Wednesday, 4 May 2016

A Response To "The sad loss of Jonathan Cainer and why only fools (and men) mock horoscopes"

This is a response to the Sarah Vine column "The sad loss of Jonathan Cainer and why only fools (and men) mock horoscopes", Daily Mail, 04/05/16 and as such I won't discuss Cainer in particular, you can read more about the astrologer here. In the column in question, Vine turns, what is ostensibly supposed to be a tribute to recently deceased astrologer Jonathan Cainer, into an idiotic rant against skeptics. A|t several points, Vine laughably suggests that logic and reason are male traits. At first, this appears deeply misogynistic, but I doubt Vine would see it this as being so, as it becomes clear she considers logic and reason to be negative traits.

Vine writes:

"...'Astronomy is a science,' he (Cainer) wrote. 'Astrology is a belief system.' In other words, astrology requires a leap of faith and an openness of mind —— both increasingly rare in today's world... "

Believing in astrology doesn't just require a leap of faith, it requires the complete abandonment of reason. It requires the believer simply isn't aware of principles such as "Barnum Statements" and probability. It requires the believer to not ponder too long on the suggested mechanisms that allow the stars to affect one's life. It requires ignorance. 

She continues:

"Ours is a culture dominated by cold, hard logic — a Darwinian society in which facts and figures determine success or failure..."

Vine seems to consider science and the use of logic to be cruel and unfeeling, many believers share this opinion, it's easy to see why. The science method crushes things like astrology by simply disallowing anecdote to be considered evidence. No wonder this irks Vine, as we will see, her entire reason for believing in the effectiveness of astrology is rooted in anecdote. This is the case for many believers in a whole host of paranormal, supernatural and pseudoscientific ideas. Science, the practice of logic and reason purposefully ignores the subjective.

"focus is always on the next hurdle in front of us and never on the bigger, more esoteric picture."
Really? I'd absolutely love vine to explain this further to the research teams at the LHC, who are probing the most fundamental questions the universe has to offer. How did the universe begin? What is the predominant form of matter in the universe? What force is driving the galaxies apart? These are the bigger picture.

The problem is the Vine doesn't find these questions appealing because they don't directly involve her. The question she wants have answered is "How does the universe affect me?" Astrology presents this self-centred view of the Cosmos, it massages the ego. Science, logic, and reason care nothing for ego.

Vine somehow, then turns this into a gender issue:

"In short, a man's world where logic trumps emotion and where uncertainty is seen as weakness....No wonder men like to dismiss astrology as nonsense while women seek refuge in its infinite possibilities. Because, despite centuries of male attempts to bully it out of us, we remain deeply instinctual creatures."

Anyone who has had the scales lifted from their eyes is likely to reject astrology. There's certainly an issue here of cultural bias too. Perhaps more women accept astrology than men, not because of anything intrinsic to gender but because they have it forced down their throats more. Most magazines and publications aimed at women feature astrology sections, whilst equivalent men's magazines are less likely to do so.

There's something deeply offensive about Vine's suggestion that women are more inclined to believe things without reason, and I know a number of female skeptics who will be more than willing to take issue with this. It's ironic that what Vine see's as a slight against men, turns out to be so hideously patronizing towards women.

 There's a question of how many people, men and women, just blindly accept astrology because they've always just done so. Many people read their stars out of habit, not out of  a deep-seated belief. Likely many of these people consider astrology  a bit silly, but can remember times when the stars seemed uncannily accurate. The file drawer effect keeps them reading.

Wouldn't it be more significant if a particular reader of astrological predictions NEVER found anything over a long period of time that applied to them?

I have to wonder if Vine has ever actually considered how astrology works:

"And the nature of astrology — based on the pull of the planets, the changing of the seasons...."

The pull of the planets? Is this jorno-speak for gravity? If so let's consider this brief example I gave in a post a few months ago: Using Newton's law of gravitational force, we can compare the mutual gravity between Mercury and you.

Where Fg is the force in Newtons, G is Newton's gravitational constant, M is Mercury's mass and m is your mass, with r representing the average distance between yourself and Mercury.

Hmm... pretty small, it's hard to see how fluctuations in that force could, for example, alter your emotions. Let's see how the force caused by the passing Ford Focus compares, let's say the car is around 2 m from you.

As you can see, the car exerts a gravitational force almost a full order of magnitude greater than Mercury. Can you imagine a system of belief that insists that because a Ford Focus did a u-turn in front of your house, you were in for a shitty week, or should expect major arguments with your partner, or you'll contract norovirus? It would be rightly dismissed as nonsense.

Let's leave that aside for a moment Vine's "evidence" is coming up:
"I have compelling evidence that it's not all nonsense. When I was a 19-year-old university student, I was given a detailed astrological chart as a present. Taking into account my exact time and location of birth, it produced reams of information that's turned out to be remarkably accurate. Not only did it predict my profession — at the time, the furthest job from my mind — it also accurately alluded to various major events in my life, none of which I could possibly have imagined, and even mentioned fame and politics."
There we go, to Vine anecdote is compelling. Again this is why she sees science, logic and reason as cold, she knows that this tale simply must be dismissed out of hand in the light of such things. Even if we didn't take a hard line on such things, should we just be expected to accept Vine's judgement of  the reading? We know the memory can play tricks, we know that believers tend to remember the hits and forget the misses. If Vine were to read this account again today would she be forced to admit there is much in there that isn't accurate?

I doubt we'll ever know, but let's not forget this is Vine's entire justification for calling anyone who doesn't accept astrology is a fool. Actually, technically the headline implies Vine is only saying that women who don't accept astrology are fools, the men who don't accept it are just... well... men....

One particular man not convinced by astrology is Vine's husband:
"People, in fact, like my husband, who, when he heard the news, responded in typical male fashion: 'It's very sad, of course, but I'm afraid you're a fool if you believe in all that nonsense.' Little does he realise that, in saying such a thing, he is underlining the veracity of the astrologer's art. He is, you see, a Virgo, and as such one of a deeply sceptical breed, much inclined towards logic and scientific reason."
 Is that convincing? Firstly there's no evidence that more Virgo's are likely to reject astrology than any other star-sign, or even that they are more likely to be involved is science. Secondly, let's say Vine's hubby was a Taurus, she could've easily written: "He is, you see, a Taurus, and as such is stubborn and materialistic..." Or how about Gemini "He is, you see, a Gemini, and as such is extremely independent. They will not be pinned down by anyone or any rules. They need to experience the world on their own." They are just two examples taken from definitions given on Zodiac signs-astrogology,com. Admittedly they don't fit as well as Virgo, but a little tinkering could soon fudge those details.

I had nothing in particular against Cainer, and I doubt that many would describe him in the extremely unfavorable terms Vine implies at the start of her article: "Jonathan Cainer had his critics. People who thought he was nothing but a confidence trickster, preying on the insecurities of readers desperate to find meaning in a cruel and complex world." Cainer wasn't a psychic preying on the vunerable or grieving after all. He was indulging insecurity and wish fulfillment slightly, hardly the worst crimes. I have little doubt he will be missed, and I extend my sympathies to his family.

I find it a great shame that in attempting to eulogise Cainer, perhaps the last of the famous astrologers, Vine couldn't help but expel a bile-ridden rhetoric against those that might hold opposing beliefs to her, insulting and belittling an entire gender, albeit not the one she aimed to insult, along the way.