Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 28, 2014

Astrology: What’s the Harm?


Introduction

I’ve very rarely covered astrology on this blog (~5% of posts get tagged with it), mostly because there’s very little to say about it beyond the standard, “It doesn’t work!”, “There’s no physical reason why it should work,” and “Different astrology systems around the world conflict with each other but claim similar results, therefore it’s standard ‘psychic’ cold reading.”

But, this story has been making the rounds lately, and it’s rare I get to even peripherally address a “What’s the Harm?” with respect to astronomy-based pseudoscience, so let’s get into it.

The Story

From the BBC: Astrology-Loving MP Seeks Health Answers in the Stars. The story is about David Tredinnick.

Insert collective groan.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: Astrology does not work. I have addressed this numerous times on this blog (here and here) and once on my podcast (Episode 6).

If you don’t like that, well, I also scored numerous astrologers’ predictions to see how well they do at predicting things. They don’t work. For example: in 2010, 2011, and not only once, but twice in 2012.

It lacks a mechanism (which in itself isn’t a deal-killer because there could always be something we don’t know about), but it also simply and utterly fails whenever it is tested.

So What?

Normally, I honestly don’t care that much. Yes, it’s annoying to me as a scientist, and as a critical thinker. Yes, I think it leads to magical thinking. And people spend money on bull Taurus. But in general, beyond time wasted, money wasted, and it being a gateway to other magical thinking, there is little harm in this.

Except when someone asks what I do and I say that I’m an astronomer and they say, “Oh, I heard that Mercury was in retrograde now, what does that mean?” Which is why I now tell people that I’m a volcanologist who studies volcanoes in Hawai’i.

So, live and let live. In general.

And then this guy comes in and messes with that mentality:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work. The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse. “There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

…Recalling the experience in the House of Commons, he said he had been invited to take part because of his “radical agenda” on complementary medicine – he is vice-chairman of the government’s herbals working group. … “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

… [H]e now wanted to promote astrology, which was not just predicting the future but gaining an insight into personal problems. He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

(I removed some of the paragraph breaks, since the BBC seems to think that every sentence needs its own paragraph.)

So, yeah …

The Response …

… has been ridicule. As it should. Some of the skeptical bloggers took a crack at it, like Sharon over at Doubtful News, and today a guest post by Andy Wasley at The Friendly Atheist.

I don’t think it’s worth me spending time going through every single sentence in there and how he’s wrong. I’ll leave that “as an exercise to the reader,” as the saying goes, or for you to pull out the particularly ridiculous bits in the Comments.

The Problem

I’m not going to pretend that we don’t have (in my opinion) idiots on the US Congress and Senate. Some of the people sitting on Science committees are about as anti-science as you can get, rejecting evidence-based science in favor of everything but. So it’s nice to point out a tu quoque that other countries have their loons, too.

The problem is that if this were any normal person, it’d be another eye-roller. But he’s not a normal person. Or, he is, but he’s not in a normal position. He’s a member of the UK Parliament’s Health and Science & Technology Committees (that’s Health Committee, and Science & Technology Committee). And he believes in altmed and astrology. And he thinks that astrology not only has a proven track record of success (despite all objective tests), but he seems to want to implement it in some way in some official capacity.

This is a man who has serious power to control policy and money in the UK.

And, this is not only not an isolated case, but it’s also a good example of the common phenomenon where one form of magical thinking makes way for others. In this case, I don’t know what came first, but it’s very likely that either his belief in astrology made believing in altmed easier, or his belief in altmed made his belief in astrology easier.

These kinds of things rarely are seen in isolation. The thinking goes like this (and I’m not just surmising or musing here, I’ve heard people say it): If they start to accept one thing that’s “outside the mainstream” or something “scientists keep telling us is wrong, well” (the thinking goes), “what else have they been trying to hide from us? What else that they say is fake is really real?” It might sound like the “slippery slope” fallacy, but it’s not. One kind of pseudoscience belief is often a gateway into others.

Wrap-Up

And normally, as I said towards the beginning, I wouldn’t care. Do what you want, believe what you want, so long as you’re not really harming other people. And generally I’d prefer if you not harm yourself, but you have the right in most countries to do that, at least in some form or another if not all forms. (E.g., you might be institutionalized if you try to slit your wrists, you may have your child taken away from you if you insist on praying for them to get better from cancer instead of having chemo.)

But this is a case where one kind of magical thinking has lead to another. And this guy has power to affect £millions ($millions x1.7) and millions of people.

And he’s not alone.

So, while belief in astronomy-based pseudoscience may not be on the forefront of what most skeptics consider to be important, I would argue that it should be. We shouldn’t discriminate or rank or prioritize quite as much as some may try. Convincing someone when they’re 14 that astrology is Taurus-poop may just prevent them from trying a raw food juicing diet to cure themselves of pancreatic cancer 40 years later. Or from passing a resolution when they’re on a school board in 30 years that creationism should be taught alongside evolution.

6 Comments »

  1. Tredinnick isn’t taken seriously here either Stuart. His power is limited too. He’s only one of about 650 MP’s, and almost all find themselves on a committee or three, it’s how it works. Thing is he isn’t a minister or close to being one, so his ‘power’ is really only representing his constituancy and shooting off the odd letter to a colleague on whatever he’s asked or demanded of him.

    Yes I agree at first sight it looks worrisome, but he’s probably unwittingly instigated his own downfall. It isn’t a crime to believe in mumbo jumbo, but the UK Parliament doesn’t openly ‘do God’, so astrology is a real no no!

    Comment by S — July 28, 2014 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

    • We say the same thing about people like Michelle Bachmann here — she’s one of 435 members of the House, or 535 in Congress as a whole. She’s a very junior member. Yet she’s on the Committee on Financial Services and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Meanwhile, she wants creationism taught in schools, opposes the EPA, thinks we should consider nuking Iran, is isolationist (thinks we shouldn’t be part of the international global economy), and is anti-marriage-equality and anti-abortion. Now, not all of those are science-related positions, but some of them are, especially that first one. And she apparently is capable of the cognitive dissonance of thinking we shouldn’t be part of the global stage but should consider nuking Iran.

      As one example.

      My point is more that she is now one of 545 people (Congress+President+SCOTUS) who wield an incredible amount of power relative to the >300M of the rest of us in the US. And she believes at least some very non-science things. She’s in a position to influence policy in a way I never will be.

      Same is the case with Tredinnick.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 28, 2014 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

      • You’re at a bit of a disadvantage with Bachmann; by dint that you have a significant number who actually seriously believe what she does and will vote for her because of those beliefs and not in a rational way. Whereas our fruit loop won’t be voted in (If he is re-elected) because of his astrology beliefs, but he could well be voted out because of same. Certainly it won’t go un-noticed by the Whips office and those close to the PM. It’s just too much of a hot potato. I suppose it stems from you having a Constitution set in law that means any dingbat can say anything with conviction and be taken seriously…We tend to go to ridicule first and let them prove why they shouldn’t be ridiculed. Naturally it means few MP’s are respected. I think they come below lawyers and estate agents (realters).
        Although he sits on the committee, and as such can ask questions, input thoughts and ideas as he has; it doesn’t mean he’ll be taken seriously. He may even find himself voted out of the committee, we do have a few doctors (medical and scientific) in parliament, and they won’t take his comments lightly.

        Comment by S — July 28, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

      • Good luck with that? Hopefully … seems like you may have a better way for removing crackpots than we do.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 28, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  2. I can remember seeing something similar from the other side of the political spectrum. A few years ago a student guild newspaper in Australia ran an article claiming that women didn’t need to bother with protection when indulging in sexual intercourse because they could determine when they were fertile using their star sign and the positions of the planets on the day they wished to indulge!

    Sorry to hear you are ‘going quiet’ for August. Good luck with the conferences and grant proposals!

    Comment by Graham — August 1, 2014 @ 4:44 am | Reply

  3. Creationism should be taught because the Theory of Evolution is a 19th century error made possible by an 18th century unscientific philosophy: http://www.realstreet.co.uk/2010/08/myths-and-hoaxes-1

    Other than that, I agree with you.

    Comment by Stewart Cowan — August 10, 2014 @ 5:09 am | Reply


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