Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Popperian Astrology

Here is a great story about science versus mythology (link courtesy of Crooked Timber). Here’s the short version (or as close I can come to short): Astrologer Thomas Seers claimed that astrology could be taught in a science class. Skeptic Robert Grumbine asked him to provide an example of a testable hypothesis from astrology that could be used in class. Seers responded with this: “On 10/20/99 from 2 AM to 8 AM EDT, mix a bowl of jello and you will find it won't gel. My basic students have this as a homework assignment to learn of a void-of-course Moon period.” (Note: I have corrected the spelling errors.) Apparently the void-of-course Moon period is a time of bad luck when stuff tends to go wrong; the failure of jello to gel would be an example. Here was Grumbine’s response:
Experimental Results:
10/20/99 at 2:30 AM EDT my wife mixed a batch of consumer-grade jello according to directions. She split the jello to two containers, one about 1.5 cups, and one about 4, and put into the fridge. When I checked at 6:50 AM EDT, both had firmly jelled.

10/21/99 at 3:45 AM EDT my wife again mixed a batch of consumer-grade jello and split in to two containers as before. At 8:00 AM EDT, both had jelled, though the large was somewhat un-firm.

We followed Mr. Seers procedure both at a time he predicted that the jello would fail to jell, and on a 'control' day. On neither day was there any difficulty apparent in the jelling procedure. His prediction is falsified.
Read the whole thing, because there’s much scientific mirth to follow – such as Grumbine’s hypotheses about why Seers’s jello failed to gel. But it was Seers’s attempt to squirm out that I found especially amusing: He “disqualified Grumbine's results because he mixed his box of jell-o in two bowls. That was ‘breaking up the substance’.”

Now that’s funny, because it seems to me Seers had a killer excuse readily available. The void-of-Moon period is supposed to bring about bad luck and stuff going wrong. When you want your jello to gel, it shouldn’t -- but if you’re doing an experiment to show that it won’t gel, it should gel after all! Thus, Seers could claim that Grumbine’s experiment was an example of things going wrong, confirming the astrological hypothesis. This is a problem that could be solved with better institutional design. Two researchers, one astrologer and one skeptic, should run a double-blind experiment, wherein the actual jello makers don’t know what the experiment is supposed to show.

No comments: