Wednesday Woo

Wednesday Woo #3: Astrology

For last weeks Wednesday Woo, Click here.

“The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” — Karl Popper

If you’ve ever been on social media, there’s no doubt you’ve come across astrological personality memes, articles regarding planetary influence or some form of vague horoscope. Most of the claims are rather general and often harmless, but others have a tendency to show an ugly bias that is based on one’s personal experience with certain signs as opposed to actual statistics. Every assumption can be made about certain sun signs or planetary aspects, including a person’s taste in entertainment, whether or not they are prone to accidents, how much they talk, or even crazy things that arouse suspicion, such as: “Geminis are more likely to lie and to cheat on you.” Holy shit! For real? I guess I’d better steer clear of those lyin’, cheatin’ Geminis, right? But wait, there’s a “study” that came out recently that ranked Sagittarius as the most likely to cheat on their partners. Then again, here’s another “study” that says Sagittarius is least likely to cheat. What is going on here? Why aren’t these astrologers coming to the same conclusions?

“Holy shit! For real? I guess I’d better steer clear of those lyin’, cheatin’ Geminis, right?”

While astrology is really popular, and can be quite amusing as entertainment, one cannot help but wonder about their true value. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s a valid way of thinking. Is astrology truly a reliable form of science, or is it a pseudoscience? This is often one of many questions poised to astrologers, and it seems to really be a thorn in the side of their profession. Astrologers have big claims about the predictive nature of their methods, as well as what a natal chart can reveal about an individual’s personal nature. These claims, of course, are unfalsifiable, which plants a big, red flag in the astrologer’s corner. Real science provides conditions where a claim can be proven false (falsifiable), whereas astrologers leave absolutely no room for this, and instead, only seek confirmation of their claims while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. There’s no peer review, nor any evidence that planets and stars impact personal aspects of our lives. This is not how science works, but it is exactly what one would expect from pseudoscience. As Carl Sagan asserted, “Extraordinary claims requite extraordinary evidence.” So, where is the evidence?

There is no scientific basis for the notion of far away planets or constellations have any intimate influence on human lives in the way astrology claims. Many astrologers will use gravity to argue their position, since the tides are affected by the moon’s pull, and our bodies mostly consist of water. They don’t take into account that the moon’s gravitational influence only includes open bodies of water, not the enclosed water within our bodies. Astrologers will also assert that technology, communication, travel and contractual obligations are not a good idea during mercury retrograde, but they do not seem to offer a real reason other than folklore. Is this a gravitational phenomenon as well? That to me is doubtful, since Mercury retrograde is mostly an optical illusion. Despite there being no evidence to believe that retrogrades and moon phases have anything to to with our lives, these myths are still believed so fervently that every few months you will see all kind of crazy memes and articles shared about retrogrades and super moons. A new shift occurs just as soon as people get over the last, and most believers attribute them to planetary activity. One thing I always found strange personally, was that astrology does not take into account the gravitational pull of airplanes passing over those who live next to airports, or the massive ships in which those on the coasts are exposed. If gravity is truly the most influential aspect of a person’s natal chart, why aren’t the flight patterns included, or even traffic of nearby cars? These would actually have more of a gravitational impact on a person than any of the planets outside of our own.

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When the validity of astrology has actually been tested, their predictions and assessments work at a rate no better than chance. Like I said before, the astrologers can’t seem to even agree on interpretation of charts they studied. If it were a truly accurate and predictive source of understanding reality, surely there would be no personal bias involved. But it turns out, it’s mostly based on intuitive feelings (*cough* cold reading *cough*) the chart reader has when gazing upon the chart positions and its many aspects. Despite this lack of evidence, astrologers all over the world still maintain they are providing a useful service, oftentimes charging lots of money in order to provide answers to people who are desperate to find romance, riches, or good fortune. The situation is really bad in India, where not only are they charged for astrological services, but also duped into buying gemstones to alter their fortune; sometimes even urged to change their names and location.

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One again, confirmation bias rules supreme in the world of woo, and since astrology is so deeply connected to various lore, I would be surprised if belief in it vanished into the dark ages from which they came. The desire to assign anthropomorphic features to stellar objects seems to bring a mystifying allure that is difficult to overcome. I cannot say that it has been completely useless in our development to take such interests in the stars and planets, for it has paved the way for astronomy and physics. What I can express is the desire to know the truth about our reality, and in order to do this, I must find credible data and evidence to justify things I believe. I used to believe in astrology, so much so I dedicated large portions of my day to study natal charts and their progression. After a long standing faith in this idea, I finally decided to take apply critical analysis, and it did not hold up to scrutiny once I began thinking with more skepticism, and definitely fell apart once I understood the scientific concept of falsifiability. The conclusion I came to: astrology is a historically outdated and empirically wrong form of pseudoscience that holds no justification for belief.

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Wednesday Woo

Wednesday Woo #2: Psychics, Mediums, and Channelers

For last weeks article on Synchronicity, click here.

“But Abraham, you mean I’m supposed to make stuff up!?!?
You are creators, you make stuff up all the time!”
― Esther Hicks

Make up stuff, indeed! Ever watch the episode of “Family Guy” where Peter becomes a psychic? (S 8 Ep. 12) If you have yet to see it, I suggest you check it out. Not only is it hilarious, but it points out some of the flaws of those who claim to have such abilities in a very pointed way. Folks will go to a psychic out of desperation, then after the medium tells them what they want to hear, it instills a belief in them that’s difficult to shake. All the psychic has to do is make one or two correct guesses, and the believer will see it as a successful reading, while ignoring the mountain of things they got wrong. Remember the concept of confirmation bias? It works very well here, too.

The techniques used by mediums and channelers are always the same. They utilize cold reading as a way to obtain information through verbal and non verbal cues, clothing, gender, etc…, they then guess which direction to take the reading indicated by responses the subject gives. They throw questions at the subject very quickly, to emphasize the hits, and draw attention away from the misses. There is also warm reading, where they make general statements that could apply to virtually everyone. “Something difficult has happened to you recently,” would be a good example of warm reading. Lastly, hot reading is quite the creepy and sly technique where the psychic actually investigates their subject before a reading by listening to phone calls, talking to friends and family, or merely giving them a google.

Here’s an example of just how many hits and misses a medium can have. It’s rather long, but not only amusing, but very revealing.

If you’re pressed for time, there is also this short clip of James Randi discussing just how devastatingly wrong Sylvia Browne is on a special by Anderson Cooper.

There are other varieties of channelers, who claim to possess the ability to make contact with aliens, people from the future, or spirit guides. This particular brand of medium usually offers platitudes or wise-sounding anecdotes in order to astound and comfort those in their company. Again, it can seem harmless, but it is charlatanism that claims to sometimes make predictions of the future, as well as sometimes fuel conspiracy theories that are dangerous to mental health.

Here’s Bashar talking about “chemtrails” and how to use gold to control the climate. Yes… GOLD.

Ester “Abraham” Hicks charges around $500 ($225 workshop fee, and $250 at the door) for events, not to mention book sales and special appearances. What a racket! Now it may feel good to listen to these folks, but at those prices I think you would be better served taking a spa day or going fishing.

When I was into my woo-woo phase, I practiced channeling myself, and can safely assert that what came out of me was absolute junk mail from my subconscious mind. Rather like a dream that doesn’t reflect reality – a jumbled mix of nonsense that had no value of predictability or virtue. In fact, some of it was just scribbles of symbols.

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It took years trying to develop my “intuitive skills” for that scribble, not to mention all the money I spent on books.

Now, apparently I’m no psychic, and cannot know for sure the intent of others, but charging large amounts of money to offer the distraught absolutely nothing is a scam. I have known a lot of folks to claim to channel, typically for free (though some of them do charge), and they express their intent as an attempt to help others connect with the spirit world in an effort to guide their lives during times of confusion. That seems noble on the surface, but is misguided in itself, and is a lot of responsibility. They give readings suggesting they leave or stay in relationships, move to a different area, quit their job, and all sorts of big life decisions that they would normally make themselves if they hadn’t placed all their trust in the medium. The question is rarely asked: what if they are wrong? Making reasonable choices is difficult, especially in times of stress, but it’s something we must all learn to do as adults. It may actually be easier to be an adult if you refrain from wasting your money on a psychic.

Wednesday Woo

Wednesday Woo #1: Synchonicity

Wednesday Woo is a weekly column written by my partner and chief advocate of all that I write, Jennifer. Each week she will describe some aspect of New Age Spiritualism and the logical flaws that each of these things contain.  She comes from a very different direction than I did with Pentecostalism but I think you will see, New Age Spiritualism can be just as dogmatic and harmful as mainline organized faiths. Thank you for reading!

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“Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have the eyes to see it.”
– Carl Jung

 

As living beings, we continuously seek out patterns in life as a survival tactic. This is left over from a time when we had to rely on our senses to detect predators hiding among the flora, track food sources, or navigate our way around terrain to find resources. If we did not have this trait, we would not be here to discuss whether or not we have ascribed some sort of deeper meaning to the patterns found than are actually there. If you’ve ever heard the stories of Mother Mary being seen on a piece of toast, or witnessed the face on the moon, you recognize this ability of human beings to come to the wrong conclusion with this ability.

The New Age movement has taken this superstition to a whole new level, conflating pattern-seeking behavior into something far more metaphysical and often dramatically solipsistic. They identify this pattern “synchronicity”, a term coined by the infamous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung, who defines the phenomenon as “temporally coincident occurrences of a causal events.” The most common attributions are numerical, like 11:11, 2:22, etc., but can be geometrical, topic based, or even take the form of seeing certain objects they had discussed, thought about, or seen elsewhere. New Agers will relate these patterns to messages from angels, aliens, ascended masters, or what they call the “higher self”. Of course these things cannot be verified or demonstrated by any means, because they’re in the 7th dimension, the unconscious mind, or some other invisible realm of existence. According to them, if you see the pattern repeated, it means these entities are trying to get your attention, confirm that you are on the right path, or whatever specific idea they deem relative to the symbology. It’s a great way to sell books or products that aid in translating these symbols and their determined intuitive meanings.

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“In a desperate attempt to psychically reconnect with her, as well as lift myself up from the rut of sadness, I opened my mind to woo. As a result, my brain pretty much fell out of my skull.”

How do I know about the New Age philosophy of synchronicity? I was a believer for about four years after my mother passed away from liver disease. We were really close – so close that we could exchange a glance from one another, from across the room, and begin laughing, because we both knew what the other was thinking. There was a huge void in my life, and I was so overcome with grief from her death that I had a nervous breakdown. In a desperate attempt to psychically reconnect with her, as well as lift myself up from the rut of sadness, I opened my mind to woo. As a result, my brain pretty much fell out of my skull. Astrology, numerology, dream interpretation, astral projection, kabbalah, tarot… you name it, I was into it, and spent a great deal of money, time, and effort to pursue my quest. It felt good for a while, and the pain of my mom’s death seemed to fade. There was a huge fellowship online to discuss all of these things with, and it felt as though I had found my tribe.

Now, you may be wondering why I left this belief system if it felt so good and helped me connect with people. That’s a great question, but I’m afraid there is no simple answer. It wasn’t any one particular thing that made me abandon the philosophies of woo, but a heaping pile of stuff that just kept growing bigger and bigger until my brain could no longer justify the inconsistencies and far-reaching logic in the system. If not for my very helpful and logical husband who presented me with great questions and kept an open dialogue on these philosophies, I may still be stuck. He challenged me on some of the beliefs I held, which prompted me to really wonder if I was wrong about my New Age ideas. When it came to the subject of synchronicity, I started to feel like I was some sort of conspiracy theorist, making ghostly connections, and the entire universe had been the conspirator. Contemplation of this made me feel quite silly, so I began searching for other explanations to the patterns that kept showing up in my reality, and what I found was elegant and actually quite simple: a concept called “confirmation bias”.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for us to only view information that conforms with our already existing belief systems. So if I see 333 everywhere I go, it’s because my brain was actively seeking it. That’s what it does to aid survival, but I was giving the patterns a deeper meaning because I desired so badly for my beliefs to be true. Yet seeing these things over and over again did not make me psychic or special; it only highlighted my wishful thinking and genetic disposition to pattern seek. I simply wanted this to have deeper meaning because, for one, I didn’t want my New Age beliefs to be wrong, and two, I longed for the universe to hold my short life in high regard. My bias simply had to be important, and no one could prove me wrong better than myself. Thus, I learned more about confirmation bias, and subsequently threw the idea of synchronicity into the garbage.

“I want to believe as many true things, and few false things as possible.”
-Matt Dillahunty

Sometimes we struggle to be right so much that it can actually feel like we are attempting to survive. After all, if our outlook on reality is incorrect, it takes a lot of effort to relearn how to view things with more skepticism. We are not our worldview, and must find a way to separate these things from our actual identity to get beyond them. For me, it took seeking the contrast to my beliefs to really pull myself out of the mind of woo. Every day is a struggle, since I’ve surrounded myself with bias confirming people from tribes of the not-so-distant past. I have had to take a hard look at my previous self through others, and it’s never easy. But, in order to have a rational, more accurate outlook on life, it’s well worth the effort to me. In the words of Matt Dillahunty, “I want to believe as many true things, and few false things as possible.”