Oh My Stars

Oh My Stars

Dear Skeptic, Part Three: The Matthew Currie Astrological Foundation Ten Dollar Challenge!

posted by Matthew Currie
Your ticket to Immortal Skeptic Fame awaits!

Your ticket to Immortal Skeptic Fame awaits!

(Part One is HERE, Part Two is HERE. Please read both carefully before you settle on what name you’d like to call me, because that’s what a scientist would do.)

I’ve had a lot of responses to my two-part series, in which I complained about the poor quality of Critical Thinking presented in The James Randi Educational Foundation’s booklet “Astrology: Science Or Superstition” (which they present as part of a series to encourage “Critical Thinking”). Once I weeded through the obvious ad hominem stuff (no, you’re a poopyhead!) and the detailed responses to the points I actually made in my blog entries (still waiting for that, truth be told), I found a few references to the JREF Million Dollar Challenge. I’m not going to go into detail here about the problems with the JREF Challenge — others have done a much better job of it than I can in the space provided me, and I invite you to read and evaluate those for yourself.

My original point was not to “prove astrology works” — you and I both know that whatever you or I believe, no single blog entry or series of those is likely to change your mind or mine. My original point was is that the vast majority of criticisms I see of astrology are not really based on how astrology is actually done. For example: dismissing the validity of astrology based only on a quick parsing of Sun Sign columns is as accurate and thorough as dismissing modern medicine based only on a look at your family history (Hey, all my grandparents lived into their 90s, so I can smoke, and drink and drive, and eat cheeseburgers, and juggle explosives while taunting bears all day long, because I’ve got genetics on my side, woohoo! Go Science!).

It seems to me that science works best (although I’m sure someone out there will correct me on this) when a neatly contained proposition is subjected to testing. So, let’s do just exactly that. In order to clarify any misunderstandings as to my purpose in criticizing the JREF booklet, I hereby announce The Matthew Currie Foundation Ten Dollar Challenge — based on the JREF Million Dollar Challenge.

***

The Matthew Currie Astrological Foundation (MCAF) (that is, me) will pay the sum of US$10.00 (Ten US Dollars) to any applicant who is able to sufficiently demonstrate and/or provide all of the following:

 

-That he or she is the author or co-author of the JREF booklet “Astrology: Science Or Superstition” (hereinafter referred to as “ASOS”). Proof of this can be provided by written confirmation, paper or electronic, from any member of the JREF Board of Directors.
-That he or she can provide a bibliography of sources used to write ASOS, and that said bibliography include at least one source written by a current professional astrologer and/or a publisher of astrological books, services, or products (unless said source is deceased).
-That he or she will address in a public forum the specific points raised by my blog entry on Beliefnet entitled “Dear Skeptic, Part Two: Please Curb Your Dogma,” including, but not limited to:
        “If it is not okay to refuse to hire someone because of their gender or race, is it okay to refuse to hire them because of their sign?” The applicant will provide at least three actual examples of when this has happened. One of them can be purely anecdotal, if you’d like. I’m not picky.
           “Heliocentrism completely changed our view of the universe and our place in it. It left little room for astrology.” You will be asked to discuss how Heliocentrism changed the practice of astrology and/or how Heliocentrism invalidates astrology.
           “Astrologers do not agree on which planetary positions cause specific traits or experiences.” You will be asked to provide specific examples.
           “Astrologers have only recently recalculated the dates and have added a 13th sign.” You will be required to provide the source for this statement.

another cute kitten

Again, regular readers are thanked for their patience with a kitten. I think that’s something we can all agree on: people love kittens.

The public forum may be in person with witnesses, or (ideally) neutral ground somewhere on the Internet, to be decided by mutual agreement of MCAF and the applicant. Again: I’m not that picky.

Once your application is accepted (and unlike JREF, I will not require a doctor’s note) and the outlined procedures are followed, the applicant will receive a prize of Ten US Dollars, to be sent either via US Mail or electronically within 90 days of successful completion of the Challenge.

See guys? You don’t even have to PROVE anything — other than you wrote the booklet and that you did some honest, legitimate research for it. Easy money!

Now, to further borrow some wording from the JREF Million Dollar Challenge:

If the Prize is awarded, this would not mean that MCAF considers astrology to be invalid, merely that the applicant met the terms and conditions of The Challenge and was able to demonstrate that a basic understanding of astrology was used in the attempted debunking of astrology. However, MCAF will publicly apologize for having so badly misinterpreted ASOS, and hey… that ought to be worth something to you, right? Furthermore, MCAF (unlike JREF) does not claim sole ownership or distribution rights to any or all materials generated by the Challenge. It is the preference of the MCAF that the matter be as open and public as possible.

Also: I’d love to make the prize bigger, but unlike JREF, I do not have a magazine or fundraisers or donation drives or a board of directors or Penn Jillette backing me (which is a shame because overall Penn is pretty awesome). ASOS claims that “hundreds of millions of dollars” (source?) are made in astrology, but I assure you only a very very small percentage of that goes to me. But hey, it’ not like someone is asking all that much of you — just that you stand by your work and respond to the questions it raises, that’s all.

Also: from now on? I love all the comments and such I’m getting on this matter, but again: the intent of the original blog entries was not to “prove astrology” nor to claim any prizes. The original point was to point out the terrible, sloppy reasoning behind JREF’s booklet about astrology. If you can’t stick to that, you are kindly invited to take your Straw Men and crankiness elsewhere. Got that? Thanks for reading.

Yours in Ganesh,

Matthew Currie
Founder, CEO, COO, Chief Cook And Bottle Washer,
MCAF

Ask An Astrologer: Are We Compatible?

posted by Matthew Currie

beliefnet astrology matthew currie compatibility clyde daisy

(This is a part of the “Astrology Of Love And Compatibility” series)

LR asks: (after a reading about her relationship) So, how compatible are X and I?

***

Astrology can be fantastically useful when it comes to describing how a person approaches life, and how the other people in your life see things.  Transits can describe the fluctuations in a sex drive or a need for a relationship or where the temper will be at, and the birth chart can tell us the internal circumstances that nurture closeness or make it more difficult, and how each person in a relationship has fun, what they take seriously, and what they are comfortable with. No question, astrology is the best way I’ve found to help people decode each other and themselves.

But, compatible? That’s just not as straightforward as you or I would like. You need to be aware of the style and language of the other person as well as your own, and you need to be prepared to accept that person on their own terms… and they need to be able to work with you on your terms.

For example: I have a retrograde Mercury in Sagittarius, conjunct my South Node. Sometimes the larger Truths I try to convey are couched in a metaphor.

If you have an American hairdryer or cell phone and want to take it with you on vacation to Europe, you’ll likely need an adapter to get it to work with most European power supplies. You get the right adapter, you plug it in, and there you go — compatibility! Don’t get the adapter and try plugging it in though, and see how far you get with making that call or drying your hair. Humans are a lot more complex than appliances, as anyone who has had a relationship with either can attest to. It’s not really a matter of complete compatibility or none at all.

Of course, having Mercury retrograde in Sagittarius, sometimes the Really Big Truths require even further diversions and more elaborate metaphors. I assure you, though, I’m not doing it to be difficult or to obfuscate. Sometimes, from my perspective, life is just like that. For example…

I am told by several wise and reputable sources that the perceptions and expectations of young girls in life, but perhaps particularly in relationships, are permanently warped by a gang of miscreants commonly known as “Disney Princesses.” This band of criminals, I am told, hijack the dreams and fantasies of women in training and in exchange give them unfulfillable ideals of what adult love is supposed to be like. Being neither a woman (in training or otherwise) and not having paid a whole lot of attention to Disney Princesses in my formative years, I don’t feel qualified to comment on this.

Instead of Disney Princesses, I had Peter Parker, who had a girlfriend but whose calling in life was always interfering with his relationship. There was Clark Kent, who really never had time for his girlfriend at all until she got herself into trouble, at which time Clark would have to assume an entirely different identity to in order save her — then his girlfriend just ended up liking that other identity better anyway. And of course there was Captain Kirk, who was great at relationships… until it was time to leave for another planet and another relationship.

Yeah, come to think of it, there may be worse relationship role models than Disney Princesses.

Perhaps when it comes to relationship role models we should take our cues from one of my other childhood role models: Clyde, the hero of Jean Bethell’s 1963 classic “The Clumsy Cowboy.” To summarize: Clyde is a cowboy who just can’t stay on a horse no matter how hard he tries. Rather than give in to the existential despair of being a cowboy unable to ride, Clyde takes advantage of a fateful encounter to build a relationship that had both meaning and purpose for both partners.

“Oh my!” said Clyde. “I can’t ride and I can’t walk. How can I go to town?”
Just then something went BUMP!
It was Daisy. Big, fat Daisy the cow.
Clyde looked at Daisy. He liked her.
Daisy looked at Clyde. She liked him.
“You are the one for me,” said Clyde. “I know I can stay on you.”

And off they went into town.

I hate to give away the ending, lest this should discourage you from finding and reading a copy of this classic guide to relationships, but here it is: the unusual pair of Clyde and Daisy wander in to town and end up foiling a bank robbery together, and no one ever makes fun of Clyde and his inability to stay on a horse again. Everyone is happy except for the bank robbers, who of course we aren’t supposed to be cheering for anyway. Look where “following their bliss” got them! Stupid bank robbers.

***

So, in answer to your question, LR: You’re at least compatible enough, given that you’ve made it this far. But, real, solid long-term compatibility? This will require you asking yourself a fairly serious question, and having the time and patience to wait for a solid answer to it:

Can you be happy being a cowboy on a cow?

Uranus Direct: Predicting The Unpredictable, Bearing The Unbearable (Plus Celebrity Updates!)

posted by Matthew Currie

beliefnet astrology matthew currie uranusUranus stops its retrograde motion and goes forward next week, grinding to a halt and going the right way on the 17th.  Any astrologer can tell you that Uranus rules eccentricity and sudden, unexpected events. If David Bowie was an astrologer, his famous line from Changes… “turn and face the strange (Ch- Ch- Ch- Changes!)“… would undoubtedly have been directed at Uranus.

Even to an astronomer, Uranus is kind of wacky. Whereas the other planets have their North and South Poles pointing more or les the same way as the Sun’s, Uranus points its North Pole at the Sun all the time, as if it were rolling around the Sun on its side. Its magnetosphere is much stronger on the North than on the South. Its internal heat is much lower than that of Neptune, which is similar yet much further from the Sun. Jupiter may rule “humor” in general, but it seems Uranus is the Class Clown of the Solar System.

So how is an astrologer (or anyone who wants nice, predictable outcomes) supposed to deal with the energy Uranus provides? Dealing with Uranus Energy is arguably more important now than it has been in a generation, as the Uranus-Pluto Square will now continue to climb back to the exact degree, with another peak hitting in April. Telling people to “expect the unexpected” during a Uranus transit is both generally good advice and infuriatingly unhelpful. That’s not astrology’s fault…. that’s human nature. Despite what many may think, properly applied astrology really does work (hello, James Randi Educational Foundation, I’m looking at you when I say that)… but that doesn’t take “the human factor” out of the fine art of prediction at all.

For example: suppose you know someone who regularly drinks and drives two or three times a week, every week. It’s easy to predict that, eventually, there will be an accident and/or serious legal consequences as a result. But can one really say that will be next week, specifically? Certainly based on probability theory, you can’t (probably). But when it comes to specific risk factors becoming a bigger-than-usual issue? That’s where Uranus shines.  Anyone could have told Paul Walker that street racing was a bad idea, but an astrologer taking a detailed look at his chart could have told him it was an especially bad idea at the end of November.

So keeping this principle in mind, let’s have a look at how the Uranus Station will likely be affecting some famous people I’ve written about before (with links to the original articles I wrote about them in), now and in the next six months or so as Uranus crawls along from 9 to 16 degrees Aries. Uranus plays a strong role with both “fame” and “celebrity,” so why not? As for your own chart? Why not ask an astrologer?

Kanye West: Kanye will continue to be a self-centered self-parody. In fact, you can expect even more of that from him: Uranus will be trine his Sun-Jupiter conjunction (which already made for a healthy-sized Ego). What makes this transit especially interesting is that Uranus will be square his 7th House cusp — his marriage, in other words — and trine its ruler Saturn. Under those circumstances, it’s hard not to imagine bigger and better (?) headlines around his marriage to Kim Kardashian. Meanwhile, Uranus will be trine Kim’s 7th House cusp, so we’ll likely be exposed to more horrors from the happy couple in the months to come. BONUS POINTS: If you recall my Lunar Eclipse Forecast for October, you’ll recall I said something about to Kanye about Kim’s “ego demands (going) through the roof in the next year.” It was shortly after that they filmed the video for Bound 2. Score one for the astrologer!

 

Alec Baldwin: As Uranus approaches the conjunction to his Sun and the sextile to his Mars, we can expect his Ego to get pretty inflated too. The big problem for Alec is that Pluto is also approaching the exact square to his Sun. We don’t have a time of birth for Alec, but if my hunch is correct that he has Leo rising, this could be bad news for his marriage, especially given the Saturn square to his Venus that’s upcoming mid-year that I noted in my previous entry about him.

 

Miley Cyrus: I’m sick of Miley Cyrus. Aren’t you sick of Miley Cyrus? Her attention-baiting at the expense of anyone taking her seriously will likely continue until Miley Cyrus is sick of Miley Cyrus. With her Uranus Square about to kick in, and then Saturn stationing on her Pluto and close to her Moon in March, that might actually happen.

 

Chris Brown: With transiting Uranus sextile his natal Jupiter (ruler of his 5th House… children), his girlfriend is now allegedly sporting a baby bump. And with that Uranus squaring his Neptune (and transiting Pluto conjunct it, in the 5th), he’s still in drug rehab, and still trying to patch things up with his mother. Here’s hoping that Uranus passing through his 9th House… his Higher Mind… he finds the strength and energy to deal with his old ghosts in new ways.

 

 

Dear Skeptic, Part Two: Please Curb Your Dogma

posted by Matthew Currie

(Part One is HERE)

Last time, I voiced some objections to the James Randi Educational Foundation’s booklet “Astrology: Superstition Or Science?” For those of you who have an appetite for extensive detail, here are my notes on it. If you recognize the value of astrology, you should really see what these folks are saying about you. For the rest of you: my apologies for the necessarily long-winded digression. We’ll get back to your regularly-scheduled astrology next time.

If you want to play along at home, feel free to download a copy of the booklet I’m talking about HERE.

Since the stated purpose of JREF is to encourage “critical thinking,” I applied some to the booklet in question and discovered errors on pretty much every page. If anyone from JREF is reading this, and since I think critical thinking is awesome, I hereby volunteer this blog entry as an addendum to your booklet, because re-writing your text to take out the errors would leave two blank pages for notes and a couple of reproductions of old woodcuts… unless of course the whole point of the booklet was to have students do a little research on their own and figure out how riddled with faulty thinking, misleading statements, and outright untruths your whole booklet is.

 

***

 

Page 1: Hey, who wrote this thing? When I was in school all our textbooks had an author or an editor or someone who got credit. Not knowing who wrote this doesn’t make it invalid, but it seems bad form not crediting the author. As a writer myself, I’m sensitive to that sort of thing.

beliefnet astrology matthew titian woodcut

Human anatomy doesn’t required Venice in the background. Ha! Debunked!

Page 2: Yes, when it comes to astrological rulerships of the body parts, that’s roughly how it works. But your usage of the term “fanciful” seems a bit disparaging. Woodcuts like this were hand-made by artists, and they tended to be a little… well, fanciful. Nobody slapped together a PowerPoint Presentation from clip art back then. As an example, over to the left I’ve included a woodcut by Titian from a few centuries earlier showing the muscles of the body. It’s pretty fanciful too (what is that in the background, Venice?) but being “fanciful”  doesn’t make it inaccurate.

Question For The Class: Does the age of a visual representation necessarily dismiss the validity of the information being presented? Does misleading information become any more “true” when presented in a neatly desktop-published form?  Discuss.

Now that we’re done with the nitpicking, let’s move on to the stuff that’s really worthy of our skepticism.

Page 3: Ah, The Million Dollar Challenge. For those of you not familiar with it, that’s the challenge to provide proof of the paranormal that no one ever wins because JREF sets ridiculous standards, then moves the bar when you achieve them anyway. Are you guys looking for donations from high school students? Good luck with that. Even the classes I enjoyed in high school never prompted me to mail twenty bucks to Dr. Erno Lampert for his excellent work promoting geography, or whatever. Of course, being a non-profit, I can understand why you’re asking for money.

Question For The Class: Dennis Rawlins, a former associate of James Randi, quoted James Randi as saying “I always have an out” when it comes to not paying off the Million Dollar Challenge. Randi countered by saying his full quote was actually  “Concerning the challenge, I always have an ‘out’: I’m right!” Does either version of the statement indicate a pre-existing bias on the part of James Randi? Discuss.

Page 4: Nice wood cut. No objections here.

Page 5: “Astrology is one of the oldest thinking errors of our species.” Well, there goes “critical thinking.” But in all fairness, I realize you guys have a horse in this race and you’re going to back it, just like I do.

“Astrology, though thoroughly debunked in so many ways, still attracts a large fraction of our planet’s people, unfortunately. But don’t just accept my word for it. Here you can have a really scientific method by which you, yourself, can examine the evidence about astrology and arrive at your own conclusions.”

What, no “Is it all a crock, or could there be some truth to it?” at the beginning like so many badly-written “documentaries” on The History Channel about the paranormal, that always conclude with something like “well, there you go, figure it out for yourself?” Where’s the encouragement of critical thinking skills here? Perhaps JREF should branch out into Film Criticism: “Citizen Kane actually sucks, but don’t take our word for it… here’s a list we assembled of all the reasons it sucks, so we could spare you actually having to watch a sucky movie like Citizen Kane, because it sucks. You’re welcome.”

Page 6: “Astrology started with calculations and observations, then filled the gaps with assumptions of the supernatural.” Now, are you saying that there’s no way an astrologer could have used observation to come to any of their conclusions, or are you just assuming that if it isn’t astronomy, it’s superstition? Or are you simply decrying the human urge to say “God knows”? Isn’t this an example of  you making some dodgy assumptions about who’s making dodgy assumptions?

Page 7: No complaints here. Nice woodcut.

Page 8: “Do you think it would be fair to judge someone based on his or her zodiac sign? If it is not okay to refuse to hire someone because of their gender or race, is it okay to refuse to hire them because of their sign? Why or why not?”

Well, um, okay. Obviously that wouldn’t be fair. But I haven’t heard of whole lot of people who’d refuse to hire a well-qualified Leo because of their Sun Sign, or whatever, but I’ve heard there’s a whole lot of people who wouldn’t hire a well-qualified Asian or Mormon or whatever because of their race or religion. It seems to me that what you’re actually complaining about here is bigotry, not astrology.

Question For The Class: According to a Gallup Poll, about 9 in 10 Americans believe in God in some form or another. How many people who work for The James Randi Educational Foundation believe in God, and if that figure is less than about 90%, does that represent a form of bigotry on the part of JREF, or is it merely a statistical anomaly? Discuss.

Student exercise: Name three forms of bigotry that have nothing to do with astrology. Do you think the forms of bigotry you named are more of a problem, less of a problem, or the same size of a problem as Sun Sign bigotry?

Bonus Question: If your ancestors have been in the country three generations or less, ask a parent or grandparent if anyone discriminated against them because of that, or if they faced discrimination because of their Sun Sign.

Page 9: “Heliocentrism completely changed our view of the universe and our place in it. It left little room for astrology.”

Heliocentrism was an important intellectual leap. And yes, an astrological birth chart might make it look (at first) like astrologers think the Earth is at the center of the Universe. In fact, however, a birth chart looks like that because that was the perspective from Earth at the time of birth of the person in question.

Question For The Class: Imagine you are driving through Wyoming. Your road map shows Fremont County at the center. Does this imply that map-makers think Fremont County is the center of the Universe? Discuss.

Page 10: “More than 400 years ago, astrology was considered obsolete.”

Johannes Kepler was an astronomer and mathematician who lived in the 1600s (which was about 400 years ago, for those of you who don’t like math), who discovered the laws of planetary motion and laid much of the foundation for Sir Isaac Newton’s work on gravity.

Johannes_Kepler_horoscope

Read it and weep.

Pictured at right is an astrological birth chart drawn by Johannes Kepler.  We have on record two letters from Kepler discussing his family’s horoscopes and the astrological reasons for his son’s death. That was in 1611… two years after Kepler published his Astronomia Nova, which demonstrated how the planets orbit the Sun in elliptical orbits… thus confirming the validity of Heliocentrism. Surprise!

Question For The Class: Define “obsolete.”

“Hundreds of millions of dollars each year are spent consulting with astrologers in the United States alone.”

I know a lot of astrologers, and believe me, when we get together to discuss business we don’t congratulate ourselves on our wildly profitable cunning and bust out the top hats and monocles like capitalists in a 1930s editorial cartoon from Bolshevik Worker’s Weekly. Pretty much any form of work you can name is some combination of more lucrative and/or easier than being an astrologer.  If there’s Big Money to be had feeding people’s preconceptions back to them, I don’t personally know of any astrologers doing so.

Question For The Class: The James Randi Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization is funded through member contributions, grants, and conferences, runs a summer camp for skeptical kids, maintains a paid staff, and occasionally provides scholarships. Does the fact that JREF makes money off of its activities necessarily invalidate its member’s beliefs? Is there Big Money to be made feeding people’s preconceptions back to them?

Pages 10 and 11:  “Even before we test whether the descriptions and predictions astrologers make are accurate, we should evaluate the theory itself. Doing so brings up a number of problems.”

“Most astrologers cannot explain how astrology works. The few explanations proposed are not consistent with our current scientific understanding of the universe and its natural laws.”

Here’s the problem with that: you can develop a theory and then test it… but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything without a theory explaining how it should work out. That’s called “observation.” Most astrophysicists believe in the existence of “dark matter,” which is an unseen force or substance that determines how much of the Universe hangs together. Thus far, most theories and conjectures as to what “dark matter” actually is haven’t paid off in terms of actual results, despite lots of testing.

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the concept of “dark matter.” The existence of something like it is implied, based on actual observations of how the Universe works. Not knowing what a thing is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t work.

Question For The Class: Does not knowing exactly what “dark matter” is or how exactly it works mean that astrophysicists are superstitious or conning us?

cute kitten

Congratulations on having read this far! As your reward, here is a kitten.

Also Page 10: “All astrologers claim to make important predictions based on planetary positions. However, astrologers do not agree on which planetary positions cause specific traits or experiences. Whose system is correct, if any? Without a consistent set of rules about what the positions mean, predictions will not be consistent.”

Oh come on, guys: you really didn’t talk to any astrologers when you wrote this, did you? Can you folks name one of those planetary positions causing specific traits that astrologers disagree on? Personally I can… the same way different doctors can disagree on how much a factor heredity is on weight gain, for example. But you aren’t even trying now, are you?

Question For The Class: An astrologer asserts that members of The James Randi Educational Foundation regularly congratulate themselves on their cunning and bust out the top hats and monocles like capitalists in a 1930s editorial cartoon from Bolshevik Worker’s Weekly. If the astrologer in question doesn’t know anyone who is a member of JREF, what is that assertion based on?

Page 11: “Astrologers have only recently recalculated the dates and have added a 13th sign, Ophiuchus (o-FY-a-kus).”

Sadly, we now pass from faulty reasoning based preconceptions to actual untruth. No, we didn’t “just recently” rediscover precession, and no, astrologers did not just add a 13th Sign. Shame on you. Also: Most people don’t pronounce “Ophiuchus” that way either.

***

And oh my, it goes on and on and on well past my allotted word count for this blog (which I have already stretched to the breaking point) and we’re only on Page 11. I haven’t even gotten to the false equivalency on Page 12, the deceptive test results on Page 13, the phony take-down based on The Forer Effect on page 14, the stunning irony of the invocation of Confirmation Bias on Page 15, and the ridiculous misuse of Sun Sign Forecasts on Page 16 and 17 and 18.

Pages 19 and 20 are left blank for notes, and are thus the most honest pages in this entire booklet. Please note the lack of a page 21, citing your sources. It’s pretty obvious to me you don’t really have any… certainly none which know much about astrology, which is odd given that astrology is what you’re trying to debunk. I’d like to think that if I was trying to debunk your debunkery, I’d do some research… which of course, I did.

In conclusion: This.

(Finally, before you leave any of your “well if you’re so smart go get the James Randi Million Dollar Prize already” comments, please read THIS.)

 

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