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Belief In "A Life Controlled By Traffic Signals In The Sky"
The following comment, on one of my column postings -- "Is he a Virgo? He reminds me of one in a very good way" -- inspired me to go hunt for a bit of Carl Sagan on the idiocy that is astrology.

Here's a little test James Randi gave that shows "confirmation bias," a pretty common error in reasoning.

Some alternatives to astrological signs? How about a Parisian sign?

rueStAntoine.jpg

Or this one -- I think it says "Assist The Gullible."

shoveling.jpg

And from closer to home:

nopark.jpg

And yes, believing in this one would be a sign of stupidity:

calcitesilliness.jpg

Posted by aalkon at December 31, 2007 4:08 PM

Comments

Excellent, Amy!

Posted by: Norm at December 31, 2007 5:39 AM

Thanks, Norm. What "sign" are you?

I'm "No Parking Wednesdays, Street Cleaning."

I was born under the sign of the parking ticket.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 31, 2007 5:46 AM

Sign I was born under: "Careful, falling rocks!"

Sign I'll be buried under: "End of construction, thank you for your patience." o_O

Posted by: Flynne at December 31, 2007 7:23 AM

You're such a Pisces, Amy.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at December 31, 2007 8:54 AM

Grrrr. What'd ya do, Google me?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 31, 2007 8:59 AM

"Some girl with psychic powers asked:
T-Bone "What's your sign?"
I blinked and answered "neon",
I thought I'd blow her mind."

From The Existential Blues~ Tom T-Bone Stankus

Posted by: eric at December 31, 2007 10:40 AM

In high school I broke up with a girl because our signs conflicted. I always wanted to go out parking next to a YIELD sign and she preferred a STOP sign.

Posted by: Axman at December 31, 2007 11:25 AM

I'm an Asparagus.

With Feces rising.

Posted by: Kevin at December 31, 2007 11:34 AM

Oh cynical Amy, I suppose you dont believe in those $50 copper bracelets either?

Posted by: Bikerken at December 31, 2007 1:00 PM

TO: Amy Alkon, et al.
RE: This Guy....

"I'm an Asparagus.

With Feces rising." -- Kevin

....needs [serious] help.

Albeit, it's a clever comment, I wouldn't recommend using it in some bar trying to get some fecund young lady's attention.

RE: Astrology

Can't speak to it's effectiveness, as I've never done any research on it. Nor have I seen any research that I'd consider reliable.

Personally? I'm a Scorpio. And the identification of the personality type is more accurate than half.

Seriously. Look at this. Here you are wanting to 'kill' me. Most people, in their right mind, feel the same....one way or another.

And it makes me wonder....

....has anyone done a comparison of the astrological personality types vs. some of the other more 'scientific' approaches? Say, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)?

I wonder how it would come out.....

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Everyone ought to have a hobby.

Mine is getting people to actually 'think'.]

P.S. It's called the Socratic method.

I had a Siamese cat named Socrates.....he was a feisty sort. Nailed a vet across his nose and took on an unwary German Shepard.....he was....inspirational!

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at December 31, 2007 3:38 PM

I was born under the sign "Space Cakes."

Chuckles -

I read a book by a "psychic" that explained in great detail how to describe a person with great accuracy. The same principle applies to astrology. Read the personality types of other "signs" without the preconceived notion that it's not your sign. Better still, read daily horoscopes with the same open mind.

Curious, you seem to reconcile the magical thinking of astrology, with the magical thinking of Christianity. You do realize that many of your fellow Christians believe that astrology is a detractor from faith at best, Satanic at worse, don't you"?

Posted by: DuWayne at December 31, 2007 4:53 PM

I knew our relationship was doomed when I tried to convice her that the sign over her back alley read "all access" and she insisted that it read "outlet only, no entry".

.

.

.

(yes, I went there)

Posted by: xwl at December 31, 2007 5:09 PM

I was born under the sign "Space Cakes."

Chuckles -

I read a book by a "psychic" that explained in great detail how to describe a person with great accuracy. The same principle applies to astrology. Read the personality types of other "signs" without the preconceived notion that it's not your sign. Better still, read daily horoscopes with the same open mind.

Curious, you seem to reconcile the magical thinking of astrology, with the magical thinking of Christianity. You do realize that many of your fellow Christians believe that astrology is a detractor from faith at best, Satanic at worse, don't you?

Posted by: DuWayne at December 31, 2007 5:25 PM

I had a very accurate horoscope once. It said something about 'How even fruit flies had free will" and something about how, like the fruit fly, I should make my own life choices.

Of course at the time I was battling a fruit fly invasion of my kitchen that was quite possibly the eleventh plague. How accurate I thought my horoscope was probably has a direct correlation to how much bug spray I had inhaled.

Posted by: Elle at December 31, 2007 10:38 PM

"You do realize that many of your fellow Christians believe that astrology is a detractor from faith at best, Satanic at worse, don't you?"

just a random fact for fun. i think it's amusing that christians are now so offended by astrology and other such silly things. the bible doesn't have a book called "numbers" for nothing - the whole bible (not just this book) is heavily influenced by numerology, which was a big thing to the babylonians during the time of the israelite's exile there. they got a lot of other religious ideas that christians think are their own there too. some of them rather large.

just a random fact for fun, like i said. no real point to it.

Posted by: kt at January 1, 2008 12:00 AM

Its funny when Sagan uses the scientific method to show the fallacy of astrology. Anyone who respects the scientific method doesn't need convincing and the stargazers will just smirk knowingly.

Of course we know it's all bullshit...now.

Astronomers have to tread a fine line. Their science owes an immeasurable debt to astrology in the form of the centuries of detailed observations recorded to serve superstitious princes. Their foundational data is priceless, and suspect.

Sagan mentions "our longing to feel personally connected with the universe." But that need we all share, (Sagan had it, he said "our")is not studied in the Astronomy department. It is across campus with the Social Sciences and even there it is not spoken of in polite company or at grant writing time.

That need we all share can be used to influence great good or great harm. To write off that need as primitive ignorance is smug, intellectual laziness.

Best wishes for all to make great progress in your personal quests on the brand new calendar (mine has custom Harleys.) May your days be filled with meaning and wonder.

Posted by: martin at January 1, 2008 10:02 AM

You don't need to believe in astrology , numerology or the like to understand -- through observation, even -- that people have a need for connection and belonging. I don't understand how believing in a fairy tale version of fatedness (based on a vastly incomplete knowledge of what planets are out there) somehow serves that need, and is a result of anything other than an inability (if you are learning disabled or quite mentally challenged) or an unwillingness to apply reasoning.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 1, 2008 10:47 AM

Elle -

I had the worse FF invasion ever, when I set about four pounds of beans to soak in a huge stock-pot and forgot about them. About a month later I found the pot and rather than taking it outside to survey the damage, made the mistake of opening in in my kitchen. I lived in a studio apartment at the time, so my entire apartment was overwhelmed by the millions of FF's that poured out of it.

Thankfully it was a Michigan winter, so I just opened the slider and turned off the heat. I also had a six horse power shop vac, which sucked every last fly for disposal.

kt -

It's not surprising at all. The religions from which certain trappings were coopted, are the strongest targets for attacks by Christianity, for obvious reasons.

For the very strange, one only need look at the Christian attitudes about the Kabballa, teachings of Jewish mysticism. Never mind that the tree of life, the very foundation of Jewish mysticism, stretches back to the very foundation of Judaism. Martin Luther used the claim that Kabballa was in fact a tool of Satan to justify persecution of the Jews. Even John Wesley (founder of the Methodist church), a theologian who believed that Jews should be brought into God's grace, as they were God's chosen people, spoke rather harshly about Jewish mysticism.

This is keeping in mind that Kabballa is very much the foundation of the Christian religion and the bible. Even moreso than numerology - though numerology was arguably actually a part of Kabballa before it was coopted by the Babylonians.

Astrology, interestingly enough, was actually coopted by Kabballa, even while early Jewish leaders tried to stamp it out, outside the auspices of Judaism. Tarot OTH, coopted much of cabalistic thinking in it's inception.

Amy Alkon -

I just watched The Power of Myth for the first time in several years. It is well worth watching as it would answer the question you pose. It is six one hour episodes of Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Cambell, the later episodes, just months before professor Cambell's death. I watched it for the first time when I was twelve, a life changing experience. Cambell had a lot to say about the social and even to a degree the evolutionary response that underpins religious/magical thinking.

Dennett's Breaking the Spell also does a reasonable job of broaching your questions.

Both do an excellent job of explaining not just the prevalence of magical thinking, but also explaining how reasonable, intelligent people can get caught up in it. Carl Jung is also a decent place to find insight into this discussion, but from a very different perspective.

Posted by: DuWayne at January 1, 2008 12:25 PM

Acck, not enough coffee brain, that was professor Campbell.

Posted by: DuWayne at January 1, 2008 12:27 PM

There's proper treatment of astrology to be found at badastronomy.com . Along with a bunch of really amazing stuff!

Posted by: Radwaste at January 1, 2008 6:10 PM

the only thing i know about kabballa is that madonna is a member. i have no clue when it started. i tried to learn about it once and got very very confused. so i'll take your word for the timing of its origins and such. i do know that the sections of the bible containing numerology stuff was written after some of the other stories, and i'm sure that kabballa has something to do with those earlier ones but as i said the whole religion/philosophy/whatever it is confuses the hell out of me. but when i was doing my useless biblical masters' degree i found it rather interesting to watch the progression of peoples' ideas of god by the way he/she/it was depicted in the stories.

the babylonians with their numerology, though, were about 720 BC, when the israelites were in exile there. that is also, coincidentally, where we picked up this dualistic religion with god versus satan/good versus evil idea. that whole dualistic thing came from the zoroastrians too.before that it was accepted that god sent both, it was a very radical idea. satan wasn't a name, it was a title - it was a particular job of a particular character in heaven that meant the advocate, he was supposed to challenge everything god said. that's why the hebrew title says THE satan, not just satan. the satan as a fallen angel thing came from the canaanites. but that's a more difficult pill to swallow for most people. i'm just sharing because i can.

i don't know that it's surprising that christianity attacks all the religions we stole ideas from. it is amusing. i also find it amusing that the religious right (or at least the members i know) go on and on about how strong their faith is, but it's so easy to threaten it. that's another random thought. i'm tired, sorry.

Posted by: kt at January 1, 2008 8:34 PM

Posted by: DaveG at January 2, 2008 8:07 PM

Actually, the way that scientists dismiss all of astrology out of hand is very unscientific. Take, for example, Sagan's comparison of two astrology columns in the video. If I were to take two scientific papers that reached different conclusions, would that "prove" that science is bunk?

Clearly the reasoning (i.e. that the position of stars and planets at birth affect you) behind astrology is impossible, but the idea that one could be physically affected (which could change personality) by the time of year (and associated environmental factors like temperature) in which you were born isn't total implausible. We know that this happens in some animals (e.g. the sex of crocodiles is determined by temperature).

So it seems unlikely but not impossible that people conceived and born under similar environmental conditions would share some personality tendencies is not completely silly. I doubt that it is true, but to really be scientific, you would have to actually do a study to prove this is so.

Posted by: Brn at January 3, 2008 1:40 AM

Actually, the way that scientists dismiss all of astrology out of hand is very unscientific.

Actually, they didn't dismiss it "out of hand", Brn. Astrology used to be taught at universities until the age of enlightenment. Only after astrology's claims had either been disproved or were found to be untestable, astrology got thrown off the campus.

If I were to take two scientific papers that reached different conclusions, would that "prove" that science is bunk?

If the hypothetical science you are referring to makes no testable claims that haven't been refuted yet, then, yes, the sentence "Science X is bunk" would be the perfect explanation for two different papers reaching different conclusions. You've got to be more specific: Which science (or "science") do you have in mind as an example?

So it seems unlikely but not impossible that people conceived and born under similar environmental conditions would share some personality tendencies is not completely silly.

But that's not where the silliness of astrology lies. Astrology claims that the stars influence your character, your "fate", etc. As for environmental conditions: Science has discovered a lot of factors that are much more important for our "fate" than the time and place we were born at: Genetics, drug use of the mother during pregnancy, etc. Yet, astrologers consider all of these findings unimportant for their "science".

I doubt that it is true, but to really be scientific, you would have to actually do a study to prove this is so.

In a long time, astrologers haven't come up with a testable claim that hasn't been disproved yet. Until then, scientists have nothing to study.

I think it's a sign of great integrity when a brilliant scientist like Carl Sagan takes the time to explain where astrology went wrong without actually denying the common roots that astrology shares with "his" science (astronomy).

And if James Randi's demonstration of the confirmation bias doesn't convince you that there are good reasons to dismiss all of astrology - not out of hand, but after careful consideration - then nothing ever will.

Posted by: Rainer at January 3, 2008 5:51 AM

Rainer,

I would have thought that it would have been clear from statements like "the reasoning behind astrology is impossible" would have shown that I think that astrology is bunk would have been obvious, but let me make it clear for you: I believe that astrology is bunk.

My point is that the "proofs" that it is bunk, as demonstrated in the Sagan video, are not scientific. I agree, most of the claims made by astrologers are untestable. But the claim that people born under a certain sign (i.e. at a certain time of year) are more likely to share certain characteristics is testable.

Take for example some of the characteristics listed for Virgo: "quiet, uninhibited, ... proud, ... critically inclined, ... patient, logical, meticulous, ... intelligent and analytical, ... thorough, methodical, exacting, precise, detail-oriented, shy, observant, ... modest, discreet, health- and cleanliness-conscious, mentally active, flexible, appears to be sexually innocent and ... overwhelming sexual". It would not be impossible to test if people in that group were more likely to exhibit some of those characteristics than the general population. Patience or health-consciousness would seem fairly easy to test for.

I believe that any such test would fail to discover such a connection, but that is all I have to go on, a belief. Unless you have some scientific study to refute such a possible connection, then all you have is belief too. And belief is not evidence of any kind, much less scientific evidence.

Posted by: Brn at January 3, 2008 7:00 AM

Brn, these characteristics listed for "Virgo" are very vague. According to the astrologers who apparently have taken over a part of the Wikipedia,

The Capricorn person is prudent, responsible, realistic, very wise, formal, patient, methodical, disciplined, traditional, cautious, conventional, hard-working, polite, persevering, ambitious, dedicated, focused, honest, dependable, serious, self-reliant, businesslike, career-oriented, authoritative, conscientious, and competent.

You say:

I believe that any such test would fail to discover such a connection, but that is all I have to go on, a belief.

How would you design a test that is able to identify "Virgos" and "Capricorns" according to these characteristics? I have no idea how this test could possibly be done.

On the other hand, it's easy to see why any "Capricorn" could be flattered to be described with all of these characteristics.

Posted by: Rainer at January 4, 2008 3:40 AM

Rainer, I agree the the qualities are vague (and, I'm sure, listed primarily to be flattering). I am just saying that it is not impossible to test for many of these. To take the Capricorn list, surely it is not impossible to discover if Capricorns are more likely to be career-oriented than the general population.

My point is that simply asserting without evidence that Capricorns are no more likely to be career-minded than the general population because you disagree with the (absolutely silly and unscientific) reasoning that generated that conclusion itself is not scientific.

Posted by: Brn at January 4, 2008 5:21 AM

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