You can also read a very funny take on the whole thing by NZ comedian Raybon Kan here (Hat tip: Mumsy dearest).
It doesn't always take much to get a good falsehood or fallacy ingrained in society. Sometimes it just takes time. It may be highly likely that ancient astrologers were simply doing the best science available to them at the time... possibly with a fallacy or two thrown in for good measure (we'll get to that). But why do people take it seriously these days? The Weight of Ages adds a street cred that is hard to fabricate. Astronomy and astrology were quite closely aligned in ancient India (2000 BC), Babylonia (1600 BC), and astrology was also practiced amongst the ancient Greeks (300 BC). It is mentioned in the Rig Veda but, realistically, we can't put a finger on who dreamed up the idea first. With celestial beings, bodies, and forces being seen to control crops and weather, it isn't too hard to imagine the cultural leap taken into the anthropologically significant spheres of Birth and Fate. Even if Astrology could be narrowed down to the origin in one group or person, you will find that the actual details of this original context will have been carefully groomed over time by skilled storytellers who are already committed to making the tale run in their favour.
Some fringe explanations for natural phenomena are simply not provable in principle. Unfortunately, this makes them either (1) deeply significant or esoteric universal mysteries, or, (2) completely unpractical, purposeless, unscientific nonsense. Caveat emptor.
As Shelley Ackerman, from this article, said:
"This [new astronomy information] doesn't change your chart at all. I'm not about to use it ... I've told all of them not to worry about it."
Astrologers didn't change their systems for every new change, she said.
"...when there are new discoveries you don't change the entire system; you just work with it to see if and where it fits into the existing system."Astrology, like any pseudoscience, doesn't need to change any further than is required to maintain basic relevance in the eyes of society. If people are happy to use a 5,000 year old system devised to discern fate or fortune then why rock the boat? Even better if the entire system can be justified in its immutability; no explanation needed, no update required, no effort gone into creating an accurate synthesis with any future data.
Conclusion? Good pseudoscience tries to find ways to create internally logical systems of thought that don't require support or credibility from any outside sources. Cracks in their defense will let in the light of contradictory evidence and so are quickly patched up by careful and clever sympathisers.
Any explanation requires IF---THEN; information and conclusion; or cause and effect.
- Selection bias: the information sample used to justify belief is chosen using a bias. So surveys might be taken only amongst astrology proponents. Friends talk only about their horoscopes to sympathetic friends. Websites about astrology form a community of self-selecting, credulous individuals etc.
- Observation bias: only those pieces of data that supports your own position are noticed or remembered. "We see what we want to see." This would go down a treat with a sufficiently ambiguous horoscope reading.
- Confusing association with causation: Assuming that because two things occurred at the same time they must be related e.g. "my partner left me and our star signs weren't compatible."
- Post-hoc ergo propter hoc ('after this, therefore because of this'): This is the act of assuming causation between one initial event and a preceding event, e.g. "my Boss yelled at me on the day that my horoscope cautioned me in the morning paper."
- Special pleading / ad-hoc reasoning: The Magic Bullet of any pseudoscience, special pleading sneaks in subtle excuses for why any particular evidence or refutation doesn't happen to threaten the pseudoscientific claim at that time. Rules don't apply here, only boundless creativity!
Every good organism requires an immune system and pseudoscience is no different.
A key fallacy that often comes into play here is the "ad hominem" attack. That is when somebody breaks the important rule, "play the ball and not the person."
A proponent of pseudoscience may attack the person presenting an idea using personal ammunition rather than addressing whether their ideas are actually correct. The only honest way to show why somebody is wrong would be to show why their evidence is bad, their assumptions are unreasonable, or their reasoning is flawed. The easy option, and the dishonest one, would be to disregard a good idea because it's being presented by an unideal messenger. Of course, everybody on both sides of most major debates would do well to keep this in mind (whether they are scientist/non-scientist or christian/atheist, I think we've probably all seen people do badly in this area).
There a type of ad hominem fallacy worth noting. Known as, "poisoning the well", it is where a pre-emptive ad hominem attack is made against a subject area in order to make conversation emotive and difficult ("only an idiot would think X", or, "Hitler also thought Y").
But as well as personal attacks, pseudoscientists often turn their ad hominems into grand, conspiratorial narratives. Just look at a few easy examples. The 9/11 'Truthers' think that the government is some infinitely capable secretive organisation able to micromanage world politics on a massive scale all while remaining under the radar of competent journalists. The Anti-Vaccine (vaccines cause autism) crowd think that any scientists who tell another story are in the pocket of big pharma. Also, many insular and wacky religious sects tend to suggest that everyone else is being dominated by the forces of Satan. All of these are ways in which ideas can easily be dismissed, regardless of the strength of their evidential support.
Conclusion? Good pseudoscience doesn't want to discuss evidence or progress via a careful, self-critical reasoning process. For pseudoscience to succeed, their proponents need to build up walls of irrelevant personal attacks or create grand conspiracies which create massive cognitive dissonance and allow them to reject any competing opinions outright.
[Video: What a year on Earth really looks like!]
What do you think of my essentials of pseudoscience? Agree/disagree? Can you think of more?