Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Irrational Fears of Astrology in Universities

Some students at universities have an irrational fear of astrology and there can be many reasons for this, but as with anything irrational, the reasons are often unknown to the thinking mind. The unknowns are felt as apprehensions and unease. The intellect, which is at its most robust when operating in an educational institution, diligently rationalizes and packages the unease. The feelings of apprehension and fear do not go away, but are cloaked by the obscurity of mysterious labels such as “pseudoscience,” “superstition,” "magic," and "the dim past." By means of these rational conventions, the intellect associates the uneaseful feelings with mistakes and failings, which it does not tolerate. The rational mind then, of its own accord, allows the unconscious mind to project the uncomfortable feelings to some unfamiliar place or unfamiliar people, to in a sense be rid of them and remain forever ignorant.

I can share a few examples from my own experience of how this psychological mechanism can operate. Maybe some of you have experienced something similar yourself.

I once sat as a guest in a philosophy lecture on science and pseudoscience, where the topic was astrology. While describing the popularity and appeal of astrology to his students, the professor suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to mention the term exam. Abruptly, he interrupted his lecture, described instructions and warnings for the upcoming exam, and then resumed his lecture on why astrology is irrational.

Now, as I'm quite sure you all know, students fear exams. It is a natural dread among students and can be an ideal instrument with which to inflict a degree of pain. One does not need to be an expert on classical conditioning to understand that the professor's interruption associated astrology with anxiety and dread. Many of the students likely left that lecture with a new fear of astrology. And they would not be likely to know, if they were to reflect upon it, where that fear actually came from. They will likely pass that fear on to others, just as it was passed on to them, and they will not even know that they are doing so while they are doing it.

On another occasion I was in a planetarium show with a class of students. The lights went low and the theater seats rumbled as they elevated and reclined to a horizontal position. For several minutes our eyes gazed at the domed ceiling in the semi-darkness waiting for the show to begin. Once everyone was settled, however, one of the planetarium directors stepped onto the theater floor and began to passionately denounce astrology. He challenged anyone there who believed in astrology to reveal themselves and debate the issues.

Stretched out and cradled in those quadraphonic seats, reminiscent of dentists' chairs in space, one could scarcely lift ones head, let alone heave ones body into a position to see who was talking. No one was going to argue in those circumstances, as of course the producer knew. It was safer just to lie low and cozy, out of the line of expected fire. The theater was the perfect setting for a psychological reinforcement of learned helplessness and the producer used it as an effective deterrent against dissent.

To continue with another example, I was at one time enrolled in a course given by a very popular psychology professor with a class of thousands. Strangely, one day a personal letter arrived from the professor, posted from another country. When I read the letter, a briefly scribbled note, I was surprised to see that it was a warning against astrology. It said that an interest in astrology would ruin my academic advancement and my hoped-for career. That was the full extent of the note. No reasons or explanations were offered, just the professor’s own word. Students have every reason to take this sort of warning very seriously.

A further incident was even more disturbing. I had been invited as a guest to join a small philosophy class one evening in which astrology would be discussed. It was at a university that had a couple of highly vocal anti-astrology professors. As I listened to the lecture, however, I found this particular professor was quite fair to astrology. He used astrology as an example to develop a thread of ideas on how personal beliefs are formed. After his speech, he then asked the class to divide into three or four groups for discussion among themselves.

An astrologer companion who had accompanied me joined one of the groups and began to teach what astrology is really about. I watched the faces of the students. Some students showed interest, some showed puzzlement, and some reflected signs of growing irritation and hostility. I quickly intervened and turned the discussion to how confirmation bias and the Barnum (Forer) effect can operate in astrological consultations to affect personal beliefs. These were things that I expected the students would need to know.

Shortly, the professor reassembled the class. He announced that the astrology content of the class was finished and proceeded to draw an unusual figure on the board. The figure consisted of a circle with lines drawn from points on the perimeter to other points on the perimeter. This he called the "web of beliefs." It was a concept he had developed to describe the necessity of beliefs in daily life. I was very interested by this, because seemingly without knowing it, he had drawn a natal chart, and he even thought, as I did, that the lines within the circle represent beliefs.

I wondered if the professor knew what the points on the circumference were, that they were urges, represented in astrology by the planets, and that it is the interactive aspects of urges that give rise to beliefs. I wanted to ask him about it after the class. But when the class ended, many of the students gathered around him with their questions. I waited for about 20 minutes as the professor answered questions, but none of the students were leaving and as I didn't have any more time to wait, I finally left myself without speaking with him.

The next week, I learned that the university had removed the professor from the course, apparently because his tolerance of astrology. The fact that he was well liked by his students didn't seem to matter. The student who I knew in the class, who had been instrumental in setting up my invitation, was deeply affected by the professor's departure, for which he felt partly responsible.

In these examples, fear of astrology seems to be a self-perpetuating irrationality that feeds on itself. Students may not even know why they fear astrology. It is just something they learn through their feelings at a tender age. The people they learn it from had learned it themselves in a similar way at a tender age and had passed the fear on to them.

These are reasons why I wrote "The students' critical thinking guide to science and astrology.” In that essay, I tried to reach the audience of students while speaking in the kind voice of a caring teacher. I mention the rational fallacies that are often used against astrology and the need for discourse based on thoughtful evaluation. Astrology is by far the biggest and most enduring study ever undertaken of the mind grappling with environmental realities. It has a vast literature and a fascinating history of applied intellect. It has survived and evolved over millennia with each step of civilization around the world and has an active adaptation to modern life. Astrology is simply too interesting and important to be rejected and vilified out of fear and ignorance.

As a final footnote, while my essay for students was being peer-reviewed for publication, a reviewer wrote back to me that his daughter was in fact enrolled at that time in a course on critical thinking in which astrology was attacked. Even though this reviewer, who was anonymous to me, was undoubtedly a leading astrological thinker, his daughter had felt threatened and avoided any association with astrology. For university students, the stakes are high and fear is a strong motivator.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reappraisal of 1985 Carlson study finds support for astrology

After nearly a quarter of a century, a small group of dedicated astrologers who participated in a scientific study that reached a devastating verdict against their craft may have something to feel good about. The study, published in 1985 in the journal of scientific record, Nature (vol. 318), launched its author, Shawn Carlson, who at the time of the study was an undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkley, to instant celebrity among the community of scientific skeptics. A new assessment, however, “Appraisal of Shawn Carlson’s Renowned Astrology Tests” in Journal of Scientific Exploration (vol. 23:2) by Suitbert Ertel, professor of psychology at Göttingen University, has found serious flaws in the study's analysis. In an surprising turnaround, Ertel finds that, when correctly analyzed, according to the method that Carlson initially states but then changes, the study's data actually provides support for astrology. It now appears that the reputation of the Carlson study as a definitive test against astrology is unjustified.

Suitbert Ertel is known for his analysis and criticism of statistical research on both sides of the science/astrology controversy. He is also known for his 1988 discovery, and later replications, of planetary eminence effects, which had been predicted by the late astrology researcher Michel Gauquelin. These eminence effects strongly support the traditional astrological properties of the tested planets and have presented an irrefutable conundrum for astrology skeptics.

In the introduction to his study, “A double-blind test of astrology,” Carlson states his intention to design “an experiment that would meet the tight specifications of both the scientific and astrological communities.” The main test in the study challenged the 28 astrologer participants to match the birth charts of 116 volunteer students with personality profiles from the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), a standard personality questionnaire.

In Carlson’s assessment, the astrologers could not match birth charts to profiles any better than chance and therefore failed in their task. He concluded, “We are now in a position to argue a surprisingly strong case against natal astrology as practiced by reputable astrologers.” In Ertel's reassessment of the study's data, however, the astrologers were able to perform the matches significantly better than chance, even though they did not perform as well as they had predicted.

Because Carlson’s study was published in a highly regarded scientific journal, it is exceptional among astrology research papers. It has stood at the pinnacle of scientific recognition and easily ranks as the most frequently cited study of its kind (500+ Google links). A major contributor to the study’s credibility was the participation of qualified astrologers, all members of the National Council for Geocosmic Research (NCGR), an organization that was active in astrology research.

When Carlson’s article appeared in Nature, it immediately drew fire from critics. Some of the astrologer participants protested that Carlson ignored their suggestions, contrary to his stated intention. Carlson had refused to supply the gender identities of the CPI profiles, a necessary consideration because the CPI makes crucial distinctions between male and female responses. The eminent psychologist Hans Eysenck, late author of the book Astrology: Science or Superstition, argued that the CPI explicitly states that it should be interpreted only by trained and experienced users, and the astrologers lacked the necessary training and experience. Other critics questioned whether the CPI and astrology evaluate personality in the same ways, and whether there was enough common ground for astrologers to make valid matches. Many critics have noted that the student subjects failed to recognize both their CPI profiles and their natal chart interpretations, yet the CPI was given a pass while the astrology results were declared a failure. Over time the controversy subsided with neither side being dissuaded.

Eventually, certain aspects of the Carlson study drew Ertel’s scrutiny. Normally, articles in Nature, or any scientific journal, are peer reviewed before publication. The peer review process subjects scientific beliefs and claims of fact to critical analysis by qualified experts. Yet, even though the Carlson study makes claims of scientific fact, doubts had been raised by others as to whether it had been adequately peer reviewed. Nature had published the article in the Commentary section, and this seemed to characterize it as editorial content, where peer review might be less rigorously applied. Moreover, despite the outcry over the Carlson study voiced elsewhere, Nature had never published any responses to the study and no thorough reanalysis had ever been done, and this, Ertel believed, was cause for concern.

Ertel, in his peer-reviewed reappraisal, finds the Carlson study to be flawed in test design, test power, effect size, and sample size. The design of the study violates the demands of fairness, Ertel says, and even Carlson’s own stated protocol. Instead of presenting the astrologer participants with pair choices, which is the normal format for such tests, and the format followed in an earlier well-known astrological study by Vernon Clark (1961), Carlson presented a three-choice format, an unusual method that consists of one genuine object and two selected at random. This three-choice format, Ertel notes, is less powerful than a two-choice format. Furthermore, Carlson’s random selections of the comparison objects (students of relatively the same age) produced avoidable similarities between the objects, which reduced discrimination and further elevated the three-choice problem. In fairness, he says, dissimilar objects should have been used throughout.

Ertel is also critical of Carlson’s "piecemeal" analysis of the sampled data, in which only sub-samples are examined instead of the total effects. The accepted analysis of a three-choice format, as Ertel cites from a standard textbook, is to calculate the proportion of combined first and second choices against the third choice. Carlson initially states his intention to do this but then disregards this method for no given reason. Re-analysis of the published data by using the standard procedure shows that the astrologers correctly matched CPI profiles to natal charts better than would be expected by chance with marginal significance (p = .054). This positive result, Ertel found, was replicable with even better results (p = .04) for the astrologers’ ten-point rating of profiles fit to birth charts, a test that Carlson had requested of the astrologers but the significance of which had eluded him in the end.

In Ertel’s assessment, the proper evaluation of the test data, according to research methods that are commonly accepted to be the most fair and precise, gives two significant test results in favor of the astrologer participants, although there are numerous flaws in the study that cast doubt on any reliable conclusion. “The results are regarded as insufficient to deem astrology as empirically verified,” Ertel warns, “but they are sufficient to regard Carlson’s negative verdict on astrology as untenable.”

*Update* Support for astrology from the 1985 Carlson double-blind experiment
Famous Test of Astrology is Seriously Flawed
A Comprehensive Review of the Carlson Astrology Experiments

Monday, July 6, 2009

Nostradamus 2012 End of Time

Nostradamus 2012 is a TV program about December 21, 2012 prophesies. That date, or thereabouts, is said to be the end of the Mayan calendar. The program reels through all sorts of recent natural and man-made disasters, pointing to the ticking time bomb of anticipated earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, climate change, global famine, pole shift, and other disasters that await humankind. The program attempts to support its predictions of these disasters with the writings of Nostradamus and the symbolism in some recently discovered drawings attributed to Nostradamus.

According to this program, the main event that would trigger these disasters is the alignment of the galactic center with the Capricorn solstice, hence the December 21st date. The sun would "eclipse" the galactic center at the solstice point.

I agree with the program's use of the galactic center for the accurate measurement of the 25,800 cycle historically known as "precession of the equinoxes" and the Great Year. In astrology, however, the equinoxes and solstices, as the defining points of celestial longitude, should represent a fixed frame of reference in the sky. Everything should be seen as moving within celestial longitude, including the galactic center and the constellations.

It should not be relevant which constellation is at the Aries equinox because constellations, unlike individual stars, are irrelevant in astrology. The main point of interest in the great-year cycle should be the movement of galactic center, a precise point like each of the planets, within the framework of celestial longitude. The so-called Age of Aquarius, which attempts to use constellations as aggregate bodies, is a departure from any sort of reasonable or traditional astrology.

The Nostradamus 2012 program commits the astronomical error of using the 2012 date as the critical alignment. The galactic center does not actually align with the Capricorn solstice until the year 2295. The program tries to extend the initial concept of the end of the Mayan calendar into all sorts of unrelated areas in an attempt to connect them to the major changes we currently see on our planet.

Climate change is already wreaking havoc and will continue to do so until humankind does something to stop it. It is much too big a stretch to associate the year 2012 end date of the Mayan calendar with the galactic center alignment to the Capricorn solstice, which will not happen until 2295, almost three hundred years hence.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The vernal equinox: Science and mysticism

A recent newspaper carried an article, "The vernal equinox: Science and mysticism," which contrasted the different views of what the vernal equinox means to an astronomer and an astrologer. The article, posted on the newspaper's web site, drew criticism from some members of the public for taking astrology seriously and giving it credibility. I would like to attempt to clarify and amplify the astrological view.

The vernal equinox is one of two places in the sky near which the planets spend an equal amount of time above the horizon as below during the course of a day. Astronomically, the equinoxes represent points of equilibrium. Astrologically, the equinoxes represent an axis of equality. This axis of equality is to be contrasted with the axis of extremes or hierarchy, which is represented by the summer and winter solstices. These two axes are natural symmetries that define the framework of tropical signs used in Western astrology.

When the planets in their cycles cross this axis of equality, the planetary urges, acting from within individuals and collectively in society, are thought to express values of equality, as distinct from the values of hierarchy, which are represented by the solstices. There are two ways in which values of equality can be expressed. We can value cooperation and we can value competition among equals. The vernal equinox is thought to be the point where competition is most highly valued, whereas the autumnal equinox is thought to be the point where cooperation is most highly valued.

Planets near the vernal equinox tend to reflect the values of competition in our corresponding interests and desires, which are to break down old hierarchical values to create a new order, whether on the personal, social, or collective level, depending on the planet involved. Initiatives for the new order may potentially be expressed through fitness programs, performances, competitions, innovations, explorations, or any pioneering effort. As a planet passes over the vernal equinox, a new hierarchy of values begins through competition. This emerging hierarchy will later peak for that planetary urge when it arrives at the summer solstice.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Is there good in the recession?

Recession is not all bad and we can learn from the history of past recessions. Recessions happen because we resist change and persist with habits that have become harmful. With recession, the economic growth for certain things comes to an end and the receding economy makes us painfully aware of exposures and areas of neglect that need our attention and responsible effort.

It has often been observed that the fashion of women’s hemlines moves up and down with the economy. Over this past winter hemlines on evening wear worn by fashion leaders dramatically hit the floor. But everyday wear for most women in America today is jeans or pants and dresses and skirts are not normally seen. So what happens this time? The fashion trend seems to suggest modesty and responsibility. Does this mean that tight jeans are out and the relaxed fit is in? Will more men start wearing suits and fully brimmed hats again as in previous recessions? Long dresses and coats and big hats are not convenient for driving cars, but they are ideal for waiting at the bus stop and walking on foot. Will walking and taking public transit increase during the recession?

It has been said also that people eat healthier diets during recessions and that national health improves. This is a very good thing, and it is much overdue because so many Americans are overweight and don’t exercise enough. Better diet is adopted during recessions because more meals are prepared from scratch. Although less convenient, home cooking is more economical than serving packaged foods or dining out. As more food is prepared in the home, more attention is paid to the quality of food ingredients. Instead of high-calorie fast food with artificial ingredients, healthier, locally grown food is desired. More people are even buying seeds and planting their own gardens. The more that good meals are planned and become a relaxed social focus of the day, the more family values could improve. Can you picture Michele Obama planting a vegetable garden at the White House for her family's use? Yes, this is happening, and the President himself will be expected to pull weeds. Food is of crucial importance to health and maybe it’s good to have a real involvement in how it is grown and prepared.

One of the big questions during the current recession is whether economic stimulus should be given to the big corporations that are dramatically failing. Shouldn't these corporations be left to fail because they didn't pay attention the economic patterns and they ignored the indicators of necessary change? Didn’t the leaders of these corporations fail to keep their corporations secure? If the corporate leaders failed, then why should those leaders still receive fat bonuses, paid for by government? Aren't these the people who some Canadian politicians in the 1970s identified as "corporate welfare bums?" If these corporate leaders don’t get their bonuses and want to leave their current positions for positions elsewhere that they believe will pay them better, why not let them just leave? Isn't it only by the failure of irresponsible corporate governance and policy that the more responsible governance and policies, which are more in tune with the current economic needs, will have a chance to succeed?

Are environmental pressures are at the root of the recession? Doesn't the global economy need to urgently create and introduce now the programs and products that have been neglected, and should have been developed for sustainability? There seems to have been a profound shift away from the policies and politics of claiming and securing scarce resources, which is the old unsustainable way, to developing alternative and more sustainable resources. Why stimulate the continuation of large corporate growth when that growth is unsustainable? Why not restrict that growth and channel investment into the emergent economy of sustainable development?

Recently, there seems to be renewed interest in smaller houses and higher population densities. It appears that more people actually want tiny houses, whether they live in the city or in the country. Tiny houses are more affordable. If the community is planned accordingly, small houses could allow people to live closer to where they work, shop, and do other activities outside the home. People could walk or bicycle to these places, as well as to transportation nodes that connect then to other communities. Don't family values in the home need to be sustained by strong social networks outside the home? Moving housing closer together could strengthen social and community bonds. With the Internet and mobile phones, we have new electronic means of interacting with family, friends, and business contacts, but there’s really no substitute for actual face-to-face interactions. Isn't it better for people to be nearer to the people they would normally socialize with?