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Prof Brian Cox and a Sign of the Times

January 22, 2011

There’s been a bit of activity on Twitter lately involving Prof Brian Cox, of Wonders of the Universe fame, and the comedian Dara O Briain and their comments about Astrology.  It would appear that the Astrological Association of Great Britain are up in arms about comments made by the pair on the BBC Stargazing programme along the lines that Astrology is ‘rubbish’ and ‘nonsense’.  Apparently, in the interest of balance, the BBC should apologise in full for the comments and commit to a ‘fair and balanced’ representation of Astrology in the future.

Quite apart from the fact that you might think the AA should be able to predict with relative ease what the BBC will do in the future, what are the facts of all this?  Astrology claims to be able to identify and predict human personality, interactions and future events, based on the location and movement of objects in our solar system.  Since it is Astrologers who make the claim, it is they who must prove it; a basic rule of evidence.  How could they prove it to the satisfaction of a skeptic like Prof Cox then?  The answer is to use the scientific method.

First they must define exactly what effects the moon, planets, etc are believed to have on events and people on Earth.  Next they must provide a theory to describe a mechanism by which these effects are produced.  Finally they must use carefully designed experiments to attempt to disprove their mechanism and allow others to do so.  If any part of their mechanism were to be disproved, it would be back to the drawing board.  If not then skeptics would have to accept Astrology and its predictions as fact.

The main problem here is really the second step.  Astrologers either point-blank refuse to accept that there must be a scientifically sound mechanism by which the planets must act on Earthly events or they rely on other pseudoscientific guff such as ley-lines or scientific-sounding blather about gravity, magnetism, quantum entanglement or whatever.  These theories are either not capable of being tested or are so immediately laughable that experiments are not needed.

So, as we stand, Astrology is at best unproven.  It is pseudoscience, just like homeopathy.  It is, in fact, both ‘nonsense’ and ‘rubbish’ and that brings me to my next point.  The AA is demanding that the BBC gives them balance in a programme about Astronomy, a genuine science.  What this means to them is that they are given equal time to waffle on about their undoubted knowledge of the movement and positioning of the planets and use that as a smokescreen for the fact that all this tells us precisely nothing on the subject of why it matters to our daily lives.

Balance surely means that the things on both sides are of equal weight.  Half a pound of metal on one side, half a pound of sweets on the other, hey presto.  The concept of balance should be familiar to Astrologers (you know?  Libra?).  In terms of Astronomy and Astrology, just how well can Astrology balance Astronomy?  In short, it can’t.  It’s apples and oranges.  No, actually it’s apples and radiators.  Astrologers’ unsupported claims for their ‘art’ or ‘system’ don’t belong on a programme about science because Astrology isn’t science.  Astrology can only be balanced against other ‘belief system’ subjects, such as religion, and that would be the proper forum for their appearance on the BBC.

This is a general problem with people who demand balance on the BBC.  It is simple to give airtime to all political parties and maintain balance, but is the BBC’s remit to be balanced seriously going to force them have to give time, in a factual show, to stuff that has no basis in fact?  If so, we might as well sell the bloody thing and let Rupert Murdoch have the country now.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. derek permalink
    November 15, 2011 09:50

    A brilliantly put piece.

    The BBC programs were excellent. The astrology content was just right (i.e. none).

    The Astrological Association of Great Britain can kiss my hairy white behind. Which, of course they’ll already know they have to do, so they’ll remember to apply lip-balm first. 🙂

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