The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘astrology’

Happy Solstice!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 21, 2009

Happy Solstice everyone!  It might seem a strange thing to be celebrating, this specific position of Earth in its orbit around the sun, but we skeptics have our reasons.  This, of course, has to do with the old myth of being able to balance eggs on their ends only during either the vernal (spring) or autumnal equinox – of course, all references are in regards to the northern hemisphere.

But wait, it’s not the equinox, so why bring up this myth now?  To debunk it, of course.  According to adherents of this myth, usually the same folks who are into astrology-related woo, during the equinoxes “things line up cosmically” (probably some misunderstood reference to the fact that the length of day & night are the same), and this should result in the capability to stand eggs on their ends.

The funny thing about this particular myth is that it contains a kernel of truth… you can stand an egg on its end on the equinox, just as you can at any time of the year – even the solstices, as far away from the equinox as you can get.  Case in point, I just balanced three eggs on end in my kitchen…

Solstice Eggs

This supposedly “cosmic event” took me all of five minutes to accomplish – with a little practice, it’s easy to do. To understand why it is that eggs can be balanced in this manner, it is more helpful to look to the science of physics rather than the pseudoscience of astrology – this link at the Bad Astronomy blog explains in more detail.

So, the next time you hear someone make this loony claim, have a little fun with it – whip out the eggs and balance away!

Posted in astrology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Why Do People Believe in Woo & Superstition?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 20, 2009

I have often wondered why it is that so many otherwise intelligent & educated people that I know buy into some of the weirdest woo that is out there. As famed skeptic Michael Shermer has said, “There are plenty of smart people who believe dumb things for non-smart reasons.” Why? What is it that makes so many of us so susceptible to accepting & believing in various kinds of woo and superstition?

A recent study from Northwestern University researchers may have found an answer, one which would corroborate the views of many skeptics who’ve pondered this question for years: control. The research was outlined at this Chicago Tribune article last October, and here are some key points of the study…

Now a new study by Northwestern University researchers has found that all such superstitions may have a common source: the feeling of a lack of control, which spurs people to concoct false patterns and meaning from the noise of life’s chance events.

The Chicago group found that making experimental subjects remember a time when they lacked control actually changed the way they viewed the world, and created a temporary need to see patterns where none existed.

The study in Friday’s edition of the journal Science represents the first experimental confirmation of a link that psychologists long suspected was behind superstitions, conspiracy theories, rituals and even some aspects of religious belief.

Conspiracy theories may be the most poignant example of the way lack of control can color perceptions and beliefs, said Jennifer Whitson, who co-authored the study with Northwestern professor Adam Galinsky as part of her doctoral thesis at the Kellogg School of Management.

For example, a universe of false conspiracy theories cropped up after the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the notion that the U.S. government masterminded the attacks. Whitson said the loss of power that terrorism can inflict on people helps explain the appeal of such theories.

As I said before, this study verifies the suspicions of many a skeptic. For example, renowned skeptic James “The Amazing One” Randi explains to a college class why it is that he thinks that so many people give the pseudoscience of astrology so much validity, despite the fact that it has been proven to be completely useless…

As Randi has said many times, when it comes to belief in woo & pseudoscience, for many people it’s not so much that they want to believe it, it’s that they need to believe it. And if you attempt to shake someone’s comforting worldview (even unintentionally) that gives them some sense of control, even if that sense of control is false & a complete illusion, they will often react negatively.

So, the next time you are discussing with friends or acquaintances some aspect of woo, take care how you come across with your skepticism. Be skeptical, and make your case, but also remember that you’re dealing with real people who have real emotional needs, some of which are satisfied with belief in woo, and tailor your message accordingly.

Posted in psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Psychic Parasites

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 10, 2009

A few days ago I saw an article on CNN.com titled “Psychic’s business booming in tough economy.” It seems that when times are tough, such as in the current economic crisis, there are many people who are looking for some kind of reassurance and guidance for what to do. And, sadly, when there are people who are desperate, there are those parasitic scumbags who will take advantage of them – specifically, psychics.

psychic

And it seems that the kind of people who are flocking to some psychics are those involved in high-finance and business…

As the economy tanks, [psychic] Usleman’s business is booming.

“It’s more types of people I have never seen before,” says Usleman. “Men in the business world, high-powered jobs, stock market, Wall Street.”

Since last fall, she says she began to see a new type of client — a “logical, [A-type] of personality.” Many of them are “just completely lost,” says Usleman.

Relationship advice, typically the bread and butter of the psychic business, has been supplanted by something new.

“Should I merge with this company? Should I bring in a partner to my company,” are the kind of questions Usleman gets from her clients.

I don’t know about you, but this article sent a bit of a chill up my spine. This is eerily similar to something I blogged about earlier – in my post Stars & Superstition – called financial astrology, where some financial advisers & investors actually use the thoroughly useless pseudoscience of astrology to make big financial decisions.

Like astrology, consulting a psychic seriously is to simply engage in all manner of magical thinking. The primary technique by which pretty much any psychic performs their “miracles” is a well-known psychological tactic called cold reading. One of the best books on the subject of cold reading is Ian Rowland’s Full Facts Book of Cold Reading – which clearly outlines the techniques by which psychics either intentionally or unintentionally do their readings. Here are some basics to cold reading

1. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reading is confidence.

If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most subjects. One danger of playing the role of reader is that you may actually begin to believe that you really are divining your subject’s true character!

2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.

These can provide you with much information about what various subclasses in our society believe, do, want , worry about etc. For example, if you can ascertain a subject’s place of origin, educational level, and his/her parents’ religion and vocations, you have gained information which should allow you to predict with high probability his/her voting preferences and attitudes to many subjects.

3. Set the stage for your reading.

Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. You will then catch your subject off guard. You are not challenging them to a battle of wits – You can read his/her character, whether he/she believes you or not.

4. Gain the subject’s cooperation in advance.

Emphasise that the success of the reading depends as much on the subject’s cooperation as on your efforts. (After all, you imply, you already have a successful career at character reading – You are not on trial, your subject is!) State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the meaning you intend. In these cases, the subject must strive to fit the reading to his/her own life. You accomplish two valuable ends with this dodge – Firstly, you have an alibi in case the reading doesn’t click; it’s the subject’s fault, not yours! Secondly, your subject will strive to fit your generalities to his/her specific life circumstances. Later, when the subject recalls the reading, you will be credited with much more detail than you actually provided! This is crucial. Your reading will only succeed to the degree that the subject is made an active participant in the reading. The good reader is the one who , deliberately or unwittingly, forces the subject to search his/her mind to make sense of your statements.

5. Use a gimmick, such as Tarot cards, crystal ball, palm reading etc.

Use of props serves two valuable purposes. Firstly, it lends atmosphere to the reading. Secondly, (and more importantly) it gives you time to formulate your next question/statement. Instead of just sitting there, thinking of something to say, you can be intently studying the cards /crystal ball etc. You may opt to hold hands with your subject – This will help you feel the subject’s reactions to your statements. If you are using , say, palmistry (the reading of hands) it will help if you have studied some manuals, and have learned the terminology. This will allow you to more quickly zero in on your subject’s chief concerns – “do you wish to concentrate on the heart line or the wealth line?”

6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue.

Even during a cold reading, a liberal sprinkling of stock phrases will add body to the reading and will help you fill in time while you formulate more precise characterisations. Use them to start your readings. Palmistry, tarot and other fortune telling manuals are a key source of good phrases.

7. Keep your eyes open!

Use your other senses as well. Size the subject up by observing his/her clothes, jewellery, mannerisms and speech. Even a crude classification based on these can provide the basis for a good reading. Also, watch carefully for your subject’s response to your statements – You will soon learn when you are hitting the mark!

8. Use the technique of fishing.

This is simply a device to get the subject to tell you about his/herself. Then you rephrase what you have been told and feed it back to the subject.

One way of fishing is to phrase each statement as question, then wait for the reply. If the reply or reaction is positive, then you turn the statement into a positive assertion. Often the subject will respond by answering the implied question and then some. Later, the subject will forget that he/she was the source of the information! By making your statements into questions, you also force the subject to search his/her memory to retrieve specific instances to fit your general statement.

9. Learn to be a good listener.

During the course of a reading your client will be bursting to talk about incidents that are brought up. The good reader allows the client to talk at will. On one occasion I observed a tealeaf reader. The client actually spent 75% of the time talking. Afterward when I questioned the client about the reading she vehemently insisted that she had not uttered a single word during the course of the reading. The client praised the reader for having astutely told her what in fact she herself had spoken.

Another value of listening is that most clients that seek the services of a reader actually want someone to listen to their problems. In addition, many clients have already made up their minds about what choices they are going to make. They merely want support to carry out their decision.

10. Dramatise your reading.

Give back what little information you do have or pick up a little bit at a time. Make it seem more than it is. Build word pictures around each divulgence. Don’t be afraid of hamming it up.

11. Always give the impression that you know more than you are saying.

The successful reader, like the family doctor, always acts as if he/she knows much more. Once you have persuaded the subject that you know one item of information that you couldn’t possibly have known (through normal channels) the subject will assume that you know all! At this point, the subject will open up and confide in you.

12. Don’t be afraid to flatter your subject at every opportunity.

An occasional subject will protest, but will still lap it up. In such cases, you can add, “You are always suspicious of those who flatter you. You just can’t believe that someone will say something good about you without an ulterior motive”.

13. Remember the Golden Rule – always tell the subject what he/she wants to hear!

That’s it. If you can gain a decent mastery of those 13 tricks, then you can easily hang out a shingle and out-psychic any psychic scumbags out there. There’s nothing more to it than that!

And that’s what makes this whole thing all the more scary. In these difficult economic times, some of the very people in places of financial power – businesspeople & Wall-Street types – are giving into their fears and allowing that to drive them irrationally into the arms of people who can only give the illusion that they have any clue what they’re talking about. I find that to be pretty damned unsettling.

As a humorous way of cautioning people to be wary of those making psychic claims, here is a spoof video of psychic douchebag John Edward getting Skepticallypwnd 😀

Fortunately, the CNN.com article did end on a cautionary note, one which I would pass on to anyone thinking about giving their money to a psychic charlatan

Financial adviser Ryan Mack says adding the cost of a psychic reading into an already stretched budget is not a good investment.

“Regardless of what the stars say, regardless of what the map says in terms of — if Pluto is lined up with Mars,” says Mack. “You have the ability within yourself to save, to plan and to be diligent.”

Sound advice, no psychic powers required. Oh yeah, and it’s free, too.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Stars & Superstition

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 27, 2009

Today there was a solar eclipse – it was really only visible from the Indian Ocean and surrounding region.  But if you happened to be nearby, you would have been treated to some pretty spectacular sights, like this sunset over Manila Bay in the Philippines…

solar-eclipse

Whenever relatively rare events such as eclipses take place, they quite understandably draw our attention. All people seem to have, if you’ll pardon the pun, a universal interest in the stars & skies above us. Unfortunately, this sense of wonder that we have when viewing the heavens can all too easily lead us down the path to woo & uncritical thinking.

Leaving aside the fact that there are still a number of people who believe in geocentrism (the view that the Earth is the center of the universe), it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that somehow mysterious cosmic forces are influencing our daily lives. I am talking about, of course, that infamous bugaboo, astrology.

Aside: “Astrology” is NOT the same thing as “astronomy”. Astronomy is a real science, and it just kills science geeks like me when we hear people mix the two terms up. It’s like saying oil & water are the same thing…

Now, don’t get me wrong, given the evidence around us it’s easy to see that various celestial objects in the sky influence us. After all, our own Sun is a star, and it constantly bathes our planet in life-giving light. Our calendars, indeed our entire concept of time, is based upon motions & cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars. And if a dinosaur killer asteroid were to suddenly whip out of deep space and impact the Earth, I think we could all agree that would qualify as some kind of influence, right?

We accept that those sort of celestial influences upon our daily lives are real because there are understandable and have concrete physical processes behind them (such as the inverse-square law of light and Newton’s law of universal gravity). But astrology doesn’t provide any mechanism for explaining the supposed influence that it peddles – modern astrology merely makes random connections and inferences, much as any other form of prophecy or divination. Despite the implications & claims of its practitioners that astrological systems are scientific, there is no peer-review system for astrology. In fact, most “predictions” by astrologers are little more than guesses, overly-broad generalizations that anyone could make, or post hoc fabrications which seem to fit events after they’ve occurred. For example, this can be seen in this astrology blog entry where the writer attributes events such as 9/11 and the current economic recession to something called the “Cosmic Trigger.” My favorite line is this one…

When we see an activation of the Aries Point, we always get big news. This has happened a dozen times in the past decade — stuff like Sept. 11, the tsunami and other events. The Aries Point is like this bell waiting to be rung, only it’s not a bell, it’s like a crystal bowl that vibrates the universe.

Wow, it would sure be nice if these astrologers could actually predict something big like the stock market crash before it happened, wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, in all forms, astrology employs heavy doses of magical thinking in order for it to make sense to its adherents.

astrology

For a much more thorough analysis of astrology and why it doesn’t work, I refer you to an excellent article by Dr. Phil Plait, “The Bad Astronomer” – check it out here! I’ll give the last word on debunking astrology to that master of skeptics, James “The Amazing” Randi…

I want to close this post by telling you why I think it is important to beware of pseudoscientific nonsense like astrology. Everyone knows that we’re in quite an economic downturn now, but one thing you may not know is that a disturbing number of Wall Street traders & brokers have used astrology (called financial astrology) in their daily work! Really, I’m not kidding. And, sadly, astrology is not the only psuedoscience which influences the investment trade.

And if that wasn’t enough to give you a little thrill, think about this – former First Lady Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrological adviser, and she would use the astrologer’s advice to influence the schedule of events for President Ronald Reagan! So the daily activities of the most powerful man on the planet (with his finger on THE Button) were being set by a pseudoscientific crank. Wow, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

In uncertain times such as these, it is often comforting to take a night-time walk and gaze upon the heavens, drinking in the vast reaches of our cosmos. But in our desire to seek solace in the skies, we must be careful not to abandon our reason. As I like to say to my students, “It’s okay to keep an open mind, just not so open that your brain falls out.” 🙂

Posted in astrology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Importance of Being Wrong

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 26, 2009

I was initially planning on titling this post “The Importance of Being Right” – but then I thought that we all pretty much already knew that. We all know that if you don’t do the engineering calculations correctly, for instance, the car engine doesn’t work. Or if you don’t really know what you’re doing with biochemistry, the drug/vaccine/antibiotic you’re making doesn’t cure disease effectively. Clearly, because the universe functions according to a set group of natural laws we must make sure that our science & technology fits with those laws. To insist the universe adhere to our own preconceptions while ignoring how it really behaves is a sure path to self-delusion. Taken to its logical extreme, such thinking leads towards solipsism – also known as the philosophical idea that “My mind is the only thing that I know exists.”

Aside: I like to ask those espousing solipsism whether or not they look both ways before crossing the street – strangely enough, the answer has always been “yes.” The following cartoon also illustrates the silliness of taking solipsism too seriously…

solipsism

So, we all know that because there is an external reality beyond our own mind that functions independently of that mind, the importance of being right is unquestionable.

But what about the importance of being wrong? I will tell you this… it is very important to not only be wrong (to a certain degree) but, more importantly, how to learn about why we were wrong. I had the idea for this post because I was at my martial arts dojo today, and I was trying to help a less-experienced student with a technique which is a defense against mae-giri, also known as a front kicking attack. As I attacked him, he had a hard time avoiding my kicks, and he grew frustrated that he wasn’t able to perform the technique easily. I responded by telling him not to let it bother him, because he’ll do it wrong 100 times before he gets it right once. Hopefully, throughout the process of doing it wrong so many times, my junior student will learn how to do it correctly. We learn by making mistakes.

It is no different in my classroom – I’ve dealt with many a frustrated student who was having trouble learning how to do a physics problem or attempting to work their way through a lab. Only with constant practice, and by making a plethora of errors, can most students effectively learn what not to do. As I tell my students, the reason why I’m so good at physics is because I’ve had so many experiences making mistakes! 🙂

There is another issue – many students are stuck on always getting the “right” answer in science class, and sometimes teachers (myself included) are guilty of overly reinforcing this attitude. But to get the process – and not merely the facts – of science across to our students properly, I think we have to walk a fine line as educators. And this is where the importance of experimental lab work in science classes cannot be overstated.

In my classes I require my students to do a lot of lab work. Many times I purposefully set up scenarios in which the students are to draw conclusions from their data. A perfect example is when I ask them to make a series of measurements on the period of a simple pendulum, and they are to isolate three variables in the process – mass of the pendulum bob, amplitude of the swing, and the pendulum’s length. I then ask them to, based upon their data, determine how (or even if) each of these variables affects the period of the pendulum as it swings to and fro.

pendulum

The responses I get from my students are interesting, because despite the fact that they’ve collected the data, many answer the question incorrectly. Many will say that the more massive the pendulum bob or the smaller the amplitude, the shorter the period of the pendulum. And this is incorrect – under controlled conditions, the period of a simple pendulum is only affected by its length! That is, the longer the pendulum, the longer its period, and the mass & amplitude don’t affect the period.

Often, when I point this out to students, they don’t believe me at first. But then I point to the data which they collected, and then they see it – they allowed their preconceived biases of how they thought the pendulum should behave to creep into the scientific process. In so doing, they were giving me what they thought ahead of time to be the “right” answer, instead of gleaning out the proper answer from their data in a non-biased manner. Their conclusions were wrong, but when it comes to such a lesson I want them to understand why they were wrong – experimenter bias.

I mention all of this because it should be noted that science cannot be done in a vacuum – this is why we often speak of a scientific community. Scientists are just as human as anyone, and we all come to the process with our own biases & preconceptions, and – just like my students – we sometimes see what we want to see. But the scientific endeavor is different from all others in one critical way – peer-review. Peer-review is necessary in science precisely to make sure that our biases, preconceptions, mistakes, and sometimes outright fraud do not unduly influence the results of our explorations. Through peer-review we often catch each others mistakes, we demand that proposed hypotheses be falsifiable, we insist that experiments be repeatable and verifiable. As such, we get things wrong all the time in science, but we figure out why we get it wrong – and this puts us closer to the path of getting things right. Through this rigorous peer-review process, we see that science is self-correcting.

And that is a major distinction between science and pseudoscience. The scientific community does peer-review, learns from its collective mistakes, and employs a largely self-correcting process in its search for our understanding of the universe. Pseudoscientists of all stripes – astrologers, homeopaths, creationists, and conspiracy theorists to name a few – make this one fatal flaw: lacking adequate peer-review, they don’t learn from being wrong. Rather, they insist upon molding the universe to fit with their worldview, and in so doing they delude themselves & others. This cartoon illustrates the point rather well…

science vs. pseudoscience

Now I’m off to grade some exams. Hopefully my students have learned from earlier mistakes.

Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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