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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Disasters

June 22, 2008. "If you wonder about the recent strange events, like the fire in the Universal Studios or [a] crazy pyroman[iac] burning 20 cars in Moscow or the U.S. army killing [its] own allies in Pakistan, note that Mars in Leo is approaching conjunction with Ketu."* So writes astrologer/blogger Valerie Livina, who has decided to defend her "noble art" against my argument that astrology is, more or less, bunk. Last month I published an exchange between us and she continues to send me notes with links to stories about disastersan earthquake in Japan, floods in Iowa, a fire at Universal Studios, a cruise ship disaster—that she thinks demonstrate astrology's "predictive" power. [Note: In Vedic astrology, Ketu is the moon's south (descending) node. Ketu is generally referred to as a "shadow" planet.* Vedic astrology originated in India, but like other eastern superstitions it has a following among those westerners who think the value of an idea should be determined not by the scientific evidence but by the idea's age and place of origin: the best ideas originated long ago in far off places.]

Livina calls her blog "Traditional astrology" and represents a common cognitive error among astrologers. She doesn't understand the difference between an explanation that just accounts for the data and one that really explains something and allows us to understand how things work, create new things, and predict specific empirical outcomes. Astrology, like Nostradamus's "predictions," can explain everything because it is based on confirmation bias and ad hoc hypotheses. It looks for what "fits" with its assumptions and when it finds them, declares "prediction." When it doesn't find them, it looks for a reason in its assumptions that "fits" with the notion that the failure to predict was predictable because  some other astrological feature acted as a counterforce to thwart what would otherwise have happened. It helps that most of its predictions are of a vague nature. Here is Livina at work on June 12, 2008:

Later in June, Mars will be separating from Ketu and coming to Saturn. That time, a powerful earthquake is plausible. But locating it is another, more difficult task.

As Cardano said in his aphorism on weather, “whenever Saturn is joined to the Sun, the heat is remitted and the cold increased, which alone may be a sufficient testimony of the truth of Astrology”. I can only add that transits like the current one of Mars with Ketu too confirm the truth of the art. Watch the news.

Informed people know that earthquakes occur every day on our planet. "Powerful" earthquakes is a vague term. It could refer to the magnitude of the quake according to the Richter scale or to the magnitude of the effects on lives and property. In poorer countries, even small earthquakes, relatively speaking, can do enormous damage.  Predictions of disasters in the "near future" will almost always be "correct" because this planet is still cooling down from its formation over 4 billion years ago, it has weather, and there are now over 6.5 billion people spread out over most of the globe. Many of these people live on disaster-prone coastlines. Many live, work, or go to school in very shabbily constructed dwellings. Predictions that are specific, say that  a 9.8 earthquake will hit California on July 12, 2008, and will drop the southern half of the state into the Pacific Ocean, are always wrong. Astrologers, televangelists, or doomsday cult leaders are forever claiming that celestial forces, God, or some alien beings will bring about disasters. When disasters happen, they claim that their "predictions" have been validated. When they don't, they revert to the old standby: the ad hoc claim.

If there is a lull in disasters, as there occasionally will be on our planet (I predict it), the ad hoc explanations are easy to come by. The disaster that should have happened didn't because the moon was here or this planet was in transit there, or the chart was cast with circles instead of squares. The disaster didn't happen because God is pleased with our faith and is rewarding us. Or, we misunderstood a complicated passage in scripture or in the astrological charts.

If there is no lull in disasters, as will happen on occasion, there is no need for ad hoc explanations because there is then a 100% probability that a disaster will occur no matter what the celestial arrangements might be.

The problem is not that these "predictions" or their apparent failures can't be accounted for by astrologers or prophets. They can. The problem isn't that this kind of accounting doesn't help us understand why things happen. The astrological or the scriptural prophets can make sense out of everything that happens or has happened. They can explain why everything happens as it does, as well as why things happened in the past. For many people, such explanations are satisfying. They think they now understand why disasters occur. But aside from the personal satisfaction that some people get from feeling they understand the ways of the universe, such explanations are ultimately vacuous. They are empty of any real significance. And, of course, they are completely untestable because every possible event can be made to fit with their assumptions.

The problem is that this kind of accounting doesn't help us understand anything in such a way that we might use our understanding to prevent the damage done by disasters. A scientific understanding of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, fires, droughts, and the like won't help us prevent all natural disasters, but it can help us take measures to reduce the damage they do. In the case of floods and fires, our knowledge can lead to the management of rivers and forests in ways that can prevent disasters. An astrologer or religious prophet might explain albinism in terms of celestial arrangements at the time of a child's birth or in terms of karma or punishment for some sin of the parent or grandparent, but a scientist explains it in terms of genetics. Only the scientific explanation offers hope for an understanding of the disorder in terms that can counteract superstitious beliefs about albinism.

Some astrologers, like Michel Gauquelin have devised ways of testing some astrological claims.  Some astrologers, like Livina, have constructed what amounts to a metaphysical system, complex and convoluted, to account for everything possible, but impossible to test or disprove.

All astrology originated in magical thinking, the desire to make sense out of experience, and the human tendency to look for and see events as providing support for one's beliefs, even if they don't. Science, on the other hand, has developed unnatural ways of thinking, including trying to find evidence that a belief is false. It goes against the grain to try to disprove beliefs or ideas about nature, but it is essential to arriving at a proper understanding of nature, one that promotes progress and makes possible applications that can improve our lives. Astrology and prophetic religions, on the other hand, promote the delusion that because their systems can explain everything, they are correct. The fact is that there is no limit to the number and variety of systems that one could theoretically create to explain everything in the universe. In the end, astrology and religion tell stories that are steeped in mysterious claims and obscure jargon, giving them the appearance of esoteric knowledge or even wisdom. But they don't provide any useful clues as to how the universe or anything in it actually works. Claims that the world is going to hell in a hand basket because God is punishing us or because Mars is coming to Saturn on top of Uranus are explanations we can't refute, but when we unpack them and try to discover their meaning, there's nothing there.

update: Valerie Livina replies:

Astrologer Livina thought it would be fair if I allowed her to respond to my criticisms of her and her "art." I invited her to do so and promised to post her comments. I think they speak for themselves, so I will not respond except to say that she continues to believe that since she can find examples of continuing disasters on earth, her astrological beliefs are confirmed. She considers each disaster a fulfillment of a "prediction" and continues to send me links to the latest disasters around the globe. She ignores the obvious: disasters will continue to occur as the astrological signs continue to change. I have already explained why finding disasters is inadequate proof for "prediction" from astrological events, so I won't repeat myself.

Here is Valerie Livina's response:

When I emailed brief notes to Dr Robert Carroll with links to my astrological blog, I did not expect that he would publish them in his site with further comments about "superstition", "confirmation bias", "cognitive illusions", etc.

This happened shortly before the significant transit of Mars approaching South Lunar Node (Ketu) and Saturn, and I wrote to Dr Carroll about my prediction regarding this (on June 12, I predicted a powerful earthquake, various violent events, storms, fires, and in particular, problems at Euro08, see blog post. Somehow, Dr Carroll chose to answer my emails in his web-site, which I found rather strange, and therefore I suggested to him that it would be better if I wrote my own text that he could post it on his site instead of cutting and commenting on it.

He started by criticizing my post about Czech composer Janáček, saying that there is nothing strange in thinking about a Czech writer Kafka when listening to Czech music of Janáček (they both were born on July 3). I assure Dr Carroll that I started thinking about the two not because they are Czech (there are also Czechs Krammar, Rezac, Gott, and many others). No, I started thinking about Kafka because his writings are as chaotic, emotional and phantasmagoric as the music of Janáček, and yes they were born on the same date with very similar charts – I find this "coincidence" rather amazing. But Dr Carroll answered something like "50% chance for two of 23 people to share birthday". Did I listen to 23 composers? Did I identify half of them? What is this if not formality and absence of any kind of perception? Or maybe Dr Carroll never read Kafka and never heard Janáček?

Let's leave aside innocent arts and look at more dramatic aspects of the present life that are clearly connected with celestial configurations. In his second public article on my post regarding the Mars-Ketu conjunction, Dr Carroll said that astrology is based on "confirmation bias" [among other things], and that "informed people know that earthquakes occur every day", providing a link to USGU weekly listing. Yet, if you look at my post, I wrote not about "an earthquake", but about a powerful earthquake – and just 2 days after my post an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 occurred in Japan. If Dr Carroll likes, I can provide some statistical facts: the mean return interval for earthquakes above 7.5 is about 100 days, globally. It means that such a powerful earthquake happens once every three months or more, on average. That was quite a prediction, Dr Carroll. Moreover, since the transit has not finished yet, I expect there will be another one, also powerful.

Now, let's look at other world events that happened in two weeks since I wrote that post about Mars-Ketu conjunction (June 12). I will mention only unusual ones, because I do not want to be blamed of "biases". Yes, accidents happen everywhere around the globe - let's look at the "unusual". There was a fire in the Universal Studios – that was unusual, because fire alarm systems in industrial estates (especially so famous and significant) are usually advanced. Yet, it burnt out. Then there was a series of car burns in Moscow, some crazy pyromaniac did it just for fun, [burning] dozens of cars in the capital. Then something worse started: ignited by dry lightning forest fires in California. For those unfamiliar with astrology, I just mention that Mars is a significator of fire, violence, and wars. This is why I warned about the conjunction of Mars and Ketu (Ketu symbolically "amplifies" the power of the malefic). As now Mars is approaching Saturn (symbolic significator of ground and falls), I expect there might be landslides in relevant areas.

Furthermore, there was an unusual number of fires and explosions in factories (for instance, Goodyear, several factories and mines in Russia). Then there were massive floods (India, Mexico, China, Iowa), and, in particular, in the central Russia – very unusual for this time of year. Also strikes, prison clashes (UK and Russia – no connection whatsoever, isn't?). When Moon joined North Node in opposition with Mars-Ketu, a ferry sank in the Philippines (700 died) – again, for those unfamiliar with astrology, Moon in mundane affairs signifies people (crowd) and Mars is violence – so this happened exactly on their opposition, with nodes, June 22. Regarding my prediction of problems related to Euro08, first there were clashes with police (so that rubber bullets were used in peaceful Switzerland!), and later, when Russia won the game with Holland, drunk happy fans ran their cars at crazy speed and crashed – 11 died in one night. Later, due to the storm ( Mars means violence, remember?) people in German stadium were evacuated and some got injuries.*

I do not mention multiple local fires all around the world, nor do I list earthquakes like 6.5 which are more frequent now. A Greek ferry, evacuated on June 28 was, fortunately, only slightly damaged.

As fires are mentioned, for those who are in California during this harmful transit (I suspect Dr Carroll is there), I wish that smoke, dry lightning, and massive forest fires affect neither them nor their family. I hope they just illustrate how powerful and straightforward the celestial influence is.

Note that purely astrological techniques allowed me to estimate the source of the historical forest fires in New England (see article – the same result as forest specialists obtained after months of drilling trees and analyzing the data.)

A brief article is not suitable for explaining the whole philosophical basis behind astrology (micro and macrocosm, connections, and predetermination of the events, etc). I just note that the "graphic depicting" astrological "pseudoscientific jargon" (as Dr Carroll calls the astrological chart) is nothing but a symbolic projection of the current state of the solar system onto the plane of the ecliptic -it is a portrait of our solar "universe" in the earth-centered system - where we actually live. We don't live on the Sun, do we? There is nothing wrong in looking at the sky thinking ourselves in the center.

As above, so below.

....fire and violence will pacify when this transit finishes, mid-late July. Watch the news...

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