Monthly Archives: February 2012

Experimenting on Astrology, one sign at a time

Today was session number two for 2012 and I decided to have a crack at astrology. As popular as it is this is the first time we’ve really looked at it. We’ve discussed it plenty of times but haven’t really examined how it works. Over the next few sessions I plan on talking to the kids about the different kinds of astrology and the theories behind why it’s supposed to work. I like them to know as much as possible about various pseudo-sciences to enable them to better discuss it with others.

For today’s experiment I trawled the web looking for star sign personality descriptors. I took each of them and replaced the real star sign name with a fake one. For example, Cancer is now the Lobster and Leo is now the Spare Tire. Students were instructed to read each description and determine which one they felt represented them the most. My theory was that if the star signs were accurate, most of the students would select the correct option.

Star signs activity

Star signs activity – answers

This experiment does rely on the laws of probability behaving themselves. It would be wasted on a handful of people but I was hoping to get at least 30 students turning up. A lot of students were rehearsing for the house musical festival so numbers were unfortunately down, but I did manage to wrangle up 27 participants.

Assuming that these personality descriptors were nothing more than Barnum statements, we would assume that roughly 1 out of 12 participants would select the correct star sign. In my example that would mean around 2 – 3 correct guesses, or 8 – 11% correct. Knowing full well that my students are deceitful little monsters I made sure that they wrote down their real star sign before I revealed which was which.

The students read through their sheets and tried to choose the description which they felt best matched their personality. Most of them struggled to do so because they couldn’t choose just one. On average around 4 options seemed suitable to each student. If we stick to our assumption regarding the Barnum statement then that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After a few minutes of reading and explaining the longer words to the year sevens (mental note: make sure they’re easily understandable to twelve year olds) I collected their data. This is where I made my first mistake. Despite being married to a psychology teacher, it never occurred to me to get advice on how to record the student’s answers. This led to a bit of awkwardness while I tried to decide how to count the number of guesses for each fake star sign plus the numbers of each real star sign and so on. I wound up just reading out the answers and counting how many kids got it right.

Fortunately, the gods of probability were smiling on me and only 3 students selected their own star sign which works out to just over 11%. Of course the number of participants were too small to consider this statistically significant but it was still a good way of showing the kids how research into pseudoscience can be carried out. I made sure to explain to them that we had not just disproved astrology. All we had done was provide a tiny bit of extra evidence that astrology is probably bunk.

The kids enjoyed it but none of them were blown away with the results. In fact, when I announced that we would be studying astrology one yelled out “It’s crap!” before we even began. Astrology is a wonderful topic to study but I believe that it is a lesser-believed one. Psychics and quacks have better marketing and it is harder to convince people what they are really doing. Years of reading dodgy horoscopes in the newspaper have whittled away a lot of the public’s belief in the power of the stars.

For our next session I’ll be introducing the kids to the history of astrology and some of the “science” behind it. Remember, knowledge is power and power lets you go around being annoying to all of your friends.

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Will the world end in 2012?

Today marked the very first session of the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society (MSSS) for 2012. I was a little nervous that numbers would be down as the only advertising I’ve done so far was a note in the student bulletin. I was happy when I strolled over to my room and saw about five or six kids waiting to start. I waited about five minutes for the rest of the kids to turn up and soon found myself crammed into the room with 40 of them! It was looking like a great start to the year, a year of course which is destined to end on the 21st of December.

Given all of the misinformation being spread around about the end of the world I figured it would be wise to start educating the kids about it sooner rather than later. As much as I want these kids learning the facts, I also want them able to talk to other people about them. The less misinformation doing the rounds the better, I think.

Pretty much everything I spoke to them about came from the amazing website, 2012hoax.org. They have a tonne of information about the 2012 hoax. Seriously, if digital information had mass then this site would weigh 1,000kg. I highly recommend you go and check them out. It’s really well organised and will probably answer any question you might have on the issue.

I started by talking to them about the Mayan long count calendar. It counts the current time position from the 11th of August, 3114 BC. It’s broken up into five different time periods:

  • K’in (1 day)
  • Uinal (20 k’ins)
  • Tun (18 uinals)
  • K’atun (20 tuns)
  • Bak’tun (20 k’atuns)

So for example, my birthday (14th of December) this year would appear as 12.18.6.8.19 on the long count calendar.

The reason people are so excited about the 21st of December is because the calendar will tick over to 0.0.0.0.0. To be fair, it is a very exciting occurance. Most of us know the pleasure of watching the odometer of our car’s ticking over to a big round number. It’s a reason to party, and party hard. The thing is though, it doesn’t mean anything else! It’s exciting sure but not even the Mayans thought it meant the end of the world. It’s like saying that the world will on the 31st of December every year because that’s when my kitchen fridge calendar runs out.

Another heavy player in the hoax is the idea of a planetary alignment. Supposedly the visible planets will line up together and the gravity of them all will cause massive earthquakes, tsunamis and diarrhoea. Here are the facts though:

  • These alignments happen roughly once out of every 57 years
  • None will occur in 2012
  • They don’t do anything

My laptop is currently exerting more gravitational influence on me than the other planets are. Given that the sun contains 99.8% of the solar system’s mass it’s pretty hard for anything else to beat it. A planetary alignment just makes it easier to take a group photo of them all.

Rumours also abound about massive objects being on a collision course with the Earth. These range from asteroids and comets to stars and black holes. Nobody can seem to agree on what’s what. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if a star was due to hit us this year we would know about it by now. But wait! There’s the Orion anomaly conspiracy! You see, there’s a black rectangle covering up a spot on the publicly available star maps near the Orion nebula! Clearly it is the government’s way of hiding a massive interstellar alien invasion fleet bound for Earth. Or you know, it could just be a glitch.

I followed the session by asking them a very simple question, “who stands to make money out of this?” One answer is very simple. Go to Amazon and do a book search for ‘2012’. You’ll see dozens of books all about the “truth” behind 2012. Unfortunately I suspect that their sales are only going to go up as we get closer to December.

On the plus side, they’ll probably be really affordable on the 22nd.

 

 

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Interviewed by Richard Saunders on the Skeptic Zone!

Just coming off my whirlwind tour of the channel Ten studios, Richard Saunders grabbed me for a quick Skype interview for his wonderful podcast, The Skeptic Zone.

Richard is a very special member of the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society, being both the initial inspiration for the group and our first guest speaker. The students had such a wonderful time with him and can’t wait to have him back. It was really fantastic being interviewed by him, despite him still suffering from a flu. Get well soon, Richard!

Please check out his podcast, it’s very entertaining and a really wonderful resource for sceptics, particularly Australian ones.

Episode #173 – 11.2.12

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McKinnon sceptics in the media

School holidays have just finished and a couple of very cool things have happened so far. The first of which was a fantastic Age article written by Jewel Topsfield about the sceptical society. With the interesting title of “Sceptical group brave enough to tackle the big issues, like the Stallone rump reading” the article talks about why I started the group and what sorts of things we cover. The title was a reference to Jacqueline Stallone’s business of “rumpology“.

With the exception of a couple of bizarre emails the feedback from the article has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people have commented on their appreciation of children being taught how to avoid falling for cons and getting sucked into the potentially dangerous world of pseudoscience.

The best result from the article was getting contacted by a producer of channel Ten’s The Circle asking me to come and have a quick chat on the show. I immediately agreed and spend the next few weeks nervously planning what I would say. This turned out to be a waste of time because I had no idea what I was going to be asked, but I think I winged it ok. It was a really amazing experience and everybody there was fantastically friendly, from the producer to the backstage crew to the hosts.

Fingers crossed that I will be asked back, I’m pretty sure I’d be more comfortable a second time 🙂

If you liked my appearance and want to see more scepticism on Australian television, please contact the show via thecircle@networkten.com.au or Twitter. I think there are a lot of people out there who would like to see something countering the numerous psychics that they have on their show.

Hopefully this isn’t the end of our media appearances, I assume a movie deal is just around the corner.

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