Saturday, February 18, 2012

Psychological manipulation and the questionable ethics of professor Chris French

Another Chris French blog article (Feb 7, 2012) appeared on the website for TheGuardian.  "Astrologers and other inhabitants of parallel universes: Followers of pseudosciences such as astrology often draw spurious parallels between their beliefs and established science" This posting elicited the following response (Feb. 9, 2012) from reader Decloud:

This is a disturbing blog post, as are some of the responses. The post is reminiscent of a lecture I once attended where the professor, who had just launched into his arguments against astrology, suddenly remembered some important details of the upcoming exam that he needed to impart to his students. As we all know, students fear exams and this interruption by the professor perfectly illustrates how students can be psychologically conditioned to associate astrology with fears.

As I spoke to the students after the lecture it became apparent that the struggling students who sat near the rear of the lecture hall were the most at risk to being affected by those fears. The professor in that case was a philosopher and as I spoke to him afterward it quickly became evident that he was not aware of the potential psychological harm he was inflicting on his students and he apologized. He might simply have been passing on his own fears in much the same way that he had learned those fears himself.

However, in the present case Chris French is a psychology professor, and an excuse of unintentional psychological manipulation on his part would be far less convincing. Administrators at Goldsmiths, University of London, should take note that French, in an article on "Astrologers," leads with descriptions of abhorrent practices of ritual abuse, exorcism, racial differences, devil worship, sexual perversion, human sacrifices, forced abortions, and cannibalism. Considering the responsibility of his position as a psychology professor, we should all question the ethics of the way French has framed his arguments and whether he or his department should receive funding to further this agenda.

The arguments that French makes are far less serious than the way he has packaged his delivery. They are the same tired old arguments that show little knowledge or understanding of the discipline that he is trying to refute. Astrologers generally do not claim that astrology works by physical forces as he suggests. Where are the references? His opposition to that view, which is not supported by astrologers, even conflicts with Laplace's demon, which was typical of the mechanistic optimism of the same period in early modern science from which French draws his paradigm. His straw man argument even has its own internal problems.

If French would study the literature, he would have to argue against the "as above, so below" concept that has guided astrology from its beginnings. There are countless symmetries in nature, from snowflakes, to pine cones, to galaxies and quantum entanglement. It is a mystery why nature prefers symmetry and astrology is part of the natural curiosity of observing and attempting to correlate and understand that mystery.

Let's hope that French's "anomalistic psychology" is indeed a psychological anomaly as its name suggests and is not typical of the sort of ideas that psychology or the public should accept as being ethically or reasonably supportable.

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