1 10 2011

I have a deep suspicion of horoscopes.

I tend to avoid reading them. The reason I avoid them is because I am concerned that if I let them into my head, I will make the predictions come true in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy scenario.

And if anyone is going to be programming my subconscious to be making things come true, then I want it to be me, not someone I don’t know writing what can only be described as light-entertainment for a trashy magazine.

We all know that the logic of 1/12th of the world’s population having a good day or a bad day, all on the same day based on the position of some large rocks thousands of millions of miles away on our day of birth defies logic. I am sure the rocks themselves have little no interest in the birth of a lifeform on a small blue-green planet in a small solar system in the unfashionable end of the Milky Way. (Douglas Adams)

And even those horoscopes that are specifically about you – your moon rising and Venus setting (I won’t pretend I even know what these mean) at the time and place of your birth….well, the logic about how that influences your life then (in some predestined, slightly depressing and disempowering way), or how it influences your life now on an ongoing basis…..well, it really hasn’t been adequately explained.

Personally I liked the Douglas Adams story from one of the Dirk Gently books, where the horoscopes were written by an arch-enemy of Dirk’s, and were written specifically to send messages and try to make him have a bad day. Pity about the other 1/12th of the population who were the same birth sign.

Then of course there is the psychology experiment where psychologst Bertram R Forer offered students a free horoscope profile on their personalities. No matter what star sign, birth date or place the student was, they were given the same profile:

“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.”

The students were then asked to rate out of 5 how accurate it was. The average rating was 4.26.

Apparently this is called the Forer Effect, or the Barnum Effect (the latter attributed to PT Barnum’s statement “We have something for everyone”. Personally I think it more fits with his other famous statement “There’s one born every minute.”)

So clearly these are broad statements and you can read into them what you want. To a certain extent they do apply to everyone – there is nothing really specific in them.

Declaration: The author declares that she is a Pisces but relates entirely to the positive profile at the top of the page. The negative one in no way resembles the author. While neither of these profiles mention this, the author has in the past been told that being a Pisces tends her more towards skepticism, it does apparently make her more prone to drink (presumably it is a fish-and-liquids thing). The author wishes to state that this is her excuse and the rest of you had better come up with better reasons for your alcohol consumption. The author is now off to see of the sparkling wine in the fridge is cool enough yet.

Photo credit: licensed under creative commons from jo-h.


Searching for meaning

30 07 2011

the image of a face in the dust of the Cydonia region of Mars

Babies love faces. As soon as they can turn their heads they will turn towards a face. Breastfeeding focuses them on the face of the mother – eyesight focus in small babies is less than 30cm, just about the right distance to focus on mum’s face while feeding. By the age of two months, babies are skilled at recognising faces and are attracted to anything that even vaguely resembles a face. It is a survival skill and helps them begin to learn to communicate and to interpret emotion and expression. A basic representation of two dots and a line in a circle is recognisable to children and adults as a face – perhaps a smiley face.

As normally functioning adults, we seek meaning in the world around us. When seemingly random and inexplicable things occur, we try to rationalise, try to seek an understanding. We use religion, horoscopes, philosophies, karma – all manner of ways to try to understand and control the random and unsettling things that occur in our lives and the lives of others. How many times have you heard “It happened for a reason”?

image of Jesus in the lid of a Marmite jar (Wales)

And while we rationalise the events, our brains also seek to find meaning in the random visuals we are presented with. We see elephants in clouds, a face in the dust of Mars, Jesus in a toasted cheese sandwich and the Virgin Mary in mould growing on a wall. The very fact it is often a religious icon or being could either indicate we are seeking a supernatural meaning – or perhaps the atheists are wrong. Quite why omnipowerful supernatural beings would decide to manifest themselves so often in foodstuffs and other ephemera is not explained.

The Skeptics Society’s Michael Shermer calls this “patternicity” – the ability to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Statistically it would be a Type One error- a false positive.

The technical names for this perception of meaning in random data are Apophenia, or Pareidolia. And this need to seek meaning in a random universe can be used to explain miracles, paranormal phenomena and horoscopes.

Jesus on the cross and Mary below him

This all came to my attention when we decided to research some ghost stories on a particular historical area for a tourist brochure. While I find the ghost stories really interesting and am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment, others in my team are highly skeptical. My basic rule is, if you have to go too far to explain something away, then that is no more valid than going too far to explain it in the first place. The explanation for the ghosts being seen in fog, dust and half-light did seem to fit this theory – some of the other phenomena would perhaps bear further investigation.

Virgin Mary in a pancake

So depending on your viewpoint, we are alone in a universe that we cannot control, where inexplicable and sometimes unfair things happen with random timing, but sometimes serious impact on our lives and the lives of other we care about. This lack of control can be scary, challenging. Is it any wonder we seek to understand, seek to find meaning around us?

Is there any harm in believing something unsubstantiable if it gives us comfort that there is meaning, and harms no-one else?

Live and let live.