The death of critical thinking or just bad journalism?

Woo hooThere was a recent article on Patheos.com with the scary headline, “Young People Are Choosing Horoscopes and Crystals Over Fundamentalist Religions.” The last part of that might seem good news, but the first part is highly troubling. It suggests a continued descent into the New Dark Ages where science, logic, and reason are replaced by woo hoo.

Let’s be clear from the start: astrology is bunk. Magic rocks are bunk. Guardian angels, reiki, homeopathy, psychic readings, tarot cards, energy healing, reflexology, phrenology, and iridology are all bunk. None are based on anything close to science, reality or fact. At the very least destructive they are mere entertainment, at their worst they are a cultish belief in magic and superstition. But the piece is more sensationalism than fact.

The author of the Patheos article – supposedly a skeptic who describes it as a trend towards a “less violent form of nonsense” – writes,

Believe it or not, I don’t oppose this. We should be moving away from fundamentalist adherence to ancient dogmas, and more toward this type of relaxed take-what-works-and-drop-the-rest approach. And if you can make yourself feel better without hurting anyone, I say you should go for it.

No, no, no. The test for meaning, for benefit, relevance, utility or truthfulness is not whether it makes you feel better. That’s simply being selfish. You can get the same from eating ice cream or splurging on something you want to own. The news is full of politicians – local to federal – doing something to benefit themselves, not the people they supposedly serve. Epicureanism notwithstanding, there ought to be a benefit to more than just yourself.

Not harming anyone is good, of course, but by itself not good enough to make it the sole basis of anyone’s beliefs or practices. Where is the ethical or moral substrate? The greater good? Too easily not harming anyone can become simply avoidance and excuses for not actually doing something.

But who is to determine harm? if children see their parents believing in something, they are likely to follow suit. Nonsense is as harmful to their minds as a religious cult. Believing in magic stones can easily lead to question all forms of science, reason and medicine (hint: New Age anti-vaxxers…)

And for all their faults, fantasies and flaws, at least most religions have a moral and ethical basis – you don’t get that in any form of woo hoo. It’s trite to consider all aspects of religion as “nonsense” just because you dismiss the supernatural aspects of it. 

Furthermore, belief – even in nonsense – spreads like a virus. Look at the anti-GMO and anti-gluten fads, the anti-vaccine wingnuts, the chemtrail and reptiloid conspiracies, and every diet fad. Behind all of these woo hoo beliefs are hordes of con artists, bullshitters and hoaxsters eager to get rich by prying money away from the gullible. Being scammed or conned by them is surely a form of harm.
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Another bad year for ‘psychics’ and quackery

'Psychic' con artistsThe year 2018 was another bad year for so-called ‘psychics,’ astrologers and others in the prediction business – and yes, it is a business – because nothing they predicted came true. Nothing specific or meaningful, that is. Sure lots of general “predictions” and vague lifestyle comments phrased as “predictions” were made – many which echoed what others have been saying in real news. But that wasn’t because of some astrological or ‘psychic’ effort.

When you read these sites you find a lot of that bloviated nonsense like “The main astrological indications of 2018 are those of releasing the past and preparing for new beginnings. There is a letting go of the old that will be taking place and emerging developments in new sectors.” And when I read “Jupiter is in the balsamic phase of semi-square to Saturn,” I thought more about salads than predictions. Gad, what utter balderdash.

How about this for nonsense?

Seeing as 2018 is a number 11 year in numerology, we are really going to be supported to start dreaming and conjuring up what we want from life. Even though part of our journey here is decided before we come into human form, we also have free will and the opportunity to create our lives.

Since you’re already wading in the murk of one pseudoscience, why not throw another – numerology – into the mix? Diaphanous piffle, as Conrad Black would say. As is all astrology, numerology, phrenology, iridology, reflexology and whatever the popular mumbo-jumbo-du-jour is. “Before we came into human form”…WTF is that all about? I hesitate to investigate lest it lead me to another rant on the gibberish generators these people use. Consider this intellectual pablum from Elle magazine:

You’re hosting structured Saturn in your tenth house of career from December 19, 2017 until December 17, 2020, a three-year period that could position you for new levels of leadership, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. While Aries CAN get by on charisma and a bounty of natural skills, Saturn demands that you pay your dues—no shortcuts allowed.

But predictions there are to be found, although a lot of the predictors have a habit of erasing or re-writing their predictions when they inevitably fail to come true. Or claiming after the fact they predicted something would happen. Fortunately for us, others copy and share them, so it’s hard to completely erase one’s failures online.
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Astrology: millennials in search of woo hoo

Astology debunked“Astrology is not a science; there’s no evidence that one’s zodiac sign actually correlates to personality.” I was disappointed to read that line in a story in The Atlantic, a piece titled, “The New Age of Astrology: In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.

Disappointed not because it isn’t true – it is: astrology is woo hoo – but rather that writers still feel the need to state the obvious. It’s like a movie reviewer starting with “There’s no evidence that Batman is actually a real person.” Or a political columnist starting with “There’s no evidence Donald Trump can actually distinguish between truth and fiction.” Or a medical writer in an article saying, “There’s no evidence homeopathy actually works.” Some things are just so obvious they should not need to be repeated.

No one should ever have to remind others that astrology ISN’T a science. Or even an “alternate” belief because there’s no collective agreement on pretty much every part of it: hardly any two astrologers agree on interpretations, there are different types of charts and calculations used in different countries, the constellations are not the same as they were 3,000-plus years ago when astrology was first concocted, and constellations themselves are arbitrary associations of distant stars, not actual connections. Plus the whole thing was created before anyone knew about planets beyond Saturn, or the asteroids, or the moons of any planets.*

But sadly, what is evident to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking is not always so for many people on social media, where simplistic memes – the digital equivalent of bumper stickers – often take the place of informed discussion and learned conversation. In part it comes with the declining IQ from people not reading longer articles, newspapers or books. And as the article’s author, Julie Beck wrote,

…astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age. There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” pickup lines.

Internet erudition is an oxymoron. It has allowed people to put words or terms into their vocabulary of which they have neither knowledge or understanding.

Words show up in memes in entirely the wrong use or context. Political terms like liberal, socialism, fascism and communism are all highly misused (especially, it seems, by Americans). GMO, health, natural, detox and chemical are frequently misused by diet-fad followers and “alternate healthcare” providers. Creationists dismiss evolution as merely a “theory” with no evident grasp of what a theory actually means in scientific terms.

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Why the panic over Julie Payette?

Governor General Julie Payette made comments in a speech to the Canadian Science Policy Conference on Nov. 1 in which she encouraged her audience at a science convention to ignore misinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory, to support facts and science, and to engage in “learned debate.” That has the right furious, and as is their wont, making both fallacious claims about her words while launching ad hominem attacks against her.

It’s particularly galling to the right that not only is Payette a woman, she’s smart and accomplished: a former astronaut and an engineer. That means the right gets wildly incensed when she says anything vaguely interesting, let alone true. And so they’re trying to make this into a wedge issue about religion. The undertext being that Payette, being a Liberal appointee, is touting Liberal anti-religion screed.

Andrew Scheer, the pasty-white leader of the Conservatives who recently hired as his party’s campaign chair a former media director of the vile Rebel media organization, said,

It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion.

Which is bullshit. Scheer, of course, completely ignores the actual truth and substance in Payette’s comments. How dare the GG make any statements that are not the most innocuous, content-removed, pastel puffery? Yet nowhere in her speech did Payette mention any religion or indigenous people, so where does he get this allegation? Probably from his misogynist, racist Rebel media buddies. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to see Scheer’s attack as an anti-feminist one: that’s been Scheer’s way since he took charge.

What colossal arrogance for Scheer to think he can speak for millions – even billions, because he doesn’t specify there are just Canadians he’s speaking for – of people with whom he has no contact, let alone consulted about their reaction to Payette’s comments. And why does he think that any Canadian, not just our Prime Minister, has to have blanket, unquestioning support for every bit of religious myth, pseudo-health or pseudoscience claptrap? That’s simply nuts. And cowardly. We elect people to have opinions, to take stands, to advocate for issues, and to stand up for truth, not simply agree with everyone and everything. A toy bobblehead doll does that. That’s not what Canadians expect from their leaders. Unless, it seems, they are Conservatives.
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Enough with the astrology claptrap already

Claptrap“No,” wrote Phil Plait on Slate, “NASA Didn’t Change Your Astrological Sign.” Which it didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped the wingnuts from wailing over the recent announcement from NASA allegedly changing your horoscope.

Let’s start with the basics. Plait sums it up nicely:

Astrology isn’t science; it’s nonsense. It’s been tested 10 ways to Sunday and every time it fails. Even astrologers have come up with tests for it, and it’s failed those. Astrology doesn’t work.

Ah, but that doesn’t seem to dampen the belief of those hooked on superstition. Astrology is a business and the sheep must continue to be shorn. So let me take a shot, too. Yes, it’s fish in a barrel, but I love spending my Saturday mornings debunking this claptrap.

Yes, it is made up...

First: astrology isn’t science. Never was, never will be. It isn’t astronomy or psychology: it’s entertainment. Nothing more relevant to your life or your future than your weekend cartoons (and less relevant than the Dilbert cartoon…) or Sudoku puzzle. Sure, even smart people love to read their horoscopes over coffee and toast, and laugh about them, but then they get dressed and move on with their lives. They don’t plan their days around superstition and fantasy.

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Another popular myth debunked: moon doesn’t make crazies

Craxy lunar ideas“Myth Debunked: Full Moon Does Not Increase Incidence of Psychological Problems,” says the headline on a story on Science Daily. I was amused by the notion that, in 2012, anyone would seriously believe that the moon affected human psychology – especially supposed educated people.

In this case, it was very serious and resulted in a paper with the lengthy and ponderous title, “Impact of seasonal and lunar cycles on psychological symptoms in the ED: an empirical investigation of widely spread beliefs.” The abstract says:

This study evaluates the impacts of seasonal and lunar cycles on anxiety and mood disorders, panic and suicidal ideation in patients consulting the emergency department (ED) with a complaint of unexplained chest pain (UCP)… Patients with UCP were recruited from two EDs. Psychiatric diagnoses were evaluated with the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule for DSM-IV… Significant seasonal effects were observed on panic and anxiety disorders, with panic more frequently encountered during spring [odds ratio (OR)=1.378, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.002–1.896] and anxiety disorders during summer (OR=1.586, 95% CI=1.037–2.425). Except for one significant finding, no significant effects of lunar cycles were observed. These findings encourage ED professionals and physicians to abandon their beliefs about the influence of lunar cycles on the mental health of their patients. Such unfounded beliefs are likely to be maintained by self-fulfilling prophecies.

Whew. Although the full text of the report isn’t available to non-subscribers, the article on Science Daily explains:

…researchers … focused specifically on 771 individuals who showed up at the emergency room with chest pains for which no medical cause could be determined. Psychological evaluations revealed that a sizeable number of these patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.
Using lunar calendars, the researchers determined the moon phase in which each of these visits occurred. The results of their analyses revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.

That struck me as the study’s face-palm moment, the time when the Simpsons’ “Doh!” should have been shouted by the researchers as they smashed their palm into their heads.

“Geez,” one of them must have said as the data came in, “I’ll bet if we explore this further, we’ll also find out Friday the 13th is no more unluckier than any other day. What next? Black cats aren’t bad luck? We can safely walk under ladders? We don’t need to toss salt over our left shoulder when we spill it? Saying “gesundheit” when you sneeze doesn’t keep demons away? When will it end?”

That so-called “link” between behaviour and lunar cycles is merely a hangover from the discredited pseudoscience of astrology; it oozes from our ancient past when superstitious cave people believed the planets and stars were gods and demons and could affect our lives. Believing lunar phases can affect psychology today is akin to believing magnets or crystals can make you healthier. Pure and simple balderdash. It’s not a great leap from believing astrology to believing in creationism and Scientology, or that vaccines are a government conspiracy to enslave you.

The researchers also found that “anxiety disorders were 32% less frequent during the last lunar quarter.” Their analysis of this statistical oddity?

“This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account,” suggested Geneviève Belleville. “But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems.”

Coincidental? You think? What’s the other choice? That the moon made people less anxious one week every month? Come on… what next? Lycanthropy?

But what’s scary is that, according to the study, the majority of medical professionals BELIEVE that the moon affects personality and mental health. These are the people into whose hands we entrust our well-being! We expect them to be scientific, observant, and logical – even skeptical and suspicious (skepticism is what drives intelligent inquiry). Not medieval, not superstitious, not silly. If I want that, I can find it in copious amounts on the Net. When doctors start believing in astrology, I expect them to trot out the “healing crystals” for my bad humors, or kill a chicken to cure my possession.

This study’s conclusions run contrary to what many believe, including 80% of nurses and 64% of doctors who are convinced that the lunar cycle affects patients’ mental health. “We hope our results will encourage health professionals to put that idea to rest,” said Dr. Belleville. “Otherwise, this misperception could, on the one hand, color their judgment during the full moon phase; or, on the other hand, make them less attentive to psychological problems that surface during the remainder of the month.”

“Color their judgment”? Break out the ouija board then next time you go to your doctor, because if he or she believes the moon is influencing your state of mind, you better contact the spirits for answers. Or better yet, run for the exit.

Oh wait. There are no spirits. No ghosts, no goblins, no orcs, no Easter Bunnies, no demonic possession, no vampires, no werewolves, no angels, no psychics, magic crystals don’t cure disease and magnets don’t make you healthier. Astrology is bunk. Palmistry is bunk. Phrenology is bunk. Sorry to have to break the news.

Wait a second. This isn’t the first study to debunk this particular silliness. It’s the umpteenth. According to the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver (1996) examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:
-the homicide rate
-traffic accidents
-crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
-births of babies
-suicide
-major disasters
-casino payout rates
-assassinations
-kidnappings
-aggression by professional hockey players
-violence in prisons
-psychiatric admissions [one study found admissions were lowest during a full moon]
-agitated behavior by nursing home residents
-assaults
-gunshot wounds
-stabbings
-emergency room admissions [but see]
-behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
-lycanthropy
-vampirism
-alcoholism
-sleep walking
-epilepsy

Gosh. the moon doesn’t affect ANYTHING*. Must be bad research. Let’s try again… maybe justify our research grants… when do we stop repeating this stuff?

Okay, folks, let’s agree that this issue is finally settled with this, the umpteenth-and-one study. Don’t waste any more time chasing shadows, not on my tax dollars. It’s been debunked many, many times. Let it rest and focus your attention on real science. Please don’t follow this up with a study on black cats or Friday thew 13th.

~~~~~

* Also from the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Many believe in lunar myths because they have heard them repeated many times by members of the mass media, by police officers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and other people with influence. Once many people believe something and enjoy a significant amount of communal reinforcement, they get veryselective about the type of data they pay attention to in the future. If one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur at other times. If something strange happens and there is a full moon at the time, a causal connection will be assumed. If something strange happens and there is no full moon, no connection is made, but the event is not seen as counter evidence to the belief in full moon causality. Memories get selective, and perhaps even distorted, to favor a full moon hypothesis. A tendency to do this over time strengthens one’s belief in the relationship between the full moon and a host of unrelated effects.