I don’t know whether to get angry, despair, or both when I hear David Tredinnick MPs pronouncements on astrology and homeopathy and why NHS spending on them might be an effective use of our taxes.
From a politician’s perspective, there does appear to be some mileage in championing these pseudosciences. A substantial minority of the UK population believe in astrology and/or horoscopes (22%, according to a 2009 Gallup survey – up from 7% in 1951), and (almost – see comments!) a majority of us believe that homeopathy is ‘just as’ or ‘more than’ effective as conventional treatments.
Fortunately, the scientific truth of a hypothesis isn’t a popularity contest, as the resolution of the controversy surrounding the method of cholera transmission in Victorian London demonstrates. The popular belief of the disease being spread by invisible cholera clouds was eventually proved to be wrong, consequently saving countless lives.
Turning back to astrology, there was considerable effort expended between 1980 and 2000, reported in the peer-reviewed astrological research journals of the time, on attempts to test a whole range of claims empirically. This summary of 91 abstracts demonstrates that the “results were invariably incommensurate with astrological claims“.
But even before these efforts, the psychologist Bertram Forer had uncovered an interesting phenomenon, often referred to as the Barnum effect, during one of his experiments in the late 1940s(*). It involved administering a personality test to his students and subsequently ignoring the results. Instead, each student received privately the same thirteen items of feedback:
1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
3. You have a great deal of unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.
4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
13. Security is one of your major goals in life.
Each student was then asked to rate on a scale of 0 (poor) to 5 (perfect) how effective the test was at revealing personality in general (mean score = 4.8) and their own personality in particular (mean score = 4.5). All from a set of faked results!
In the words of Forer:
After the papers had been returned to the writer students were asked to raise their hands if they felt the test had done a good job. Virtually all hands went up and the students noticed this. Then the first sketch item was read and students were asked to indicate by hand whether they had found anything similar on their sketches. As all hands rose, the class burst into laughter … Similarities between the demonstration and the activities of charlatans were pointed out.
Luckily for politicians, politics is a popularity contest. Given that the direction of travel in the UK population as a whole is one of increasing belief in the pseudosciences, a political stance that embraces them may actually help, rather than hinder electoral success.
For as this 2014 piece of psychological research notes, people who are given information that clearly demonstrates their belief is in error tend to rationalise it away as “just another opinion”.
And this, dear reader, really does make me angry and despair.
(*) Forer, B. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation – a classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 44(1), 118–123.