rock steady. Not only was the Sun not flashing, but the people in the video were undeniably complicit in perpetrating the fraud.

In another example, statues were purported to be filmed “drinking milk,” but close examination of the video showed that the milk being poured into the mouths of the statues was dribbling down over the statues’ chins, where it was visibly being absorbed by sponges that had been attached almost but not quite out of the field of view of the camera.

And so on. Anyway, I said that I would be happy to comment about the videos. We sat down and looked at each, and with the camera running, I went through and pointed out the obvious indications that the events being shown were anything but miraculous.

The day that the “documentary” aired I was prepared for what was about to come, and was not disappointed. The program opened with a serious-sounding disclaimer that the things shown would be “controversial,” that “evidence would be given on both sides,” and that the “viewer would be left to make up his or her own mind.” What followed was 58 minutes of various “experts” claiming that these events MUST be miraculous because “no one with our technology could EVER fake such things,” then 20 seconds of me saying something along the lines of, “There are some things in nature that we don’t understand.”

The lesson was learned. Once upon a time when I saw ludicrous claims on television documentaries, I assumed that the producers had just been lazy and not done their homework. Now I know better. For every outlandish documentary on UFOs, faith healing, homeopathy, miracles, or you name it, there are doubtless hours and hours of interview footage on file that debunk the whole thing.

When I confronted the producer of the documentary after the fact and complained, he really did not understand what my problem was. He was a producer of “entertainment,” and his customers wanted a piece that tickled the “wonder” bone by claiming to provide incontrovertible evidence of miraculous events. If he hadn’t given them what they wanted, someone else would have.

And that is the fundamental problem that we face. Whether we are talking about gods, miracles, UFOs, or connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda, there are a great many people who don’t even understand the basic concept that some things are true, some things are not true, and as individuals we don’t get to pick which is which.


The following letter is from eSkeptic reader Leonard Tramiel (leonard@tramiel.org) –Michael Shermer

Letter on Science,
the Paranormal, Proving a Negative

by Leonard Tramiel

I am a reductionist. I am a fervent skeptic. I DON’T believe in the paranormal, or anything else for that matter. I look at the evidence.

However it is wrong to say that science has “adequately demonstrated” that people can’t read other people’s minds. Science works by comparing experimental results with theoretical predictions. If the results differ (in a way not accountable by experimental error and/or statistics) the theory is wrong. This DOESN’T mean that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. It says that it doesn’t occur in the way that was tested.

What science has “adequately demonstrated” about the paranormal is, however, in my opinion, even more profound: What are called paranormal occurrences are often indistinguishable from far more mundane explanations. This includes the list you are fully aware of such as; selective confirmation, inexperienced observers, placebo effects etc. etc. etc.

The question is: How many different ways do we need to eliminate the paranormal experimentally for people to lose interest? I suspect the answer is “infinite”. Like freedom, the price of rationality is eternal vigilance.

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. Bruce Robbins says:

    You can always find one “expert” that backs a controversial idea: vaccinations cause autism, Darwin was wrong, Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, etc.

    I am debating an astrologer/statistic teacher who tells me that most great horses were born under the sign of Aries, 3/21-4/19. They all share certain traits. And she can predict that the horse of the next decade will be an Aries also.

    Well, I pointed out that 95% of race horses today are born in the months of March and April for very real reasons. That her sample was too small. That her including a few horses born 2 months before/after Mar/Apr threw a monkey wrench in her statistics. That the horses she named did NOT share the same qualities of character and running style, as she indicated they did.

    But the facts did not faze her. Belief in astrology trumped science of statistics; I told her she should have a conversation with some real horse trainers, owners, and jockeys before she writes a paper “Picking Horses by Their Astrological Signs”.

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