Sunday, March 21, 2010

Advocating the devil

Phil Plait is right about astrology but he's occasionally naive about how idiots react to reason. He's vaguely surprised that astrologers are unconvinced by his arguments. I really like Phil's article, but I want to play devil's advocate (as worrisome as that phrase is) to see if I can predict how astrologers will respond. If I can, I'll later look at some of Phil's responders and we'll have us a game of bingo.

By the way, I'm not advocating an accomodationist approach to astrology. Phil's approach is right. The people who believe in astrology are wrong. I'd go further than Phil and suggest that they are complete idiots.

First, let's see if there can be any effect from the planets and stars as astrologers claim. Then, after I show you that there not only isn't any, but cannot be any as they claim, we'll take a look at the claims astrologers make about measured effects (I'll give you a hint: they're wrong). Then finally, I'll talk a little bit about the real effect of astrology, and how it is eroding people's ability to think clearly.

Phil has already lost believers. They will automatically think he's small-minded and arrogant. How can he possibly claim to know about what forces exist in the universe and how forces can and can't work? For the record, Phil is perfectly entitled to the claims he makes, but astrologers are going to pick his statement apart because they don't follow the rules.

What if there's a force we don't know about? What if there's a force we can't measure? Phil's wider point is that to hypothesise such a force is so non-parsimonious as to be batshit insane. For one thing, a force that can't be measured is one we can't conclude exists. He's absolutely right but he's making assumptions of rationality that by no means include believers in astrology. They will have no difficulty in conjuring up a magical force that will 'explain' exactly what they want it to explain because they are under no obligation that it makes the slightest sense. Or that it is even internally consistent.

Phil's main 'mistake' is to make the obviously true claim that the magnitude of a force's effect is the important thing. A believer would have no pang of conscience in claiming that there was some unspecified 'character' or something in the unspecified force supposedly exerted by stars and planets that somehow makes astrology work. Because they don't feel they need to make sense. The suggestion that forces probably have to work in the way we've continually observed them to have worked since Newton is unlikely to cut much ice with the idiotic.

Remember, and I keep repeating this because it's important-- this is playing by the astrologers' own rules.

I don't think it is, because astrologers' 'rules' don't have to be consistent. Phil is right, of course, to harangue astrologers on these points. Remember that I'm just saying why astrologers won't listen, not arguing with his strategy. I don't have any better suggestions.

Phil's inaccuracy argument, however, is fairly devastating. The answer from astrologers will no doubt be that some astrologers might be lying or wrong but that the one they personally happen to advocate doesn't use these tricks. There is no reasoning with such people: they will not only insist that the emperor is clothed, but will go into rapturous detail about the stitching of his lapels.

Phil's consistency argument is also pretty devastating. How could anyone fail to be convinced by it? If astrology works, then two astrologers should get the same results, right? Believers would presumably say that one of the astrologers wasn't very good and (probably) that the other was. The 'good' one would turn out to be the one who made the more accurate prediction. I don't think people who feel this way would take the time to understand why meta-analyses prove them wrong.

Let me say it again: I think Phil's article is awesome and exactly the kind of thing people should be writing. I wish I'd written the article. I would probably have written much the same thing, only not as well. This post is just an expression of my frustration at how people eschew reason without the slightest thought. That people can so torture logic and damage reason should be considered a moral and logical global emergency.

No comments:

Post a Comment