Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The future's not ours to see, que Sera Sera

As a student in India, I found that critical thinking was largely lacking in science classrooms. Even the examinations seemed to test ones ability to memorize rather than indulgence in critical thinking which is at the very core of scientific thinking. It is no mystery to me then, that the two scientists I worked for in India were highly superstitious. One of them would put a red tilak on the paper mail that contained the manuscript about to be delivered for review before publication in a science journal. The other scientist I worked for was well traveled and even did a stint in research labs in the UK. But all the training in scientific thought did not shake her beliefs in her spiritually advanced Guru who could appear in two places at one time.

If this is the state of the scientific thinkers in India then what can one expect from the scientifically ignorant masses? It is no wonder that astrology is so popular in India. The idea that one can predict someone’s future based on the position of the planets in the solar system does not sound ludicrous to a (ridiculously) large number of people. It can be hard to regard astrology as hogwash when you grow up in a society where it is not uncommon to make major life decisions based on astrological charts. Marriages are fixed depending on the position of Saturn. Cars are purchased on the most auspicious days as determined by planetary alignment. A streak of bad luck can be fixed by wearing prescription precious stone (rings) in an effort to woo the planets in your favor or to ward off the cosmic bad vibes.

As with most superstitious beliefs, the faith in astrology is set through personal anecdotes. Once the superstitious beliefs are set in through confirmation bias it is hard to convince the person otherwise. No amount of experimental or statistical evidence that debunks astrology will challenge a believer’s set notion. A handy personal anecdote will void the need for questions or doubt. Questions such as, “how does astrology work?” become irrelevant. It has already been strongly instilled in the minds of the believers that it does not pay to have doubts. Blind faith is regarded as a virtue. The flaw lies in asking questions. So a person who sets his/her beliefs through rational thinking is thought to be close minded (the irony!) to things which have proved their efficacy through personal anecdotes rather than evidence based methodology.

Dawkins butts heads with astrology in his TV series called “the enemies of reason”. He chats with an astrologer who makes a living by publishing horoscopes in a newspaper. Dawkins suggests a simple experiment to test the veracity of astrological predictions. The experiment would be to cut out any one horoscope from a week old newspaper. Tell each individual (irrespective of their sun-sign) that the predictions apply to their sun-sign and then ask them how accurately it predicts what happened to them in the last week. Then calculate the accuracy of the prediction. The astrologer flat out refused to participate in the experiment.

Here is a short video clip of “The enemies of reason”. You can also watch the entire episode here.


Drunken Master said...

When I was in India this past December, my mother, at the behest of my aunt, picked up my birth chart, and headed to the local astrologer. Interested in what the man had to say, I decided to tag along (I had nothing to do since my bags were still this side of the Atlantic...).

The questions focussed on my success and eventually came around to marriage and my likely spouse. The astrologer gave the standard answers that she will be at least decent looking, loyal and the like, but the major caveat came when he said that my wife-to-be would be a foreigner! My aunt's face dropped. What I'd give to see the expression change again.

She'd been trying to set me up for a while and the astrologer's line gave me the perfect cover to back out from seeing anyone! She's on my case again, after rationalizing that since I wasn't born in India, a good Indian girl also counts as a foreigner, but being as she isn't here, it's easy to ignore.

With that I must say, unlike you, I believe in astrology.

Crystal blur said...

drunken master,
That was quite entertaining :) Your aunt's optimism in interpretation (technically not a foreigner) was awesome!

Nikhil Kulkarni said...

Crys, Its unfair to single out Indians here. I mean horoscopes are popular in newspapers and tabloids across the world. Heck, I found newspapers in London giving more space to such bullshit than a standard English Daily in India!!

And more so, a bit of 'religious' superstition of an odd scientists (who still believes in western medicine, physics, astroNOMY etc) is not at all harmful. People have all kinds of quirks in the west - from a 'feeling' of being homosexual to having a lucky shirt - such harmless superstition is like these quirks.

But what we should be worried about is harmful superstition - belief in quacks instead of modern medicine, belief in fate instead of one's hard work, belief in 'non-believers' being sinful (jehad ans the likes), etc etc.

Drunken Master said...

Allow me to clarify a line before people misjudge me. I "believe" in astrology only because it got my aunt to not set me up for a while. Otherwise I think it is pretty useless.

Crystal blur said...

I can understand the reason for your defensive tone but I wanted to clarify that I was talking about these issues in context with India because most of my readers are Indians and I wanted them to talk/think about these things (if they haven’t already done so). I was not trying to idealize the West and trivialize India.

In previous blogs (like the first post on homeopathy) I have pointed out that such superstitious beliefs are popular in the West. This is also evident in the Dawkins's series. The reason I wanted to talk about the role of astrology in India in particular was that I find that such discussions are sadly lacking in India (and the Indian blogosphere). Even though the Western countries may share the same superstitions the voice of the scientific community there is pretty strong.

I think that it is important to talk about such issues because:
1) It creates awareness about the importance of scientific thinking.
2) It instills critical thinking. The roots of blind beliefs (be it astrology or homeopathy or other quack practices) are in the lack of critical thinking. If through discussions, it gets someone who hasn’t given these issues a deeper thought to reconsider their opinion and recognize the flaws in quack practices then my objective is accomplished.
3) The astrologers are cheating the gullible. It is a fraud and such practices need to be thwarted whether they cost a human life or not.

Belief in astrology can’t be regarded as a quirk because people make important decisions such as marriage based on astrological charts. The rings studded with precious stones to fight the bad cosmic vibes can also be pretty expensive.

About the scientists, there are equally ignorant scientists in the US (who refuse to accept evolution) but that does not make it okay for scientists in India to have superstitious beliefs. The point I was trying to make with those examples was that even after a career in a science, which requires you to be a critical thinker, these people failed to apply it in their personal lives.

drunken master,
Haha! We don't believe you. :p

I think it was pretty clear from your first comment that you were kidding about believing in astrology. :)

Mitesh said...

I agree with your views on astrology being BS. I consider it as an insult to science. But in indian society, it has so much importance. I wrote a small piece on this, in case you want to read.

Virinder Urf Funda-Mentor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Virinder Urf Funda-Mentor said...


I agree to ur central theme of gullible people being fleeced by others using these Beliefs built over centuries. Infact Blind faith of anything is the bane of all existense. India has several such beliefs and their use to ruse is wide spread. Do you believe in GOD? whats god? Isn it just an O out of GOOD like an extra D in evil makes Devil? Is it a superstition? What is the scientific proof of there being a GOD? Doesnt belief in GOD seem blind faith to u? Thats the basis of belief. Something to fall back on when Science fails. Bcos not everything is authenticated by science untill its understood by sceince! Dismissing astrology as Hogwash and BS would be like saying the same for GOD. Afterall something that sustains since 2nd millennium BC must have an iota of TRUTH in it. Or is it the mother of all CONSPIRACIES to control human behaviour? Not all have evil intentions, some really believe astrology as science and do a wonderful job in predicting some things. Where we draw the line, is the level of blind faith.

In US for example there is a blind faith on the Government sentences like "We are in grave danger from external threat" Theres a electricity outage and people fear NUCLEAR attack!

I believe in FATE. But I dot believe in GOD existing in it bad? is that blind faith? If a science teacher belives in GOD, whats the problem in that?

Crystal blur said...

Hey Mitesh,
Excellent post! I wish you would change the last line though. Even if coincidentally the astrologer gets the age you die right it still does not mean he can predict the future. He has given very generic predictions that will apply to almost everybody, including the life expectancy. If I am not mistaken, the average life expectancy is about 60-70 years. I can hazard a guess too and if it happens to be right does that mean I can see into the future? But other than that last sentence, the post was a great read.

You raise a very important question and I think many people share the same doubts as you. Your question is, “Why should I dismiss things just because science can’t prove its existence?” Let’s talk about this in relation to astrology. Even though science can’t give you direct evidence on the presence or absence of ‘invisible’ forces that allow the planets to affect human destiny, the progress in astronomy has allowed us to understand the universe a little better than we did before. We know that the sun does not revolve around the earth (despite the firm belief of our ancestors) and that the planets are revolving in their orbit around the sun. There is no reason to suspect that the planets care about whether you pass some exam or marry today or tomorrow. Our ancestors must’ve had huge egos to suspect that planets move around in space to signify events in human life. So given the understanding of our solar system, birth and death of stars and such, the questions you should be asking are, “Why should I believe in astrology? How does it work?”

As far as belief in God goes, the belief in God requires faith and faith requires you to be unquestioning and therefore abandon reason. Religious texts have many concepts that have been shown to be erroneous as our scientific understanding of the world has increased. For example, the Bible says that God created man but science has gathered evidence (in favor of evolution) that shows that man was not created overnight. Now if your science teacher thinks that the Bible can never be wrong and therefore evolution can’t be right (s)he most probably wouldn’t do a good job of explaining evolution to the students due to personal bias or lack of understanding.

K said...

Crys, Dawkins sure does not know this Khushvant Singh nugget: In 1980's Khushvant edited illustrated weekly. He himself does not believe in astrology, but he carried astrology column 'on public demand'. One day the guy who wrote the column demanded raise. Khushvant refused, the next three months the Weekly sub-editors -- who did not know A or astrology -- wrote the column. Readers were happy!

Crystal blur said...

That is hilarious! Need to read some Khushwant Singh one of these days :)

the said...


Somehow I believe, and I am not sure why, astrology is a kind of statistical science. If I delve further below that the bullshit thrown and the need to do puja and all, which is more like comforting the mind, the real astrology would be most likely a statistical science than anything else. Unfortunately, the results are interpreted weirdly to generate prophesies rather than anything else.

- The Pilgrim

buckwaasur said...

Somehow I believe, and I am not sure why, astrology is a kind of statistical science.

>>>unfortunately, correlation does not equate to causation. for example, someone can claim that the decrease in pirate population causes global warming. but even if they show a graph of how pirate population decreased and temperature increased over the past century, that does not mean one caused the other.

K said...

That nugget comes from Khushvant's autobiography. It is a hell of an autobiography. strongly recommended.

abhishek mehrotra said...

Speechless !!

Rajiv said...

I predict that astrology will always be followed in all regions of the world in some form or the other all the time !:-)! The best are the prediction made by Nostradamus and his predictions are used every time there is a major world event, even 9/11 ! Waiting for someone to come out with a article about the prediction regarding the T20 worldcup victory!
Just to point out the superstition and scientist are not isolated to India, a famous particle physicist (a noble prize winner, if i am not mistaken) in Boston University had a horseshoe on top of his study door. when asked about it, he exclaimed you know even if u don't believe in it, the damn thing works! lol!

BTW Crystal, great blog, i have been an avid reader of yours, not always in agreement with your views, but this one is more thought provoking then others. My personal fav. are your MB specials. you are a rare talent keep it up. cheers