It seems to me woos are increasingly relying on psychobabble – “language characterized by the often inaccurate use of jargon from psychiatry and psychotherapy” – in place of the actual arguments they don’t have. This post is the first where I examine this form of “argument” – this time from someone who left a couple of (off topic) comments to my Astrology Challenge. (A second example will follow in a day or so.) I do so because (1) it amuses me, but also (2) I think it’s instructive to deconstruct these highly manipulative but ultimately fallacious arguments.
The commenter goes by the name of Kaz. He left this comment that I replied to. He then replied with another long comment that I deleted from the Astrology Challenge as being off topic. (Why do people have such a problem understanding what I am asking for in the Astrology Challenge? Oh well.) His comment is repeated below in its entirety, with my analysis and rebuttals. Here goes:
I really just want to write you a note, as one skeptic/atheist to another.
Kaz may be an atheist, but he is no skeptic. On his Simple Horse blog he states “I'm … an acupuncturist/alchemist by night, and am available for consultations at [phone number]”. I don’t know what he means by an alchemist (although it sounds totally woo), but an acupuncturist? If you real my numerous post on acupuncture you would know it’s mostly placebo. Kaz is no skeptic; he just doesn’t believe in astrology. But a skeptic is not someone who just doesn’t believe in a woo subject like astrology. A skeptic is one who arrives at such a position through the application of critical thinking – reason, logic and the scientific method. And, unlike Kaz, a skeptic doesn’t rely on fallacious reasoning:
I was just trying to point out gently that even if astrology is bogus, it has a natural history that consists of many generations of people - astronomers, astrologers, in the not so distant past these were one and the same - trying to make sense of the world. (Since you seem to like books and references, I will refer you to Richard Grossinger's excellent "The Night Sky"). So the rules of astrology weren't "just made up;" they were accumulated over millennia by people trying to impose meaning on a meaningless universe. It's just that at some point after Newton (who was heavily into the esoteric woo-woo stuff), most scientists discarded the obviously outdated baggage and moved on from astrology to astronomy.
This is the fallacy of equivocation that I wrote about before. Astronomy is not the same as astrology, even if they were practiced by the same people centuries ago. It’s completely irrelevant to whether the rules of astrology were made-up or derived.
But I don't think I need to explain that to you, who know so well the human need to try to understand things. You have seized on reason as the weapon that makes you right every time. Others seize on God.
Of course, science doesn’t make anyone “right every time”, it is just the most reliable method we have for explaining how things are. It’s true that with reason and science I will probably be right more often than people who rely on other ways of knowing. But that isn’t what I want to focus on. The point is, it is here that the psychobabble starts. Note the interesting wording: “the weapon that makes you right every time”. Kaz has reversed the order of things. His argument goes that I have decided astrology is bogus, and have a need to be right about this. I have chosen reason as the weapon to back up my pre-conceived belief - to “make me right”. The corollary is I am “making wrong” anyone who disagrees with me – clearly a pejorative action. It is expressed this way so that it appears my “need” to be right is a weakness, and “reason” is my “weapon” to cover up this weakness. But he has it exactly back to front – it was by using reason and science that I determined astrology was nonsense, not the other way round. Of course, I am trying to find out what is “right” – that is the purpose of critical thinking – but it is not to “make [me] right”, it is to arrive at what is right. That is the crucial distinction that Kaz has (ironically) wrong.
The reason I go into this in so much detail is that I have noticed this type of reasoning – skeptics have a need to be right etc - is utilized a lot by woos to put skeptics down and obscure the fact that the woo has nothing to justify his claim. I’m not sure where it comes from, although I suspect it’s an argument used in woo circles that sounds good so is picked up and repeated without much (any) thought. It’s classic psychobabble. It’s certainly highly manipulative and as used here is fallacious.
Speaking of which, I find that you are a little too quick to call your readers' comments "moronic" etc. Your strident tone reminds me of fundamentalist Muslims and others who have "seen the light" and have a very low tolerance for other people's opinions. You mention that you once believed in astrology. Did you have some kind of conversion experience that left you the strident rationalist that you are now?
Here we have another fallacy - the false analogy. I don’t insist people accept my views on astrology the way that religious fundamentalists insist the world adheres to their religious beliefs. Anyone is welcome to practice astrology to their heart’s content as long as it doesn’t directly affect me (as for example, when a US President consults an astrologer before making decisions). I just post facts about astrology on this blog and ask proponents who visit this site to answer questions and justify their silly beliefs. This is a blog set up to promote critical thinking, so if you’re going to post claims on this blog I am going to ask you to back them up. You can go away and do whatever you want – just don’t expect me to believe in your nonsense.
Finally, re: astrologers vs skeptics, I challenge you to demonstrate why "it matters if it's right or wrong." Or to make it a little easier for you, why you think it's so important, indeed why you even have this website. Will the sky come tumbling down because people believe in astrology? Will an eventual human extinction be avoided because a critical mass of humanity embraced rationality and skepticism a la Skeptico? I severely doubt it. So why does it matter? I think this question gets to the crux of why Skeptico is such an angry and vehement rationalist.
My “moronic” comment was in response to Kaz’s claim “It doesn't matter whether you or the astrologers are right or wrong”. Well, of course it matters. If someone makes decisions based on astrology it matters if astrology is right or not. But it is wider than that. This blog was set up to promote critical thinking – to demonstrate how to apply critical thinking and the scientific method to evaluate claims. If it doesn’t matter if the conclusions of critical thinking are right or wrong then it doesn’t matter if you use critical thinking or not. So for example, it doesn’t matter if an alternative therapy will cure your cancer or not – you may as well take the altie therapy even if in reality you will die without the evidence-based therapy.
Yes, saying it doesn’t matter if something is right or wrong is moronic. And if you disagree then I have a bridge to sell you. Bring your check book.
I am no proponent of astrology, so I will stop here and leave space for those astrologers who wish to enter into verbal fisticuffs with you. But really, why are you so invested in being right? Why the need to lash out at anyone who so much as slightly disagrees with you? I think you should consider the possibility that there are some not-so-rational reasons for your insistent position, and that some psychotherapy, astrological or otherwise, might be in order.
Again note the psychobabble – I am “invested” in being right. “Invested” – an interesting word, implying I have a need to be right – I wouldn’t want to give up an “investment” after all. But as I pointed out earlier, rationality leads me to the right answer, I do not start with an answer that I have “invested” as being right. But the fact that Kaz thinks this is a good argument implies that is the way his mind works – he is invested in this discussion for some reason. So much so he has a need to post a second 400 plus word comment on astrology. Pretty funny for someone who doesn’t believe in it and who claims I have an “insistent position” that might need therapy to sort out. I think he's talking about himself.