Astrologers, I’m Waiting

Here’s the story, folks. In early January, the BBC ran a live television program over 3 nights called Stargazing Live. It was a great show, hosted by hilarious comedian Dara O Briain and mega-brain particle physicist Professor Brian Cox. It was a kind of introduction to amateur astronomy, encouraging viewers to go outside and look up. It rated quite well, too, with 3.6 million viewers.

But during one segment, explaining the orbits of the planets, an off-the-cuff joke potentially got the presenters in hot water. After joking around by aligning all the planets in a line on their model solar system, Dara cleared the air and said “Let’s get this straight once and for all, astrology is rubbish” still laughing at Dara’s mucking around, Brian replied, “in the interests of balance, because we’re on the BBC, I should say that indeed Dara is right, astrology is nonsense!”

This passing joke – clearly an unscripted, throwaway line – went largely unnoticed by, well, everyone. Except, of course, astrologers. They were incensed at the vile attack on their pseudoscience. “I was furious with indignation,” writes ‘respected astrologer’ Angela Cornish. She wrote a very heated email to the British Astrological Association and The Advisory Panel on Astrological Education (APAE). You can read it here, along with a very detailed response from another astrologer, Deborah Houlding.

Why is Cornish so angry? She’s mad because Brian and Dara “had the audacity, on prime time TV, to try and discredit a subject they clearly know nothing about”. I’d have to say, though, that if “astrology is rubbish” is their attempt to discredit it, it’s a particularly piss-weak effort. I’ve made more of an effort to discredit astrology when I blogged here and called it a scam, and when I responded on Mamamia in the comments. Where’s my angry email, Angela?

What I love, though, is the conspiracy theory and media paranoia that Houlding suffers. She writes “[media outlets] are part of the desperate chase for promotion, seeking to profit from the exaggerated public attention that simplified horoscopic astrology attracts at this time of year”. Yes, she’s really suggesting that Dara’s comments were a deliberate plot to stir up controversy and increase viewers. Nevermind that, on a science program, they were simply stating the overwhelming scientific consensus. Deborah’s right in that every year TV stations and magazines trot out the same astrological claptrap – What Does Your Sign Say About This Year – and no doubt people eagerly pore over them to see if they will find True Love this year or strike it rich with Good Fortune. But to look at that clip in context and say it was motivated by that new-year astrological interest is imbecilic and ludicrous. “It is no mere coincidence … that Brian Cox made his outrageous and inflammatory remarks in a program which aired on the 3rd January,” she whines. The show aired in early January for a number of reasons, all of which were astronomical, not astrological. Uranus and Jupiter were in conjunction, there was a partial solar eclipse, and the Quadrantids meteor shower was at its peak. Even the BBC can’t change astronomic events just to take a vague stab at astrology.

To astrologers, the BBC has a clear agenda and Brian Cox is at center of it. Last year, during his excellent Wonders of the Solar System program also shown on the BBC, Cox was again talking about Jupiter:

Jupiter is so different to our planet – you know, a big ball of gas, half a billion kilometres away – it’s difficult to see how it could have anything to do with us at all. But despite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can, in fact, have a profound influence on our planet and it’s through a force that, well, surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together – gravity … Jupiter has the most powerful gravitational field of all the planets, and it’s the gas giant’s gravity that can directly influence the orbits of asteroids and other wandering space debris … it can deflect stuff onto a direct collision course with our planet.

That’s it – again, hardly worth making a fuss about. One little statement of scientific consensus – scientific fact – in a science program. But all this has got the astrologers so wound up, they’ve got a petition going. They’re trying to get as many believers as they can to click a button, or even write in to the BBC (with a copy-and-paste letter template) calling for ‘fair representation’ for astrology in the media. Again, I’m upset – where’s my petition?

Cos I’ll make it easy for all you astrologers. All you have to do is show me three scientific studies, in peer-reviewed scientific journals (proper science journals, not Astrologer’s Weekly), that prove comprehensively that astrology works. Three double-blind, randomized large-scale studies. If astrology is as good as you claim, that should be easy to do, right?

Astrologers, I’m waiting!

Astrology: Without Evidence, It’s a Scam

Ophiuchus constellation mapYou may have read, recently, that your astrological sign has changed. Or that there’s a new zodiac sign, and astrology’s all in a muddle. And while a lot of it is true, it’s certainly not new. It’s all because the Earth wobbles a little bit in its orbit, and the sun now rises in different constellations than it did two thousand years ago when astrology was first devised. Parke Kunkle, an astronomy teacher in Minneapolis, mentioned this in a newspaper and it quickly went viral, with people worried that they are now a different sign and now surely the world will end in 2012.

People will believe anything, it seems.

Let’s clear the air, shall we? Astrology is bunk. There has never, ever, been any credible scientific proof that it works. Yet blogger and social commentator Mia Freedman called upon author and astrologer, Yasmin Boland, to explain it all to her readers. Why Mia felt the need to propogate a myth I’ve no idea, but that’s what she did. And – I’ll give her credit – for the most part, Yasmin did a pretty good job explaining the science of why the sun no longer rises in same place as way back when. There’s a lot more to it, when you consider Milankovitch cycles and so on, but essentially she got it right. This video from NASA may help explain it. But what worries me is how Yasmin tries to justify astrology. Not only does she offer no evidence, she seems to dismiss the need for it with a shrug: “it just works”.

No, Yasmin, it doesn’t. What Yasmin means when she says “as horoscope fans will tell you, it just works” is that lots of people believe it, therefore it’s true. Lots of people believe in homeopathy, but that doesn’t mean water has memory. The reason lots of people believe in astrology? They read their ‘personality type’ for that particular sign, and are amazed that it works for them. Note that they know their star sign first, and then they read the profile for that. I wonder if you could find someone who didn’t know their star sign, and you got them to read all the personality types in the zodiac and pick which one matched them, would they pick the right one? I doubt it. People agree with their zodiac sign because the signs are deliberately ambiguous, vague and match most people. We all like to think that we’re friendly, kind, generous, lots of fun and intelligent. Most people are a little bit selfish, sometimes stubborn, sometimes care-free, and sometimes cranky. Everyone’s a little bit of every star sign. But when we know we’re a certain sign, and read what that sign’s ‘personality’ is like, we are more likely to believe it – it’s called confirmation bias. It’s clear from her conclusion that Yasmin has little interest in science or evidence. It’s riddled with so much common New Age rubbish that it almost reads like a cry for help. “The zodiac is one of life’s mysteries.” she writes. “Just as the Law of Attraction is”. Oh please. Law of Attraction? You can’t be serious. What she’s talking about, folks, is ‘The Secret’. The belief that “like attracts like’ – thinking positive thoughts (like “I will become rich and famous”) makes it happen. It’s the belief that just changing your thoughts and mental attitude to something, like losing weight, makes it mysteriously happen. And I shouldn’t need to point out, that there’s no credible evidence for it.

“No one has all the answers, least of all astrologers or scientists. Scientists regularly have to admit that the Universe is actually billion of years older or billion of light-years bigger than they thought,” says Yasmin, linking to a Google search for “universe older than previously thought”. And she’s right. Scientists are constantly finding new evidence, developing new theories and making new discoveries. That’s what makes it so amazing and brilliant. Science brings us closer, every day, to seeing the universe for how it really is. Through science, we can truly appreciate reality. As Phil Plait once said, “the universe is cool enough, without making crap up about it”. Yasmin finishes by saying that life’s mysteries are part of what makes life beautiful. I disagree completely. Life’s mysteries are what fuels us to keep exploring, to ask questions, to do experiments.

What makes life beautiful is not what we don’t know, but what we do know. I’ll leave you with an optimistic word from one of the 20th Century’s great scientists, Carl Sagan.

Tighter Airport Security Is Worth Sacrificing A Little Privacy

I’ve written before about how precious we are, as a society, when it comes to nudity. Our clothes are a mask, behind which we hide our self-consciousness and our insecurities. So when the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) started using body-scanner machines that can ‘see through’ clothing, there was a not unexpected outcry. And again when, at the end of November, the TSA introduced more in-depth frisking for anyone who refuses the body-scanners – including physically ‘patting’ the genital area.

CNN News reports on an confrontation with a passenger, which includes a description of the procedure: Watch Here

“Privacy advocates” (and as Jeff Jarvis often points out, we never really know who these paranoid activists are) were up in arms about this gross invasion. Sure, it’s invasive – and so it should be. This isn’t some “Let me see you nude, or let me feel you up” perverted TSA ruling. This is a reasonable and understandable attempt to make flying safer. If you want to blame someone for this, don’t blame the TSA – blame Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He’s the guy that, no doubt in severe emotional distress at having such an unpronounceable name, tried but failed to blow up us underpants on a plane. Thanks to him, and the drug-mules that don’t want want suspicious bulges showing up on the scanners, we NEED X-ray machines and hands-on tackle-checks.

Let me be perfectly clear: if a security officer at an airport asks you to step through one of these body-scanners, it is NOT a sexual thing. For one thing, you’re not that hot. Secondly, security officials are too busy to be having a quick flog over your black-and-white scans. Thirdly, you’re really not identifiable on the scans. It’s not about you.

It’s about time we stopped worrying about whether someone in a professional capacity gets to see our nudie bits, or having a feel for home-made bombs.

Bad Astronomy is Actually Good Astronomy

Space. It’s fascinating. I’ve geeked out on space stuff since I was a kid. I had books and videos about the solar system, I built Lego space stations and spaceships, and of course I watched sci-fi movies and tv shows. In 1989, when the Voyager 2 space probe passed Neptune, I poured over newspaper clippings and magazine articles with full-colour glossy photos of the murky blue gaseous planet.

So when I heard that Hubble 3D was showing at the iMax theatre, I had to go. It’s only 45 minutes long but it’s filled with some amazing footage. Incredible scenes of space taken by Hubble and then turned into beautiful 3D models of galaxies, supernovae and stellar nurseries. Footage of astronauts doing slow-motion spacewalks to service the telescope as well as life on board the shuttles, and the training conducted four-stories underwater to prepare for them. If you’re even a little bit interested in space, I recommend seeing this.

Thanks to the internet, there’s now a myriad of new ways to geek out on space. Blogs, magazines, podcasts and twitter feeds are just the start. Perhaps one of the best things a space geek can do is subscribe to Phil Plait’s blog, Bad Astronomy. A scientist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope program, has written two books about space and now has his own TV series “Bad Universe”, I think of him as the Carl Sagan of our generation. He’s famously written articles debunking popular myths like astrology and the ‘moon landing hoax’. And nearly every day, he posts interesting pictures or articles about space. But most importantly, he explains what it is you’re seeing, and why it’s so remarkable.

Here are just a few recent examples. Click each of the photos below to get Phil’s explanations. They’re very cool!


Donate Your Organs

My brother used to have a “Don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here” bumper sticker on his car. I respected his decision, but I didn’t agree with it. Something about the idea squicked me.

This was before I’d cemented my atheist beliefs and come to terms with the likelihood that there is no afterlife. I was young. I had naive questions, like “we don’t know what happens when we die, what if we do need our livers?”. I think a part of me was secretly hoping the vikings were right, and after my passing I’d have an eternity of drinking and feasting to look forward to.

That all changed, however, in my early twenties. My best friend went into hospital, needing open heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. The plan was to use an artificial, mechanical valve that would do the job, but for a variety of reasons would be sub-standard. It would need to be replaced every 10 to 20 years, for a start, and could require him to take anticoagulant medication and have monthly blood tests. But, if that was the cost of saving his life, so be it. He was prepared for it, as best as anyone could be.

At the last minute, though, he got some great news: a donor heart valve had become available! The human valve was transplanted into him, and ever since he’s been a picture of health. Because of some dead stranger’s gift, he can live like everyone else. Organ donation changed his life.

The next day I went and signed up to be an organ donor. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but if there is I’m fairly certain we don’t need our corporeal bodies in it. What I DO know, though, is that there’s a urgent need for organ transplants. Mark Colvin, host of ABC radio’s PM news and current affairs program, wrote about it brilliantly on The Drum today. You can’t help be moved by reading it, and I hope you will click here and sign up to be an organ donor.

Who’s Afraid of Islam? America Is.

Artist rendition of the “Ground Zero Mosque”Can’t we all move past the whole “They’re different to me, I’m scared” thing?

Last month the Pew Research Center released a report showing that most Americans don’t know what religion their own President is. The survey found that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) think Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Nearly half (43%) say they do not know what his religion is. He is, actually, a Christian – a fact that only a third of adults (34%) correctly answered, down from 48% in 2009.

Well, he says he’s a Christian, anyway. While in Australia we don’t have a problem with an atheist Prime Minister, in the US it’s almost political suicide. As Bill Maher said in an interview on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “He of course has to SAY he is, because he’s running for President in the ‘United Stupid of America’”. Of course, a leader’s religion isn’t necessarily a big deal. Politicians should, ideally, be elected based on their policies, not beliefs. But there are times – fortunately not very often – when politicians will need to comment on religious topics. And a week after that survey was released, Obama did just that: he spoke out in support of what the media has dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

Which isn’t at Ground Zero.

And isn’t really a mosque.

It’s a 13-story building with an auditorium, theater and performing arts center. It has a gym, swimming pool and basketball court; a creche, a bookstore, a culinary school, art studio, and food court. It also has a September 11 memorial, AND a mosque.

But because it’s planned to be built 200m away from the site of the World Trade Center, it’s become a hotbed of controversy. With many opposing its construction complaining it’s an insult to the memories of those who died there. Even though, as Matt Sledge writes for the Huffington Post, “Muslim prayers are already taking place right on the edge of the construction site … Families are going there to pray – for the souls of the dozens of innocent Muslim victims who died on September 11”.

It’s been nine years and Islamophobia is still widespread in America. It’s well time to move on. The 19 hijackers on September 11 were no more Muslim than the Westboro Baptist Church lunatic, Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps is Christian. They were a tiny, extremist element of an otherwise peaceful religion.

The Problem of Authority

When Too Much Information Is A Bad Thing

We’re inundated with information all the time, from every source imaginable – traditional media like newspapers, television and radio; new media like blogs, forums and podcasts; conventional in-person interactions and a host of other forms. That’s a fantastic thing. To think that now I can type “vaccination” into Google and get more than 15.2 million results in less than one-fifth of a second is phenomenal. Twenty years ago, we could only dream of such a huge volume of information. It was amazing back then, when a complete and searchable encyclopedia could fit on a compact disc. Now, of course, just the English version alone of Wikipedia (only 3.37 million out of a total 16 million articles for all languages) is over 230.3 gigabytes – or 337 compact discs. This, as The Wire’s Marlowe Stanfield would say, “sounds like one of them good problems”.

But the problem isn’t that there’s so much information, the problem is that the quality doesn’t match the quantity. Of those 15.2 million vaccination results, some will be from blog posts saying “today I took Billy in for his vaccination, he was very brave” while others will be useful, factual information from peer-reviewed medical journals. Sure, search engines do an incredible job of finding and sorting relevant information. That blog post isn’t going to get nearly as many links as the Wikipedia page or the website of the Australian Vaccination Network – the top two search results – so it will be buried further down in the results. And right there is the problem – that’s relevancy, not authority. Yes, those sites are more relevant to most people, but are they the most informative, authoritative sites? There’s no way for a search engine to know if the Australian Vaccination Network gives accurate, scientific information or not.

And guess what, it doesn’t.

After investigating the group, the NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission (HCCC) has released a damning report that claims “the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading”. The report reveals that the group “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination” and that it “quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous”.
The story is best covered by Walkley Award winning journalist Steve Cannane on Lateline:

The problem of authority is obviously a problem not just on the internet, but in real life as well. And just as finding relevant information online was a challenge before Google came along, I think finding authoritative information is our current – and much harder – problem. But at least on the internet it’s easy to reference the sources of information and determine its accuracy. That’s perhaps what the quest for authority demonstrates – the awesome power of the link. By showing sources, by linking to the facts, a site demonstrates its authority. It’s self-regulation, and clearly not particularly effective, but for now it’s the best we can do.

The Truth About (Some) Men

That self-appointed voice of masculinity,, has released it’s annual “Great Male Survey” for the year. “Great” is their adjective, not mine. With over 100,000 responses, the survey proclaims to “shed serious light on how the modern man thinks and behaves — professionally, romantically and in his downtime – in 2010”. But nobody seems to be questioning the actual survey itself.

It’s filled with “great”, although often trivial, insights into the readership. For example, I found it particularly interesting that presumably, the modern man in 2010 is 100% straight.  The questions were all loaded with a clear heterosexual bias, like “Would you dump a girlfriend if she became fat?” (54% are shallow bastards). There were some questions that left the door open to everyone, such as “Of the choices listed below, which one thing would you change about your partner?” (57% were either single or wouldn’t change anything). Now I understand may think only stereotypical heterosexual neanderthals with beer, breasts and football obsessions surf their site, but how would they know? The point of a survey is to ask questions, not make assumptions. And gay men might have some interesting thoughts on the “Do you believe in the institution of marriage?” question (67% of survey respondents do and the rest don’t or don’t want to be married).

Putting aside the hetro slant, I was surprised at how the survey was reported in the media. There seemed to be some very alarming results that were completely ignored, while trivial responses were reported everywhere.

Forty-nine percent of men said that if there were no repercussions, they would happily punch a colleague in the face. Forty-nine per cent! I couldn’t find any news report that mentioned that. Nearly half of men want to get violent on a coworker, and that’s not important? Nobody’s asking if we have aggression issues, or what’s happening in our workplaces to get us riled up?

Given the stereotypical obsession men have with sex, it’s surprising how uncomfortable we are about it. Forty-two percent of respondents haven’t told their partners any of their sexual fantasies, and 45% have only discussed some of them. Similarly, one in two men are uncomfortable having their genitals examined by a doctor. That’s during an appointment, I should add – I’m sure most people would be uncomfortable if a doctor came up to them on the street and asked to examine their bits.

The survey shows that only 16% of men are logical and rational people, since 84% believe in either aliens, angels, ghosts or vampires. I’m not making this up! 52% of men seriously believe Aliens exist, but 17% think angels are more likely. I suppose this isn’t really all that surprising, if you remember back in April I wrote that 49% of Americans believe that have had a ‘mystical or religious experience’. When I also consider the success of scams such as PowerBalance bracelets, I find myself wondering what happened to people’s critical thinking skills? Do we now just believe whatever we see on television?

I realise, of course, that is a Lowest Common Denominator type of trash site – the online equivalent of Zoo Magazine or FHM. But when you brag about being “approved” by internationally recognised statistics company Ipsos, I expect the questions to be phrased without bias or loading. I also expect that the media, when covering a survey with over 100,000 respondents, to draw attention to serious or worrying results. But then, maybe I’m wrong and the public does need to know that every second man wishes he was James Bond.

Some Food Tax Funnies

I posted the other day about moves to introduce taxes on junk food and soft drink, and it stirred up an interesting and thought-provoking discussion in the comments. But it was getting a little heavy, so I thought I’d introduce some levity on the subject from two comedic acts I very highly admire: Penn & Teller, and Jon Stewart.

I’ll start off with  a clip from a recent episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! This clip is not safe for work, and contains some fairly strong language!

The full episode is available on YouTube.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart also gave their take on the issue here.

I hope that added some levity and perspective on the debate. 🙂

Don’t Tax Our Drinks

It’s a debate that’s been a part of political discussion since the Magna Carta in 1217. A debate about the role of government in our everyday lives – how much say, if any, the government has over our individual rights and liberties. Essentially, it’s Big Government vs Limited Government. Most people would agree there needs to be some form of government: there needs to be rules (laws) to stop people stealing each other’s stuff and being bastards. But above that, there’s an awful lot of debate.

Libertarians like The Cato Institute, or conservatives like the US Republican Party and the Australian Liberal Party advocate for a small, limited government. It is not up to government, they say, to intrude upon how we as individuals run our lives. That notion is anathema to the Free Market principles they champion. As a result, they almost invariably call for low taxation: after all, it’s our money to do with as we please, not the government’s.

The opposing view, taken by progressives like the Australian Labour Party and the US Democratic Party, is that government can do some things better than individuals or private enterprise. That there are some things a government has to do, to provide for citizens who cannot afford it: public education, health and transport for example. These are all expensive services, so advocates of bigger government are usually calling for higher taxes to pay for them.

I should at this point make clear I am speaking principally about fiscal policy, not social policy. Politicians of all sides of the spectrum tend to be only too happy to dictate moral choices, such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

But this, like most debates of political position, is a shallow debate. To break the government of an entire country down to two schools of thought is simplistic and unworkable. Not everything in politics is Big Government vs Small Government, or Left Wing vs Right Wing. Labor or Liberal. It’s not one or the other, because we don’t live in a binary world. We need some Big Government ideas, such as a minimum level safety blanket: healthcare, housing, food. But need room for entrepreneurialism, capitalistic incentive and free markets. As with most things, it’s a matter of balance. And it’s a debate which needs to be applied on an individual case-by-case basis.

Take, for example, the debate taking place right now in the US and other countries about taxes on fast food and soft drink. Thirty-three US States have a ‘soda tax’ aimed and curbing the consumption of high-sugar drinks, and a number of lobby groups are campaigning for taxes on high-fat foods such as pizzas and burgers. The taxes are designed to reduced the level of obesity and related health effects. That’s the Big Government view: individuals need help But it’s not up to the government to decide what we, as citizens, should eat. That’s an individual choice, a decision we can make for ourselves.

Aside from animal-welfare or environmental concerns – which are an altogether different debate – if I eat a burger, the only person I’m possibly doing harm to is myself. Nobody else suffers from my eating habits. To tax junk food, therefore, serves only two purposes: to dissuade people from eating it, or to raise money. If it’s to raise money, it’s a sneaky, nasty way to do it that opens the door to other taxes and levies on our lifestyle. If it’s to manipulate our eating habits, it’s an affront to the ideals of liberty and personal choice.

Similarly, in today’s The Age, health experts are calling for a tax on “energy drinks” – drinks laden with sugar and caffeine and various other stimulants. On the surface of it, this is the same sort of debate as the junk food or soda tax: we can decide for ourselves if we want to drink them or not. The problem in this case, however, comes from the increased health risks from high-caffeine drinks – especially to teenagers. And teenagers, with less developed frontal lobes (responsible for forethought and impulse control) are less equipped to make considered judgement calls on how much is too much. But how high would the tax have to be, to deter teenagers? Dramatically high, I think. So much so that you wouldn’t just be inconveniencing teenagers, but sensible adults as well. Perhaps a restriction on sale to under-18s should be looked at.

As with most things in life, moderation is key. We do not need a Big Brother government that will dictate what we can and can’t eat or drink. But we need some form of regulation to look after those whom the free market fails, and we need better education and critical thinking skills to enable people to make smart, informed choices.