"And sometimes he's so nameless"

In Defence of Astrology – some common sense on a touchy subject!

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 12, 2009

In defense of Astrology? Have I finally lost the plot?

:)

Maybe! I like to doubt my own doubts from time to time, and critique my own sceptical beliefs. I originally wrote this as a playful piece on Richard Dawkin’s forum when The Enemies of Reason TV show was announced.

All my life I have been rather amused by the persistence of belief in Astrology, and have outspokenly declared against it as superstitious claptrap — in this I was very much influenced by one of my heroes, the American Rationalist and SF/Horror writer HP Lovecraft who carried out a letter writing campaign to get it removed from newspapers, and the latter day efforts of James Randi and other decent minded Sceptics.

However, I think it’s time to say a few words in defense of the old gal, so here goes…

From the earliest times, humanity looked to the stars with awe, and very quickly they made a rather important observation, and one upon which I suspect pretty much all of our civilization is founded: the heavens predict the seasons, and by observing the skies, one knows when to plant, when to reap, and so forth. The whole calendar, and our sense of linear time, but above all the development of agriculture which enabled urbanization and eventually through surplus, the rise of technology and learning, is based on predictive study of the heavens. Astrology was a science back then, a science which enabled the Egyptians to predict the flooding of the Nile for example.  In China, the Middle East, and probably India a great body of astronomical lore and observations were amassed, for entirely pragmatic reasons.

From the earliest times, I guess people also marked important anniversaries – birthdays perhaps, or the solstices. They saw themselves age, and life events pass, and measured themselves against the passage of time, the seasons, and the stars.  From these observations the astrologers with their maths developed a body of knowledge which they saw as predictive, which explained the fates of people, and came to believe in it.

Of course there were a great many sceptics in the Ancient World – Rome was full of astrological sceptics, and today we would separate the Astrological nonsense from the Astronomical truth – but in the early days of Science there was no such luxury.  By the fist century BCE astrologers were pointing out, does the moon not influence the tides?  How much more likely the subtleties of the human blood and spirit were bound by these same natural forces!

In fact they were almost right.  We know now that cosmic rays appear to seed clouds, or so I am told, and we understand that the same rays can cause mutations in our very DNA, or again so I believe is the case?  The sun clearly is vital to sustaining our little system, and the moon really does cause the tides.  Indeed they were completely right to see a causal relationship between the sun and moon and the seasons, which our science has long since explained.  The planets really do effect life on earth, and maybe the remains of dead stars actually brought us some of the ingredients for this life?  I don’t know.

So maybe old Aunty Astrology, long since discredited by the Christian Church Fathers, vilified by sceptics, and abandoned by her wayward son Astronomy in her dotage, was not all bad. Without her we would probably still be hunter gatherers, and how much of our science in a millenia will look equally as dumb to an observer then looking back? “They believed what in the 21st century? How quaint!”

Then there is the fact that in some senses Astrology works.  At a simple level, many people do seem to actually resemble their sun sign, and i think I know why — because as children we are exposed to this garbage, and therefore our personal identities shape themselves to some degree based on what we are told we “should be like”.  I’m a Leo/Virgo cusp – I was told when young I was Leo, so I grew up proud, arrogant, overbearing and intensely egotistical, a thoroughly unpleasant tosser, but hey that’s me. And I’m guessing that happens a lot.

:)

I started working on this theory years ago, after I noticed that Freudian ideas, which I considered superstitious tosh, actually were far more effective in a clinical environment than they had any right to be, and there were some brilliant Freudian practitioners.  I thought through all the possibilities – was Freud right after all? Was it all just chance and misperception on my part? and then one day a possible explanation  hit me – most of our patients had grown up in a society where Freud’s ideas were at least slightly known, and held authority – and that belief empowered them to get better, because they were comfortable with the ideas?  I could be wrong – but I think it might work.

Astrology might gain just empower some people to make decisions, because they feel its “in their stars”, whereas in fact they are just selectively choosing which bits to believe, and which to ignore.  So I actually think childhood to the ideas exposure might help shape the child’s personality and self perception in a self fulfilling prophecy – precisely Augustine’s argument as I recall, except I think he felt demons gained power to shape you once you chose? Maybe it was some other Church Father, I’m nowhere near my books!

Yet Astrology was, and still is in many parts of the world correct here – the time of your birth in any seasonal agricultural economy might be extremely important in your chance of surviving infancy I’m guessing. simply because certain illnesses and the mothers food supply hence available nutrients are going to vary tremendously with the passing of the seasons.  Of course this will depend where you are on the planet, as the seasons of say Northern Finland are very different to those of Italy or Brazil, but it will be significant. The place and date of your birth may well in pre-industrial societies actually have a marked effect on your development?  I don’t know, but us “Enemies of Reason” like to consider these possibilities.  The ancients were maybe not so daft after all…

So Aunty Astrology has been shown to be a gossipy old hag, but she was not without her uses.  And then of course, we have the final and funniest thing of all.

A few decades ago, a French husband and wife pair discovered what they called the Mars Effect – that is that Mars was ascendant at the time that sports champions (as I recall, this is off the top of my head) was ascendant, rising over the horizon at the moment of birth. Now a moments thought will show this is nonsense – why birth – why not conception?  The problem is their figures worked, and the rationalist organization CSICOP famously investigated this, and then a number of members including Truzzi quit in disgiust claiming that CSICOP had suppressed the positive replication.  It was a scandal which actually besmirched the cause of Sceptisicm for years, an irrational refusal many felt to follow the facts when the conclusions were uncomfortable.  In fact in the decades since there have been many positive replications, and a good number of papers which show why the original claims may well have been as flawed as was purported – but the matter is still not really in 2009 conclusively dealt with as far as I know.  You can read up on this here –
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_effect
Perhaps someone with time, and a good knowledge of stats and mathematical analysis cares to play?

Now let’s get this straight – I ain’t following no horoscope, or claiming Astrology as popularly understood is in any sense useful. However before one can dismiss it finally as pseudoscience, there is still a little work to be done – and if it was not for our dear mad aunty, we might still be out hunting now, and grubbing for roots, not playing on the net.

I’m not going to be too harsh on Astrology again. :)

UK-Sceptics Conference, Muncaster Castle, Cumbria, 18th-20th September 2009

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events by Chris Jensen Romer on March 5, 2009
uk-sceptics conference 2009- see you there?

uk-sceptics conference 2009- see you there?

The UK Sceptics have announced their 2009 conference to be held at Muncaster Castle, Cumbria on the 18th-20th September 2009.  Speakers include Chris French and Chris Roe, but also interestingly John Walliss on mediumship and amazingly Nick Pope – yes,  Nick “real X Files” Pope! I have never heard of the other speakers but it looks like an excellent line up, covering a huge array of topics, from the social psychology of conspiracy theory to “The Lure of the Dark side: Sex, death and the paranormal in cult movies.” Sounds intriguing! I don’t know if I will be able to make this one – places are limited, and Cumbria is a bit of a trek for me unless Dave Curtin is interested or some of my other friends are interested, but if you are considering going do email me or comment and let’s see if we can work something out!

It is astonishingly cheap for a weekend in a castle — to quote their website “As is clear from the location chosen and the invited speakers, we have decided to make the conference a quality event rather than go for minimum cost; however, the price per head will still only be £65 as an Early-Bird booking discount (£75 if booked after July 1st).

This price includes, access to both days of the conference (10 talks, 5 per-day); access to the Friday night welcoming wine reception (meet the speakers) to be held in the castle; tea, coffee and biscuits each morning and afternoon session; a two course hot fork buffet style lunch on Saturday and Sunday, full access to the castle and grounds for the duration of the conference (note castle is open Friday and Sunday – grounds open all the time).

In addition, an optional 3-course dinner for speakers and delegates is available on Saturday evening in the castle (priced separately £45 per-head).”

Well I’ll be skipping the dinner, and it looks like one has to find accommodation – where is Dave when you need him? Still it looks pretty good to me! :)

So anyone interested?  Full details at

http://www.ukskeptics.com/conference-2009.php

The Men of Science & The Witches

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal, Religion, Science, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on February 27, 2009

So how is the new legislation that was designed to replace the Fraudulent Mediums Act working out? Have we actually seen any increase in prosecutions? I supported it fully in principle, but as always am hesitant about how it will work out in practice… If there is one thing that deeply concerns me, it’s when supposedly rationalist scientists turn their attention to witchcraft, superstition and religion. My reason is that I have read rather a lot of history, and I am unwilling to ignore its lessons.

Witchcraft and World War Two

Let’s start in England back in 1956. While the Pope was busy promulgating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the UK government had weightier concerns. In the last days of the Second World War a British medium named Helen Duncan had been prosecuted for Witchcraft and imprisoned, and had died shortly afterwards as her health deteriorated. Her supporters were keen to claim it was because she was giving away secrets of British losses in seances — HMS Barham I believe, whose sinking was supposedly classified — her detractors pointed out she was already caught out in fraud long before that date. Whatever the cause, the persecution of witches was clearly out of step with enlightened post-war Britain, and something needed to be done. Spiritualists could now rightfully fear religious persecution — and after all, Spiritualism was a religion in its own right. The need to do something was clear. So in 1956, the British Government repealed the Witchcraft Acts, and replaced them with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which remained in force till last year. This piece of legislation was somewhat redundant — it merely made obtaining money fraudulently by deception in a spiritualistic manner illegal. Very few prosecutions have been brought under it, as fraud and obtaining money by deceit are already illegal regardless of the context, and as the Act requires the approval of the home Secretary or Director of Public Prosecutions to bring a case. As soon as Witchcraft was legal, Gerald Gardner brought out High Magick’s Aid, Wicca was born, and everything got more complex.

Religion, Scam, Mumbo Jumbo or Occultism?

As the legislators found out, its quite hard to distinguish between what is a religion, and protected by UN Charter of Religious Freedom, what is a scam, and what is occult practice. Is there much difference? Any difference? Yet the British Government made a rational choice. In 1948 Orwell wrote 1984, and the idea of Thought-Crime sickened many. This is where I and Sam Harris of the New Atheists totally disagree – well we disagree on many things, but God comes high on the list-  I believe that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, but that behaviours should be subject to law. Harris apparently does not.  We do not in my opinion need laws limiting religious freedom – we need laws that protect people from criminal and anti-social behaviour, which may curtail active expression of those religious beliefs. You can believe what you want about the value of virginity, but that does not give you the right to wear a purity ring to school. As Lou Reed sang, “Between thought and expression, there lies a lifetime…”

So if you want to believe you can talk to the dead, and try to convince others, such is your right. If you however defraud or injure others in pursuit of your mediumship, you go to prison. Actions, not beliefs can be legislated for. It is when people lose sight of this fundamental distinction I get worried, and from what I have seen Sam Harris has.

The truth about the Witchfinder General

We have all heard of the Witch Trials I am sure – and i am going to briefly describe a couple of them, Salem, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. I’ll keep it short. Let’s start with Matthew Hopkins. Pretty much everyone knows he was a religious fanatic, a Puritan Zealot who hanged and tortured little old ladies for fun and profit, till an angry mob “swum” him and lynched him. Problem is, it’s all rubbish. We don’t know much about Hopkins, but we do have his book,  The Discovery of Witches . I have read the original, and what we find is very interesting. Firstly, Hopkins was no Puritan. We can tell this because he was eventually denounced by a Puritan minister named John Gaule who bravely denounced him for persecuting innocent folks. The idea he himself was a Puritan is founded on nothing more than the fact a minister of Great Wenham was named Hopkins, and some scholars thought he might be his father.   What we do know is that he did not like the Rev. John Lowe, who may well have had Catholic sympathies, and who was hanged.

Secondly, Hopkins was a lawyer, and an educated man, quite probably university educated. Thirdly, his reign of terror was completely extra-legal – it took place in the chaos of the English Civil War, and the legality of proceeding was dubious – the older Elizabethan Witchcraft law required two previous convictions before it was punishable by death, and you were not killed for thinking you were a witch, but rather for capital crimes you claimed to have committed by witchcraft. The law of James I, an educated and inquisitive fellow with an obsession with witches, had become rather harsher, but torture was still illegal, and indeed Hopkins very quickly gave up on it once this was pointed out. His career after all attracted constant condemantion and controversy, throughout.

So what kind of fellow comes over in The Discovery of Witches? It certainly is not a religious fanatic. It’s a man who has a lawyers attitude of investigation, and is keen to refute his critics. He poses questions and answers them, and is keen to try and substantiate his claims with evidence — it’s interesting reading.

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14015

Hopkins was attacked by a bear, and with many other witnesses believed he saw imps and demons. What the heck was going on? Whatever the truth, he strikes me as rational…

Also it is worth noting that the conviction rate at Hopkin’s Assizes was about 33% — they were by no means show trials, and the majority of those accused were released — and those who were hanged see to have almost all confessed. Why?Were they actually witches? Did they believe they were witches? Was it just coercion? What was going on?

So how did Hopkins come unstuck? Because the Reverend John Gaule, an outspoken Puritan Minister denounced him from the pulpit for superstition, and for preying on the innocent and misguided. As a result a Parliamentary Enquiry was held, and the (Puritan) Oliver Cromwell with his (fanatically Puritan) Rump Parliament denounced Hopkins, and ordered him to cease and desist. He retired back to Mistley, where he died in 1646 or 47 of consumption, within a few months of Parliament shutting him down. So the story of Hopkins is quite the reverse of the myth: not a vicious religious fanatic puritan, but an educated man who seems to have made a genuine attempt to come to grips with phenomena he thought were witchcraft, and who was quite rightly shut down by Puritans before his investigations became even more genocidal. So much for the Witchfinder General…

Salem: home of the educated, not redneck loonies

OK, so what about Salem? Many readers of this forum are American, and everyone knows the Salem witch trials were caused by sexually repressed ignorant Puritans, right? Well Congregationalists, and in the spirit of Puritanism. The bare bones of the story from the children’s accusations through mounting hysteria to the trials and executions are too well known to bear repeating here, as is the sad postscript as the town realised the tragedy of its mistake and apologized to the victims, too late for many And since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century writings we have all known that Salem was the ultimate expression of the darkness in the Puritan soul, and the ignorance and superstition therein. Ignorance and superstition like that of …

Cotton Mather, FRS, BA. 1678 (Harvard College), A.M. 1681; honorary doctorate 1710 (University of Glasgow), author of 450 books and pamphlets, instigator of Smallpox Innoculation in the 1721 Boston epidemic, perhaps one of the keenest scientific minds of his time?

Increase Mather, BA Harvard 1656, MA Trinity College Dublin 1659, Hon. Degree Harvard (STD) 1692, Acting President, then Rector, then President of Harvard University. Best known for his sensible dictate at Salem that “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned”.

Trial Judge William Stoughton BA Harvard 1650, MA New College Oxford, 1652, colonial chief magistrate, the first Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and later Governor of Massachusetts.

Magistrate Samuel Sewell, another Harvard man who wrote The Selling of Joseph (1700), for instance, he came out strongly against slavery, making him one of the earliest white colonial abolitionists.

Magistrate Bartholomew Gedney, a doctor.

Magistrate Thomas Danforth, Treasurer of Harvard, Deputy Governor of Mass, President of Maine, later Deputy Governor of Maine, etc, etc

Magistrate Col. Nathaniel Saltonstall, BA Harvard 1659. He appears ot have resigned as he disagreed with the trials.

John Hale, Prosecution, BA Harvard 1657. Later changed his mind after his wife was accused. “It cannot be imagined that in a place of so much knowledge, so many in so small compass of land should abominably leap into the Devil’s lap at once”

Samuel Willard, Minsiter of Religion, who denounced the Trials. BA Harvard 1659, President of Harvard after Increase Mather

Notice a recurring theme? Salem was not some backwater lost in the New England woods, where primitive Puritans played out a savage holocaust in ignorance. As someone has remarked it is rare to find so many future members of the Royal Society, distinguished scientists all, as were  found at Salem that year. Salem in fact was far from a bastion of ignorance — it attracted some of the greatest minds of the age. So what the hell happened? Quite simply, there was no existing model to explain what was occurring – and to some extent we are even more perplexed today. I don’t believe anything “paranormal” or “supernatural” has to have been involved – but I do believe that a body of highly intelligent men decided to go with the evidence of their senses, and their considered judgment, and executed innocent people. What I believe most firmly however, was that this was no religious scandal, as the 19th century anticlericals who shaped many of our modern view of history believed. The Salem Witch trials were presided over by men of learning, and men of scientific distinction, not religious bigots…

It is all too easy to forget that fact. Maybe there are lessons here for us today?

Myths of Evolution

Posted in Debunking myths by Chris Jensen Romer on February 24, 2009

It’s the Year of Darwin, and boy am I bored with it. All the myths are being cranked out – and very little new (with some honourable exceptions — see below.) It’s also a year after I spent a lot of my energy examining Darwin and the Church, and reading around the subject. I thought it might amuse people to read some of it here – because most of  “what we know” is wrong… This will be the first of a short series of posts on Dancing on Darwin’s Grave,  as I lash out at the absurd hagiography surrounding the chap, and the modern myths that have grown up around the birth fo Evolutionary theory. And no, I am not a Creationist! I fully accept Evolution by Natural Selection – just making that clear, ok?

Everyone knows that Darwin was opposed by the Church right? Evolution was accepted by scientists, and mocked by evangelicals? Fundamentalists hated Darwin, and Soapy Sam and Wilberforce had a huge row over religion? Er, nope. It never happened like that.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

I argue quite the opposite is true – at a time when the scientific community were still intensely sceptical of Evolution in the Darwinian model, many Evangelicals played an important role in supporting and accepting evolution, and few Evangelicals seem to have opposed it in the period 1850-1920… I suspect this will please almost no one, from Darwinians to Fundies!

I’m assuming most people are aware that what we call Young Earth Creationism, the belief the earth is a few thousand years old, is really only a North American Protestant belief and has only been prominent there since 1961. Sure, in recent years it has grown in the Islamic World, and in the rest of the Christian world following US example, but YEC is really quite a modern thing.

It was not the most common belief at all in the time of Darwin, even among conservatives. Age Gap, Framework and Age Day theories were the ideas common in the Evangelical mainstream before Darwin – a fact reflected in the massive contribution of Evangelicals and Anglican churchmen to the geological breakthroughs of the early 19th century.

Ah, some may cry,  what are they? Wikipedia to the Rescue! You don’t really need to know this to get the main point, but hey–

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-Age_Creationism

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

Catastrophism and flood geology was an extreme minority position, and only one Evangelical newspaper, The Record, appears to have much time for it.

Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A good bibliography is here- http://www.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/asa/asabio.html So by Darwin’s time, a number of  Evangelicals were already evolutionist.

Many of the objections raised like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce were primarily scientific not theological — Kelvin pointed out Darwinian Evolution was completely impossible in terms of our understanding of the laws of physics and a theory not substantiated by the empirical evidence: indeed it ran contrary to much we knew until we understood stellar nucleosynthesis. It was of course correct,but that was not to be established for many decades to come.

Despite these problems, the Evangelicals response was generally positive. So who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a Who’s Who of Evangelicals. Marston & Forster list BB Warfield, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. ( They cite  Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, Scottish Academic Press, 1987).

Many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition. Fundamentalism? Looking at The Fundamentals, I am immediately minded of Chapter 69 – The Passing of Evolution. (online here – kudos to the chap who undertook this herculean task! – http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund69.htm ) As you can see, this limited acceptance of Darwinism and objections based upon scientific principle is not quite what one might be led to expect from the very founding document of Fundamentalism. Orr’s chapter 18 contains a resolute defence of evolution, though he was Lamarckian and here disparages Darwinism. You can read it for yourself here http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund18.htm

Orr accepted Lamarckian evolution, or at least appears to. I could go on and on – I probably will, it’s what I do – but I suspect that the “meme” of Evangelical refusal of evolution has developed quite recently, and part of the “conflict between science and religion” woo one sees so much of these days. The popularity of the idea is simple — it appeals to both hard atheists wishing to disparage religion as an opponent of reason, and to devout Young Earth Creationist types who wish to claim this was always the Christian faith.

Few voices speak out against it – few people bother to check the facts, despite the mountains of printed material available, and modern studies like those of Marston and Livingstone.

My contention is that YEC only dates really from 1961 and Henry Morris – certainly OEC was common, but that looked at an earth many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years –  http://www.me.rochester.edu/courses/ME201/webexamp/kelvin.pdf - which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin as physically impossible.)

lord_kelvin_photograph

Lord Kelvin, critic of Darwin's theory

The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals? Dunno! The Creationists as we know them are very modern – the Seventh Day Adventists, who gave Americans many interesting doctrines almost unique to that continent did much to support the rise of OEC, and McCready Price in the 1920’s was the first major anti-evolutionist who went for seven literal days I can think of? Willliam Jennings Bryan for example (he of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) favoured one of the two main Evangelical theories –, Age/Day, where a Day represented millions of years not a 24 hour period, and the famous Schofield Refence Bible of 1909went for the other – Gap theory, where there was a Gap of millions of years between Day 1, and Day2, and possibly between other Days. Both arguments preserve Biblical inerrancy.

The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over On the Origin of  Species. Superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, well worth reading (honestly it is!) — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html As you can see, this encounter is one of the most common stories almost everyone knows, but the truth is shall we say a little more obscure? Legendary indeed! Inerrantists has long accepted Gap Theory, Framework Theory or Age/Day by Darwin’s period – many leading geologists were devout evangelicals, so the age fo the Earth was known to be exceedingly ancient, and as Augustine and Origen both accepted the reading of this passage as non-literal as did theologians all through the ages, it is not surprising really they had cheerfully gone with the new science. It was a reaction to be expected in light of the dominant Baconian “Two Books” paradigm? Anyway, one does not have to be stupid ot be a Christian, it’s entirely optional – then as now. A few of us still possess brains, and a cynical scepticism about how susceptible we are to modern myths, no matter how much we can see the problems with ancient ones… Hope my historical whitterings have not bored to death.

I wrote that brief summary last year, after conversations with Beast, then luckily John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project)  published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 – No 1 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/currentissue.asp in which he also exposes ye olde myth. :)  Anyway, question all these myths! :) I f everyone knows something, it’s often nonsense!

cj x

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