A Personal View


Not-a-Blog - Miscellaneous Ideas

 Enemies of Reason?

By Bruce Barbour
May 2008

Some comments on the recent TV program presented by Richard Dawkins. (Enemies of Reason - Slaves to Superstition, Part 1, on the Compass program ABC1 04 May 2008).

Firstly let me state I largely support Richard in his assessment of the benefits science has brought to civilisation. (I am sure all the adverse effects e.g. pollution, he would attribute to technology rather than science!) The scientific method is a powerful tool. I also agree science is right to and should question and test all of what it sees as superstition. However what was dished up by Richard Dawkins was not a scientific approach to the testing superstitions.

Firstly he looked at Astrology. Let me say that I don't believe in Astrology. To me it lacks logic that the planets can influence people's life. But this opinion is a gut feeling and totally unscientific. I am not saying Astrology doesn't work, it is just that I have seen no evidence one way or the other and until I do Astrology will be something I sometimes read for a bit of a giggle on a Saturday morning. While he had a perfect opportunity Richard Dawkins' program again failed to provide any scientific evidence that changes this lack of evidence.

He did a "test" where 12 people all born under different star signs were handed the same astrological personality profile which was only valid for one star sign. He indicated that 50% subsequently thought it was valid for them (whatever that might mean) and 50% not. He then said that proves Astrology was all bunkum. This testing is completely unscientific and insufficient and shows nothing. For example what would the test subjects think of personality profiles developed specifically for them (for their star sign and birth date.) If there was better than 50% agreement with the personality profile then that would be interesting - it may have shown that Astrology could do better than mere chance. But the test wasn't done (or not reported). Did this simple test not even cross Richard's mind. But even this would still not be thorough scientific test. If he was serious about the scientific pursuit of knowledge he could have set up a real test of Astrology. It would not be difficult to do. For example, get a statistically significant set of people and get the personality reading from Astrology - all the Astrology reader needs is their birth time and date - it can even be done by a computer program to remove human variance in the reading. Then compare these personality profiles with that determined scientifically through a recognised test such as the Myer Briggs personality test. Analyse it properly and that will give you the answer on Astrology.

The test for divining water was a joke as well. The set up was totally unrealistic. When in the past would any of these diviners ever had to locate a bottle containing half a litre of water in a plastic bin. They were probably naive to even try. Their experience would have been trying to locate larger bodies of possibly flowing water. The results data the program provided anyway was non specific. They said that the diviners were getting 1 in 6 result on average - which would be expected from chance. But what about the outliers - the diviners that were getting above the average. Were they further tested? What the program should have been looking for is not that all persons claiming to be a diviner have the skill but that any one of the selected diviners had the skill.

I remember a test of water divining I saw on TV many years ago. (Australian Skeptics archived page here - 05 Nov 2018.) The test set up was 10 No. 100 mm diameter parallel water pipes buried in the ground, any one of these pipes could be set to contain pumped flowing water. Sixteen diviners were sent in a number of times to nominate which pipe they felt water was in. Now that seems to me to be a fair test. The results was that the diviners picked the pipe on 11 out of 50 tests (22%). Pure chance would indicate that it should only be picked up 5 No. times (10%). My statistics skills are largely forgotten but this result seems to me to be significant. However the "scientific" testers seemed to have other ideas. What they had gotten the diviners to do was to nominate what their success rate would be prior to testing. The diviners, being believers in their craft, naturally nominated a high figure - average 92%. So therefore in the eyes of the testers the diviners had failed - they completely ignored the significance of the result actually achieved. This is crazy science. Were the testers (I won't call them scientists) testing the diviners' beliefs or were they testing whether divining works or not. Apparently the testers weren't interested in asking the question of what was actually going on, how had the diviners managed to pick up over double the number of the water pipes that would have been expected by chance. (and there may well have been a perfectly logical (non divining) reason that more pipes than expected was found that should have been investigated - or at least speculated on and further testing done). The way the test data was handled, the nil analysis, disgusted me at the time - so much so that I remember the segment after so many years.

StonehengeI want to relate my experience with divining. Back in 1997 I visited Stonehenge in England. I was on a daily tour bus to the site. At one stage the tour guide whipped out her wire divining rods and as she walked across a certain section of path that headed around the henge the divining rods turned towards each other and crossed. She did this a number of times. She said it was the Ley Lines that were being detected. Then she got members on the tour to do it (it was a small group - about 6) - with the same results. These people were not diviners. My turn came - I was sceptical - but sure enough the wires turned in my hands. I swear I didn't consciously do anything to make them turn. However I do concede that it could have been possible that I subconsciously did something to turn them - perhaps an ideomotor reaction - who knows. This obviously was not a scientific test situation so no conclusion can be drawn. However it struck me that this phenomenon was apparently so repeatable that it would be more than possible to set up a scientific test to determine whether there was something there. I have never heard of these tests being done. (If anyone knows of any testing please let me know.)

Despite all that I have written above I am not a believer in divining. Nor in Astrology. I do believe in the usefulness of the scientific method, though it does have limitations including areas where it can't and shouldn't be applied. What I do dislike is that arrogance of some sections of science, such as displayed in the program Enemies of Reason Pt 1, where it came across as the presenter having made up his mind ages ago and to him the truth of his argument was so self apparent he thought that there was really no need to actually have to go to the bother of doing real testing, scientific testing. In his mind that would be a waste of time.

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