April 21, 2012

Disproving Astrology Unscientifically


Astrology is generally doubted by the scientific community, to say the least. It needs to be, since it contradicts the paradigm of the world according to natural science. But when disproving astrology, there's a lot of cheating going on.

I came across one typical example. The British magician Derren Brown did a trick, shown on the video below (unfortunately embedding is not allowed with it), where he gave several people the same personality description and they were impressed by how accurately it described them:

That's an old trick, done by several others before Brown. They usually claim it proves that astrology and any other method of divination is nonsense. But what it really proves is only that people are gullible or/and they have a lot in common.

We do have a lot in common, since we're the same species. That's no mystery. The texts used in such experiments are based on those things that we do indeed share emotionally. Our mistake is to believe that these common human traits are unique to us. That's because we tend not to share some emotional issues we struggle with personally, so we don't discover that most people share them.

That's sad, because this loneliness of the soul causes a lot of unnecessary suffering.

The phenomenon has a name – actually two names: the Barnum effect and the Forer effect. See more about them on the Skeptic Dictionary by clicking on the links. They use the same text as an example of what people tend to regard as very personal about them. Here it is in its entirety:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

It's definitely true for just about everybody – not because it's imprecise (although quite generalized), but because it deals with emotions that we simply share as human beings. They are examples of the contradictions and complications appearing from being human.

Of course, there are people pretending to be psychic or whatever, using phrases like the ones above, and little else. Newspaper horoscopes do it a lot, but they're hardly committed to actual astrology to begin with.

In my experience, astrologers go the extra mile and try to extract statements that would be truly personal. I know I do. Whether we succeed or not is another matter, but we try.

It's obvious that Derren Brown et al. haven't experienced an astrological reading. Still, they hurry to condemn it. That's not very scientific.

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    1. Well, astrology does, when the complete horoscope is used. The above "reading" is a bogus one.

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