Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Skeptic's Horoscope

Previously in this blog I have dismissed Astrology as bunk – Astrology remains one of the most thoroughly discredited of the pseudo-sciences. However, I was recently presented with a rare opportunity to have my own personal horoscope crafted for me. I needed only provide my precise date and time of birth and the specific location (latitude and longitude). It was an offer I couldn’t refuse!

The person who graciously agreed to run my horoscope is a follower of Astrology and suggests it reveals unique personal characteristics based on the positions of the stars, planets and other celestial bodies at the time and place of birth. The reading was created using a computer program commonly used by Astrology practitioners. The individual doing this horoscope asked that I not reveal their identity or source of the information.

Upon supplying my true specific time and location of birth, I received in the mail a ten-page report categorizing aspects of my personality by my “outlook”, “emotions”, “intellect”, “romance” and several other headings. Each section included a set of statements describing various aspects of my personality and behavior.

Upon my initial read of my horoscope I found myself nodding in agreement that, overall, it appeared to be a fairly familiar assessment about me. Yet this was no surprise as I happen to be party as to how the illusion is accomplished.

After scanning the document using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) I edited out all text that did not directly describe specific characteristics regarding my personality. For example, removing supposedly explanatory statements such as; “Your Moon is Trine to Jupiter with an Orb of 4 degrees”. What remained were the specific sentences describing my personality.

The remaining personality-descriptive sentences were then copied to an Excel spreadsheet, one sentence per line. Each sentence was then evaluated for whether it was “true”, “false”, “ambiguous”, “mutually-exclusive” or “universal” meaning applicable to a broad range of other personality types. Examples of universal statements would be: “This generation faces the stresses of changing social and moral standards”, or “Experiences in your life help you to grow.” With rare exception, who among us would not regard these statements to be true?

To minimize the likelihood of my own confirmation bias influencing the results, I also asked my wife to complete a duplicate analysis spreadsheet as well. She was not permitted to read the original horoscope prior to her analysis of the descriptive sentences.

The tabulations completed separately by my wife and I each judged 37% and 33% of the statements to be true, 29% and 26% to be false. We also determined 22% and 24% to be universal statements which most anyone might regard as true about themselves. 7% and 6% were ambiguous and 5% and 2% mutually-exclusive or contradictory, meaning neither true nor false.

The statements produced for this horoscope used familiar techniques well known to science and psychology, primarily “Cold Reading” whereby many of statements are tossed into the mix - statistically several may be true and others equally false. The reaction of someone untrained in this subject, their psychological propensity toward “Conformation Bias” and “Subjective Valuation” subtly causes them to weight highly statements which confirm their self assessment and to disproportionally under-weigh those statements which do not. The inclusion of additional broad general statements which may apply widely to many different people unconsciously adds into the mix of “hits”. This suggests to the recipient that an accurate portrayal of their personality has been divined from the creation of their horoscope.

Astrology has been around for over 4,000 years. Yet in all that time no hypothesis has ever been suggested regarding its mechanism – how it works. Adherents have only the claim that the results alone provide validity of its accuracy. However the results can actually be shown to be nothing more than a set of generic statements which horoscope recipients subjectively unwittingly accept. This acceptance is termed “Fallacy of Composition”, whereby a conclusion is drawn though there are insufficient reliable facts to justify the inference. The methodology used to create horoscopes parallels closely with similar techniques of psychics, palm or Tarot card readers or any practice which routinely employ this stratagem.

All of which begs the question: of what use is Astrology? Science in recent years has been far more successful in explaining how physical, bio-chemical and genetic factors influence our behavior and personality. In addition, one needs to consider an individual’s development, societal and cultural environment as well. These factors are far more tangible influences in shaping our behavior and personality than through unexplained inferences from objects far out in space.

Astrology, like performance magic, appears to be something it is not. But unless one has made the effort to understand how the trick is structured and performed, the uninformed will remain gullible into believing that unseen "powers" are divining their lives from the stars.
  • You are invited to view my actual personal horoscope, analysis spreadsheets and final report to the astrologer, along with two scientific studies of Astrology, on my web site at:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Paradise Found: The Big Island

I seriously got the impression that, if I walked around the streets of Honolulu at certain times, I could likely end up getting clubbed in the head. What the island of Oahu isn’t, the Big Island is – beautiful, natural, spacious and unequivocally Hawaii. Even the Kona airport is cool; no huge terminal or metal concourse. One steps off the plane directly into the warm tropical sun.

The Big Island is fascinating. Standing in one spot your eyes travel from the rocky coast all the way up to the summit of 13,700 summit of Mauna Kea. The west side is warm dry desert, the east is lush tropical forest – and the south coast is an active volcano. We always encourage first time visitors to make the trip to the southeastern coast to visit the lava flows of the petulantly active Kilauea volcano. During this trip the lava had stopped flowing; but this is usually a temporary situation. On previous visits we have seen the bright red ooze to the surface and walked on recently hardened, but still hot, flows.

This was our fifth visit to the Big Island, we come to escape the wet Oregon winters and to snorkel at one of the most remarkable places on the island, Kahalu'u Beach Park. Our daughter and her husband and kids joined us on this leg of the trip. My primary mission was to teach my 8 year-old granddaughter to snorkel. Kahalu’u is a fairly shallow bay and protected from the surf by a partial breakwater, making it ideal for amateur snorkel enthusiasts. The warm shallow water is home to a large variety of colorful fish and the likely experience of finding yourself within a few feet of a giant sea turtle. Second only to the reefs we have snorkeled in Belize, Kahalu’u bay is practically like swimming in the tank of a tropical fish store. Granddaughter took to the water immediately and soon it was all I could do to keep up with her. If you don’t own your own snorkel gear, equipment can be purchased or rented nearby. Seriously, if you visit the Big Island and don’t snorkel, you will miss half the wildlife adventure of the island.

I find the history of the Hawaiian culture fascinating. Native Hawaiians hold tightly to their cultural history and remnants of their presence everywhere. The early inhabitants built trails, left petroglyphs and rock structures throughout the island. I find it strange, though, that in such a lovely part of the earth, the ancient Hawaiians were quite a brutal lot. King Kamehameha, for example, decided to unite the assorted islands under single rule. So he invited another island king (his brother) to a sumptuous luau – after which he clubbed him to death, then set out to conquer the remaining islands.

The first westerner, Captain Cook visited the Big Island in 1779 and was hailed as a king by the inhabitants. Unfortunately, Cook soon returned wherein he and a few of his crew, after a brief skirmish, were clubbed to death. Today a monument maintained by the British government stands on the shore of Kealakekua Bay (another fantastic snorkeling location as well).

As brutal as the ancient Hawaiians were, they entertained some strange contradictory customs. One interesting spot is the Place of Refuge, now maintained by the National Park Service. The ancient Hawaiians lived under a feudal system of bizarre laws and taboos. For example, it was an offense punishable by death (yep, by clubbing) to step on the shadow of the king. Expect to be clubbed for eating fish during spawning time or for women to commit the offense of eating bananas as well. However, if the perpetrator of said taboo was able to make a successful run, arriving at the Place of Refuge, after a few days, all transgression would be forgiven and the offender could return home unscathed. Even warriors on the losing side of a battle, were they able to reach the Place of Refuge (before being clubbed to death), they were wholly reprieved.

There is far more to say about the Big Island; although several 5-star resorts have popped up in several areas, this island retains much of it’s rural and rustic charm. Some of the best beaches remain isolated, accessible only via rough trails hewn through the lava; marked only by a small grouping of parked cars along the highway.

If you haven’t yet visited our 50th state, I recommend you skip Maui and Honolulu and instead opt for the Big Island. It is the closest, in my opinion, to the truly Hawaiian experience.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

They Paved Paradise (& Put Up A Parking Lot)

Ten days in Hawaii – Two months ago I wasn’t sure I would live long enough to leave the hospital any way other than feet-first. Following my successful heart surgery, I had still pretty much written-off the Hawaiian vacation we had planned months before. But a whole lot of medical professionals pulled some strings (not to mention some wires and tubes) to see to it that I could keep that date with “Paradise on Earth”.

When I had originally planned this trip I had one goal in mind; to teach my granddaughter to snorkel. We booked our timeshare months before, Nancy and I planning to spend three nights in Oahu then meet up with our daughter, her husband and the grand kids for a week on the Big Island. I found Honolulu to be like any major American city: busy and expensive. Though oddly, we found the beach at Waikiki was practically deserted.

The highlight of Oahu was our visit to Pearl Harbor; the Arizona Memorial in particular. We were warned that the tour was popular and to arrive early to avoid long lines. But taking the 7:00 AM shuttle from the hotel to the memorial we strolled in with no waiting. The National Park Service efficiently controls access to the Arizona memorial. Well organized they issue a fixed number of tickets to park visitors, who after seeing a tastefully done film about how we were drawn into war with Japan, ferry us by launch out to the memorial.

Constructed straddling the hull of the Arizona where she had sunk entombing over 400 sailors, the simple yet reverent memorial structure stirred very deep emotions. The rusting hulk appeared almost ethereal lying just under the surface of the bay, disappearing into the darkness of deeper water. A thin sheen of oil seeping from the rusting hull made rainbow patters around the leis people had tossed into the water. Most were silent or spoke in hushed voices out of almost reverence - feelings clearly shared by "believer" and "non-believer" alike. As I gazed into the rusting hull of the Arizona, I must confess I felt an upwelling of pride that Seal Team 6 had recently put a bullet in the brain of that SOB behind our country's most recent sneak attack on September 11th.

The film we had watched back at the dock before boarding the launch taking us across the bay to the Arizona described how war disrupts the lives of those most often least able to avoid it. That the decisions of a powerful few can affect the lives of millions of people who hope for nothing more than to live lives quietly and comfortably surrounded by those by whom they are loved. It serves to remind us that so much of what happens to us is beyond our control yet can have the most devastating of consequences.

But soon the launch just as abruptly returned us back into modern 2011 Honolulu… where parking costs $24 a day, where all the stores blast air conditioning full bore out wide-open doors into the humid Hawaiian weather and where cars crawl slowly bumper-to-bumper in four lanes of freeway traffic burning up gasoline at $4.45 per gallon.

Next: Paradise Found: The Big Island.

Nancy explores the WWII submarine Bowfin.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Logical Facts of Emotion

I recall a story airing on Public Radio about a man who had suffered a serious brain injury. The individual made what appeared to be a full recovery – but with one lingering bit of permanent brain damage; he had lost the ability to apply emotional qualities to certain aspects of his personality.

His disability manifested in a very peculiar way; though his analytical functioning remained intact, he was severely inhibited in his ability to make decisions requiring choices from more than one set of options. For example, when shopping for groceries, he was incapable of determining whether he should buy “Catsup” or “Ketchup”. Though he was able to continue his employment, other problems arose during the course of his work. Upon finalizing a lengthy and complex contract he had written, he could not decide if he should sign the contract using a pen with blue ink versus black ink. Both options had perceived merits, yet he was unable to determine which color in pen to use.

Most of us believe that we are capable of making objective decisions based on fact and reason. But being purely logical is problematic. I was always intrigued by the highly logical character of Spock on the Star Trek sci-fi series. Ingeniously, Gene Roddenberry created Spock to be the progeny of an abjectly logical Vulcan father and an emotional human mother. Roddenberry knew that a purely logical character would be both predictable and uninteresting. But by imbuing the character with an inherently illogical “human” element, he created a built-in dramatic conflict between Spock’s logical leanings and often contradictory emotional responses - quite ingenious drama.

We are often unaware that we are making decisions; we actually make hundreds of decisions every day, a majority of them unconsciously. The choice of clothing, the route we drive to work, our lunch choices – they are all a combination of rational and emotional evaluations.

We believe we are capable, rational and perhaps analytical in our decision making when important choices, such as purchase of a car, for example. But we do not make decisions in a vacuum. Consciously or not, we place value judgments against our thought processes. We weight the projected consequences of our decisions, which we may accept or find we need to rationalize in our minds in order to feel good about the choice. Heck, this is why cars come in colors like Candy Apple Red, have sport wheels or a kick-ass leather interior.

Advertising is cleverly designed to tap into the emotional aspects of our decision process and it is extremely effective. Appealing images and convincing statements skew our analytical processes. This is why that even though brand name Tylenol and generic acetaminophen are exactly the same products, consumers consistently purchase the higher priced brand name over the generic.

Research has even shown that that employers often come to decisions about who they wish to hire within mere seconds of initially meeting the applicant. The results of these tests have shown the surprisingly high incidence that the applicants who an interviewer immediately likes, overwhelmingly results in that person being offered the job. The qualifications, skills and experience of the application become secondary concerns, justifications may be created in an attempt to rationalize a wholly emotionally made decision.

However, there are pitfalls to rendering a decision based largely on emotions. The notable French scientist Louis Pasteur became concerned as scientific methodology surged in 19th century Europe. He saw many scientists engaging in experimentation who he felt were fixated on using the tools of science to confirm their already held hypothesis and thereby throwing out data which contradicted their expectations. He warned that discarding data could result in lost discoveries and incorrect conclusions: “Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind,” he cautioned.
Leaders in the so-called "birther" movement argued their case over President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship before a federal appeals court Monday in Southern California, claiming the full birth certificate he released last week had been doctored. [Full story here]

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Magic Feather

"... People gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select sources that deliver it." - Charles Taber

In my previous blog post I revealed a brief history of my personal journey from being a Believer to becoming a Skeptic. It was a long and sometimes difficult process; but I can never go back. I often think of the scene toward the end of “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy and company are terrified of the specter of the great and all-powerful OZ – until little Toto pulls back the curtain, revealing the hoax. We Skeptics are Toto.

Recently the curtain was pulled back on the widely-held belief that President Obama is not a legally born US Citizen. Up to this point, facts had not dissuaded the “Birthers” strongly held beliefs. So will the stark confrontation from presenting Obama’s actual birth certificate settle the issue once and for all? Not likely – people tend to hold strongly to their beliefs, and even more surprisingly, tend to grip them even tighter in the face of contradictory facts. What’s going on here?

As I pointed out previously, belief is the “default option”. Evolution has favored the tendency for humans to generally believe what we presented. Belief can, and often does, exist outside of the truth of that belief.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“[Belief is] a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth. Believing is either an intellectual judgment or, as the 18th-century Scottish Skeptic David Hume maintained, a special sort of feeling with overtones that differ from those of disbelief. … Belief in someone or something is basically different from belief that a proposition is true.
“Seeing is believing” is a common idiom, though the belief may be incorrect. In the case of performance magic, magicians deliberately make use of this causality to our delight by making us think that the laws of physics can be suspended. The same impressions can also be employed by people, such as convicted swindler Bernard Maydoff, to cause us to part with our money to disastrous result.

Our eyes and brain, fortunately, are not movie cameras which objectively record and retain every image. I say “fortunately” because, without our outward awareness our brains sort, prioritize, evaluate and weigh for significance, all of millions of bits of input we experience every day. Most of this information is discarded; your brain has forgotten the number of traffic lights you went through on your way to the mall, the faces of the people in the store, and the Musak tunes played as you shopped. What we do remember are those things that have significance and value to us – and for this we require an emotional component.

Emotions, how we “feel” about what we experience, are a strong influence on the conclusions we derive from our perceptions. We weight these experiences against our values and decide if they are worthy of acceptance, of belief.

Internal conflict arises within us when we are confronted with information contrary to our beliefs. This can create discomfort and stress and can even feel threatening when one’s values are at stake. There are few alternatives available to us; acceptance of the belief, rationalize it, or outright dismissal. The surprising research is that, when confronted with opposing input, we often reinforce the original belief.
"[People] retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs... and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing." In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing.
... People rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views... And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.” [1]
- Charles Taber, Stonybrook University
Skepticism is a process which requires effort if we are to ensure we are correct in our assumptions, something few people do. Without exercising that extra effort, we can continue to expect that half of the conservatives in this country will believe our President is a Muslim and a significant number, even in the face of outstanding proof, will continue to believe that he was not born a US Citizen.

Many hold certain beliefs, primarily religious beliefs, because they find comfort within them. But is the comfort and confidence in these beliefs not unlike that of Dumbo, holding onto our “magic feather” falsely convinced that it is the reason we can fly? But I think there is something of greater value to be gained by venturing outside one's comfort zone, in questioning one's beliefs. For me it is never enough to just believe; I have to "know". The Truth - I can deal with the truth.

Next: Can we separate emotions from our decisions and beliefs?
1. The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, Mother Jones, April 18, 2011
Finally for a bit of fun: Can you trust what you're seeing to be true?
Watch this Japanese magician pull a salt shaker through a solid glass table top:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fox News: President Obama is Dead! Oops

The airwaves and bloggosphere will be replete with the story of Bin Laden's welcome demise. There is little I can add to the discourse... so I won't - with the exception of this:

Perhaps it was a Freudian-slip or maybe wishful thinking on the part of the Fox News staff; in either way the conservative propaganda network has once again risen to it's usual mediocre journalistic standards. Watch and enjoy: