Archives for posts with tag: astrology

I want you too forecast the weather on the 21st of May next year. 2015. Off you go.

The options are quite few. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, showery, windy. Snow? Not so much. We’re talking about May after all.

Ken Ring predicted snow in May last year. Furthermore, he predicted regular quantities of snow for every month leading up to May. According to Ken, the first months of 2014 in Ireland would be bitterly cold. As it happened, we barely got snow in January, not to mention the fact that our winter was mild, as winters go. What’s worse, he failed to predict the intense winter storms of 2014. As predictions go, Ring’s analysis was well of the mark.

Here’s the thing. If the options are relatively few, then there is a good chance that some of your predictions will turn out correct. Even if you guess at random, you won’t get everything wrong. Sometimes you will predict sunshine, and you’ll be right. Ken Ring, who is wont to make a huge number of predictions, knows this very well. He’s made a career from crowing about his correct answers, all the while expecting that few people will call him out for getting it wrong. If they do call him out, he’s got plenty of stock answers to give. “Forecasting is an inexact science”, “It was partially right”, “I was out by just a few days”, “it wasn’t quantity, it was regularity” – special pleadings that allow him wiggle room from what, ultimately, was just guesswork.

If one prediction can be excused, a whole year of them is more difficult to explain away. That’s what one Irish blogger has done – taking his predictions and scoring him on each one for accuracy. So far, at just over 26% (and that’s being generous), he’s not doing that well, and is well short of the 80% accuracy he claims to have.

Ken Ring was on the radio a few days ago (96FM Cork Opinion Line November 14) and as usual he captivated his audience by giving specific predictions at specific locations for days many months in the future. When I was listening to this, I wondered why this guy didn’t have the ears of every major weather forecaster in the world? I can think of two answers to this. Either he’s right and they’re too arrogant, stupid and/or conniving to listen to him, or he’s talking – how can I say this delicately? – ah yes – bullshit.

Weather forecasting is a critically important field, affecting our lives in all sorts of ways. Bad weather can cause financial hardship, destroy livelihoods, ruin economies and cost lives. Flooding, storms, droughts, freezes and heatwaves all cause damage, sometimes into the billions of dollars.  If we knew for certain that an enormous hurricane was going to roll across our city in 3 months time, imagine what could be done to save lives and protect homes and businesses. Who wouldn’t want better, more accurate forecasts? According to Ken, the world’s met offices don’t want them. Maybe they want to keep such fantastic knowledge away from the public? Maybe Big Weather is in league with Big Pharma or the CIA or whatever you are having yourself, to ensure governments and insurance companies are on the receiving end of huge damages claims? The mind boggles.

A little bit of scientific understanding tells us that the atmosphere is hugely complicated, and that errors, even in the best prediction models, get larger and larger over time. Five to seven days is the limit these days, and let’s face it – it’s not bad. Governments and agencies will continue to push back this envelope as much as they can, because ultimately it’s worth it. The science of weather forecasting has, er,  a bright future, so to speak.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Ken Ring is not a great forecaster, but instead, a crank. The type of crank who thinks he’s Galileo because he thinks he’s stumbled across something amazing, yet nobody who cares about their credibility will listen to him. There was just one Galileo. Cranks who think they are Galileo, or Einstein, or Steven Hawking? Thousands and thousands. Just ask physics professors, who are sick to the teeth of receiving unsolicited and unreadable manuscripts from armies of lone geniuses.

It’s a pity Ken gets such publicity. Clearly he’s answering a desire in people to know what the future holds. In this way, he’s no better than a fortune teller or astrologer. What’s bigger the pity is that media organisations line up to listen to his words of wisdom, all the while discrediting real weather forecasting organisations. All they would need to do is to measure him by his predictions.

I had the privilege of speaking at the First Friday’s at the Castle in CIT Blackrock Castle this weekend. My talk was “Hoaxes and Hysteria in Astronomy”, where I took a sceptical look at Astrology, UFO’s and the Moon Landing “Hoax” conspiracy theory.

I first spoke about astrology. To understand why astrology is wrong, you need to understand how it originated, and how astronomical discoveries since the 1500’s have completely overturned the basis of the belief system. It also gave me the opportunity to present Phil Plait’s frequently posted diagram:

Then I gave a potted history of UFO’s and our culture’s fascination with all things extraterrestrial. Part of it featured Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast that panicked half of America in 1938. Here is the first piece of the radio show. Even now, over 70 years later, it still works as a monumental piece of broadcasting.

Orson Welles later described why he did it:

 

While a great many people claim to have seen UFO’s, there has never been any hard evidence provided. UFO reports have been plagued by problems of mistaken identity, delusion and hoaxes. One of the best hoaxes was crop circles: initiated by two drinking buddies in the south of England.

I then spoke about the widespread perception that the moon landings of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a hoax and that NASA staged a cover-up of monumental proportions. There have been many rebuttals, most comprehensively done by the Mythbusters team.

Personally, I love Michell and Webb’s take on it.

At the end of the talk, I got around to my Baloney Detector Kit:

That last one, the “lone mavericks” suffering for their ideas, is particularly true. There have been far, far more wrong-headed lone mavericks” in history than the tiny number of people who have eventually been proven right.

Finally, if you have managed to read through to the end, here are some useful links should you wish to know more.

  1. BadAstronomy.com : Phil Plait waxes lyrical about his wonderment of the universe, while regularly debunking the widespread misinformation.
  2. Snopes.com : If you hear a strange tale or you get an email that sounds fishy, check this website out. It will give you some food for thought.
  3. Skepdic.com : The Skeptic’s Dictionary is a tremendous resource for people who want to understand the scientific view of modern delusions and weirdness.
  4. Randi.org : The James Randi Educational Foundation has been fighting baloney for years. There are plenty of resources there for budding sceptics.
  5. Skeptoid.com : Brian Dunning has created a comprehensive list of ten-minute podcasts debunking all sorts of strange ideas. You name it, it’s probably there.

We run regular “Skeptics in the Castle” meetings in Blackrock Castle, where experts are invited to talk about the reality behind modern misconceptions, fads and strange beliefs. Check out our website corkskeptics.org. We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s a common story with astronomy enthusiasts. You are at a party or with friends when a friend introduces you as a person having an interest in astrology. You smile politely and gently correct them, but in the back of your mind you realise that they didn’t really get it. After all your explaining, you still expect to be called “the horoscope guy” later on. To many people, astrology and astronomy are different sides of the same coin.

Indeed, on a very superficial level, astronomy and astrology are quite similar. They are both concerned with the stars and planets, they both have very ancient pedigrees and are accompanied by a vast body of literature. Both astrology and astronomy are highly prominent in modern culture as any newspaper or magazine will attest. They both deal with future predictions and people involved in a professional level take their expertise very seriously.

However the astronomical and astrological camps are very, very different, and it is very rare to find an astronomer who has any regard for astrology whatsoever. (The opposie is probably not the case, but astrologers don’t particularly like astronomers so much). So what is wrong? Is it a case of snobbishness from the astronomical community? Professional rivalry perhaps? Or a conspiracy theory against the hard-working astrologers?

The answer is somewhat different. Fundamentally, astronomy and astrology are quite different philosophically.

Astronomy is a scientific philosophy. Astronomy is based primarily on the evidence, the facts. Beliefs about what these facts mean come second. All beliefs are tested and if they fail the tests, they are rejected. If they pass all the tests they are accepted as true, or at least provisionally true until new evidence becomes available. In this way, astronomy has been very successful in changing what were once strongly cherished beliefs – the belief that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth, for instance, or the belief that the universe was timeless, even that time itself was somehow outside of the universe; all these ideas have perished as better data and better knowledge came on the scene.

Not so with astrology. With astrology, the beliefs themselves come first, with facts and evidence coming a poor second place. One of the strongest beliefs in astrology is that the stars and planets affect us in all sorts of ways. They guide our personalities, our moods and our fortunes in life. Now, this is a testable proposition and yet no evidence has ever been found to back up these claims. Furthermore, it is not a particularly plausible proposition given the enormous distances between astronomical bodies and ourselves on Earth and the lack of any coherent mechanism that would link the position and movement of the planets with the human psyche. The basic beliefs behind astrology therefore are magical, miraculous – somehow outside the realm of normal experience and scientific understanding.

Yet the beliefs persist. Plenty of people will tell you that astrology works. As proof they will often claim direct personal experience. The charts indicated that something would happen, and it did – exactly as described. The horoscopes gave a reading of their personalities with breathtaking accuracy. How could this happen?

The answer lies, not so much with the effectiveness of astrology, but with how our brains work. Most of us realise our brains are not perfect, but far less people understand how deep those imperfections extend. We are subject to all sorts of biases. We tend to assign undue significance to ideas we agree with while ignoring contrary ideas. We seek purpose and causality where it does not exist. We forget quickly and what we remember may often be very different from what actually happened. We are highly prone to suggestion. Professional magicians use such weaknesses against us to good (and profitable) use.

It’s not just astrology that is subject to such biases. Bias is commonplace throughout all human experience – politics, business, management, relationships, you name it. Science too. What makes the sciences different however are the extensive set of techniques that are used to eliminate bias. Controls, randomisation, blinding, sampling and peer review are examples. Such techniques, while seemingly arcane, are quite rational and logical in reality. They tend to make the process less subjective and any results tend to have greater weight, particularly if they can be repeated in a number of different settings.

The difference between astronomy and astrology highlights an important difference between science and pseudoscience. One area is founded on facts and evidence, the other is founded on beliefs. There are many fields of endeavour that are based on a set of implausible or untestable beliefs. Homeopathy, for instance, uses a belief that a tiny amount of material can cure chronic complaints and that the more dilute you make the solution, the more powerful the remedy will be. It’s over 200 years since Homeopathy originated, yet homeopaths have never properly challenged these founding beliefs. They assume them to be true and move on from there. In any field of study, when the founding beliefs are deemed to be too precious to be properly challenged, you should be very wary indeed.

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