7.) Exemption of Skeptics from Skepticism
By MARTIN REZNY
Missed the first part of this series about scientism? Go back.
It may seem like I’m generalizing when I speak about the rampant scientism of public promoters of science, but that’s only because I’m mostly trying to avoid making it personal. Which, perhaps, I shouldn’t avoid, since specific examples, or proof, are the main things that scientifically minded people believe. Or they should, in theory. You say that all you need to do to change the mind of a scientist is to muster enough evidence, which they then have to accept or have effectively abandoned their principles. Which is correct.
But answer me this — why should they be aware or admit that they have abandoned their principles? That they haven’t accepted actual evidence? Do they stop being in a position of scientific authority then? I would grant you that most practicing scientists are likely simply uninterested in politics of any kind and only want to focus on their research, however those who pursue position of authority within the academia are those who have the power. Not to mention that being uninterested in politics makes one likely to avoid trying to analyze the politics of those in authority who are pushing agendas.
The Power of Disbelief
This is a topic that I’ve been avoiding for a while, but I guess I should share my perspective on the issue because this is a real, systemic problem and the apolitical majority of scientists is almost entirely blind to it, as far as I can tell. I’ve had some very negative personal encounters with the main Czech skeptical society called Sisyfos (a rather apt name), but before I get into that, I can preface it by saying that you don’t have to believe me.
Try Dennis Rawlins, a notable skeptic and one of the founders of CSICOP, now simply CSI, which is probably the most significant skeptical society in the world the members of which included such celebrities as Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan. Rawlins wrote a whole book about his experience as a member of that society called sTARBABY. Here’s a quote that sums up the gist of his position:
I am still skeptical of the occult beliefs CSICOP was created to debunk. But I have changed my mind about the integrity of some of those who make a career of opposing occultism. I now believe that if a flying saucer landed in the backyard of a leading anti-UFO spokesman, he might hide the incident from the public (for the public’s own good, of course). He might swiftly convince himself that the landing was a hoax, a delusion or an “unfortunate” interpretation of mundane phenomena that could be explained away with “further research.”
Or check out how he describes the organization he helped found:
In fact, they are a group of would-be debunkers who bungled their major investigation, falsified the results, covered up their errors and gave the boot to a colleague who threatened to tell the truth.
The major investigation he’s referring to is one into the (in)famous Gauquelin’s “Mars Effect”, which is probably the most successful series of studies supporting astrology todate. I’m not going to draw any conclusions about the factual correctness or incorrectness of Gauquelin’s theory, every skeptic should review the available evidence and make his or her own mind about that, but that’s really beside the point in this case. CSICOP’s conduct in the matter is what many more scientists and especially skeptics should be focusing on, but are not.
If you’re interested in details beyond the above quoted Rawlins’s synopsis, I strongly recommend you read his account. Sure, it’s technically only a word of one man against an organization, probably a man bitter about the whole thing, but I find it harder to believe in this case that he would make up something like this when he absolutely isn’t any kind of paranormal woo charlatan person. I also tend to believe his experience because of my own experience being very similar, plus every closer look I take at what some notable skeptics are doing publicly only reinforces my suspicions. And it’s not because of confirmation bias or cherry picking, I checked. I keep checking.
Czech Out the Sisyfos People
Let me tell you a story that I know is true. When I was in high school, I was interested in all sorts of things, science and “woo” included. “Woo”, what an arrogant, condescending term that is, if you stop to think about it. Anyway, one day I decided to search up all the debunkings of astrology on the internet, check out all the research that’s been conducted into that issue. Which was surprisingly much less and of worse quality than I expected, given how sure scientists seem to be that it definitely must be 100% BS.
Disappointed, I decided to look for something more outrageous, so I searched “astrologers are charlatans” (in Czech, which strangely enough has more serious stuff about astrology than there can be found in English). To my surprise, the main hit was an article by a respectable astronomer on ian.cz (the main website for Czech astronomy). The article’s name was “Astrologers, Ufologists, and Other Charlatans”. It’s been over a decade since and I have yet to come across a more obviously biased article.
I’m in fact still using this article to teach debaters how never to argue. There are factually wrong statements about the history and nature of astronomy/astrology, a dozen logical fallacies, irrelevant personal anecdotes that show the degree of just how not self-aware the author is about his ego and biases, possibly the worst comparison in the history of comparisons likening astrologers to people who performed witch hunts, and bold prophecies about things that will never be proven in the future.
Hm, I should probably translate it to English and post here, it’s hilarious. Anyway, that could have been just a one guy anomaly kind of thing, but then I decided to comment on the article and start a, discussion I guess, with the astronomers/skeptics who gathered on that forum. I used facts and logic to deconstruct the fallacious arguments that have been presented. It didn’t take much time before respectable scientists, unable to counter my counter arguments, started shouting profanities at me, seething with rage, and trying to figure out who the hell I was IRL, which they somehow did.
They accused me of debating sophistry/trolling (after they learned I was a rather successful competitive debater), dismissing anything I said on principle and proudly rejecting official ethical codex of the national debating organization that I referenced, just because it was I who brought it forward. They didn’t even need to read it. And why should they, that codex includes principles like fair play, not being hypocritical, gentlemanly conduct, those sorts of evil, unscientific things. I honestly did not expect that.
Of course “they” doesn’t mean all of them, mainly a bunch of hardliners who lost their cool. Then there were hardliners who didn’t lose their cool (those in the position of the highest authority), people who didn’t care, and a bunch of actual skeptics who did engage with my arguments using arguments and not insults. It was about at that point when me and the actual skeptics agreed to conduct an experiment by me trying to write an actual astrological reading for one of them that apparently was pretty accurate, to the surprise of everyone, including me and the skeptic in question for whom the reading was intended. Then the whole discussion got taken down along with the article. The article was reuploaded since then, but the discussion was not and is not currently allowed under the article.
Before the end, the worst one of them did invite me to show up at a nearby observatory to apparently make a case about astrology. Or be stoned, one of the two. After how they conducted themselves, I had no intention to go to them to have my reputation ruined before I even finished high school. You may think I’m exaggerating, but where CSICOP gives awards mainly to honor exceptional skeptics, Sisyfos to this day gives Razzie-like mock awards called “Bludné balvany”, which roughly translated means “Wandering Boulders”. It’s a Czech idiom, it’s supposed to imply misguidedness. And the awards are in fact very throwable rocks. Insert a Monty Python sketch here.
The Not So Amazing Randi and Other Illusionists
Since then, I’ve learned that most skeptics who criticize astrology know almost nothing about it, and consequently they don’t know any good counter arguments against it (which it so happens that I do know). The most common counter arguments against astrology used today by skeptics have already been countered by Ptolemy in Tetrabiblos almost 2000 years ago, like the constellations not matching the signs anymore due to the precession of the ecliptic, which you can only argue if you seriously don’t understand what tropical astrology is. This argument and related ones are like saying that astronomy is rubbish because planets are not affected by the weather.
Also, no matter how shoddy a research methodology gets in a study, as long as it concludes the correct thing, it must be just fine (I’m looking at you, Carlson 1985, the most frequently cited proof that astrology is rubbish, or the opposite). It’s also apparently fine to believe that astrology must be rubbish based on research that has not been fully published yet, for ages, like the second most often cited example — Dean’s allegedly awesome study of over 2000 twins. Seriously, if any of you can actually find it, please forward me the link.
Again, whether astrology works or not is really amusingly tangential to the real problem here of the (un)scientific conduct of these people. And who they usually are is also quite interesting, since many of them are, quite ironically, illusionists. I guess it has something to do with the fact that Houdini was into debunking psychics, trying to unmask them as only other illusionists. Which, to be fair, at least almost anyone who claims to be psychic probably is. The problem is that astrology is, for the most part, really not based on the same set of tricks. Not to mention that illusionists are not scientists by training, they’re showmen, and a show is not how you get proof.
The way these people usually go about debunking “woo” is by staging a show that absolutely doesn’t meet the standards that scientific studies are supposed to meet, mainly by having insufficient sample size and insufficient controls. It’s certainly fun to watch, typically, but simply not significant. Without further explanation, it may again sound like I’m generalizing, or something truly esoteric given how little people know about astrology and how it’s supposed to be conducted, but I have in fact two very specific cases in mind on which I can demonstrate my point. I apologize in advance for the tedium associated with that.
Case Study #1: (Not) Demonstrating Barnum/Forer Effect in Astrology
This is in principle very simple — the hypothesis is that astrologers write their readings so vaguely and designed to appeal to everyone that most people will think that their reading does describe them very well, even if it’s not personalized. It’s so simple a concept, in fact, that it seems like something you can demonstrate in a show even on a small number of people in an entertaining manner that the audience will understand. A number of popular skeptics and illusionists have indeed done just that. Like Derren Brown:
Or Penn and Teller:
In both of these videos, participants are told they’re each getting a personalized reading based on their date of birth or other random information. First they’re asked if they feel like their reading fits them, which of course it mostly does, by design. The funny bit is that they have each been given the exact same reading. Proof enough for you that astrology is bunk? Only one problem with that — the reading they’re given is demonstrably not an astrological reading, or even substantially similar to an actual astrological reading. Notice that in those videos, you don’t really get a good sense of what the reading says in its entirety, or any examples of actual, real life, serious astrological readings. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a trick.
While in the Penn and Teller’s video they claim that each sentence comes from an astrological reading, even assuming that’s true, it doesn’t sound like the source material were particuarly good readings (given astrological standards based on the most popular astrological textbooks). It sounds much more like a bunch of cherry picked sentences. The specific sentences that they focused on like “you are half introverted and half extroverted” are particularly useless when taken out of context, but they do have a very specific meaning in astrology — half of the signs are designated as extroverted and the other half as introverted, so it would likely mean that half of the planets in the natal chart were of one category and the other of the other category, objectively.
Whether it becomes a useful information depends on a lot of context and nuance in astrology, and it indeed doesn’t have to be relevant at all to even mention. This also means that there are many readings where astrologers wouldn’t say this and instead say that the person is extremely introverted or extremely extroverted, when the planets objectively occupy signs of only one category and not the other. Then the reading wouldn’t be expected to fit most people at all, but the astrologer really has no choice but to state what’s in the horoscope based on astrological methodology which is explicit and clear.
Astrology, contrary to the common opinion of its debunkers, is not at all about making stuff up randomly. It may be misguided, but it’s observational, and when done correctly, it’s not supposed to be any more vague than any scientific psychological analysis. It is in fact exactly psychoanalytical. Also, astrological books don’t tend to contradict each other on the general meaning of most configurations that can be found in the horoscope. After all, these explanations are tied closely to the Greek and Roman mythologies, so planets named after gods do have their established characters and each is ruling always the same sign. Do you find Greek gods vague and interchangeable?
If you then look at what Derren Brown used in his video, you should notice that there’s no attempt to tie any statement to an objective configuration found in a horoscope and that it tries very hard to not really say anything. Like before, there are many “half that, half the opposite” statements and a lot of things that are universals of human experience, at least among the target audience of what looked like young college students. Yes, virtually everyone puts up a facade in front of others or gets sometimes disappointed with them, but that’s precisely why there’s no point in mentioning that in a serious reading which is meant to focus on things unique to the subject. If one ignores established meanings of objective configurations in the natal chart (a star map/time signature, essentially) and is vague, it’s not astrology at all.
A more elaborate and much better (but still insufficient) design of such an “experiment” was performed by Michael Shermer on his show:
The test here actually involved a real professional astrologer who makes actual astrological readings, so definitely points for that. The readings were written blindly for people the astrologer has never met or even seen and knows nothing about to control for cold reading. Even more points for that. But the problem is that there’s only a small number of test subjects (nine), way too small to be of any statistical significance, so however the test goes, you can always simply say that by itself it’s no proof of anything. Which is of course not an angle you stress if this goes your way, which is, again, a trick.
The expectation here was that every subject will say that their personal reading, in this case a unique, truly personalized reading, describes them rather well. To prove that these readings are not truly unique and personalized and only written to appeal to mostly everyone, final two readings were switched between subjects. Hilariously, while all other subjects rated their readings as highly accurate, the final two subjects who didn’t get their own readings rated those as highly inaccurate, and found their true readings to be much more accurate. In other words, if anything, a proof that astrology at the very least isn’t written vaguely and non-specifically (which is absolutely the case if you know how it’s done), and that it may even work.
Of course, then you say that a test like this doesn’t really prove anything, anyway, and never try to repeat the experiment of this kind again because being humiliated like this is politically inconvenient and astrology obviously cannot work. Just check out Michael Shermer’s closing statement (the above Youtube video cuts before the real end of the episode):
While skeptics will explain the results of our study as due to chance and wishful interpretation, believers will see them as further proof that the stars and planets directly influence our lives.
And it likely doesn’t end there. Apparently, if Shermer had his way, the show would have been edited differently to downplay the astrologer’s success. A previous posting of the same episode on Youtube had a comment section full of outright denial of this evidence by self-proclaimed skeptics who simply know astrology doesn’t work. It certainly still lives on on skeptical forums.
Finally, if you believe that at least Amazing Randi’s million dollar challenge must be legit, first check out what his debunking is supposed to look like:
This is not an experiment, it’s an exercise in public shaming. Notice that the astrologer happens to look like an idiot based on his clothing and hat alone, which is a nice touch, but more importantly, it’s a great example of a number of bad practices if your goal is to stage an experiment. First of all, experiment should not be conducted in a hostile environment — on one subject under pressure to perform, surrounded by people who have a stake in proving him or her wrong. Even if he was to demonstrate that he can sing or any real skill people can have, he might not be able to just because of the pressure alone.
Secondly, if Hugh Laurie and a room full of people can flatly deny that an intellectual with zany humor and penchant for showmanship in any way describes the personality of Hugh Laurie, I’m starting to wonder if I’m truly living in an entirely different reality from that of all other people. As a practical experiment, I challenge you to read any description of a gemini, the sign in which Hugh Laurie was born, anywhere in a published book, and tell me that you sincerely believe he doesn’t personify the common characteristics of the sign and is definitely not a Hermes incarnate. But, assuming this is really only me in the whole world seeing this, it’s still a crappy test.
The problem is with the whole notion of letting people decide if a horoscope suits them after they have just read it themselves or heard it read without any further explanation or discussion. It’s not easy to describe or understand a personality, just ask psychologists. How a subject interprets what an astrologer has written and how the astrologer meant it is in no way guaranteed to be remotely similar, not to mention that our languages often fail to describe nuances of personality, which is why not many people happen to be very good writers. So what that anyone agrees or disagrees with a particular explanation of their personality? That’s art interpretation territory.
In fact, most astrologers and people who are into astrology are probably fine with astrology being described as art rather than science and they don’t doubt or contradict astronomy as a science in any way. But if they want to do any scientific research regarding any aspect of astrology, they’re met with hostility, mockery, and harassment from people who simultaneously demand them doing scientific tests of astrology, and effectively prevent any research into astrology being done, other than to specifically debunk it as quickly and generally as possible. I know it’s hard to care because it’s just astrology, which as we all know must be bullshit, right, but that’s not what scientific skepticism should look like. Regardless of whether astrology works, it’s embarrasing.
Case Study #2: The Tale of Two Wikipedias
At a university where I studied, at a Faculty of Social Sciences which included a Department of Psychology, there was a single book on astrology in the library. One. The conclusion of which was, and I shit you not, that it actually may have some useful insights to offer in psychotherapy. A topic that’s been significant continuously since the dawn of history, that over a billion people still practice or believe to some extent today, and there’s apparently nothing we need to have on hand as social scientists on the issue. But worse still is what you can find when you decide to look for some information, in English.
When I looked back on Wikipedia on what the current definition of astrology is (you see, it’s a bit of a contested issue/flamewar between astrologers and skeptics), I noticed that Czech Wikipedia and English Wikipedia entries, both very elaborate, differ quite a bit in their bias. It reminded me of a copy of the Pocket Dictionary of the Atheist that I own, published in the USSR in the 80s, where the hardcore Marxist-atheist authors used every subtlety at their disposal to make it clear what the correct opinion that everyone must believe is while technically staying academically correct.
My favorite is their definition of “God” which starts “Základní náboženská představa.” Essentially, it says “Basic religious idea.” However, there’s a better word for “idea” in Czech language, “myšlenka”. When you try to translate “představa”, the connotation is not “idea” as in “thought”, it’s “idea” as in “fiction”. Now I think you may properly appreciate the first difference between the two definitions of astrology between the two Wikipedias. Both start by a very similar, about equally long, outline of the history of the thing, and the last shift in that history is in the Czech version very fairly summed up as follows:
Astrologie je od 20.stol. vědeckou komunitou odmítána jako nevědecká či pseudovědecká.
Since the 20th century, astrology has been rejected by the scientific community as unscientific or pseudoscientific.
Quite fair to say, isn’t it? Sticking to factual statements, efficient. Now let’s see what the English version has to say at the end of the same section:
During the 20th century and following the wide-scale adoption of the scientific method, astrology has been challenged successfully on both theoretical and experimental grounds, and has been shown to have no scientific validity or explanatory power. Astrology thus lost its academic and theoretical standing, and common belief in it has largely declined. Astrology is now recognized as pseudoscience.
I hope you do see what they did there. It seems alright at first glance, but the comparison should make the manipulative and ideological parts of it stand out. Written like this, it strongly implies the definitiveness with which astrology is bunk, making it impossible to miss by repetition, and it also pushes a wishful self-fulfilling prophecy about the decline of belief in it. I removed the links to references from the quote to get rid of clutter, but there is a reference at the end of the sentence talking about the decline of astrology and it leads to Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry about astrology, which says:
In countries such as India, where only a small intellectual elite has been trained in Western physics, astrology manages to retain here and there its position among the sciences. Its continued legitimacy is demonstrated by the fact that some Indian universities offer advanced degrees in astrology.
In the West, however, Newtonian physics and Enlightenment rationalism largely eradicated the widespread belief in astrology, yet Western astrology is far from dead, as demonstrated by the strong popular following it gained in the 1960s.
Ignoring the very insulting tone toward the stupid untrained Indians and suggestive language like “here and there” or “eradicated”, this proves my suspicion that the decline was wishfully or manipulatively exaggerated.
The following middle section contains in both versions a fairly unproblematic account of historical periods and various traditions, exactly as you’d expect a dictionary to do. However, even there, the English version has an addition of ancient objections almost as long as the account of astrology in ancient times and medieval objections about as long as the account of medieval astrology in Europe, making it clear that we’re in for every single criticism of astrology that the writers could find inserted at every opportunity.
Unlike the Czech version, however, the English version is missing a section explaining what it is that astrologers actually think they do from their point of view, basic principles of what it is that astrology is being used for by people who use it. Because why would you need to know that. Then both versions address the main religious and rationalist counterarguments, which is again only fair, except in the English version, the rationalist critique is an onslaught of over a dozen paragraphs, while the Czech version has about half that, which is still not a few. But that’s not all that’s different, it’s also the general tone.
To compare, let’s focus on the aforementioned (in)famous Mars Effect proposed by Michel Gauquelin and how that whole situation is reported in the two different Wikipedias. First, there are little things like the Czech version calling him “psychologist and statistician”, which is what he has degrees in, while the English version introduces him as “astrologer and psychologist”. Notice the difference in credibility? That’s some really political use of language. That he actually is significantly more a statistician than an astrologer is a notable real fact that’s inconvenient to opponents of astrology.
Let’s read the whole paragraph, I’ll add emphasis where some manipulative language is used:
In 1955, the astrologer and psychologist Michel Gauquelin stated that though he had failed to find evidence that supported indicators like zodiacal signs and planetary aspects in astrology, he did find positive correlations between the diurnal positions of some planets and success in professions that astrology traditionally associates with those planets. The best-known of Gauquelin’s findings is based on the positions of Mars in the natal charts of successful athletes and became known as the Mars effect. A study conducted by seven French scientists attempted to replicate the claim, but found no statistical evidence. They attributed the effect to selective bias on Gauquelin’s part, accusing him of attempting to persuade them to add or delete names from their study.
So, again using every chance to hammer it down that astrology is nonsense, coupled with two attempts at character assassination and making it clear that Gauquelin is alone against many. In case you’re wondering, there’s no mention of what any astrologers thought about that, nothing from the point of view of Gauquelin in his own defense. Because why would you care about that. Instead, the next two paragraphs are dedicated to Dean’s speculations about why it must have been nonsense (that’s the guy from before proving that astrology doesn’t work by an unpublished study). Let’s look at how the Czech version handles it, in my translation:
In the second half of the 20th century, many studies were conducted, aiming to support or debunk astrological premises using the statistical method. At the birth of these experiments was mainly the French psychologist and statistician Michel Gauquelin, who caused the biggest uproar by publishing “Mars Effect” — statistically significant deviations in the position of Mars in the natal chart of prominent sportsmen in comparison to the general population. Critics of the study however point for example to the fact that the probability of a similar outcome based purely on random data was 25%. Similar studies were continued even by a renowned psychologist Hans Eysenck. Further psychologically-statistical studies confirmed connections between introversion and extroversion and influence of Saturn and Mars, or emotional instability in people born with Sun in the so called water signs. Other similar studies however haven’t shown any similar correlations between astrological and psychological phenomena and all of these studies are to this day still in dispute.
Quite a different read, isn’t it? The Czech version then proceeds to have one more paragraph devoted to what the astrologers say about it, which is that the complexity and nuance of astrology is generally not reflected in statistical studies like that, and that’s indeed a fact, if you know the methodologies of both the studies conducted so far and of astrology as it is being practiced. Then again, the point isn’t whether astrology works or not, it’s how different these two versions are — perfectly opposite biases, and it is the skeptical version that’s less factual and more manipulative.
Of course, in the Czech version, the Gauquelin section is flagged as not-neutral and using evasive, potentially factually incorrect language, while nothing whatsoever is flagged as problematic in the English version.
The English version finally proceeds to have a victory lap for reason by adding sections on cultural impact of astrology, which start, and I shit you not again, by a version of the classic “Did you know who was into astrology? Hitler!” What really got me was that they couldn’t resist and had to add in the same breath “And even he thought it’s bullshit!”, having their cake and eating it too. Bravo.
Then we also learn that astrology causes abortions in Japan, is a drain on the Indian state budget, that Adorno thought it was the opium of the people, Lope de Vega mocked it, and we don’t know what Shakespeare’s opinion was about it, but he totally only used it to make money. All nicely interspersed evenly throughout those sections to paint the absolute most negative and harmful, while simultaneously uninfluential, picture of astrology.
And even that’s not all. Think for a second what, in your opinion, should be the first suggested similar article under this entry. In the Czech version, it’s an entry for “Horoscope”. Makes sense, right? Do you know what’s there in the English version? Our friend “Barnum effect”, the most simplistic, and really quite misguided, attempt at debunking it that everyone can understand.
Final Thoughts (of a Witch at the Stake)
If you’ve read this far, you have my apologies, but this is what not being vague or general looks like. Feel free to contest any of my claims or conclusions, however this is in my view evidence of clear bias and abandoning of scientific principles among notable skeptics which really appears to be a systemic problem. For the last time, I make no claims about the accuracy of astrology, feel free to believe whatever you want about that, but please do not ignore how these people conduct themselves. What language they use, what their idea of debunking is, how they respond to evidence that’s contrary to their opinions, and how they function as organizations and behave toward people that do not share their viewpoint. With that said, how do you see it?
If you liked this insight, suggest another science issue that I should address.