debunking astrology using Presidential birthdates

I have a friend who is reasonably intelligent, but believes pretty strongly that astrology influences a person’s personality and even the professions in which they gravitate. In my patient quest to eradiate ignorance one person at a time, I’ve asked him whether any objective evidence in support of this belief exists. Such evidence could be as simple as a study showing that the signs of the US presidents distribute significantly differently than those of the total US population.
(Of course, the true test would be that not only do they distribute differently, but also in a manner that astrology would have forecasted.)

The guy is crunching the numbers right now. (Yeah, I’m kind of surprised that he’s doing this, too. I guess this speaks to the confidence of his beliefs. Or his overabundance of free time.) I’m pretty sure this particular analysis has already been done. Does anyone know where I find out the results? I’ve come across a few links to astrology debunking sites, but they don’t show the math, just the conclusion (which is that there is no sign clustering for the presidents).

Will this help?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Presidents_by_date_of_birth

My guess is that your friend will say that he doesn’t have enough information.

The astrologers I have known have always been quite emphatic that they can’t do anything without the time and place of birth and not just the date. There’s some nonsense in there about planetary alignments, ascending or descending this or that, etc. They insist that any horoscope or reading done on Zodiac sign alone is a gross oversimplification that does a disservice to people.

Of course, using place and time of birth quite conveniently introduces a lot more variables for finding coincidences and makes statistical analysis more difficult.

There have only been 43 different presidents. That’s such a small group that you could never statistically expect that each of the 12 signs would have exactly 3.58 presidents. As it happens, each of the signs boasts at least two presidents and none has more than five. That’s as even as a random group of 43 people is ever likely to achieve.

Your friend can spend time crunching these numbers, but the quickest eyeballing of them disproves any notion of an astrological effect.

So the obvious thing to do would be to find a list of twins, one of whom was famous and the other being a normal sort.

But even twins have different time of birth. The astrologers I was talking about would come up with something like “At 9:03 am, Mars was at the zenith, so twin 1 was aggressive and successful. But by 9:15 when the second twin was born, Mars was descending and Saturn had moved into the next quadrant, so we’d expect a more passive and easy-going personality.”

When the position of every constellation, planet, comet, etc. continually changes through the day, they can cherry-pick the data. Something’s always going to be different.

I realize this may be an abuse of astrology as true devotees understand it, but whenever an astrology-minded person whom I know reasonably well asks for my sign, I turn the tables and ask them to guess from my personality traits. I think one person has been able to get it within three tries.

When our brains are known to run on a form of electricity, and magnetic pulses from the sun can affect electrical circuitry on our planet, I don’t see why it is so outlandish that this may cause some formative process in our brains that determines the type of person we might turn out to be.

This doesn’t make much sense. Does it really matter that one baby is in the open air while the other is still in mommy’s belly? Both of them are fully developed babies by that time. Am I missing something :dubious:

And I don’t think planets move that fast, whatever applies for baby no 1 should also apply for baby no2.

The overhead power lines are several orders of magnitude stronger than whatever electromagnetic effect Jupiter might have. No scientific study has found any effect from power lines so far, why should there be an effect from a planet’s field?

Yeah, that’s basically what I ended up telling him to do, after I glanced at the cite that Captain Amazing linked to and I saw how essentially even the signs distributed.

Not only that, but you can always find an astrological explanation for a certain trait or phenomenon, because with so many factors supposedly at work you can always find one in which to attribute something. Know a Cancer who is non-intuitive and eshews homelife in contrast with “other” Cancers? Oh, that’s because their rising sign is Virgo or some other thing that makes everything fall into place. Yay!

This was another thing I suggested my friend come up with to support his beliefs. Surely if astrology is a true science, an algorithm of sorts can be created that could assign a certain probability that a given person was born on a certain day, month, year and/or time, when provided with information on that person’s habits, preferences, occupational interests, and disposition. For some reason he seemed to think such a test would not be possible because self-reported information is unreliable due to its subjectivity.

And yet he sees nothing unreliable about the information revealed when the tables are turned. It’s not rational thinking.

Even if this were plausible (which it isn’t), we are not talking about an influence during a long-drawn-out formative process, but rather something that determines characteristics according to the exact instant of birth. Given that time of birth can be influenced by all kinds of proximate factors on Earth - not to mention that many births by C-section these days are artificially scheduled - it is absurd to thing that the position of the sun, moon, or planets at the time of birth can predict anything about personality.

Or, in a modern hospital, the electrical field given off by the machine that goes ‘ping!’

Additionally, why does it matter exactly about the moment and place of birth? That baby has had a brain for months, but these people are more interested in whether the mother immigrated in the past two weeks than if she were living next to Love Canal or on drugs at some point during the pregnancy. And don’t give some crap about the “trauma of birth”.

Well, obviously I’m paraphrasing from someone else’s argument, so it might not be exactly how they would have said it. But I was under the impression that these people felt the Earth’s rotation was a factor in all of this. So the planets don’t move that much in relation to other stars, but we do spin around under them every 24 hours.

Mostly I try to stick to explaining taxes to these folks (they’re clients), which creates enough confusion all on its own. :slight_smile:

Why it’s outlandish?

Do you want it alphabetically, numerically, chronologically, by Dewey Decimal number, political party, breast size, caliber, issue number or day of the week? :slight_smile:

If things really worked that way, your cellphone would rewrite your personality every time you got a call.

This is an example of the common phenomenon “To the novice there are many possibilities, to the expert only few.”

If a person’s knowledge is limited to vague ideas about electrical activity in the brain and vague ideas about electrical activity in manmade circuitry, then at this level of abstraction from the detail (they both involve electricity!), anything can seem possible. By the same process, bad analogies between electrical activity in the brain and radio waves can make ESP seem possible too.
But mere speculation about what is possible is not to the point, and is intellectually sterile. There are no points for merely thinking up something that might be true. Arguing about whether something is outlandish in order to try to suggest that some idea should not be dismissed a priori is pointless too. So is “Vanity Contrarianism” - disagreeing with whatever the established position is, because that means you must be smarter than all the sheep who blindly follow yada yada yada.

The only question is whether or not a given phenomenon actually exists. And that is determined by evidence, and (to an extent) judgment. Judgment is involved because there is associated with any intellectual field a background noise of rubbish studies, statistical anomalies and advocacy research that is seized upon by cranks and vanity contrarians to beat up an argument out of nothing. You have to be able to recognise noise from signal.

The simple test in doing this, calling for judgement, is to ask yourself, “Self, if astrology/ESP/whatever was a real, valuable, phenomenon, what would the pattern of research look like?” Consider how long the claim has been around. Consider how much effort has gone into imaginative research. Why has there not emerged a pattern of repeatable, reliable demonstrations by a variety of unconnected and disinterested researchers of some aspect of the phenomenon that has made it to the mainstream? (By the way, don’t bang on about close-minded scientists and so on - if we are not going to accept the collegiate scientific approach to resolving issues like this, then we may as well just go back to guessing or asking the local witchdoctor.)

It is sometimes said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and in its place, this is correct. Your lack of evidence about whether I had breakfast this morning is not evidence that I did not eat breakfast. But where evidence is to be affirmatively expected (if a given phenomenon were true) and it is not there, then absence of evidence can be significant.

Let me give an example of how this process works. Hypnosis has a woo-woo background like astrology historically, what with stage hypnotists and Hollywood and all. A researcher called Martin Orne invented the “real/simulator” paradigm of research, in which highly motivated hypnotic subjects were divided into groups of those who were to be really hypnotised and those who were to fake being hypnotised. Examiners blind to who was real and who was faking were then to try to tell who was real and who was faking.

Turns out that they could, with a high degree of predictability and reliability. This sort of imaginative research is what enables people to say there is something in hypnosis that is real. That does not mean all claims made for it are real. But there is at least something there that emerges in a repeatable, consistent way that is more than just acting-out.

But as for astrology? Nothing but noise.

I suspect your friend will come up with all sorts of data to support his belief. We know a great deal about most of the presidents, and it wouldn’t be hard to cherry-pick the data.

Noel, if you were using the word ‘expert’ to mean someone who knows almost all there is to know about a specific subject, I don’t think there are any on space and the human mind.

I made my remark because I recently read a scientific article on the web, which to this untrained mind provided a little food for thought regarding astrology. I won’t even try to recount what it said, because I’d just mash it all up, but it was an interesting piece… pity I can’t find it now.

Leaving out the mechanism of how such a thing would work, we can look for factors that could indicate there is ‘something going on’, such as seeing if professions chosen by people have any correlation to the month they were born. Didn’t Gauquelin come up with some interesting data along these lines, or was he just a ‘cherry-picking’ pseudo-scientist?