Monday, January 17, 2011

Signs of the times, or Is Astrology True After All?

Well, well, here's a sobering lesson for all of us who have sneered at astrology!  It's not just that some famous scientists dabbled in astrology.  No, it's more serious than that and, in a sense, a great relief! 

There's a story just out  (the story is from the New York Times, but reports on a story in a Minneapolis paper) that says that the signs of the zodiac have traditionally been a month off what they should have been.  Yes, believe it or not, after all this time, you aren't what you always thought.

It appears that because of the moon's effect on the earth's behavior, ancient zodiac/month assignments are now off by about a month.  Now, we're not technical experts, so we can only steer you to the story itself, rather than attempt to interpret the scientific evidence for you.  But this figure and legend from the Times report may  help:

What gets our interest is the relevance of this fundamental flaw to basic questions about how we know the facts of science, and how our theories fit the facts (or don't).  In fact, we really must sincerely apologize for having denigrated as pseudo-science such fields as astrology.  Many famous scientists have held various levels of acceptance of astrology.  But what we thought we knew, in this modern age, is that those horoscopic predictions that people read in the paper every day are bogus: they seem to come true because they're so generic that, like GWAS (genomic association studies), you can always find some apparent truth in their predictions, even if there's nothing really there--and claim success!  That is the skill of the astrologer (or GWAS analyst).

This is a problem, because for those who believe that their genome will predict their life (the way your horoscope does), the world is assumed to be a deterministic one.  If it is perfectly deterministic, then what appear to be probabilistic aspects of the world are simply illusions based on our not yet having figured out all the causal factors at play.  That was Einstein's skeptical take on those who insisted that quantum mechanics showed the universe to be truly probabilistic.  Even when never stated so baldly, that also is the effective worldview of personalized genomic medicine gurus (we're surprised none of them yet has a daily column on the comics page like astrologers do).

Now, think about this:  suppose the world really is, in fact, perfectly Newtonian and deterministic.  Then everything must always affect everything else by way of space-time gravity and so on (including the 'entanglement' of quantum mechanics recently preferred as the explanation for extra-sensory perception).  Like a ball on a string, if you know where the string is you know where the ball is, and vice versa.  In such a world astrology simply must be true: the positions of the stars simply must be completely connected to everything in your life, past or present!  If you observe some set of facts, you can know all other facts!

Thus the fault really is in your stars, if you feel you are an underling.  (We'll skip over the fact that the same must be true of patterns in tea leaves, or even in the flakes of dandruff on your shoulder, or even your dog's dandruff) rarely bear out more than what would be expected by chance (this applies, we skeptically believe, even to the late, lamented octopus who supposedly predicted the outcome of the World Cup).  Since the stuff never really comes true, of course, the science of astrology just isn't a science.  Or so we thought!

What the new story now shows is exactly why astrology hasn't been working: because we weren't observing the facts we thought we were observing.  Pisces aren't Pisces after all.  No wonder the horoscopes were always wrong!  But with the new correction, we should be able to look forward to perfect predictions.

Sadly, for us in genetics and biomedical sciences, this will not be good for business.  Because if everything is predictable by everything else, a quick glance at the Daily Horoscope will tell you all you need to know about your future, including your disease fates and the talents of your children.   You won't need to bother with the cost and effort of getting your genome sequenced by  ZodiGenetics.

And that's bad for us professors, too, because it'll mean we're of no use, since once this realization sinks in there won't be any need for public funds to be spent on genetics research, and universities will certainly dismiss us if we stop bringing in the moolah.


Erick R. said...

While there may be hope for some Zodiac followers (apparently in "the East" - wherever that is) - us Westerners are immune to such corrections brought about by observation of measurable phenomena:

Anne Buchanan said...

Oh, thanks Erick R. -- ruin a perfectly good post by pointing out the facts!

Holly Dunsworth said...

The aftermath of this whole debacle (your sign changing and then ...not) has been so fun! There are people who are literally (and ironically) chiding, "Don't believe everything you read" to Horoscope Followers!

Ken Weiss said...

I think it's sad that, if the universe is truly deterministic, there's been such a mix of accurate, and inaccurate signs for people, that it would be almost impossible to evaluate whether Miss Zodiac's daily horoscope is accurate or not.

Maybe they (the Horoscopists) need to take some physics or something, to get their predictions right (as must, ultimately, be possible to do in a clockwork universe!).

Or, perhaps, physics and astronomy departments should hire physicoinformaticists to determine how the information on zodiac and earth positions can be used to infer what it would truly imply in a Newtonian world. Or else, sadly, to show formally that measurement error makes that impossible.

If the latter is the case, then Miss Zodiac could be proven to be useless and, sadly, thus out of a job....

Holly Dunsworth said...

Should have said earlier... thanks for such a mind-expanding post! Really wonderful stuff.

Ken Weiss said...

If you'd checked your sign, you'd have known that this was going to be mind-expanding. It was, according to at least some views of the universe, entirely predictable!

Ken Weiss said...

Hey, I don't know if I do tropical or Eastern signs. My palm reader never told me about the difference. So I just checked (with Wikipedia, the ultimate true truth), and the description was incredibly apt:
"Sagittarius is the sign of the zodiac mainly concerned with philosophy, higher education, and global thinking....They are also fond of ethics, as it appeals to their philosophical nature and is a subject that is so contextually dependent that they’re skilled at being flexible in applying sound philosophical observations to complex situations."

Now, I wonder what my sign says I should have for lunch....

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