July 9th, 2009


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No Apology for Astrology

The second Bullshit! episode of the new series was about astrology, a subject I'm surprised Penn and Teller hadn't covered before (and they even joked about that at the beginning of the episode). It was pretty typical of the show, pointing out the tricks that astrologers use while also taking some cheap shots, like at the guy who took forever to define astrology. Unlike orgasm therapy, astrology is something into which a lot of people seem to put a fair amount of stock. I see plenty of people talking about what their star signs signify when it comes to life choices. I don't think this episode is likely to change anyone's mind about the topic, but I do have to wonder why so many people who are aware that astrologers are basically pulling parlor tricks still consider their star signs to be of some kind of importance.

One thing I'm curious about when it comes to the pseudoscience is whether all astrologers are of the carnival huckster variety, or if there are some who actually follow the established rules and believe in it themselves. Or ARE there any real established rules? Astrology is an ancient practice, but it's not like there wasn't plenty of humbug in the ancient world. Just look at the ambiguous prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi, for instance. Still, ancient astrology definitely had its place, as it paved the way for astronomy. But, well, to follow the rules about how planets govern our lives that were conceived by people who hadn't yet figured out what planets actually WERE sort of seems akin to how the Catholic Church of the Renaissance era accepted Aristotle's ideas wholesale, even though Aristotle himself was a supporter of logic and observation.

When Reality Trumps Imagination

As both a skeptical atheist and a fantasy and mythology buff, there are many things that I can be pretty sure aren't true, but I think it would be pretty cool if they were. Take the Loch Ness Monster, for instance.

The chances that a lake that size would be able to support a creature that large are practically zero, but isn't it an interesting idea? Ditto for the Abominable Snowman, dragons, magic spells, and the sunken land of Atlantis. Continuing from the theme of my last post, however, I don't really find astrology interesting enough to want it to be true. The idea that planets are entire worlds, many much bigger than our own, is more fascinating to me than the one that they're just there to govern personal behavior and destiny. Not that they can't be both, I suppose, but I reiterate that the creators of astrology weren't really sure what planets were. A better example of what I mean is Young Earth Creationism. I'm well aware that, whatever they try to argue in Kansas, evolution and Creationism are not opposites. But let's indulge the Kansans for a minute and say our two choices really are scientific theories and Biblical literalism. On the one hand, you have a universe billions of years old, an ancient planet that eventually came to support life, and a constant procession of different life forms evolving and dying out. On the other, you have these things coming into being when a big guy in the sky wills them to. Impressive, sure, but hardly as fascinating. Of course, what's true doesn't always fall into line with what's interesting, but it seems odd to me that some people still want to cling to belief systems that are LESS engaging than reality. Maybe that's one reason I like fantasy so much. Fantasy readers can escape into universes where the more interesting explanations for things really ARE the right ones.