In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and religion, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe.
"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
People who diligently follow their horoscopes may claim that it’s all just good fun. But on closer examination, this claim falls flat. Here’s why astrology is potentially damaging to our understanding of science, relationships — and even our place in the universe itself.
Astrology, though discredited for centuries, still remains wildly popular. Scarcely does a day go by when we’re not told of how our astrological sign is supposed to govern our behavior or predetermine the day’s events. Yet no explanation has ever been given — nor is one forthcoming — that can adequately explain the mechanism for which the alignment of the planets can influence our psychologies or the unfolding of the universe.
It didn’t help the astrological cause back in 2011 when an entirely new version of the zodiac was proposed, thus shifting everyone’s sign from its mythical original position. Indeed, the whole premise behind astrology is predicated on some rather flimsy parameters; what we call “months” are actually cultural — and not cosmological — constructs. Moreover, our expanding universe, and all that’s within it, is in a constant state of flux.
Anyways, I’m not going to waste your time by debunking astrology right now. For that I highly recommend Phil Plait’s comprehensive take-down, which you can read here. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to explain why astrology does you no good — and why putting any credence into your sign or horoscope is not just misguided, but potentially harmful.
Bad For Science, Bad For Women
A recent poll by the National Science Foundation showed that more than 40% of Americans think astrology is a science — a rather shocking result (and no, it wasn’t because respondents were conflating astrology with astronomy). Equally as frustrating is the news that it’s at its highest level since 1983. The NSF uses this survey as a kind of metric for “the public’s capacity to distinguish science from pseudoscience.”
Demographically speaking, and in the words of Chris Mooney, much of the blame belongs to “younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least ‘sort of’ scientific, and those aged 35 to 44.”
Other surveys have shown that women are more drawn to astrology than men. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 28% of women believe in astrology, compared to 23% of men. In Canada it’s even worse, where 33% of women buy into it.
But as York University sociologist Julia Hemphill tells io9, there’s more to this statistic than meets the eye: women are specifically targeted by the popular media.
"Astrology is an unempirical epistemology that’s peddled to women as a way of understanding themselves and the world," she says. "All you have to do is open a ‘women’s magazine’, and you’ll inevitably see at least one or two pages devoted to astrology.
The same pattern, she says, is evident in television programming for women.
"While shows about ‘mediums’, and other supernatural phenomenon can be found on virtually any network whose mandate is to attract and keep the viewership of women, such shows are a rarity, if utterly nonexistent on the schedules of ‘men’s’ networks," she says. "These networks are more likely to air shows that tend to focus on actual science."
Hemphill says it’s reasonable to question the degree to which women are ultimately deterred from learning about and engaging in genuine science — particularly when they’re aggressively offered pseudoscience in its stead.
'A Dangerous Fatalism'
Astrology also gives rise to uncritical thinking. Astronomer Phil Plait puts it best when he says that
The more we teach people to simply accept anecdotal stories, hearsay, cherry-picked data (picking out what supports your claims but ignoring what doesn’t), and, frankly, out-and-out lies, the harder it gets for people to think clearly. If you cannot think clearly, you cannot function as a human being. I cannot stress this enough. Uncritical thinking is tearing this world to pieces, and while astrology may not be at the heart of that, it has its role.
When are we most (and least) likely to lie?
“Could switching to Geico really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance? Was Abe Lincoln honest?” So intones the Geico commercial spokesperson, followed by faux vintage film footage of Mary Lincoln asking her husband, “Does this dress make my backside look big?” Honest Abe squirms and shifts, then hesitates and, while holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, finally mutters, “Perhaps a bit,” causing his wife to spin on her heels and exit in a huff.
The humor works because we recognize the question as a disguised request for a compliment or as a test of our love and loyalty. According to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his 2013 book Lying (Four Elephants Press), however, even in such a scenario we should always tell the truth: “By lying, we deny our friends access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information.” Maybe Mary’s dressmaker is incompetent, or maybe Mary actually could stand to lose some weight, which would make her healthier and happier. Moreover, Harris says, little white lies often lead to big black lies: “Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly: shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high.” A practical solution is to think of a way to tell the truth with tact. As Harris notes, research shows that “all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.”
Most of us are not Hitlerian in our lies, but nearly all of us shade the truth just enough to make ourselves or others feel better. By how much do we lie? About 10 percent, says behavioral economist Dan Ariely in his 2012 book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty (Harper). In an experiment in which subjects solve as many number matrices as possible in a limited time and get paid for each correct answer, those who turned in their results to the experimenter in the room averaged four out of 20. In a second condition in which subjects count up their correct answers, shred their answer sheet and tell the experimenter in another room how many they got right, they averaged six out of 20—a 10 percent increase. And the effect held even when the amount paid per correct answer was increased from 25 to 50 cents to $1, $2 and even $5. Tellingly, at $10 per correct answer the amount of lying went slightly down. Lying, Ariely says, is not the result of a cost-benefit analysis. Instead it is a form of self-deception in which small lies allow us to dial up our self-image and still retain the perception of being an honest person. Big lies do not.
Psychologists Shaul Shalvi, Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer tested the hypothesis that people are more likely to lie when they can justify the deception to themselves in a 2013 paper entitled “Honesty Requires Time (and Lack of Justifications),” published in Psychological Science. Subjects rolled a die three times in a setup that blocked the experimenter’s view of the outcome and were instructed to report the number that came up in the first roll. (The higher the number, the more money they were paid.) Seeing the outcomes of the second and third rolls gave the participants an opportunity to justify reporting the highest number of the three; because that number had actually come up, it was a justified lie.
Some subjects had to report their answer within 20 seconds, whereas others had an unlimited amount of time. Although both groups lied, those who were given less time were more likely to do so. In a second experiment subjects rolled the die once and reported the outcome. Those who were pressed for time lied; those who had time to think told the truth. The two experiments suggest that people are more likely to lie when time is short, but when time is not a factor they lie only when they have justification to do so.
Perhaps Mary should not have given Abe so much time to ponder his response.