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Dear io9.com: Astrology Skeptics Get It Wrong, Again

posted by Matthew Currie

An Open Letter To George Dvorsky, io9.com:

Hi George. First of all, I wanted to thank you for your highly enjoyable work for io9.com writing your bit called “The Daily Explainer.” I’m a fan of your work, and you explain things well. Many of those clicks you get paid for came from me. You’re welcome.

However, as one writer to another, I feel there is something I should correct you on. Namely: your recent blog entry about astrology, “Why Believing In Astrology Is Not As Harmless As You Think,” which unfortunately (but not surprisingly) got the whole thing completely wrong.

***

We are entering what I am beginning to think of as “silly season” for those of us who write for living on the Internet. Of course, there are always silly things on the Internet, but the summer is a special time of year for it. A wide variety of Internet sites experience a downturn in traffic at this time of year, because apparently there’s something or other going on outside that doesn’t involve getting riled up over people’s opinions or watching baby goats jump around.

Being a member of that subset of society which we call “geeks,” I am a longtime and enthusiastic reader of io9.com. See, when I’m not being an astrologer, I take a great deal of interest in things like the latest discoveries on Titan, whether or not DC comics will screw up their upcoming movie schedule, and every tiny scrap of rumor about what might possibly be happening on Doctor Who next season.

I have no reason to believe that io9.com is any more immune to the summer slump than many other websites are. Those who write for the Internet like myself always get a bit panicky at this time of year, even when we see it coming. It’s at times like this we often end up writing the tried and true things that will grab peoples attention: the relatively easy material that we know our audience will respond to. Some examples: if you work for a political site, toss out something like “10 Reasons Why Obama Is The Worst Thing Ever” or “10 Reasons Why Bush Is STILL The Worst Thing Ever” or “Why Won’t Hillary Reveal Her Lunch Menu For The Day Benghazi Happened?” or “How Ayn Rand Has Killed More People Than Ebola” or whatever. Sports sites have various inspiring come-from-behind tales to recycle. Fashion sites can always mock the styles they praised last year, and music sites can always take a list of “10 Greatest Bands Of The 90s” and rework it as “10 Most Overrated Bands Of The 90s” and so on.

Astrologers have their own version of this too, of course. When in doubt, and where there is nothing exciting in the news to write about, there is always “Why Your Boss Is A Jerk, By Sun Sign” or “Virgos Are Picky” or whatever.

Even in times when there is a distinct deficit of Kanye West stories in the news for me to write about, I like to think I never throw out any of that “red meat” for the audience that isn’t somehow based on actual facts and/or people’s experiences and/or my own professional experiences as an astrologer. And that’s where we come to you recent entry on io9.com about the hazards of astrology, George.

Here’s my problem with it, written as best I can muster in that awesome Gawker Media style.

***

Make Your Point With A Bold Subheading

First of all, if you want to see in detail why everything in your io9.com article debunking astrology is totally based on false premises, click HERE. All you’re doing is repeating the same Straw Men that The James Randi Educational Foundation does in its booklet “Astrology: Superstition Or Science,” which you can download for free (but for which they’d love a donation, because non-profit misinforming ain’t cheap). For example, when you click on that link you’ll discover why the following statement of yours is a load:

“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.”

Whoa. Three Straw Men… maybe four… in one paragraph!

If that’s all there was to your article, George, I’d just be recycling my own arguments by complaining about it. What really concerns me is the whole new spin you’ve put on the same old skeptical click-bait. And, ladies? If you’re reading this, slow down and take notes, because you’re especially vulnerable to astrological tomfoolery because you’ve got that extra X chromosome slowing you down.

But, more on that later.

I Read A Whole Study All By Myself And Survived

Part of your article is concerned with the National Science Foundation poll showing that over 40% of Americans think astrology “is a science,” as you put it. You then cite another io9 blog entry as your source, which says the same thing… which isn’t exactly true. Allow me to quote what the study actually said: “Fewer Americans rejected astrology in 2012 than in recent years.” The actual numbers indicate that 10% of Americans polled think astrology is “very scientific” and 32% think astrology is “sort of scientific.”

Normally, I’d count this as a point in favor of the skeptics, maybe, except as I pointed out elsewhere… “what is science?I myself put astrology in the “sort of scientific” category, along with economics. Except that, of course, my predictions in the long term are more accurate than that of the average economist, it seems.

Furthermore, those dopey American astrology-suckers you’re complaining about are happening within the context of an American populace that is, slowly but overall, becoming smarter and more accepting of science, according to the same poll. But of course, that’s not good enough, and I’d agree with you on that.

Women Are Ruining Science For Everyone

But what really caught my eye in your article is the part entitled “Bad For Science, Bad For Women,” in which you wrote:

“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 , 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.”

I remember once, I had a girlfriend who suffered from an “unempirical epistemology,” and I had to go to the drugstore by myself to get Monistat for her to fix it. #embarrassing #chicksman #amirite

I’m certain that fair maidens everywhere — and not just those in the benighted villages of Canada –appreciate your (and Julia’s) chivalrous concern for the delicate ladyparts of their intellects. It’s hard enough being a woman in today’s world without all those pesky lies that popular culture is forcing them to consume of their own free will.

However, I can’t help but wonder: how would Liz Lemon respond to this piece of borderline–mansplaining from The Daily Explainer?

YouTube Preview Image

But of course your premise is perfectly sound. For example, Spike TV is directed at dudes, and you’re a dude and so am I, and that’s why you and I can’t help but re-enact the stuff we see on “World’s Wildest Police Videos.” Which reminds me… you know anyone at Jezebel.com we can borrow bail money from?

Free Will: You’re Doing It Wrong

George, you said:

“More conceptually, belief in astrology implies a belief in cosmological predestination; it’s a form of determinism — but a completely fictitious one at that.”

To which I say:

A man goes to visit a geneticist. The geneticist looks over the results of the DNA testing and says, “it appears you have the genetic markers for alcoholism. Here’s a welfare check and a bottle of Jack Daniels, you useless drunk!”

Yeah, that’s not how astrology OR genetics work.

Your Sort Of People Are All Bigots And Car Thieves

You ran a quote from Benjamin Radford about how astrology is a form of bigotry:

“Both astrology and racial stereotypes are based on a framework of belief that basically says: ‘Without even meeting you, I believe something about you. I can expect this particular sort of behavior or trait (stubbornness, laziness, arrogance, etc.) from members of this particular group of people (Jews, blacks, Aries, Pisces, etc.).”

No one I’ve met who really understands astrology ever goes around seriously saying things like “I’d never date an Aries” or “I’d never hire a Pisces” or whatever. That kind of thinking must be limited to people who only base their understanding of astrology on what other people who have only looked down their nose at Sun Sign forecasts have said. And ultimately, people are going to make their decisions based on something or other anyway, and there are all kinds of irrationality out there, not just the False Ghost Of What You Think Astrology Is.

Put another way, George: how many Creationists or Scientologists have YOU dated or hired lately?

And Now, A Sarcastic Squirrel

I realize of course that you went after the low-hanging fruit of the usual Straw Man arguments against astrology because you love your audience, and they (mostly) love that sort of thing. And hey… lots of skeptics are great people. The skeptics I’ve met have all generally been intelligent, practical people who insist that everything in life has a complete and fully scientifically-approved explanation (or barring that, some decent science-y theorizing behind it). Skeptics pride themselves, and rightly so, on not basing their lives on bafflegab and puffery rather than by How Things Actually Are.

Which reminds me: the Wikipedia entry about you, George, says:

Dvorsky claims to have coined the following neologisms:

  • Astrosociobiology, the speculative scientific study of extraterrestrial civilizations and their possible social characteristics and developmental tendencies.
  • Postgenderism, a social philosophy which seeks the voluntary elimination of gender in the human species through the application of advanced biotechnology and assisted reproductive technologies.
  • Techlepathy, neurotechnologically-assisted telepathy.

…All of which, I’m sure, are real and observable things that are really totally legit and are really going on right now, and lots of honest Universities will give you a degree in them. “Postgenerism” sure sounds like it’ll go a long way towards solving that problem women seem to have with critical thinking skills that I totally didn’t notice until you pointed it out.

Oh look, it’s Skippy The Sarcastic Squirrel!

skippy the sarcastic squirrel

Skippy is here to remind us all that what I’m really saying is: anyone who knows much of anything about astrology isn’t really going to buy any attempts to debunk it that are clearly based on a lack of knowledge of what astrology really is. But, of course, you’ve got your audience and you’ve got mine. We just really wish skeptics knew enough about what they were trying to debunk to actually not look like they were just making fools of themselves based on presuppositions.

And hey… if you’ve got any friends with The James Randi Educational Foundation, tell ‘em they’re still a bunch of chickens for not responding publicly to my Ten Dollar Challenge, and are thus (by the standards they themselves set for these things) all apparently about of frauds and bamboozlers and bunkmeisters and stuff.

Now, let’s all play nice out there.

Love and light (until we invent warp drive and can go faster than that),
Matthew Currie

PS: Kinja sucks.

PPS: If the date of birth provided by Wikipedia is correct, Saturn is now opposing your natal Mercury and will oppose your Sun until about October. That’s why you’ve been working so hard for the last couple of years. Don’t worry, it’ll pass.

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  • enigmanomaly

    Hi Matthew -

    I read that article on io9. I even try to be a skeptic myself. But as saturn rides my ascendant with an inconjunct to uranus and the current pluto-sun opposition squares my pluto in libra and moon/sun ruler (jupiter) in Aries…all my existential issues somehow are validated…maybe you understand what i’m saying…guess i’m trying to say thanks. from a woman “ruining science.” lol

  • http://matthewtheastrologer.com/ Matthew Currie

    Vedic is Da Bomb, by the way. :)

  • FromIndia

    To be very frank I was always a skeptic with astrology. But my father in law is an astrologer (vedic) and I have seen when the planets change people do go through serious issues or good phases.

    When the planets change position….a lot of them with specific star sign or something on those lines do contact him and seek his help.

    At the crux…Astrology works, but since its not really a “organized” industry or organized field; you have many Charlestons too; who have given a bad name.

    Ask me…I dont depend on astrology; but it does help me by adding some additional perspective to things happening in my life.

  • Jonathan

    Thank you Matthew for your excellent response to the io9 article. Your voice is essential to the debate and I appreciate you being on the front lines in supporting astrology in the media. Over the years I’ve seen many slam pieces online that go unanswered by astrologers, to their peril. You are helping astrology in a big way.

    And I think your approach was spot on.

    SHA256: While I don’t agree with many of your critiques, it sounds like you have some potentially good ideas for the community. I would like to hear in detail more specifics about how you yourself would “draw blood” in a response to io9 or Nature for that matter. What are your main arguments?

    Please include specific references to books/articles/journals/thinkers you think make a solid case for astrology in a way that would make Baltasar Gracian proud.

  • SHA256

    Matthew,

    Aren’t you supposed to be tossing a Frisbee with the fireflies right now?

    So, Snoop Dogg? LOL. Goin there now? You’re really reachin’, eh? WOW. But wait, i’m not seeing your posse gather round? Did I miss something? Where are all your readers?

    If you must “go there,” it sounds like good ol’ Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five is more appropriate for you. Perhaps you recall this diddy:

    It’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny
    Gotta have a con in this land of milk and honey…livin on a seesaw.

    Don’t push me cuz i’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head. Sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.

    That tune’s sentiment seems timely for both io9 and yourself at this point.

    Yes, it’s obvious this rant of yours was your stylized summer send-off as only you are capable. But seriously, you’re lucky it wasn’t actually Nature magazine; they would eviscerate you in every conceivable academic way–if they even bothered. (The clerical suggestion was an appeal to less bad jokes and better gamesmanship–a minor style issue.) Anyway, Randi is for lightweights.
    Yawn.
    At least you didn’t bring up any insignificant asteroids or fixed stars like you have done in the past.

    But, then again, Caput Algol comes to mind. In your chart.

    Chillin.

    Enjoy the Fourth.

  • Matthew Currie

    Skip to “Women Are Ruining Science For Everyone”

  • kelly

    You said “more on this later ” ……what happened to more?

  • Matthew Currie

    I don’t claim absolute scientific certainty. I only claim that the reasons the io9 article gave for astrology being wrong are false premises. Others have made the same case in their own styles, and I did in mine. And overall, the response has been pretty good. So, I think I can live with that.

    Also: Vatican-like reserve is, it should be apparent, not my thing. :)

    One thing to keep in mind here is that people Google around for information on whether or not astrology is legit, or works. JREF has already openly declared that they are rigging the system in their favor:

    http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1391-guerilla-skepticism-and-wikipedia.html

    If you type some of the more common search terms into Google like “does astrology work,” you’ll now often find a defense written by me on Page One of the results, as opposed to the usual Randi-driven logjam of misinformation. This particular blog entry was, it’s true, more rant-y. If I were to present a serious defense of astrology… well, I already have, and I have linked to those in the article. But those defenses you’re most likely to find are my more seriously worded ones.

    It may look like madness to you, but I assure you that there is method to it.

    This one was more a matter of me… to quote the sublime wisdom of Snoop Dogg… saying to my regular readers something along the lines “may I kick a little something for my Gs, and make a few ends as I breeze?” Which is exactly what I did, and they seem to have generally received it all pretty well.

  • SHA256

    Dear Matthew Currie,

    Word up: venerable Nature magazine didn’t make the claims, io9, the gnat-like science site did. You went for the jugular and instead caught a late June io9 ankle in your own mandibular, passive/aggressive zeal. And who among the astro-friendly could begrudge you? Unfortunately, certainty is the greatest commodity, especially for long-suffering serious astrologers who see that there is something at work, nay, legit, within the orbits and aspects of their computerized astrolabes.
    But at present, you possess niether absolute scientific certainty nor the positional, retorting high ground. (I’m suggesting some Vatican-like reserve and appeal to the mysterium tremendum, or at least some Mark Twain-like or Oscar Wilde-like pith to your verbal punch. Economy of words is best. (Really, “Skippy the Sarcastic Squirrel”? Not even “meh.”)
    Bernard Shaw’s maxim of making them laugh when telling the truth is employed best when you have the actual lightning bolt of truth in hand; otherwise, some better wordsmithing jujitsu is required–no biggee, okay? (“Kinja sucks” following the transformational “Love and Light” ain’t helping matters either. And that’s after your own “Now, lets play nice out there.”!!! Really? REALLY?)

    On Gawker-speak: you have dropped these ideas of your own geekiness previously. Not required. Less is best. You injure your own credibility by doing so when assailing the mountain of science or aligning with the take-no-prisoners semi-autistics of hard technology. (Seriously, “Moons of Saturn” is kinda weak.)

    Hey, don’t you have a glow-in-the dark frisbee hanging around? Some twilight fun among the blinking fireflys and roasted hot dogs of our fading Arcadia seems like the appropriate thing to do on a late June Saturday night right before the Fourth of July. Think of it like practice–a kata for your body and mind. Now put away your voodoo dolls.

    I’m still a fan.

    Astrally,

    SHA256

    PS: That sudden Bloglia popup seems like a hack? No, Yes, Maybe? Unsurprising if it is.

  • Matthew Currie

    And if Nature had presented the same arguments against astrology that io9.com did, they’d be just as wrong.

    My main point, which I had hoped to point out somehow without burying the tl;dr needle even more than I did, is this:

    -All the arguments against astrology I have heard from skeptics are either based on a misunderstanding of what astrology actually IS and how it works, or (less often) are equally applicable to “soft sciences” like psychiatry or economics. I’m not about to respond to every “debunking” out there that repeats the same false arguments… this one just caught my attention because it’s on a site I frequent, and it came with a potentially-sexist extra spin.

    Want more detail? Here you go:

    http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/ohmystars/2013/12/dear-skeptic-an-open-letter-to-the-james-randi-educational-foundation.html

    http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/ohmystars/2013/12/dear-skeptic-part-two-please-curb-your-dogma.html

    http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/ohmystars/2013/12/dear-skeptic-part-three-the-matthew-currie-astrological-foundation-ten-dollar-challenge.html

    http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Articles/Why-Panic-Over-Astrology.aspx?p=2

    Truth is: there appears to be a distinct shortage of responses from the astrological community.

    As for “sophomoric”: I DID make it clear I was responding in the Gawker Media style, didn’t I? :)

    Also: “feels more like the kind of thing you write on the last day of high school before graduation and summer” = “silly season on the Internet.” :)

    PS: I *am* silly and sophomoric. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean I’m always wrong. ;)

  • SHA256

    Matthew,

    The cartoon I refer to in the below reply is included here.

  • SHA256

    Dear Matthew Currie,

    As much as I know and understand the manner in which you tried to “tear” io9 George “a new one,” this long-winded, point-by-point playground “defense” has done nothing to defend astrology. However, do you feel better? It seems like this was personal? (It feels more like the kind of thing you write on the last day of high school before graduation and summer?) io9 comes off looking better after this, not worse.

    Before I say anything more, please stop with the suspect hoped-for association to geekdom and all things tech-like (gawker-speak, etc.). It seems “thin” and a bit showoff-like (sorry). You are not required to defend yourself like this as a means of bolstering your astrological credibility. You’re an astrologer (a good one too), and unless i’m mistaken, you’re not writing code, creating apps, on deep Reddit threads, or, say, creating crypto-currency or anything like that. You seem like a reasonably well-read guy, courtesy the typical baby-boomer outlets–TV, magazines, periodicals, books, internet. Fine.

    As you know, io9 aggregates science news and is subject to the prevailing recursive winds of Google mandates, SEO, algorithmic bottom-lines and other online metrics. Your highlighting of those facts was effective, and as you admittedly state, both Beliefnet and io9 are also prone to write headers at certain seasonal “silly” times rather than at others. BUT, THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AUDIENCE and SO DO YOU. GET IT?

    This wasn’t your battle. Let science granddads like E.O. Wilson bridge the gap between science and religion–for now. That potentially includes the psycho/social science of astrology. The Giordano Bruno-like approach–that’s being very nice–will fall flat against the present scientific orthodoxy. (Crazy how Big Science and its hirelings “statistics” and “data” are the Grand Inquisitors? And Bruno the polymath railed against religion!) That advice goes for the io9 readers sympathetic to materialism, empirical science, and George too. Not even sober astro-statistician Gauquelin prevailed decades ago. Feel me? A little more Baltasar Gracian, a lot less court jester is required. Take a cue from the high-minded clergy of the Vatican. They seem to be doing quite well against the constant assaults of science and technology–and they have been flat-out WRONG. Just ask Galileo. (But, hey, the Vatican does have a telescope now.) The lesson? Looking good in the court of online public opinion matters.
    BTW, your nice guy opener seemed disingenuous from the get-go and utterly failed with the sarcastic squirrel bit at the end. Just sayin. If you are going to draw blood THEN SINK YOUR TEETH IN.) What was required was not this somewhat insular feeling repartee, but rather, several well-chosen examples carefully selected from the history of science and or religion and deployed with the correct posture with your spot-on statements about the nature of seasonal headers to generate online traffic. It could have been easily written in a simple, elegant way and understood by any reader; moreover, the integrity of the reply would have spoken volumes to EVERYONE, even those across the material chasm in Flatland.

    THERE IS PLENTY OF ACCESSIBLE AND APPROPRIATE INFORMATION TO MAKE YOUR CASE. The “confirmation bias” inclusion was a step in the right, logical Saturnian direction. And there are limits to empiricism you know. Also, as you are no doubt aware, the Standard Model of Physics is presently incomplete; the distance between quanta realms and the large classical realm(s) is vast thus UNDERSCORING THE UNCERTAINTY OF OUR UNIVERSE AND LIVES. IT IS SCIENCE ITSELF THAT USHERED IN THIS UNCERTAINTY. How about them apples? In my mind, that leaves plenty of room for astrology without even having to invoke Shakespeare’s overused admonition voiced by Hamlet concerning all the things in Heaven and Earth than dreamt in Horatio’s philosophy–BUT YOU COULD OF. (Hell, even Deepak Chopra declares that any causative factor to our Universe is ultimately “beyond Time and Space.” Is it against the astrological rules to lay claim to that mysterious mantle of uncertainty? Astrologers are still priests of a sort, are they not?)

    I found your examples somewhat sophomoric, even a bit puerile at times for the job that was required. (Alternatively, you could of course have been downright childish as a means to make your case, like in the manner of the attached cartoon. Although the cartoon points to the ridiculous of religious dogma, the spirit and brevity are pitch perfect for what i’m suggesting.)
    I mean no offense with the above ideas shared, but your readers are smart enough to get it. They are, after all, already in your orbit. For you, Matthew, it is not enough to “Know Thyself,” but rather, to “Know Thy Audience.”

    An opportunity was lost to stakeout the high ground here with better examples and a bit of knowing courtly online posture, even as I know how you wished to annihilate George and smite the io9 enemy like the Transformer, Rodimus Prime you are.

    Unfortunately, that wasn’t the result.

    With consideration,

    SHA256

    PS: It was only io9 after all, not Nature Magazine.

  • H

    Thank you

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