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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Question of the Day #54: Science, pseudoscience, and non-science

Pardon the long-windedness of this question, but it's a complex issue in some ways, at least for me.

I've hated horoscopes for years. I probably feel about horoscopes the way many atheists feel about religion, a sort of "How could anyone be that stupid, and how can these astrologers sleep at night making a living off of selling crap?" mentality. Then this morning, I had some thoughts as I saw the horoscopes sitting next to the bridge column.

I recall once an experiment in which a large group of people were asked for their date and time of birth so that a complete "star chart" could be made up for them. A few days later, they were given their descritions based on their star chart drawn up by a professional astrologer. Over 90% of the group agreed that what the astrologer had written about them without knowing them was a strikingly accurate description. Then the tester gave them a new piece of information: the entire group was actually reading the same exact description. Not only that, but the star chart did not belong to any member of the group, but instead was the star chart of Charles Manson. A bit of shock set in, of course.

My questions are not about horoscopes, but about the nature of this test. It seems that letting the group know they were all reading the same description ought to be enough to convince them that the whole thing was bunk. It would have been enough for me, I know. Adding the fact that they were reading the star chart of Charles Manson was obviously added for shock value. I wondered this morning, was choosing Charles Manson intended to shock in order to make the results crystal clear, or because the tester was aiming less to be scientific and more to promote the agenda of frightening people out of their belief in horoscopes?

In testing pseudoscience, is it wrong to go into the test with an agenda in mind of wanting to prove or disprove rather than keeping an open mind? Was the test above really "scientific" anyway? Can one really make a scientifically valid test for something that isn't quite proper science to begin with? Is it fair (or reasonable) to want to judge pseudoscience by proper scientific standards anyway, rather than responding with countering pseudoscience, so to speak? Or is the whole thing a complete waste of time to even consider responding to?

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6 Comments:

At 7/23/2006 11:45 AM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

You are inquisitive yet repulsive. You successfully master your urges to pick your nose in public....

The language of horoscopes and fortune cookies is an artful blend of ambiguity, hedged statements and mild flattery. The core statements are those that are universally true about human nature. The most scientific approach that I can think of would be a process writing class where individuals are taught to produce such work without the "aid" of a star chart, or pre-engineered statements. A computer program could string pre-engineered phrases together in a demonstrably random selection to make the point also.

As for the "science" in the pseudoscience, there might be some correlation between personality and the season in which an infant starts to become aware. There are changes in levels and types of activities surrounding the child and observable to that child. An obvious example would be the shift from outdoor to indoor activities in cold Winter climates. These would add up to subtle variations in "nurture" and different "first impressions" on the child. There are so many more striking influences on personality development that one might not ever devise a way to measure these influences.

To answer your questions in order:

"How could anyone be that stupid, and how can these astrologers sleep at night making a living off of selling crap?"

A. The majority of people are that stupid because the socio-political-economic system under which we live works hard to produce such stupidity. The more stupid you are, the more exploitable you are. Religious and political systems alike exploit the uncertainty they produce by creating broken people that can believe mutually exclusive and contradictory "values". Such a person is primed for a life of indecision and self-doubt, and will "naturally" defer to authority. The fact that primary school systems do not teach philosophy and logic, and produce graduates that are prepared for a game of Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy and not much else, supports this conclusion.

B. The value of a thing is set not by its utility, but rather by what a willing market is willing to pay for it. As long as there are people who want horoscopes, I cannot blame the astrologers for selling them. I put them in the same category as toys. To my way of thinking, people who sell tattoos should have a harder time sleeping at night.

"I wondered this morning, was choosing Charles Manson intended to shock in order to make the results crystal clear, or because the tester was aiming less to be scientific and more to promote the agenda of frightening people out of their belief in horoscopes?"

I don't know. The selection is a good one though, because the prepared star chart gave no indication of the charismatic/psychotic personality of the person for whom it was prepared. The fact that the entire class identified with it demonstrates the ambiguity. It is a valid scientific approach to select an extreme example and test for correlation.

"In testing pseudoscience, is it wrong to go into the test with an agenda in mind of wanting to prove or disprove rather than keeping an open mind?"

This question is moot. Once one sees how a stage magician creates the illusion, one cannot say to one's self "Or, it could be real magic." Astrology aims at being right 51% of the time by throwing enough personality traits on the page, and throwing contradictory information far enough down the page that the contradictions are not obvious. It is a "something for everyone" approach. When it is wrong, the subject will say "oh well" and go away. When it is right, the subject says "Oh wow! Do it again!" This can be the same subject on different days.

"Was the test above really "scientific" anyway?"

Once you have made the analysis, the conclusion follows. No further "testing" is required, so this was not a test but a demonstration.

"Can one really make a scientifically valid test for something that isn't quite proper science to begin with?"

This would be a very good question to ask a Clinical Psychologist. They will tell you that yes, one can, but wheter or not they make their point is up to your discretion.

"Is it fair (or reasonable) to want to judge pseudoscience by proper scientific standards anyway, rather than responding with countering pseudoscience, so to speak?"

All is fair. If it fails to titrate, AND fails the "sniff test", so much the better.

"Or is the whole thing a complete waste of time to even consider responding to?"

Think of the children, and the future, and loudly voice your objection. Unfounded claims require opposition.

Gah! I'm long-winded yet opinionated....

 
At 7/23/2006 12:03 PM, Blogger Hellbound Alleee declaimed...

What IS there to test in astrology, anyway? The test was really on the subjects, and what they were willing to believe, rather than astrology itself. If you want to go deeper, I suppose there might be a way to test if indeed each of those individuals as well as Chales Manson fit the "reading," if it even was a reading. It doesn't matter if it's fair or not. It showed each individual that he will believe what he wants to believe, and to maybe be a little bit more skeptical next time. After all, very few people are willign to believe they are "just like" Charles Manson. Which shows another belief, doesn't it? I think that's the point.

 
At 7/24/2006 12:19 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Testability of Pseudoscience: all claims can be tested. That is, all claims that have coherent, natural referents. One cannot scientifically test for the presence of the supernatural, because the supernatural is by definition untestable. However, if something supernatural is claimed to have specific effects in the natural world, those claims can be tested. For example, if it is claimed that intercessory prayer can have real, natural effects, those effects can be tested within the confidence that prayers are actually being made.

Risk of Biased Investigation: All investigators have some bias, even if it's just subconsciously. This is the reason why rigorous controls have to be used in experimental design. Blind and double-blind conditions are used to remove investigator bias even further. Whenever scientific data is produced, always look for the controls.

 
At 7/24/2006 9:45 AM, Blogger olly declaimed...

You know, I think that the biggest problem with this test is that it's a bit like the 'man on the street' poll... there's no structure to the test, as required by scientific methodology.

I would love to see a test where you take a group that self-identify as 'believers in astrology' and a group that self-identify as 'non-believers', and then perform the same test.

As for the Charles Manson thing, that seems to be done to drive home a point, which then ruins the validity of the test, or for a publicity stunt, again questioning the motives of the tester.

-olly

 
At 7/24/2006 11:26 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

I would correct that Zach said to say that all propositions can be tested. Anything that is not testable is not a proposition.

"God exists" is not a proposition any more than "dfskl;dasok" is.

 
At 7/24/2006 8:37 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Francois, I'm curious about that claim. Is the problem inherent in the term "God", and as such the problem could be resolved with adequately specific definition of the term, or is the problem in trying to make any claim of the form "X exists"?

In any case, as far as testing astrology goes, I feel that I've both seen and thought of better tests one could perform to test its validity; many seeming much more "scientific". In particular, I once saw an astrologer on television challenged to interview twelve different people of twelve different "signs" and identify them without asking them their birthday. The challenge was to pin down all twelve. He didn't get a single one right.

 

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