“We’ve got something for everyone” – Why astrology and homeopathy win votes

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.
 

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

 

(*) Forer, B. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation – a classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 44(1), 118–123.

 

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Reader Comments

  1. Mike Fox

    For me this trend reflects the cult of Self and the increasing rejection (rather than challenging) of convention. There seems to be confusion between everyone’s right to have an opinion and the validity and credibility of that opinion. Not all opinions are equal – even this one

  2. Fraser

    Unless I’m reading it wrong, it’s not a majority of the british public that believe homeopathy is ‘just as’ effective – it’s a majority of people who have tried homeopathy (which is only 18% of the population to begin with) believe it is ‘just as’ or ‘more than’ effective (respectively).

    From the link:
    “Similarly, the responses of homeopathy users to a direct question about the efficacy of homeopathy reveal that, while a majority said they thought it was ‘just as’ (44%) or ‘more effective’ (13%) than conventional medicine, a substantial minority (21%) believed it to be ‘less effective’ and 6% reported it to be ‘not effective at all’. ”

    Still, that ~10% of the population who believe homeopathy is effective is still a sizeable minority, so the question becomes whether pandering to them is worth the risk of alienating more sceptical voters.

    • tim

      Thanks Fraser – you’re quite correct. I now read it as 57% of the 18% who have used it say just as or more effective, and 41% of the 82% who haven’t saying the same. I make that around 44% of the UK population (10.26% + 33.62%). So not quite a majority, but not far off (and in many constituencies at the next general election I suspect that 44% of the vote will be plenty to win the seat!)

      • Fraser

        Aha, yes of course!

        And I’m there with you on the anger and the despair! Let’s hope we don’t start to see any anti-vax candidates :/ at least for the most part the homeopathic lobby are just wasting our money on snake oil (200C) rather than endangering the herd immunity.

  3. Dr Mick taylolr

    Please don’t knock homoeopathy. It works. My kids were treated homoeopathically for hooping cough and it went away. Their friends’ parents endured many weeks of hooping cough because traditional medicine just says take cough mixture. I have homoepathic treatment for asthma. It works. Allopathic medicine offers sleep inducing drugs that don’t always work. Arnica is wonderful for post operative recovery, bruising, sprains. I could go on. I had a colleague who have suffered extremely painful periods since her teens. Once she started taking a homoeopathic remedy she enjoyed painless monthly cycles.
    I agree that astrology may be a stretch for NHS funding, but we don’t need less funding for homoeopathic medicine but more.
    Please remember that the people who fulminate against homoeopathy have never used it themselves and that they cannot answer this very simple question posed recentl on the Today programme by a homoeopathic practitioner from Great Ormand Street. How is it that if homoeopathy is so bad that we cure 75% of the people you give up on.

  4. Alison Willott

    My very sceptical husband started suffering from hayfever in his mid thirties, and it got worse every year. After about 6 years, it was so disabling he couldn’t go to work when it was at its worst, and the doctor couldn’t help. I was using homoeopathy with enormous success to treat the kids’ ear infections and other childhood illnesses, and eventually he agreed to make an appointment. Busy homoeopath, 6 weeks’ wait for appointment, so not till August. Hayfever long over by then, he nearly backed out. But I persuaded him to go once a month from then till the following May, and lo and behold, out comes the pollen but he had no hayfever. He stayed completely free of hayfever for 15 years, and even now he only has it for, say, two days, and takes one Beconase. Other diseases cured where conventional medicine couldn’t help include scarlet fever (used Belladonna, over in two days); flu (used Gelsemium, over in 24 hours). Rhus Tox very good for shingles. These are all viruses that conventional medicine can’t tackle, and homoeopathic pills are cheap with no side-effects, so what is not to like? Arnica for bruising and exhaustion. Hypericum for quick healing after operations and for back problems. Keep an open mind and see for yourself. When the world starts running out of effective antibiotics, we will be turning to homoeopathy in droves.
    Alison

Your thoughts?