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The Day After Tomorrow

by Michael Shermer

The environmental disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow” opens this Friday. I have not seen it, but my friend Keay Davidson, the science writer and journalist, asked me:

Are filmmakers in general justified in manipulating the laws of science any way they like for purposes of entertainment, even if the film is related to a topic of urgent public and political concern?

Here is my answer:

We live in the age of science, and the age of mass communication. Wed these two and you’ve got a deadly cocktail when the latter distorts the former, which happens all too frequently. Television producers and film makers especially have an obligation to try to get the science right. We cannot expect them to be perfect. Gene Roddenberry, for example, hired scientists to consult his Star Trek scripts; nevertheless, so many errors crept in that there is now a minor literary genre of “Star Trek Science Bloopers.” But at least Gene tried. Most producers don’t even bother trying, and here is where mass media has contributed to the deadly cocktail of distorting one of the most powerful institutes we have—science. To expect people in a free society and liberal democracy to make rational decisions about science and technology issues that could change their lives, not to mention the course of history, and simultaneously feed them distorted views of what science is, how it operates, and especially its conclusions, is a recipe for disaster. Film makers and television producers have a moral obligation to at least try to get the science right. —Michael Shermer

Dawkins Did Not Endorse Astrology Claim!

In last week’s eSkeptic (May 18th, 2004), we reprinted an article from the (London) Sunday Times on British Royal Astronomical Society astronomer Dr. Percy Seymour, about his book presenting a new theory to explain astrology. Richard Dawkins was referenced as if he endorsed the claims of Seymour:

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.

It will not surprise skeptics that the truth is something different. Here is Dawkins’ response to the Sunday Times piece:

What I actually said on the telephone was something like this: ‘Well, that’s all very interesting, no doubt, but what the hell does it have to do with astrology’ This was reported as support from an unexpected quarter: I was said to find it “interesting”! I am furious. Please publicize the truth of what happened.

Astrology expert and long-time Skeptic and eSkeptic reader Ivan W. Kelly (University of Saskatchewan, CANADA, [email protected]) in response to Percy Seymour’s new theory of astrology, sent us the following analysis.

A Few Points about Astrology and
‘Written in the Stars’

by Ivan W. Kelly

I read the article by Ian Sample ‘Written in the Stars’ (The Guardian, UK) and there are several points to be made.

  1. Seymour argues that he does not believe in Horoscopes, which means he does not believe in what the majority of astrologers believe. They, unlike him, contend that the moment of one’s birth is related to all one does in the future. The next sentence in the article by Sample says “Could it be that countless devotees ranging from Charles de Gaulle to Ronald Reagan had it right when they kept one eye on the stars?” But Reagan and the others were involved with horoscopes, which Seymour criticizes!
  2. All Seymour’s theory would illustrate is that the position of the moon and some planets are another factor to be taken into account in explaining some human behavior. Note also, unlike astrology, any influences or not would be open to refutation and revision with new scientific discoveries. This is not the case with astrology. Astrology is not based on causal relationships at all. It is based on symbolic connections that are not amenable to refutation. For example, when Chiron was discovered, how did astrologers determine what it represented in the horoscope? They consulted mythology and found that Chiron was a satyr associated with healing. So Chiron symbolizes healing among other things (also not determined by scientific research) in the horoscope.
  3. The article mentions studies about season of effect findings. But these have nothing to do with astrology. Once again these are the result of scientific research and are (unlike astrological claims) modifiable with future research. Talk of summer effects, etc is different from talk of zodiac signs which have specific cut-offs not alienable with the seasons. The reader might also remember that the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere but the zodiac signs of people remain unchanged.
  4. The article neglects to mention as well that there is no one thing called astrology. There are many schools, each with very different views about the relationships between the cosmos and human behavior. So talk of ‘proving’ or supporting astrology leads to the question: Which astrology? And no astrologers whose Seymour’s results are at variance with are going to drop their tenets on the basis of scientific findings anyway.

More Astrology Bunkum:
The Rich List Star Signs

from eSkeptic reader Dick Jackson

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.

Star Signs of the Richest 1000

(Source: The Sunday Times Rich List 2004)

  • Gemini 110
  • Taurus 104
  • Aries 95
  • Capricorn 92
  • Aquarius 91
  • Virgo 88
  • Libra 87
  • Leo 84
  • Sagittarius 84
  • Cancer 80
  • Scorpio 79
  • Pisces 73

This strikes me as a standard ‘numeracy’ issue. Someone may say that their analysis finds “significant differences” since there is a range of 73 to 110 in the star sign totals, but is there anything out of the ordinary here? First, let‚s note that the numbers add up to 1,067, being “Star signs of Britain‚s richest 1,000 (where known)” (from original source at,,2108-1067034,00.html, and note that there are actually 1,100 people on the list in total)

If the birthdays of rich people were in fact spread across the calendar completely at random, what range of star signs would we see? This kind of simulation is easily done in any programming language, but here are the minimum and maximum star sign totals for a typical set of ten experiments:

  • min. 77 max. 102
  • min. 69 max. 119
  • min. 73 max. 105
  • min. 68 max. 103
  • min. 70 max. 106
  • min. 74 max. 105
  • min. 77 max. 107
  • min. 72 max. 112
  • min. 76 max. 100
  • min. 64 max. 111

Clearly, the range 73 to 110 as seen in the Rich List is in no way remarkable, being typical of the distributions seen when birthdays are picked entirely at random. These were found by a one-line program in the IDL language (see as follows:

IDL> for i=1,10 do print, min(histogram(randomu(seed,1067)*12),max=max), max

Dick Jackson
[email protected]
D-Jackson Software Consulting
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Murdered Microbiologists?

by Michael Shermer

Here’s an interesting thread sent to me by a reader, regarding the “mysterious” murders of microbiologists. Of course, we’re not given any baseline data on how many physicists died in the same time frame, or how many accountants, or any other small cohort, so this is rather meaningless, but interesting nonetheless, as an exercise in pattern-seeking. Of course, I could be wrong…

The best summary of all this.

The second best summary.

Other items on it:’xt_from=1&aID=2521


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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

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