Sunday, February 05, 2006

Insane person supports astrology

A New York Times review of The Fated Sky : Astrology in History by Benson Bobrick begins thus:
Shortly into my marriage (about six hours) my wife purchased a white-noise generator to counteract my night terrors. White noise is a mishmash of random sound waves that interfere with other waves, and thus flatten and nullify them. Within a few weeks, however, I heard the generator calling my name. "Dick . . . Dick . . . Dick . . . ," it moaned. "What? What? What?" I moaned back. Recently, it has begun dispensing orders: "Kill, kill your publisher."
Having established that our reviewer is insane, is it really worth continuing on? Can someone who hears voices urging him to kill bring us deep insights into astrology? In brief, yes. By seeing how this writer's insanity undermines his own logic, we can strengthen our own logic.
In the early 20th century, experimenters demonstrated that randomness rules: physicists found that particles are unpredictable; geneticists discovered that evolution is fueled by squillions of chance mutations. Yet today superstring theorists insist they will reconcile the lumpy, acausal quantum world with the smooth determinism of relativity; and neo-Darwinists emphasize natural selection, a god-like mechanism that sorts through mutations and chooses only the optimal ones. To them, every feather, fetlock and pubic hair bristles with meaning.
No, no, no. Evolutionary biologists are quick to decry the attitude in that last sentence as "adaptationism." Mike the Mad Biologist took this passage down hard, so I'll let you read that and simply point out that the reviewer is attaching way to much certainty to random processes. But that's not surprising, since he thinks his white noise generator is urging him to kill. If natural selection chose "only" the optimal ones, it would not be a statistical process. It tends to select certain traits, but there are no guarantees. That's why it isn't "god-like."

The interesting thing about random processes is that it's often possible to derive regularities from them when you abstract yourself from them. Where each drop from a waterfall lands is random, but we can still speak intelligently about where a waterfall is and where it lands.
So when the playful and innovative historian Benson Bobrick writes in "The Fated Sky" that 30-40 percent of the American public believes in astrology, I am shocked.
I am too, because astrology is nonsense. The motion of the planets are not at all random, it is highly deterministic. Someone who believes in astrology is not misinterpreting randomness (the theme thus far) but rejecting free will. Our lunatic reviewer sees things differently.
Why so few…? Astrology, the belief that human lives are ruled by the stars and planets, is no nuttier than current cosmological models, which feature an "anthropic principle," giving our puny, three-pound brains a central role in the universe. The Babylonians, the inventors of astrology, also sought patterns in their lives. "What more pristine patterns are there," the Colgate University astronomer Anthony Aveni says, "than those found in heaven?" If cosmologists can unapologetically extrapolate from quarks to the cosmos, why not extrapolate from the planets to humans? The scale is much smaller.
The cosmos is made up of quarks. People are not made up of planets. The anthropic principle does not give our brains any special status. The anthropic principle argues that, since certain physical constants could be different than they are, one reason our universe has the particular set of constants we experience is that some other set of values would not produce a universe in which human life could have evolved. Such universes may be possible, and may even exist in a multiverse, but there's no way we could possibly have been living in them, so it isn't surprising that we don't. That creationists and other anti-science people (our reviewer included) like to turn this into an argument that we or this universe was specially designed is irrelevant. It is they, not cosmologists, who are making the error the reviewer decries.

Bobrick appears to embrace the notion that astrology is a study of omens, not causality. …This implies that astrology is based entirely on religious notions. A supreme entity either knows the future or provides it, and sends warnings our way.

But astrology can also be seen as early science, an attempt to understand nature.
I suppose, but the key to whether it is science is whether it is possible to test its predictions, and to revise the hypotheses when predictions fail. Astrology does not do this. If indeed it ever was scientific, its claims to scientific status died when people made wrong predictions and didn't revise or abandon astrology.
Modern man can choose from a veritable smorgasbord of Type 1 errors: string theory, neo-Darwinism, cosmology, economics, God. Astrology is as good as any, and Bobrick demonstrates that it has a rich, colorful past to draw upon. As for me, I answer to a higher authority. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go kill, kill my publisher.
The reviewer's insanity has caused him to believe that everything in the world is random, that all attempts to understand the world are inherently erroneous, and that they are all equally flawed. Only if you grant these assumptions, fully aware that they are products of an admittedly shattered mind, is astrology "as good as any."

Here is the conclusion to today's Yahoo horoscope. "All in all, this feels like a day when pressures are mounting and the proverbial noose appears to be tightening around your neck, but you will probably be able to make the best of it and move on successfully to tomorrow." Personally, I'm looking forward to today, because I know that I have mere hours to wait until Puppy Bowl. Many people are eagerly anticipating an afternoon of Super Bowl ads. A few people are actually excited about the game. Half of those people will be thrilled, and the other half will probably not kill themselves. I conclude that the planets and stars are worse than football at explaining human behavior, and I happen to think football is a poor explanation for that behavior.

Finally, bad analogy watch:

Bobrick essentially begins his history with the Greeks and Romans, barely mentioning the Babylonians. This is like writing a history of baseball with only passing references to the Yankees.
I was not aware that Babylonian civilization still existed today. Perhaps it's more equivalent to writing a history of basketball without mentioning tlachtli, or writing a history of baseball that does not discuss the Brooklyn Dodgers, or perhaps the New York Knickerbockers (a baseball team founded in 1845 and no longer in existence).