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January 14, 2008


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It is just those folks who make extraordinary claims who resort to the old trick of claiming that current understanding can not quantify or support this claim. For example, the oft bandied claim among the New Wagers (kudos to COnnie Schmidt) that you can manifest your deisre (for good or ill) is simply unprovable (see your comment on psychics). To dismiss the negative evidence as being irrelevant then should defacto dismiss the claim.

If the evidence doesn't matter, then the claim is insubstantial as well. This is fundamentally different from a claim which is unproven due to an admitted inability to design a test. We may make the claim that extraterrestrial life exists, however, there is no present method for validating this claim.

Double name! Doh!

Yes. Bingo. I'll be linking to this post in the future. Thanks.

Alien visitation does come very close to contradicting current knowledge as current accepted theory holds the speed of light as an unreachable limit for any object or particle with mass.

Interstellar distance at measure in light years, and any planet bearing intelligent life would very likely be a minimum of several hundred light years away, and more probably thousands of light years away.

Interstellar travel is highly unlikely due to the fact that it is not possible in any (humanly) reasonable time frame with sublight travel, even accounting for time dilation, and furthermore, the resource requirements would be astronomical, especially as velocity approaches any significant fraction of the speed of light.

The concept of sublight interstellar travel doesn't break any known law of law of physics, but it sure does push the edge of reasonable rationality, thus requiring extraordinary proof or evidence.

The concept of faster tan light interstellar travel does break the known laws of physics and would thus require even more extraordinary proof or evidence.

Nice article, but there is a small error that happens to be a pet peeve of mine:

Compare that with much of alternative medicine, where we have no basis to suppose it works, and whose tenants we are pretty sure were just made up.

The word you actually want there is "tenets."

~David D.G.

Just one comment - on the issue of ressurection after 2 days - haven't there been many cases of people with weak vital signs being pronounced dead and later recovering - sometime even after burial? - either naturally or through zombie drugging. I recall seeing a diagram of a bell mechanism that could be attached to a corpse in a coffin, just in case they weren't dead - the bell would ring if the deceased moved, and then could be dug up.

I don't offer this in support on the Jesus tale just for the sake of accuracy.


"The concept of faster tan light interstellar travel does break the known laws of physics and would thus require even more extraordinary proof or evidence."

Until Zephram Cochrane comes along...

"The concept of faster tan light interstellar travel does break the known laws of physics and would thus require even more extraordinary proof or evidence."

Until Zephram Cochrane comes along...

I agree with the article, but I do want to raise an issue that seems important to me (though it may not be important at all).

It seems to me that Skeptioc's examples actually consist of two different kinds of claims. One set includes a component of causation or prediction, while the other simply describes an event in history.

Using Skeptico's examples, his claim that he ate cereal for breakfast could be true or not, but it does not purport to predict future events, or explain causal relationships. It simply describes a set of facts that, whether true or not, has little ability to explain the world around us. On the other hand, claiming that the cereal he eats will cause long healthy life is a claim of causation.

The evidence needed to prove or disprove a historical claim seems to me to be very different from the evidence needed to prove a claim of causality, whether or not such evidence is extraordinary. The first kind of evidence need only address a specific event at a specific point in time. The second kind of evidence must withstand more significant testing, must prove repeatable and verifiable, and must be able to predict future outcomes.

Maybe the distinction is not a significant one? However, it seems to me that most woos confuse evidence relating to single events, which of course is susceptible to all sorts of biases and error, with evidence sufficient to sustain a viable theory of causation.

Or am I just confusing myself?

Good article!!

If psychic powers existed and were a real property of humans and other living creatures, they would be subject to evolutionary pressures - just like everything else. "Far seeing" or "precognition" or whatever would confer a tremendous advantage to an organism; we would fairly quickly see species in which all the members had the psychic power.

Perhaps this is why psychic powers don't manifest: they are only useful for dorky tricks like bending spoons and keys and - strangely - have never had military applications. To me the obvious fact that psychic powers did not revolutionize certain aspects of warfare is damning evidence of their non-existence. (Mental image of Napoleon Bonaparte ordering his psychic shot, "I asked where is *Blucher* and all you tell me is this nonsense about 'buy ze yahoo on ze IPO' gibberish!")


Excellent idea! I have never thought of that! Such a powerful trait should be something we all have!

I suspect an easy answer to that from Wooland is that we all do, in fact, have the ability. Some just choose to acknowledge it.

"I suspect an easy answer to that from Wooland is that we all do, in fact, have the ability. Some just choose to acknowledge it."

Yup. That'll almost certainly be the answer. What I've never understood is *why* anyone would choose not to acknowledge it. Yes, yes, it would contradict all our preconceptions and blow our little minds. But we humans have an uncanny ability to adjust pretty damn fast to stuff that blows our little minds, as long as it gives us a competitive advantage. If it gets us some more money, gets us some more power, gets us the girl or the guy -- we're on it, dude.

Besides, there are oodles of people who *do* believe this stuff, who have the supposedly open minds that us narrow-minded skeptics can't fathom. Why wouldn't *they* acknowledge this amazing ability?

And yes to the brilliance of Marcus. I don't know why that never occurred to me before.

Oh, and sorry for the double post earlier. Typepad weirdness, I think; it doesn't seem to want you to hit the Back key once you've posted a comment. Bastards.


Good point re the faster than light argument. That does make the alien claim more extraordinary.

David D.G.

You are correct – tenets. I don’t know what I was thinking. Anyway – it’s corrected now.


Re weak vitals and recovering – yes, maybe. Although I’d be dubious about it happening after two days. But anyway, that isn’t what the Christians claim. They claim Jesus died and was resurrected. If he really just had weak vitals and was incorrectly mispronounced – not a miracle any more.


That’s not quite what I meant. The extraordinary claim is one that (inter alia) contradicts claims that are already backed by extraordinary evidence – in the case of the cereal, evidence that one simple food choice doesn’t have that effect.

Regarding historical claims – again it depends how extraordinary the claim. The evidence that there was an actual Jesus perhaps doesn’t need to be that great – we know there were preachers at that time who had a following, and it is reasonable to assume the stories might have been based on a real person. But the evidence that he was resurrected needs to be greater, because of all the evidence we have that this never happens. So I don’t think it relates to causality, per se – more on how unlikely it is that the events actually happened.

Of course, things that can be tested now (eg new drugs), can be tested much more rigorously, and can be replicated etc. So ultimately we can be more sure of the answer (the drug works / the drug doesn’t work). With historical events we can probably never know the exact details, but we can decide if it is reasonable to accept the version of what happened (or not).

I don’t know if that answers your point, or if I missed it completely.

I think you answered me quite well, Skeptico. Especially considering that I was not too sure of what point I wanted to make in the first place! I mainly felt that there was some kind of distinction to be made between claims of events that happened versus claims of theories of causation, but I think the distinction maybe is not really important. Regardless of the claim, should it go against what reliable evidence already supports, then I agree that the evidence required for the claim will have to be substantially more, even extraordinary.

We also know from every other piece of evidence we have, that when you dilute something it gets weaker, not stronger. Because of these two basic flaws, homeopathy requires stronger evidence than we would ask from other therapies. And yet with homeopathy we are expected to accept weaker evidence – anecdotes and non-blinded studies written by homeopaths."

Well, Duh! With homeopathy, weaker evidence IS stronger!



"If psychic powers existed and were a real property of humans and other living creatures, they would be subject to evolutionary pressures - just like everything else. "Far seeing" or "precognition" or whatever would confer a tremendous advantage to an organism; we would fairly quickly see species in which all the members had the psychic power."

Great comment!

However, I can easily see the creobots turning this around:

"If evolution by natural selection was true, then all people would be psychic since that would be a huge advantage, but since only a few people are psychic, then evolution must be false!"

I think I first bumped into the idea Marcus expressed about psychic animals at the Skeptics' Dictionary. Thought it would a cool idea for a D&D critter.

Nice post. I had oatmeal for breakfast, though I had to tip the bowl a bit to get to the gooey dregs because aliens came in and absconded with my spoon. Two claims, two lies - but only one is disprovable. The burden of proof should be extraordinary when we make extraordinary claims, otherwise, people might start to believe all sorts of stupid crap.

Oh, wait...

Excellent work! I'm going to have to link this one myself.

Interesting point about the "provenance flaw". That should be a consideration of the funding of research on woo: no money for stories that are clearly conjured out of thin air. That way it could carry on sieving through the "traditional" stuff looking for rare gems, without wasting a proportion of their budget on modern fictions like homeopathy.

And while I find most religious doctrines baffling enough, it never ceases to amaze me how people can believe the ideas of organisations like scientology, where the origin of the fiction is really quite well documented.

I am answering here about astrology, since you closed the discussion of your astrology challenge page.

First let me say that I am a Classicist and a specialist in ancient divination and magic. This does not mean that I believe that it worked any more than specialists in Homer believe that there was such a thing as a Cyclops; it means that I work to understand how these ideas functioned in ancient society, the same way you want to find out how they function in our society. I have the same scientific training as any scholar and an therefore naturally disposed towards skepticism to the same degree you are.

Having established that, let me say that you seem to lack a very detailed knowledge of scholarly research into ancient astrology, and seem to have concluded that definite knowledge about the issue is lacking. You have discovered that astrologers know nothing about it, but by this time I am sure that did not surprise you.

Here is some basic bibliography.:

Hunger, Hermann, ed., Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings State Archives of Assyria 8 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1992

Neugebauer, Otto, ed. Astronomical Cuneiform Texts: Babylonian Ephemerides of the Seleucid Period for the Motion of the Sun, The Moon, and the Planets Sources in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences 5 (Berlin: Springer, 1983), 3 vols.

Rochberg, Francesca, Babylonian Horoscopes Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 88.1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophcial Society, 1998.

Hunger, Hermann, and David Pingree, Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia Handbuch der Orientalisti, Erste Abteilung, Nahe und der Mittlere Osten, bd. 44 (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Koch-Westenholz, Ulla, Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications 19 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1995).

Rochberg-Halton, Francesca, "Babylonian Horoscopes and their Sources," Orientalia 58 (1989): 102-23.

I certainly don’t expect you to go out and read all or any of these, but I hope it gives you some idea of the extent of the peer-reviewed research that has been conducted into the origin of astrology. In fact, my working bibliography on the subject is about 5 pages long.

To briefly summarize the state of our knowledge: Cicero (1st century BC), in his essay On Divination imagines a debate between representatives of various positions on the subject; his own authorial voice is highly skeptical of the possibility of divination. But the stoic philosopher believes in astrology and asserts that it is based on detailed records of astronomical observations, perditions, and confirmations of actual events and personalities kept by Babylonian priests that go back at least 10,000 years. Although widely believed in Classical antiquity, this is a bare-faced lie, and seems to be about the same kind of thing you heard from modern astrologers. In fact Babylonian records have been excavated and translated by modern scholars since about 1900. They tell a very different story.

A more generalized astral divination was common in Babylonia probably back into pre-historic (i.e. pre-literate) times, before 3000 BC. The omen texts that were the handbooks of this discipline are very similar to those for other forms of divination (for example from the livers of sacrificed animals, always a much more important source of divination than astrology in all periods of antiquity). They go something like this. If Jupiter is seen in such-and-such a position, then it will be good for the king; or if in another position, then the king needs to stockpile relief supplies against an impending flood, etc.

These kinds of omen reports seem to have been based either on a single even in the past where such and observation was made and such an outcome followed (working form the unexamined premise that the same thing would happen every time the same observation was made because the gods communicated the future to mankind through a sort of rational language; in other words, post hoc, ergo propter hoc) or else (and this is probably more common), the mythological associations of the stars and constellations involved suggested the outcome to the astronomer-priest. For instance, the planet Jupiter signified the king, and the constellation we call Virgo was called Gula, the goddess of health, so the presence of Jupiter in Virgo would communicate something about the king’s health. If there was a ‘good’ planet like Venus in the same constellation, it would be a good outcome; if a ‘bad’ planet like Mars, then a bad outcome; unless the motion of one of the planets was retrograde, then the opposite, and so on.

Very late in Babylonian history, this system of astral divination was elaborated into modern horoscopic astrology; the date was probably no earlier than 700 BC and no later than 550 BC. The way this was done was simply by regularizing the system of observation (assigning every possible position of a planet to one of the 12 zodiacal constellations as opposed to other nearby constellation they might actually be in, even if they were between constellations), and making the systems of deductions from the positions and the mythological associations more elaborate; for instance taking into account trine positions, rather than only conjunctions, and making more and more detailed predications, from a greater and more varied system of associations with each planet and constellation. It must have been easy enough for the developers of horoscopic astrology to convince themselves and their clients of its validity for reasons that will be familiar to you form modern astrology: a predisposition to believe in the possibility of divination (almost universal in antiquity), the impressive sounding technical language of the expert compared to the relative lack of knowledge and sophistication on the part of the client, the ability of people to selectively see themselves in any astrological profile, etc. We don’t know the names of the people who carried out this elaboration, but they were certainly Babylonian astronomer priests of that period. After (or more likely just before) Alexander’s conquest of the Near East this body of knowledge was communicated to the Greeks along with the rather accurate astronomical observations of the previous two centuries or so. The Greeks immediately put this data to much better scientific use than the Mesopotamians had done, finally establishing the means of predicting all solar eclipses, determining the precession of the equinoxes, and so on, but they also whole-heartedly accepted astrology—with very few exceptions, every Greek astronomer made his living as an astrologer—Ptolemy’s huge corpus that today is often treated as texts of astronomical science, is actually concerned with making more accurate horoscopes.

So the short answer to you question, is that Astrology was just made up; we know, within reasonable limits imposed by the small a mount of written evidence that survives from 3000 or 5000 years ago, when it was made up, and by whom, and how. The metaphorical or mythical meta-language associated with the stars (Jupiter is the king, Mars is bad, etc.) goes back to a time before written evidence was possible, but that most likely means that it was simply made up by someone else longer ago in the past (The only Babylonian astrologer and priest to write in Greek—Berossus—said it was revealed to mankind before the flood by a giant talking fish that came out of the Persian Gulf and taught civilization to mankind, but that seems rather desperate).

If you want to consider how Babylonians believed astrology worked, that is a little more esoteric and speculative, since surviving texts don’t directly discuss the matter. But it was probably something like this: The Gods decree X. This decree is communicated to earth by the divine messengers the stars and planets. The stars exhaled a vapor (which can be seen in the form of condensed dew), which can coalesce inside a human body; that was what made a person ill or healthy, bad or good. If you had pressed a Babylonian astrologer for an answer about how it worked, he might have pointed to this dew as a possible mechanism, put probably the question would not have interested him.

I found the thread about why psyches aren’t used in warfare highly amusing, especially the reductio ad absurdum about the putative psychic’s confusion between Blucher and Yahoo.

1. Both the US and Soviet militaries in the 1960s and 1970s spent considerable money to test whether psychics (including Gellar) could provide useful intelligence, and concluded that they could not (in case anyone did now already that).

2. In antiquity there were no people who identified themselves by the modern term ‘psychics,’ but divination was a standard part of military operations from ancient Babylonia to Ancient Rome. In most armies (Egyptians and Jews used somewhat different procedures), at a minimum a sheep or cow would be sacrificed and the diviners would examine the liver for signs from the gods whether the general ought to engage in his planned actions; frequently battle would be declined if the omens were unfavorable. This is something that was done on a regular basis day in and day out.

I will mention two well known examples of different sorts of divination in warfare. Livy tells us that during the First Punic War, a Roman consul in charge of the fleet was eager for battle with the Carthaginians, but on the day he wanted to attack the augurs reported that the sacred chickens refused to drink their water and interpreted this as a sign from the gods that he should not fight. Dissatisfied with this, he ordered the chickens thrown overboard, saying, “Now let us see if they will drink!” and attacked anyway. The roman fleet was heavily defeated and the Consul killed. This was later looked to as a significant confirmation of the system.

The king of Lydia (modern Turkey, more or less) was contemplating war with Persia and consulted the Delphic Oracle in Greece about its probable outcome. He received the oracle, “A great nation will be destroyed.” He took this as referring to the Persians and attacked, he was defeated and Lydia entirely conquered by Persia; the king became the personal slave of the Shah. This also was later frequently cited as confirmation of divination, as well as a caution against rashness in interpretation.

That was an amazingly enjoyable history lesson Ms. Constantine. Thanks.

you freaked me out at first with the length of your posts starting out with "specialist in ancient divination and magic". LOL, but I really liked the way you laid it out and explained the funny mechanisms they used to 'predict' the future. You could almost see how it made sense to them.

Have you written a book?

Thank you, Techskeptic.

There is a book on the way (once the childern are older and more self-regulating) on the use of stage-magic techniques to simulate miracles in antiquity.

While this is correct, usually people are quite poor at actually evaluating what level of evidence a new idea requires because the "mental evaluation engine" they use is encumbered with previous generalizations of data some of which are wrong. To use the term of Thomas Kuhn, the paradigm they are using is wrong but they are not able to think outside it.

For example Millikan couldn't accept Einstein's photoelectric ideas even after Millikan himself had generated the data that convinced virtually everyone else it was correct. Millikan was too tied up in the "light is a wave" paradigm and couldn't think outside it.

Millikan required extraordinary evidence, even though the photoelectric effect was anything but extraordinary. It matched all the data much better than any other explanation did. A hypothesis that matches all the data better is not an extraordinary hypothesis; it is an ordinary one, even if it is brand new.

That is typical of new paradigm breaking advances in science. They match the data, and that is all the data, better than the old paradigm. But there is great resistance to abandoning the old paradigm which has nothing to do with how well the new or the old explain the actual data.

I think resistance to abandoning wrong paradigms in science is similar to the resistance to abandoning superstitious beliefs. It isn't about comparison with data, it is about something else. I think that a lot of it has to do with interpersonal interactions between the proponent of the new idea and those resistant to the new idea.

It is very difficult to evaluate something that one is not knowledgeable in. It is easy to put too much weight, or too little weight, or even negative weight on ideas one does not fully understand, and to weight them according to the nature of the person advocating them. It is equally as fallacious to do that in a negative sense as in a positive sense. An idea can never have a negative truth value; the lowest it can be is zero.

Millikan eventually did come around, but it took decades and doesn't seem to have happened until much later. A textbook he wrote in 1927 still talked of the ether.



Thanks for that detailed post on the origins of astrology. I knew some of that at a more general level, but you’re obviously much better informed than most – more than most astrologers too, I’d bet. I’m pleased you agree astrology was essentially made up, as I had proposed. And yes, you should write a book on the origins of astrology. Perhaps with a second section about testing astrology, and astrology’s failure to do what it claims it does.

Skeptico, as much as a book on the origins of astrology would rock (especially one with tons of research and good sourcing); it wouldn't do much to dissuade people.

As proof, i point to scientology. Aliens, skeptico. Alien souls make bad juju. and with a ohmmeter, they can get rid of the aliens. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't know the origins of scientology that practices it. Most people know that L Ron Hubbard just "made it up"; but that does not stop them from believing that it's helpful in some way.

Perhaps you've heard of Conversations With God? It's a similar mechanism to scientology without all the evangelical aspects. (is that the right word? the desire to convert everyone to your way of thinking... evangelicalism?)

Once again, all skeptics would hail the book as a bastion of truth and science, but the true believers would say "it doesn't matter how, or when it was made or thought of... it matters that i think it works, and my aunt's astrologer told her that someone was gunna have a baby and i found out a week later i was pregnant! SO IT OBVIOUSLY WORKS, HOW DO YOU LIKE THOSE APPLES, MISTER SKEPTICAL STEVE?"


I didnt mean to suggest that she should write a book to utilize as a tool to knock people out of their stupor about astrology. I dont think skeptico did either.

I just meant that with the way she was able to delineate the genesis of astrology and its use and 'logic' behind it, she should write a book because it would be interesting.

I think the example of Jesus' ressurection may not be put in the correct category here. The claim here is not that any person came back to life two days after he/she was pronounced dead (this would be a "normal" extraordinary claim), but that God ressurected Jesus/himself from death. So, the extraordinary claim is the existence of God and not the ressurection as this is well within the powers claimed to be available to this deity. You are in fact asking for proof for an act performed by an agent whose existence it-/himself is unproven. The claim here is not of the category "Did Atalantis exist?" but of the "Is the fiery breath of a dragon hot enough to melt steel?" or "Did aliens build the Pyramids?" kind.

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