Archives for posts with tag: pseudoscience

Here’s a short story.

Once upon a time people used to get sick a lot. Everything would be fine one day, then bang, the next day you were dying. Young kids mainly. They were lucky to still be alive at age five. Every now and then a big plague would roll through and randomly take lots of people away. A small wound could fester and kill you. Life wasn’t easy.

Doctors weren’t much help. They had this idea that sickness had something to do with too much blood. Often, their treatments were a lot like torture. And no painkillers either. Back then, people rightfully believed that if the sickness didn’t kill you, the doctors most certainly would.

Then, a doctor noticed something odd: something to do with not washing hands. People with dirty hands tended to make other people sick. Another doctor discovered that a small dose of good pox tended to ward away smallpox, that in its day, killed millions. Another man discovered that vitamin C could prevent scurvy. Another man came across a way to reduce pain during surgery. Small, incredible steps, but still lots of kids were dying. Nobody had an answer for it.

Tiny little creatures, smaller than you could imagine. They turned out to be a big part of the problem. Kill them and you could ward off hundreds of diseases. It took a while, but finally doctors found effective remedies. We call them antibiotics. Because of them, we don’t see so much TB or cholera these days. They used to kill lots of people too.

We discovered that our immune system had evolved to find the tiniest of invaders and destroy them. Prime it properly with tiny doses and you could prevent many diseases before they took hold. In this way, vaccines were invented to control deadly diseases such as measles and polio and whooping cough.

Other drugs were found and refined. Drugs that could treat some cancers. Drugs that gave greater pain relief and a better quality of life. And not just drugs, but therapies, health advice, early warning indicators, surgical procedures, and lots more.

And you know what? The number of children dying has been slashed. People don’t often die from simple cuts. Cancer is not the death sentence it once was. We are living longer, healthier lives with fewer bedridden days, choked up in pain.

This progress was achieved, not so much by some great idea, but because of many smaller ones, and something else: the learning that came from lots and lots of mistakes. Too much, too little, saw it too late, hit the wrong thing, gave up too soon. All these hard lessons helped doctors find better ways, to refine their techniques. That’s what medicine is: the sum total of what we know, through experiment, failure and hard experience, about what approaches work best when our health is at risk. Not perfect, but compared to 200 years ago, utterly amazing. It’s possibly the greatest achievement of our species since we started walking on this planet.

So why is it, that so many people want to ignore all this, or pretend it doesn’t matter? Why do they hark back to these earlier times, when so many people died? Perhaps it’s because medicine has been too successful, so it’s taken for granted? Perhaps it’s too technical, too elite, therefore creating suspicion? Perhaps there’s a longing for simplicity and simple solutions: a Donald Trump approach, as it were? Perhaps the complexity and messiness of medicine is too much for some? Perhaps it’s a demand for perfection; we cannot abide not knowing? Or maybe it’s all about show and celebrity and charisma these days, and not so much the pedestrian advice of your family GP?

All this is just conceit: at the core is a celebration of ignorance over hard earned knowledge – that our opinions, no matter how poorly thought out, are just as deserving of respect. It’s a voice of privilege, a voice from the comfort zone, ignorant of a time when knowledge, any knowledge, would have been a blessing. We live in strange times.

If we listen too much to the charlatans and ideologues and the crafted media voices, a time may well come where these wrongheaded beliefs take primacy over empirical knowledge. In which case, life could quickly regress to being nasty, brutal and short. With outbreaks of old diseases from communities that refuse to accept modern healthcare, we’re already seeing it. Hopefully it’s not a signpost to the future.

Of all the delusions out there, homeopathy is one of the worst. On the surface it seems fairly harmless, but dig deeper and you find that it messes with people’s heads.

Homeopathy is dangerous to your health. Homeopathy is not herbal medicine. It’s not really alternative medicine either, because you can’t really call it medicine at all. Ignoring the last 100 years of medical advances entirely, it’s a mystical, quasi-religious approach to human health that states that substances become potent the more dilute they are. Homeopathic substances are normally so dilute, that not one molecule of the original substance remains in the finished product. Every single homeopathic remedy on their shelves is therefore exactly the same treatment. For every single ailment, you are receiving water dropped onto a sugar tablet.

There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up the claims of homeopathy. And yet, millions of people swear by it. So, what is happening? Essentially it’s a trick, exploiting the placebo effect and the fact that most illnesses get better after a time. It goes like this: you go to a homeopath, they spend time talking to you about your problem, they prescribe you a remedy, and after a time you get better. Because you are primed to connect the improvement to the prescribed remedy, the likelihood is that you will think the potion made you better. Other factors – better sleep, more rest, less stress – are discounted in favour of the stated remedy.

To me, the placebo effect is a bit like telling a small child to suck their thumb when they get upset. Thumb sucking can calm a child down very quickly. In the child’s mind it is an immediate solution to their problem. They will report less pain and less distress, depending on the severity. If you are reasonable, you would not prescribe thumb-sucking for a more serious ailment: tooth pain, the measles, or a bad burn, for example. When you are prescribing homeopathy, you are doing exactly that: telling someone to do the adult equivalent of thumb-sucking, despite the severity of the ailment. Homeopaths get away with it because, fortunately, most ailments are not severe. When they are, you hope better advice is listened to.

In a recent discussion on homeopathy, I was asked if I had ever taken gone to a homeopath for treatment, the implication being that if I had never gone to one, I could not possibly comment. This is the equivalent of saying that people who never smoked cannot comment on whether tobacco use is harmful, or that sceptics cannot criticise the Nigerian 419 scam if they have never themselves been defrauded by one. When a philosophy or treatment sounds like bunk, when almost every scientist and most medical professionals say it’s bunk, when there is a long list of people who have been damaged by bad advice from homeopaths, it’s up to the homeopaths to prove it otherwise. Telling us that it’s not up to them – it’s up to us – is ridiculous. Personal anecdote, no matter how honestly felt, is not very useful because we are all subject to bias and manipulation. Objective scientific studies are much better because you can follow a larger number of subjects, you can see how they were constructed and you can control for bias.

When it comes to scientific studies, homeopathy scores very poorly. At least 12 major reviews, examining hundreds of studies, have all concluded that it is not effective and that it does not provide any benefits beyond placebo. Homeopaths like to cite the Swiss Study, but as you will see from this linkthis link and this link, the Swiss report is not without significant objections. David Shaw, of the University of Glasgow, has called it a case study of research misconduct, concluding that it was “scientifically, logically and ethically flawed”.

Homeopaths have been known to advertise treatments for measles, AIDS, autism and cancer. Many homeopaths are avowedly anti-vaccine. There are homeopaths in West Africa right now who believe that their magic pills are curing Ebola.

You know what? This madness needs to stop.

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

Normally, in the political sphere, the business meeting or on the Internet, there is nothing like a good debate to flush out the issues and get people thinking more deeply about their views. It helps us make up our mind on subjects we might not know a lot about.

Debate has its limitations, however. Some people are better than others at performing it. Irrespective of the merits or strengths of the arguments, good debaters will make themselves appear sympathetic to the audience. They will use pathos and evoke emotion. They will use humour and make use of clever soundbites where possible. There is an element of conjuring in the best debaters: little rhetorical tricks that we in the audience may not be aware of, but can do wonders to get people onside.

There is also a sense that the best ideas from each side can lead to a better position overall. Seeking a middle ground is a viable position for a disinterested viewer to take. The argument can be made that if both views are being represented, then they are somehow equal, and that there are important points to be gained from both sides.

When it comes to scientific issues, public debates don’t work quite so well. First of all, no matter how good a debater you are, it has no effect on the underlying science. A skilled creationist debater can argue until the cows come home that God created the Universe in 6 days. He can use every rhetorical device and trick in the book to persuade his audience, but it doesn’t make evolution and a 4.5 billion year old Earth any less true. So too with gravity,  or any number of well established scientific theories. These theories were not developed in the courtroom, or by TV debates, or by pressure groups, or forums on the Internet. There was no appeal to the public to decide their veracity. They came about in the lab, through field work, experimentation, data analysis and published papers. Sure, there would have been debates – many of them – but these debates are technical and professional ones, focused on the quality of the evidence and the methods used. Such arguments rarely play well in front of a TV audience.

Secondly, once scientific theories are established, there is no middle ground. Just as 1 plus 1 is always 2, that too is usually the case in science. Reality works in particular ways. Gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear physics and biochemistry all operate on strict physical laws that don’t change just because someone doesn’t like them. A good thing it is too, as our computers, the cars we travel on, and the boilers for our hot water would not work if it were not the case.

You can’t just come along and equate your opinion or belief, no matter how deeply held, with a well established scientific principle, unless you have serious evidence to back it up. There is no sense that creationism is partly true. No sense that the successive dilutions advocated by homeopathy are of any practical use. Why? Because their advocates have not brought any useful evidence to the table, properly supporting their beliefs, while at the same time accounting for everything else that the existing scientific theories tell us. To take the middle ground in such cases, you are comparing apples, not with other apples, but with a copy of a facsimile of what once used to be an orange but now could be a giraffe, or anything you are having yourself. A scientific theory can only be modified or upended by better scientific evidence, not by a change in public opinion.

Equating pseudo-scientific opinion with well established science is known as “false balance”. It’s widely practiced in the media, where the he-said / she-said debating format is in wide use. A frequent outcome is that a casual listener can come away believing in nonsense, merely because the rhetoric on the nonsensical side of the argument was more persuasive than the expert view.

False balance is everywhere. Creationists in America have tried every trick in the book to inject their particular brand of stupidity into the US education system. There have been incessant efforts to put alternative medicine on a par with actual medicine, despite a long-standing failure to establish scientific plausibility, or to prove their modalities work better than placebo. Climate change deniers are active in the public sphere, using techniques borrowed from creationists and tobacco companies to cast doubt on the research. In Ireland, anti-fluoridation groups are seeking to change public health policy, despite numerous research studies giving fluoridation a green light at low dosages. All of these groups use public debate and public pressure as proxies instead of proper scientific research – because the science does not support their position.

Many prominent scientists are reluctant to engage in debates of this nature because it gives the other side a recognition that they don’t deserve, and offers the possibility of losing a debate because their rhetorical skill might not be as good as the other person’s. These are genuine concerns, however it’s a problem because public pressure and public debate can, and does, move the needle. It is possible for laws to be changed despite the best efforts of scientists. Legislators are rarely scientifically educated themselves. Simply avoiding debate gives all kinds of pressure groups a carte blanche to force through the most wrong-headed legislation possible.

I am minded of Christopher Hitchens, who never shirked any debates, even when his opponent’s points were extreme, terrifyingly offensive and in no sense based on reality. He recognised that how we learn things is based on science, but how we move forward is by public debate. We need both the sense of discovery and the ability to persuade. We need good communicators who can counter the propagandists from the other side while making a forceful case for science in public policy.

The following video is an oldie but a goodie. Dara O’Briain outlines the problem of false balance better than I ever could.

I did a radio interview a few weeks ago, and in it, I discussed homeopathy, acupuncture, salt therapy and chiropractic. Needless to say, the interview was followed by a range of alternative practitioners all calling in to defend their methods. The interviewer also read out a number of texts and emails, all pretty much saying the same thing: that I was just a closed-minded begrudger who should be a bit less dismissive about things he doesn’t understand.

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“Thinking” by ores2k (CC Licenced)

It’s a common belief that sceptical people are somehow lacking in imagination and empathy. According to some, when we look at the world, we moan and groan at the stupidity we see around us. Somehow, most other people are lesser beings, and while we cast doubt and criticise, they are out in the world getting on with their lives. What a miserable, negative lot we are!

The thing is, I don’t see it like that at all. As a person, I’m not terribly negative about things, and most other sceptical people I know have similar attitudes. Indeed, what I see around me, when I visit sceptical conferences and organise my own get-togethers, are wildly interesting people. Among the sceptical community, you will find writers and musicians; painters, comedians and poets. You will find fantasists, willing to consider life far into the future and worlds yet to be discovered. You will meet people with great talents, and those with huge burdens to bear. There is a passion to our discourse, some sadness, and many, many laughs. The sceptical community is just like any community on the planet, as varied and fascinating as a patchwork quilt.

So, what makes us different? If there is something that distinguishes us from others, it is this: we are driven by a curiosity about how the world really works. From this, we believe that the best way to understand it is to consider the evidence that exists for it. If you are asking us to accept something as true, we will ask how well it is supported. If it has good backup, it will be discussed, considered, explored and toyed with for the possibilities that it may offer. If it has little or no support, then acceptance will be withheld, until such time, if ever, that better evidence comes to light. Over time, you develop a sense of whether an idea is worthwhile or not: a “baloney detector kit”, as it were, helping you sort the good ideas from the bad ones.

A glance at my bookshelf reveals books about the origins of life, the story of Galileo, the scramble for Africa, Richard Feynman, the Ice Age, the Crusades, the stories of civilisation, great epidemics and the life and times of an executioner in 17th Century Nuremberg – hardly the library of a cynical begrudger. It would pain me greatly if I was ever to be parted from them. I am possessed with a desire to know and understand what I can, and yet not be fooled in the process. To me, scepticism is part of the process of gathering knowledge. Without it, knowledge is meaningless, as you cannot distinguish the worthwhile ideas from the chaff.

Scepticism is a state of mind. It doesn’t mean I get angry every time I see something I disagree with, or that I’m always writing angry letters to newspapers complaining about the latest fad. Most of the time, it simply allows me to be discriminating in what I wish to spend time on. There are only so many battles you can fight.

That doesn’t imply that there are no issues to discuss. Scepticism gives me a perspective on which to look at the world, and from this viewpoint, I see charlatans – psychics, faith healers and cancer quacks – exploiting peoples hopes and vulnerabilities with non-existent cures. I see anti-vaccination groups scaring parents, thus bringing rare diseases back amongst our children. I see cult religions warping people’s lives when they could have been doing so much else. I see political think-tanks questioning the science on climate change, thus condemning future generations to a potentially dreadful future. These are issues that affect us all. My concerns are human concerns, focused on the best of what life has to offer us, and rejecting the worst. I’m just coming at it from a slightly different angle.

Ultimately, I think scepticism is a hopeful stance. I believe that we humans have the capability to extend our survival as a species and to make all our lives better during our short stay on the planet. We can solve many of the problems that beset us, but it will require hard work, trial, error and great insight. In the end, it’s less about ideology and more about the role of science, technology, education and a good dose of common human decency, in addressing the many challenges that we face, now and in the future.

So, it’s not all about begrudgery and negativity. Quite the opposite – scepticism is about intellectual honesty, unquenchable curiosity and truly great ideas. It is accessible to all, both young and old. As a perspective, it is valuable and satisfying, both emotionally and mentally. It is a viewpoint shared by many of the world’s greatest thinkers, scientists and innovators. If only our political classes would consider it more seriously! We sceptics still have quite a job to do to convince people that our stance is important and worthwhile, but in the end I am hopeful. After all, we have an important ally on our side: reality.

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Wooden Sculpture (CC image via EpSos.de)

Why is science important?

Some people think science is all about wild-haired, bespectacled geeks in lab coats, holding beakers and marvelling at their latest fantastic breakthroughs. Then there are the people who believe it to be some sort of church, where immutable truths are held in sacred reverence. Many consider it to be just a type of opinion, prone to change its mind with the same regularity as teenage fashion. In the worst case, it is condemned as an enterprise of pure evil, determined to foist dangerous chemicals, foods and drugs on a compliant public. All of these are lazy, small minded caricatures of what science is.

Put simply, science is about trial and error. Scientists test ideas against reality; dumping the failed ideas and retaining the successful ideas for further scrutiny. Ideas that survive multiple, repeated testing gain greater validity. Over time, the best ideas become part of the consensus of knowledge that helps us understand the world and Universe we live in. While all this knowledge is provisional, and subject to change with further evidence and testing, many of the best ideas are doggedly persistent, retaining their power and validity after many decades, and even centuries, of close examination. Gravitation and Evolution by Natural Selection are two of the more notable examples.

This process of trial and error is familiar to us all. Computer programmers, debugging thousands of lines of code, understand it only too well. Businesses test competitive strategies, rejecting ones that don’t add to the bottom line. Plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters rely on the fruits of hundreds of years of reality testing, every time they build a house. We eat mushrooms, salad leaves and shellfish, safe in the knowledge that someone, some time in the past, tried them, liked them, didn’t die of poisoning, and told others what they had just eaten. Science is all this, and more. Over the years, it has become very sophisticated in how it can tease out the best approaches from a vast array of flawed ideas.

Science is important because it tells us how things work. Often, it can explain why they work. So, when it comes to explaining something like why vaccines are today used against measles, the trained eye can explain it not only from longitudinal studies on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, but also though an understanding of the mechanisms of the human immune system and the measles virus itself. Even if there is a lot more to discover, as in the cases of autism and cancer, science can provide a sense of what is known so far and what is yet to be discovered.

Science is furthermore important because it also tell us what doesn’t work and the reason why this might be so. So when crystal healers tout their garnets and quartzes as cures for depression, or when homeopaths claim that their sugar pills have medicinal properties, we can reliably challenge their assertions. Pseudo-scientific (“false scientific”) claims like this fly in the face of physics, biology and everything we know about physiology and mental health.

One wonderful thing about science is the many surprising insights that have been made about the nature of the world around us. Discoveries such as DNA, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and relativity – to name but a few – have revolutionised our understanding of the world while driving massive improvements in technology and the world economy. We need to keep in mind that without science, such discoveries would never have been made.

Science can also provide the most useful hints toward future discoveries, cures and treatments. The knowledge already built up leads to interesting pathways deserving of further research, and from this, real breakthroughs may arise. Without such a starting point, we are unlikely to make much progress in fields such as cancer control, neurological disorders, climate change and the many other problems of our times. To propose and promote solutions in such areas while remaining ignorant of existing knowledge about the problem is foolish in the extreme.

There is an integrity to science. Despite many different political systems around the world, there is no “Islamic science”, or “Eastern science” – it’s just science. The same methods are taught in science classes everywhere there is a commitment to good education. And despite many attempts by politicians and charlatans to interfere with the scientific process for their own ends, it stands firm, even if this means loss of funding and favour. This is particularly the case in the environmental debates of the present time.

For these and other reasons, science is worth promoting and defending. Many groups seem intent to promote anti-scientific agendas, or, more usually, cherry picking the bits of science they like, while rejecting outright the bits that don’t conform to their ideologies. It’s difficult to be blasé when confronted with such opposition. A lessening of the value of science, in our classrooms and public spaces, is ultimately a rejection of what we have learned as a species. It debases a process of inquiry that has served us so well in the past and should continue to do so in the future.

Jet Trails over Canberra-1

And yet, planes fly.

This is a phrase that often comes to mind when people question the value and utility of science, or diminish its importance in the world today.

It cuts through the objections: that science can be biased, or imperfect, or financially driven, or chaotic, or fraudulent, or philosophically unsound, or just one idea among many.

Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. There are many instances where science has been hampered by fraudulent and unethical behaviour, where scientists have taken appalling short cuts and or adjusted data because it didn’t fit preconceived notions, where bullying and a dogmatic over-reliance on unsound theories has hampered progress. You could write a book on it.

And yet, planes fly.

Big ones too. Gigantic 300 tonne planes, travelling at 900 kilometres per hour, at 40,000 feet above the ground. Right now, a few of them are routinely ploughing their way through the stratosphere en route to various destinations across the planet.

All this would not have been possible if it were not for the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers. These people sought to understand and exploit the physical properties of this world, using rational thought, experimentation and argument to allow us to leave the ground and do something that would have been unimaginable to countless generations.

When I say “yet planes fly”, I am only tipping a snowflake on the tip of an enormous iceberg. And yet, computers work. Washing machines work. Mobile phones work. We’ve put men on the Moon. Cured and treated cancers. Eradicated ancient diseases. Increased food supply. People now live longer. Babies are born that otherwise wouldn’t be. Most children survive to adulthood. Mothers can better plan their families and their futures. We can peer back to the beginnings of time and examine the most fundamental components of the Universe. All this, and much more, because of science. All this, despite the problems inherent within the scientific process.

It may seem trivial to point to aeroplanes and these other examples and point them out as astonishing products of the scientific process. Even the most ardent pseudoscience devotee is likely to accept that science has yielded huge discoveries and benefits. The point, however, is that, faults and all, it remains the most successful mode of understanding the world and dealing with problems that humans have ever concocted. It has succeeded where mysticism, homeopathy, religion and new age doctrines have not. Indeed, they seem to occupy the ever-decreasing areas where significant progress is still limited.

Such an outlook could be dismissed as scientism: a view that science, on its own, can explain anything and solve any problem. This may not be true, or even possible; but science still remains the most powerful intellectual tool in our arsenal. When it comes to the pressing issues of the day, from global warming and climate change, disease management and genetic disorders, sanitation and overpopulation, I would prefer to have a bunch of scientists and engineers looking at these challenges than anyone else.

So when I see airplanes in the sky, it shows that, limited and all though are species are, and no matter how faulty our processes of discovery, we have nevertheless learned a lot about how the universe works and how we bring those insights to bear on real-life challenges. The problems of the coming century will be very different to those of the last one. They are likely to need the efforts of our best technical brains to tackle and solve. It’s time more people started to wake up to this.

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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