Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It's written in the stars

Member of Parliament David Tredinnick is fast becoming a target for ridicule since he "came out" at the recent Glastonbury festival and announced that he thinks Astrology would be a good complement to real medicine and if used widely would reduce the burden on the NHS, a view that he confirmed in a BBC interview. Tredinnick is well known for his views on pseudo-science, being a fan of Homoeopathy and herbalism, in the immortal words of Tim Minchin we already have a term for "alternative medicine" that has been proven to actually work it's called "medicine". If you're looking for a succinct and humorous response to this silly man then look no further than the good Beaker folk over in Husborne Crawley.

Astrology is of course complete poppycock (to use a scientific term); anthropomorphic nonsense invented at a time when our species didn't even know that the Earth revolved around the Sun. In fact, in 3000 BC, when Astrology was invented (approx.) we didn't even know what stars and planets were let alone how they influence our chances of meeting tall dark strangers or developing irritable bowels. It's quaint how ancient peoples used their imaginations make up stories to explain things that were, in their era, otherwise inexplicable. Coincidently I've been away on holiday with my family for the last couple of weeks and one of the places we visited was Yosemite national park in California, USA (highly recommended!). One night we attended a talk on the stars. We joined a group of other tourists and all went out into an empty meadow, lay on our backs and looked up at the night sky.

The night sky in Yosemite is staggering (see picture below), the light pollution is practically zero and the sky was clear enough to see the milky way (something really hard to see in the populated SE of England).

The talk was fairly simplistic (from a science point of view) and slightly "new-age" in that the presenter focused on many of the myths and legends about the constellations from the Greeks to the Romans through to more modern interpretations from native Americans, all very poetic and quaint but in terms of utility complete poppycock (Ursa Major is a grizzly bear with a saddle - really?). Like Astrology, which rests upon such ancient stories, they are of no use whatsoever in predicting the future or assisting in healthcare, if they were we'd all be mega-rich and living to 200 by now. 

The coolest thing about the talk (apart from the view itself) was that our presenter used a powerful green laser to point out various objects in the sky, I'd never seen this done before and it was really impressive. What became clear to any reasonable person listening was that the universe is vast beyond our everyday comprehension and Science, specifically Cosmology, has allowed us to understand an unprecedented amount about what it's all made of and how it works, a truly awe inspiring feat bearing in mind that pretty much everything we see is beyond our ability to study directly because it's too far away. The real poetry and power of our appreciation of the stars is in our ability to reason about what we observe and figure out what is really going on and not simply fantasize about them. The fact that we are all made from atoms forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars like the ones we see in the night sky means that we are all inextricably and directly linked to the universe and unlike our general fascination with dot-to-dot puzzles this is, in some sense, a truly "spiritual" fact about us. I'd call it a "spiritual fact" not because it's in any way supernatural but because it transcends our individual, petty, parochial needs and disagreements and gives us all a kinship that if we took more care to understand might make our brief existence more fulfilling and relegate our reliance on the various "imagined" crutches of destiny, Gods and spirits in the sky to the past. Of course there's plenty that we don't understand yet about our Universe, dark energy for instance, but for some of us that's a positive thing, a challenge, something to aim for, real purpose. So, rather than filling these voids with childish imaginings of giant animals in the sky we should relish our opportunity to discover reality, and put aside childish things.


A Heron's View said...

I feel sorry for people who confine themselves to a narrow philosophy, for in doing so they limit their own personal growth and seem always feel the need to evangelise to others, similarly just as Christians are unable to see that other religions are as equally worthy.

Astrology is a tool for some people. The psychologist C.J.Jung had this to say "We are born at a given moment in a given place and like vintage years of wine we have the qualities of the year and of the season in which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything else”

You might also inspect and learn from the personality tools developed by Myers Briggs.

Herbalism is hardly a pseudo science and neither is Homeopathy which incidentally the royal family uses.

Steve Borthwick said...

Part 1:

AV and I feel sorry for people that are conned by all this unsubstantiated arcana into wasting time, money and emotional equity on it, especially when they are being convinced by unscrupulous shaman that it’s actually true.

Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion on these matters, if people actually want to waste their money on it then who am I to prevent them! (I wouldn't even try) My point is how do we decide what to spend tax revenue on (via the NHS) when not everyone can agree on what is real and what is imaginary? If only we had a universal, objective, repeatable and reliable way of establishing if something actually works or not... (Hint, we do, it’s called Science)

The solution to this dilemma IMO is that medicines and treatments should all be subject to peer reviewed double blind trials, which they either pass or fail; if they fail then they should NOT be funded by the Government. This is an objective approach (as opposed to a subjective one) that everyone can agree on and (if done properly) is transparent and unambiguous. This doesn't mean that people can't consume whatever nonsense they like if it makes them feel good; just that the rest of us aren't paying for it.

Homoeopathy has never passed a trial like this, all the "evidence" for it is anecdotal and indistinguishable from Placebo, you’ll forgive me if I side with the vast majority of qualified medical doctors, physicists, biologists and chemists on that. Incidentally if you actually study the origin and history of the practice, you will understand why it was relevant when it was invented and is no longer relevant now that we understand how human bodies actually work a little better. No one has yet proposed a (credible) mechanism by which it works and most rational people would agree that at best it simply confirms the placebo effect (which is scientifically testable) - it's snake oil and the fact that Prince Charles is a fan of it says a lot more about his judgement that its efficacy. Prince Charles is also a fan of coffee enemas, perhaps he has shares in Starbucks, who cares; if I wanted a view on medical matters I would consult a doctor not a slobbering dauphin with a degree in History. If you are interested in the facts on efficacy of homoeopathy then you should take a look at the review of homoeopathic studies that has been done by Terence Hines (2003: 360-362). He reviewed Taylor et al. (2000), Wagner (1997), Sampson and London (1995), Kleijen, Knipschild, and ter Riet (1991), and Hill and Doyon (1990). More than 100 studies have failed to come to any definitive positive conclusions about homeopathic potions. Homeopathy has been the subject of at least 12 scientific reviews, including meta-analytic studies, published since the mid-1980s. And the findings are remarkably consistent, homoeopathic "remedies" are not effective, it’s pseudo-science.

You are also quite right that Astrology is a tool, it's either a harmless hobby or a tool for some people to extract cash from other (more gullible) people in order to make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. If that helps them, then good for them, but I object to having my tax pounds spent on what I consider to be snake oil. You might like to read up on the "Forer Effect", which has been reliably and repeatedly demonstrated. If there were evidence for astrology then I'd be quite happy to subscribe to it, until then it should remain a personal and private choice, not a matter for Governments or national health services.

Steve Borthwick said...

Part 2:

As for herbalism, “pseudo-science” is perhaps harsh, it is self-evident that plants with useful active ingredients are plentiful, no one would dispute that, but when this is the case then for the most part we have already extracted those useful compounds and called them "medicine"; everything else is anecdotal and unproven. Since there is plenty of money to be made from real medicine (even more than "alternative medicine”) then I have to assume that there are Darwinian principals at work here, i.e. if something really was useful then it probably would already be widely in use. This view is supported by the facts, i.e. the vast amounts of resources pharmaceutical companies spend on discovering and researching exotic sources of chemical compounds outside of long established sources such as common indigenous plants.

Being a Wine geek I would have to take you to task on your wine-astrology analogy, it is a logical fallacy, specifically a false analogy. Wine is different from vintage to vintage because of the physical (testable) influences of climate, i.e. rain, sun, heat, cold etc. These things affect the complex compounds in the wine via chemical reactions which themselves are measurable and demonstrable. There are no such demonstrably reliable and repeatable similarities between people born at the exact same moments (for whatever reason), there simply aren't. Then to assert that it's the cosmos that's causing this (unproven) similarity when stars are popping in and out of existence all the time and most relevant objects are millions if not billions of light years away from Earth is utterly preposterous, a poetic and quaint idea that stimulates peoples imagination and hunger for mystery, but simply wrong. If your argument is that it’s not wrong then you not only need to explain what the physical mechanisms are, i.e. the cause that triggers the effect, but also that the effect is consistent to boot! If you could do that then you would already possess a Nobel prize and we would not be having this conversation!

As for Myers Briggs, I am familiar with similar classification systems but I'm really not sure what personality tests have to do with cosmology? Either Astrology is true or it isn't. This has no bearing whatsoever on the people who think it’s true or why and what it makes people feel like; I feel you are mixing up reality with ideas inside people’s heads. As we all know from experience the way we’d like things to be isn't necessarily how they are, and we have a word for when they are, it’s called “coincidence”. The analogy I would use is that a Christian may well be a “good person” this has no bearing on whether Jesus existed or not, it is a non-sequitur fallacy to suggest otherwise.

A Heron's View said...

I think you should read my comments more carefully Steve.
"vintage wine" is in a quote by C.J. JUNG which I used.
Myers Briggs used Jungs work on astrology to create their personality tools( I say theirs For Mrs Myers was the daughter Mrs Briggs).

Herbalism was and is medicine used by country people.
I recall from my British Formulary of several years ago that the BMA wrote that Cannabis had no medical use, well they have had to back track on that one mate.

I am not going to make a meal of this, for we cannot expect to agree on everything.

Steve Borthwick said...

Av, Absolutely no offence intended, or received; this is one of my soap-box subjects (as you can probably tell) and I do like a good debate (some would say too much ;) and I'm certainly not expecting agreement or revelation, just sharing my opinions for whatever they are worth (quite possibly very little!)

Anyway, I apologise that I was unclear when I said "your quote" I didn't mean a quote authored by you, I did realise the source. I still hold that the analogy is a false one, one the one hand you have an effect with known causes (wine) and the other no proven effect and no known causes, hardly apples with apples I'm sure you'd agree.

I was being harsh calling herbalism pseudo-science, it certainly isn't science but does definitely have utility, perhaps we could agree on calling it one of the pre-cursors to medical science. When humans learned that the bark of a willow cured headaches they made a "lucky" discovery, but that's only part of the story, discovering that the active compound is an anti-inflammatory and turning it into a safe, cheap effective medicine whose results are predictable, is the really useful bit, especially for willow trees!

WRT cannabis, sure, sounds like a political rather than scientific conclusion to me. I did say that science is reliable which is not the same as saying it's infallible. There are many reasons we sometimes fail, incompetence and fraud being a couple of the big ones in medicine, however you'd have to admit that the safe-guards present in well executed medical research (like blind-trials and peer review etc.) are simply non-existent in the other areas of activity we are discussing. Plucking one failure from a list of innumerable successes only really serves to illustrate what can happen when proper science isn't done IMO.

Ben Goldacre has a book on this subject, it's called "bad science", and does a good job of exposing the shenanigans that big pharma companies get up to trying to bring new drugs to market. His argument is that it's not science (in an abstract sense) that is bad when we make mistakes, but invariably our failure to actually do proper science at all.