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15 January 2011 @ 02:54 pm
B.S. Can Stand For "Bull Shit" OR "Belief System"  
Last week, an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribute "went viral", and spread through the internets from superstitious fool to superstitious fool like Dionysian Cultists passing Rabies around the campfire. I haven't seen rage and fury spread that fast since Danny Boyle's 2002 film, 28 Days Later.

"What angered so many people," you might ask, "was it an insult to their mothers? Did someone make a mockery of 9-11? Holocaust deniers in the news again?" No, this article did something FAR more dangerous and insidious than than, neighbors... it pointed out the truth behind a comforting lie. The article addressed the differences in star charts between Astronomy, the natural science of observing celestial objects, and Astrology, the farcical pseudo-religion which purports to tell the future by grouping people into 12 categories based on outdated star charts.

Aha, did you see what I did there?

That's right, it turns out that modern astrology uses DRASTICALLY outdated star charts. Somewhere in the 7th century BCE, stargazers divided the visible sky into 13 segments of celestial longitude, based on the major constellations lined up with the Earth, moon, and sun at different times in the year. The number 12 being a preferred number due to social popularity, these early astrologers began their tradition of utter bullshit right away by DELETING one of these constellations from their list, and adjusting their zodiac calendar to allow the remaining constellations to fill the year. So right from the beginning, things don't line up, right? Just wait, it gets better.

It turns out, the cosmos doesn't work quite as simply as a child's clockwork carousel - planets, stars, galaxies, all rotate and revolve on axes and in patterns that CHANGE over time. The constellations that lined up with the Earth 2700 years ago in January are not the same ones that line up in the same place in January of 2011CE! All this time... astrology has been making predictions based on star systems that don't even exist any more.

Ah, but the drama deepens as we look further!

Many people not only look to their horoscopes (fortunes and futures predicted by these outdated star charts) for guidance and precognition, but also for the critical foundation of their sense of identity! Not only do individuals look to astrology to tell them tomorrow's lottery numbers, but to give them labels which they might affix to themselves psychologically, to pidgeonhole themselves into a system of group identity. These believers latch onto these groups with ferocious intensity - using online pseudonyms based on their "sign", tattooing artistic renderings of the star positions onto their bodies, stating quite plainly - "I am a Leo," or "I am a Pisces", like Leonidas declaring, "WE ARE SPARTA!" for all the world to see and accept blindly.

Therein lies our problem. Science and religion disagree on a regular basis, with the whole of human culture existing in a nebulous state of constant cognitive dissonance. We take steps forward in our understanding of the natural world every day, while simultaneously pretending that we DON'T know any of these things, and retreating back into the primitive fears of our prehistory. Scientists and religious disciples live in an often uneasy balance of discovery and enforced ignorance, but rarely are believers in such a "benign" belief-system confronted with contrary natural evidence like this! They have no mental armor, no defense system for dealing with a situation in which they are presented with evidence and observation running counter to their entrenched system of identity.

I see three ontological groups, forming an unholy triad of disagreement:

1) Scientists: This group makes observations, and calculates using mathematics. They make hypotheses (guesses about what might happen), and then test them by watching what Actually Happens.

2) Astrologers: This group posits that the aforementioned outdated star alignments determine the course of our lives, and can be used to make accurate predictions about people and their personalities.

3) Astrological Adherents: This group pays little attention to the fine details either of the above groups, but uses the basics of astrology to make determinations about THEMSELVES and their sense of identity.

What has occurred, to the best of my ability to understand, is that the Scientists have pointed out the fact that they disagree with the Astrologers, and have provided evidence to support their position. The Astrologers tilted their heads like confused dogs, and then wandered sheepishly about the epistemological landscape like an armless man at a fisting contest, making various half-muttered excuses. The Adherents... well, they just plain went apeshit. Adherents see themselves as rational people; after all, the term "pseudo-science" contains the word SCIENCE, does it not?

The Adherents have been made to look as fools, having built their very understanding of self on a lie, the basic framework of the system they use to define themselves being made of so much vapor, their identity a house of cards.

People like to be told comforting lies. Santa Claus is watching, Grandma went to heaven, the Federal Reserve looks out after our best interests. Belief Systems like astrology tell people that, "Life is simple and easily categorized, here are a set of convenient labels to people will understand you!" Nobody likes to have their illusions shattered, especially such a benign one. After all, what harm does astrology do, right? Nobody fights wars between Capricorn and Virgo, horoscope-readers don't picket the funerals of soldiers, they're good people who just LIKE their horoscopes a lot. How dare those science knaves use their Reason and Evidence against them!

How much utter silliness do we allow in a Belief System before we call it out on its Bull Shit? Must they actually cause direct physical harm to someone, or do we point out that even a slow-acting poison is technically still a poison? Raising kids on Santa stories might seem harmless, but it prepares their growing brains for the concept of accepting fantastical assertions with naught but the DESIRE that they be true as evidence to support. Like Terry Goodkind says in Wizards' First Rule, "People will believe anything, if they WANT it to be true." Having paved the neurological roads of faith with good intentions, we create generations of humans ready to do what they're told, jumping at the opportunity to follow any leader who offers them a comforting carrot on a stick.

I see a crossroads ahead, in our generation. We have the ability to decide, going forward, just how much BS we'll allow. We can move the dividing line between Acceptable and Laughable a few degrees in either direction. Do we as a society admit that their is egg on some of our faces, and move forward together toward a future with a little bit less superstition? Do we give in to fear and irrationality, deciding to move the line back a bit into our superstitious past, in the hopes that future generations will feel comfortable moving forward? John Gribbin hypothesized in Schrodinger's Cat that the scientific world can only make one major step forward in any given generation, as the older scientists who aren't ready to give up their older paradigms die off, so that younger generations might break new ground.

Move forward, or move back; the line cannot hold. Whose side are you on? Ready for a leap AWAY from faith? Choose Tomorrow, and I'll be there waiting for you. Choose Yesterday, and don't worry - you'll catch up eventually.
 
 
 
Vondvond on January 16th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
Awesome post!

About "Raising kids on Santa stories" - I think that the Santa Claus myth is actually okay in the sense of encouraging critical thinking, because nobody expects it to go on until they die. This as opposed to religions, which is what I think you were alluding to.

Of course, while I don't think that the Santa Claus myth is harmful to critical thinking, it does mean that at some point you'll have to explain why you were lying to your kids about it.

Suffice to say that as a parent I am a little conflicted about the issue :/
thepatches: red methepatches on January 18th, 2011 03:43 pm (UTC)
The Atheist News podcast actually had a very interesting discussion on this very subject. One guy said he's against telling the Santa lie because it's not much different from the Jesus one. One of the guys said that what he does is tells his kid that they're going to play a game, and lots of people are playing this game where we pretend that on Christmas, if we're good, a magical man will come and bring us rewards.

That way your kid knows it's not real, but plays along and can still have fun with the Santa Claus mythos.
DrAndy: Preacherbeta58 on January 19th, 2011 03:11 am (UTC)
If you recognize the conflict, you can at least not be accused of ignorance.

Parents that give a shit get credit for it. Parents that blindly go along get rocks thrown at them.