By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience
Amazing coincidences happen all the time — but are they simply the product of random chance, or do they convey some hidden meaning? The answer may depend on whether you believe in synchronicity.
The term synchronicity was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung had a strong belief in a wide variety of paranormal phenomenon, including psychic powers, astrology, alchemy, predictive dreams, UFOs and telekinesis (moving objects with the mind). He was also obsessed with numerology — the belief that certain numbers have special cosmic significance, and can predict important life events.
Jung’s concept of synchronicity is complicated and poorly defined, but can be boiled down to describing “meaningful coincidences.” The concept of synchronicity came to Jung during a period of mental illness in the early 1900s. Jung became convinced that everything in the universe is intimately connected, and that suggested to him that there must exist a collective unconscious of humankind. This implied to him that events happening all over the world at the same time must be connected in some unknown way.
In his book “137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession,” Arthur I. Miller gives an example of synchronicity; one of his patients “told Jung that when her mother and grandmother died, on each occasion a flock of birds gathered outside the window of the room.” The woman’s husband, who had symptoms of heart problems, went out to see a doctor and “on his way back the man collapsed in the street. Shortly after he had set off to see the specialist a large flock of birds had alighted on the house. His wife immediately recognized this as a sign of her husband’s impending death.”
Is synchronicity real?
There is, of course, a more prosaic explanation for curious coincidence: birds are very common, and simply by random chance a flock will appear near people who are soon to die — just as they appear daily around millions of people who are not soon to die.
The appearance of synchronicity is the result of a well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias (sometimes described as remembering the hits and forgetting the misses); we much more easily notice and remember things that confirm our beliefs than those that do not. The human brain is very good at making connections and seeing designs in ambiguous stimuli and random patterns.
If Jung’s patient came to believe that a flock of birds meant that death was imminent, she would start noticing flocks of birds, and remember the times when they coincided with a loved one’s death. But she would not likely notice or remember the countless times when flocks of birds appeared over people who lived for years or decades longer. Put another way, a person dying when a flock of birds is present is an event; a person not dying when a flock of birds is present is a non-event, and therefore not something anyone pays attention to. This is the result of normal human perceptual and memory biases, not some mysterious cosmic synchronicity.
It’s easy to see why synchronicity has mass appeal; it provides meaning and order in an otherwise random universe. One famous (and more modern) example of synchronicity is . . .
“I believe in a lot of astrology.” So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a “spiritual lens”…and that she believes in aliens.
According to data from the National Science Foundation’s just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry’s direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is “not at all scientific” declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.
The data on Americans’ astrological beliefs are compiled by NSF but come from a variety of sources; since 2006 they have come from the General Social Survey. Over the years, the GSS and other surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: “Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?”
In response, a substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say consider astrology either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.” That’s bad enough—the NSF report compares it with China, where 92 percent of the public does not believe in horoscopes—but the new evidence suggests we are also moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say astrology is scientifically bunk has been declining ever since a high point for astrology skepticism in 2004, when it hit 66 percent.
The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less “factual knowledge,” NSF reported. In the latter group, there was a staggering 17 percentage point decline in how many people were willing to say astrology is unscientific, from 52 percent in 2010 to just 35 percent in 2012. Also apparently to blame are younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least “sort of” scientific, and those aged 35 to 44. In 2010, 64 percent of this age group considered astrology totally bunk; in 2012, by contrast, only 51 percent did, a 13 percentage point change.
The word “pseudoscience” is used to describe something that is portrayed as scientific but fails to meet scientific criteria.
This misrepresentation occurs because actual science has creditability (which is to say it works), and pseudoscience attempts to ride on the back of this credibility without subjecting itself to the hard intellectual scrutiny that real science demands.
Other things typically branded pseudoscience include astrology, young-Earth creationism, iridology, neuro-linguistic programming and water divining, to name but a few.
What’s the difference?
Key distinctions between science and pseudoscience are often lost in discussion, and sometimes this makes the public acceptance of scientific findings harder than it should be.
Other misconceptions about science include what the definition of a theory is, what it means to prove something, how statistics should be used and the nature of evidence and falsification.
Because of these misconceptions, and the confusion they cause, it is sometimes useful to discuss science and pseudoscience in a way that focuses less on operational details and more on the broader functions of science.
What is knowledge?
The first and highest level at which science can be distinguished from pseudoscience involves how an area of study grows in knowledge and utility.
The philosopher John Dewey in his Theory of Inquiry said that we understand knowledge as that which is “so settled that it is available as a resource in further inquiry”.
This is an excellent description of how we come to “know” something in science. It shows how existing knowledge can be used to form new hypotheses, develop new theories and hence create new knowledge.
It is characteristic of science that our knowledge, so expressed, has grown enormously over the last few centuries, guided by the reality check of experimentation.
In short, the new knowledge works and is useful in finding more knowledge that also works.
No progress made
Contrast this with homeopathy, a field that has generated no discernible growth in knowledge or practice. While the use of modern scientific language may make it sound more impressive, there is no corresponding increase in knowledge linked to effectiveness. The field has flat-lined.
At this level of understanding, science produces growth, pseudoscience does not.
To understand this lack of growth we move to a lower, more detailed level, in which we are concerned with one of the primary goals of science: to provide causal explanations of phenomena.
I’ve written more than once about astrology, a slice of woo-woo that has never failed to impress me as the most completely ridiculous model on the market for explaining how the world works. I mean, really. Try to state the definition of astrology in one sentence, and you come up with something like the following:
The idea that your personal fate, and the course of global events, are controlled by the apparent movement of the Sun and planets relative to bunches of stars that are at varying (but extreme) distances from the Earth, patterns which some highly nearsighted ancient Greeks thought looked vaguely like scorpions and rams and lions and weird mythical creatures like “sea-goats.”
It definitely falls into the “how could that possibly work?” department, a question that is usually answered with vague verbiage about vibrations and energies and cosmic resonances.
But like I said, all of that is old territory, here at Skeptophilia. But yesterday, thanks to a loyal reader and frequent contributor, I found out something that I didn’t know about astrology; lately, astrologers have been including the asteroids in their chart-drawing and fortune-telling.
Don’t believe me? Listen to this lady, Kim Falconer, who tells us that we should consider the asteroids in our astrological calculations — but only use the ones we want. There are too many asteroids, she said, to track them all; “Use the asteroids that have personal meaning to you.”
Falconer is right about one thing; there are a great many asteroids out there. Astronomers currently think there are between 1.1 and 1.9 million asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter alone, and that’s not counting the ones in erratic or elliptical orbits. So it would be a lot to track, but it would have the advantage of keeping the astrologers busy for a long time.
As far as which ones to track, though — this is where Falconer’s recommendations get even funnier, because she says we should pay attention to the names of the asteroids. Concerned about money? Check out where the asteroids “Abundantia” and “Fortuna” are. Concerned about love? Find “Eros” and “Aphrodite.” And I’m thinking; where does she think these names come from? All of them were named by earthly astronomers, more or less at random. I mean, it’s not like the names have anything to do with the actual objects. For example, here’s a photograph of Eros:MORE – – –
You are not special, the stars and planets decided that at your birth. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, as Tyler Durden might say. In fact, all your complexities and quirks, your desires and passions, everything you have done or will do fits neatly into what looks like a twelve-slice pie chart laden with calligraphy. A snowflake you are not if astrology were true.
Despite what your mother may have told you, if astrology were true there would be at least hundreds of thousands of people who share in your uniqueness. Indeed, if astrologers could determine your personality and future from your hour and date of birth, there would be 8,760 different combinations available. With 7.1 billion people on the planet this means around 810,000 people would each receive your exact horoscope, your wisdom from the wandering planets above, your future. Human psychology may be broken up into general personality traits, but astrology breaks up human life into less possible variations than the combinations of a 2x2x2 Rubik’s Cube.
If astrology were true, society would fracture. Over time we would learn what days of the year gave rise to what kinds of people. Like parents who want their children to become professional hockey players, mothers would calculate conception and birthing times in order to give their son or daughter a particular star sign. Pharmaceutical companies would make a killing developing the drugs that allowed mothers to delay and control births more effectively. Being born into a specific astrological sign would create grand social rifts. Different schools would spring up as they did for different religions in twentieth century Ireland. Potential mates would need not only good looks but also descendants who shared the same sign. Libras and Aries would be the modern Capulets and Montagues.
Studies would be undertaken to establish the psychology determined by stars and planets. The zodiac would replace Myers Briggs. Modern descriptions of psychopathy would include “being a Gemini” as a defining symptom. The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual cites Mercury as much as it does brain chemistry in a world where astrology is true.
Political parties would also incorporate star signs. Candidates run on the basis of how compatible they are with Cancers and Leos—perhaps key demographics. The Speaker of the House would need to be in the astrological 10th House. And when faraway stars eventually shift enough to change star signs, revolutions follow. A new type of human would enter the mix every few centuries. The status quo would be forever challenged by the whims of gravity.
- A snowflake you are not if astrology were true! (venitism.blogspot.com)
- Astrological Star Sign Sagittarius (thriveonnews.com)
- Horoscopes are bullshit (irkitated.com)
- Hottest New Free Online Astrology Website with Amazing Astrology Software & Live Chat Features (sbwire.com)
- How astrology guided me in life. (beyondastrology.wordpress.com)
- Astrology Star Sign Cancer (thriveonnews.com)
- Astrology Star Signs Taurus (thriveonnews.com)
- Astrology and the Gunas of Time (appleseedtreeoflife.wordpress.com)
- Astrology Prevails! (withlovejojo.wordpress.com)
- Know thy self using Astrology… (laurasbradfield.wordpress.com)
More psychic failures …
- 2012 Failed and Forgotten Psychic Predictions (illuminutti.com)
- I am Psychic! (thegreatantagonizer.wordpress.com)
- 2013 a year to fear, psychics predict | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun (infinitynow.wordpress.com)
- Hindsight Bias (illuminutti.com)
- 2013 Predictions: Best of YouTube (news.softpedia.com)
Continuing a tradition that I started in 2010 and continued in 2011, I am posting a “psychic roundup” to celebrate the end of one Julian calendar year and bring in the next. In previous years, I have focused on Coast to Coast AM audience and professional predictions, and my conclusion has been, in one word: Bad. Average around 6% correct.
This year, I have branched out to other sources for three primary reasons. First, Coast has changed their format such that the audience predictions are more annoying and outlandish and it’s no longer one per person. Second, Coast is no longer doing a night or two of professional predictions where they bring in several guests per night to discuss the year ahead. It’s just a few people scattered over January. Third, last year, I was criticized for relying on Coast with people…
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Empirical proof helps us validate what we should and shouldn’t believe, but sometimes cold hard facts just aren’t available. Even when we don’t have solid proof, however, humans still tend to extend their sense of belief to certain phenomenon. From things we could never see with the human eye to life forms that have yet to be verified, here are the top 10 things we believe despite a lack of verifiable proof.
10 – Aliens
While conspiracy theories and UFO sightings abound, we don’t have verifiable proof that other lifeforms exist in the space beyond our own planet. Still, many people firmly believe that there is life on other planets, or that life did exist at some point in the past. From video claims of inexplicable objects in the sky, to personal testimonials from people who say they’ve been taken into a spacecraft, we want to believe that there is more to life than what is on our own planet even if it has yet to be scientifically proven as fact.
9 – Astrology
The notion of astrology is not a new one; people have been making major life decisions by the stars for centuries. Without any real proof that the way the planets and stars are aligned will actually shape a person, we believe that if we are born under a certain zodiac sign we are bound to a particular disposition and set of skills. Daily horoscopes and astrological charts have become a guiding tool for many people, who truly think that one’s birth date determines her fate and can help her make day-to-day decisions.
8 – Cryptids
Cryptids are animals whose existence has never been proven by science, such as Bigfoot or the infamous West Virginia Mothman. Enough sightings and amateur photographs exist that we consider it possible that these creatures really do walk or swim the Earth with us, even though they don’t exist in museums and aren’t officially acknowledged. Until the Loch Ness monster or another cryptid is captured, they will continue to be merely mystical creatures of which no proof exists.
7 – Ghosts
Anyone who claims to have seen a ghost might say that there is proof of spirit life, but skeptics would argue that any ghostly sighting can be explained away by lighting tricks or other logical reasons. At the end of the day, there may never be indisputable, tangible proof of ghosts. While ghost hunters have electronic tools meant to measure ghost activity, results are open to interpretation. Yet, we believe in ghostly encounters and phenomenon – that when things go bump in the night or move suddenly, a ghost can be the cause.
6 – Psychic Mediums
Psychic mediums purport to talk to people who have died and gone to “the other side.” Mediums convey details that they supposedly hear from the deceased to loved ones who are still alive. Despite any way to really measure how psychics come by the information they doll out, we believe that they are someone seeing and hearing signs from dead people. While psychic mediums offer a less than 100% accuracy rate, the desire to speak to our dead family and friends is so great that we overlook their mistakes and grant them the benefit of the doubt.
5 – Karma
Whether you call it karma, or just “what goes around comes around,” people have a common belief that the behavior you exhibit today somehow informs what happens to you down the road. With no more than anecdotal proof, we think that acting morally or fairly now will yield positive things for us in the future. Despite the simple fact that we can never prove that karma exists, it remains a principle that many people live by in the hopes that they can reap the benefits it promises.
MORE . . .
- Top 10 Things You Can’t Prove But People Believe Anyway (listverse.com)
- Idaho scientist to search for bigfoot from a blimp (io9.com)
By Sharon Hill
July 25, 2012
I’ve discussed here and here how practitioners of paranormal piffle wish to look scientific. They fail under actual scientific scrutiny but, we have to admit, they are pretty effective at bamboozling the public with a sciencey show.
I came across a news story in Business Insider about an astrologer who was doing mighty well for herself. In times of uncertainty, society tends to turn to anything that will give them a sense of control. Astrologic and psychic advisors seem to fill that role for some people, even professional businesspeople. This astrologer, who thinks quite highly of her craft, had these things to say:
“What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over years and years of training and experience.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand in the world. What if 200 years ago someone had said that these metal barrels in the sky would get us around the world in a few hours? Or that we’d inject ourselves with mold to treat illnesses? People are so skeptical.”
And then I laughed.
Few examples of pseudoscience are more perfect than astrology, which has been studied A LOT, and whose practitioners still cannot demonstrate a root in reality.
Keep Reading: CSI | Astrology: More like Religion Than Science.