Natural Stupidity 2: Astrology Bad, Astronomy Good

Astrology. Not worth the paper it's printed on.
Astrology. Not worth the paper it’s printed on.

I know that it might seem that Nick and I have been giving Mike Adams of Natural News semi-fame a bit of a lashing recently, and we have in all honesty. The guy makes his name by attacking legitimate science and inquiry whilst peddling snake-oil, disregard and hokum all under the guise of “holism”. The worst part, however, is that I believe that Mike is willfully spreading misinformation. If he were doing it out of ignorance, I could probably forgive him. But to knowingly spread nonsense about the dangers of vaccination, legitimately tested medical science and fatuous strawman arguments against skepticism is inexcusable. His opinions—that is all they are, unfounded in scientific reality—need to be demolished.

Again, Mike could be forgiven if he were a nobody, sitting off in some dark corner of the Internet while spouting pseudo-scientific propaganda. So many others say the same, utterly unfounded, crap as he does. But, as Natural News is a reasonably well-populated website, it is necessary to take their authors to task should they say things which a grossly misleading and, in some cases, entirely negligent of the welfare of other humans. Worse still, they have named him the “second most influential person in alternative media”.

Sometimes I feel like I am repeating myself, but this can not be allowed to stand. Let’s start with this. I’d also like to take a moment to note that I really don’t like his method of writing. If you’ve got something relevant to say, you don’t need to couch it in excessive use of emphatic stresses—bold, italics, etc—, just say what you have to say! I know I do it occasionally, but only when I actually want to stress a word.

The Scientific Proof of Astrology

“Skeptics must be further bewildered by the new research published in Nature Neuroscience and conducted at Vanderbilt University which unintentionally provides scientific support for the fundamental principle of astrology—namely, that the position of the planets at your time of birth influences your personality.”

No. That’s not what the study or the researchers suggested. If you took the time to fact-check your assertions, you might actually manage to build a coherent argument for your position. As it stands, however, it seems you take a look at the title of a study and then arrive at an entirely different conclusion from the researchers, the peer-reviewers who checked it and any supporting tests might have had to say about it. It strikes me that you might be the kind of person who reads the blurb of a book and assumes that’s all there is. You’re an idiot.

The study was conducted at Vanderbilt University and published on the 5th of December, 2010, in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The research occurred at the McMahon Lab and was conducted by a team—Professor of Biological Sciences Douglas McMahon, graduate student Chris Ciarleglio, post-doctoral fellow Karen Gamble and two undergraduate students. They had a few things to say on the matter.

“Our biological clocks measure the day length and change our behaviour according to the seasons. We were curious to see if light signals could shape the development of the biological clock.” – Professor McMahon.

It really has nothing to do with the positioning of the planets. It has everything to do with the amount of light at birth during different seasons, a factor which is primarily controlled by the position of the Sun relative to whatever part of the planet you happen to be on. This is because the Earth has an axial tilt of around 23.4o which means that, at different times of the year, different parts of the planet are exposed to different amounts of sunlight. This, apparently, can have an effect on the neural make-up of animals—including humans. Proponents of astrology claim that this is clearly evidence for astrology. Well, bad news, it’s not.

Some have taken to calling it “seasonal biology”, but whatever the name you choose is really irrelevant. We have long been aware that seasonal variations have enormous impacts for life here on Earth, is it any real surprise that this extends to living things? Not really. Does it have some deeper implication with regards to the positioning of planets? No.

There are two major sources of light in our sky. The first, of course, is the Sun. It provides our planet—indeed, the entire solar system—with all the light it will have. Some minor amounts arrive from distant stars, but that amount is quite literally irrelevant. Consider the distances alone involved. Our Sun is about 150 million kilometres away. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 40 billion kilometres away. Proxima Centauri is quite a bit cooler than our Sun, but given the distances, even if it were comparable it would make absolutely no difference. In physics, there is a rule regarding these things. It’s called the “inverse square law” and in it’s simplest interpretation it suggests that the further away from something you get the less it affects you. In this case, we could refer to the gravity, the thermal radiation or the luminosity and the effect would be the same. There is no need to go into numbers—Proxima Centauri is so far away, it’s measurable effect on us is virtually non-existent save the few photons which manage to traverse the substantial intervening distance. The second source of light, is the Moon. But that, in itself, isn’t really a source of light so much as it is a reflector—the light we receive from the Moon is really just the Sun’s light reflected.

Given the apparent size of the planets of the solar system in the sky, the amount of light we receive from them is, equally, redundant. It’s not terribly more significant than the amount of light from Proxima Centauri and, furthermore, it’s only reflected. The inference that seems to be the case with proponents of astrology here simply falls flat on it’s face. The Sun and our relative position to it are the major concerns with this, not the positions of the stars or planets.

“The imprinting effect, which was found in baby mice, may help explain the fact that people born in winter months have a higher risk of a number of neurological disorders including seasonal affective disorder (winter depression), bipolar depression and schizophrenia.”

Oh, wait, I get it. Astrology causes schizophrenia! You can read the article from Vanderbilt University on the study here.

What About Gravity? What About Electromagnetism?

In a follow up article to the one Nick criticised, Mike says;

“I also think magnetism is magical. And gravity. And quantum physics. There isn’t a single scientist or skeptic alive today who truly understands magnetism or gravity. Sure, they can mathematically model it. They can describe it and observe it, but they don’t understand it. Mass warps the very fabric of reality and causes two objects to magically attract each other? Seriously? That’s about as magical as it gets.”

"Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world that would exploit your ignorance." - Neil deGrasse Tyson
“Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world that would exploit your ignorance.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Actually, we know quite well how electromagnetism and gravity work. Sir Isaac Newton, more than 300 years ago, covered gravity with his Law of Universal Gravitation, which was expanded upon and refined by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. A host of physicists, including minds such as Benjamin Franklin and Charles Coulomb, managed to unlock electromagnetism for us. We also know quite a bit about quantum systems work. For that we have the works of greats like Richard Feynman, Erwin Schrodinger and Maxwell Planck. These are people who thought long and hard about the difficult questions and rolled back the curtains of superstition and magic on remarkable, awe-inspiring, forces.

The thing that we don’t quite understand, at the moment, is quantum gravity. It’s one of those things that eludes us, but is extraordinarily important. We are working on it though, with string theory, loop quantum gravity and possibly a few others.  That doesn’t make it magical, though.

“Think about it: Water expands when it freezes (almost everything else shrinks). Water is both a solvent and a lubricant. Water is almost impervious to compression. Water can flow upwards, against gravity, into small cracks and crevices. Water is made up of two gases, each of which is a combustible fuel on its own. Do I think water is magical? You bet I do!”

First off. Water is a terrible lubricant, largely because it’s a solvent, and I’d like to take a moment to remark that I was unable to find a satisfactory source for this because Google has a dirty mind. Secondly, though, we know why water expands when it freezes. Third…

Ugh.

Water does not flow against the force of gravity. If it did, we’d be using it to lift objects into space given it’s abundance. Water “flows” upward into cracks under the force of pressure. This, again, is something explainable and not magic. The reason why water (H2O), which is made of two volatile gasses, which aren’t combustible together is entirely due to the stability of the water molecule. It’s got good, strong, bonds that don’t break easily. Try, however, dissolving lithium in water and you’ll discover how energetically those bonds can be broken.

There’s nothing in what you have to say that is really magic. You might think that it is, but your incredulity against reasonable and testable explanations is really irrelevant. It does nothing more than demonstrate your incompetence as a “researcher”. Shame on you.

Back To Astrology

“It all reminds me of the discovery of cold fusion in 1989 by Fleishmann and Pons, who were widely ridiculed by the arrogant hot fusion researchers who tried to destroy the credibility (and careers) of cold fusion researchers. After the very idea of “cold fusion” was attacked and demolished by these arrogant scientists, it soon returned under a new name: Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR).”

Congratulations. You’ve discovered the scientific method. If you’d like, NASA can tell you a little more on this in an article.

“Just as there is a solid scientific basis for LENR, there is a scientific basis for astrology, too. The relationship between the Earth, Moon and Sun naturally alter light exposure, temperature, gravitational pull and other conditions that may be sensed by living organisms.”

The Andromeda galaxy (M31). It's beautiful, but also 2.5 million lightyears away.
The Andromeda galaxy (M31). It’s beautiful, but also 2.5 million light years away.

Alright. We’re well aware that the Sun and the Moon have observable effects on things. They help to determine cyclic things, though I’m not entirely sure on the Moon’s impact on Earth’s temperature. It certainly alters the light levels at night depending on it’s phase (or, really, how much of the Earth is shadowing it), but temperature?

“Even astronomy has its tabloid versions, too, which are entirely non-scientific. For example, every model of our solar system that I’ve ever seen is a wildly inaccurate tabloid version of reality, with planet sizes ridiculously exaggerated and planet distances not depicted to scale. These silly, non-scientific solar system models imprint a kind of solar system mythology into the minds of schoolchildren and even school teachers. Virtually no one outside the communities of astrophysics and astronomy has any real grasp of the enormity of not merely our solar system, but of our galaxy and the space between neighbouring galaxies.”

This is a horrible example. There are good reasons why things aren’t represented to scale very often. Probably the best is the scope of those scales. The problem only gets worse when you start talking about inter-galactic distances. Space is incomprehensibly big and things are ridiculously far apart. These models, however, do serve a functional purpose. We can use them to illustrate a wide variety of concepts ranging from the relative positions of planets and galaxies to their orbits and movements. This kind of strawman argument falls flat on absurdity.

“The horoscope predictions in the Sunday paper—as well as much of the hilarious mythology found in the modern description of an atom—are both simplified, comic-book versions of a larger truth—the truth that we live in a holistic universe where every bit of physical matter, every bit of energy and every conscious mind impacts the rest of the universe in subtle ways.”

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a holistic universe. We live in a disparate universe where gravity is the only truly universal force, and even that is losing the battle. As much as I believe we are connected to the universe in the manner Neil deGrasse Tyson describes, that is only really traceable to former stars which were relatively close and, ultimately, the Big Bang. It says nothing, however, about a galaxy which might exist beyond the event-horizon of the observable universe. We would never even know it was there.

And don’t even start on the description of atoms. Your grasp of quantum mechanics is tenuous at best.

Astronomy is a far deeper description of the universe and our place in it. For one, it’s real. It’s science at it’s best, looking far into recesses of the universe, both in terms of time and space, and helping us to understand everything from magnificent galaxies to inconceivably small atoms. The universe is amazing, please stop demeaning it.

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