A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the issues of talking about astrological horoscopes, and some interesting comments were left by Shitij Bagga of India. I had known that Indian astrology, which takes on a lot of the methods from classical Hellenistic astrology, is amazingly prevalent in the modern-day subcontinent. He also talks about his interactions with friends and other believers and practitioners, and by the looks of it there is a significant uphill battle for skeptics to undertake.
There is also an environment in India that probably makes the situation all the worse. I’m thinking of the situation that Sanal Edamaruku has gotten into. An Indian rationalist, he does the sorts of things you read about in Skeptical Inquirer, including the debunking of various idols doing miraculous things. In particular, Sanal is in hot water because he showed an apparent water-providing statue of Jesus was due to a leaking pipe behind it in the walls, and now the Catholic authorities have used India’s blasphemy laws to have him arrested. Sanal is currently traveling the world, so he’s not in jail (yet). It’s hard to move rationality forward if the law can come down on you, including from religions not native to the country. Also, Hinduism is becoming more conservative in India though the country is getting more wealthy (see The God Market for some discussion).
But let’s just stick to one thing, the belief in astrology. Shitij is trying to figure out how best to deal with believers and practitioners, and this is no easy task. If just pointing out that astrology is wrong for many reasons is not sufficient. When you attack something believed by another, they tend to defend that belief as if defending themselves. Obviously you are not going to move forward this way, especially if the person practices astrology (imagine arguing with a priest that religion is all bunk, and you get an idea of why that is not going to get you anywhere). So how to make progress?
I do not have much in the way of direct experience with people that believe these things, but from my work in education the way you have people rethink their ideas is to make them do the work. They need a task that will induce what is called metacognition. You need to have people think about what they are thinking about. In case of beliefs about astrology, there are a few ways to do this. One can try to use analogies related to astrology to point out its weaknesses. You can also tell a believer to think about their experiences of success with the astrologer and try to think of all the other things said. Sure, they may have had an accurate statement about someone, but how many other things did they say? Have them remember both what the astrologer got right and wrong. This should help avoid selection bias, specifically confirmation bias. And also have the believer think about what where the correct statements; how often are they true for other people? are they general or specific? are they things you like to hear or are they things that are personally critical about you? etc.
By having the believer recontextualize their experiences, they may see on their own the limitations of astrology, and then they may be more willing to see the data about how astrologers not only predict no better than chance but agree almost no better than chance.
As for actual practitioners, this is an even harder nut to crack. At this point, one may need to be deceptive in having the astrologer fail in their task. For example, have the astrologer cast your horoscope and tell you all sorts of nice things. However, instead of giving your real place and date of birth, use another one (not too different in your year of birth lest you give the game away), preferably someone not so nice. If you give them the horoscope for Jeffry Dahmer, and they say you are great with children, you can point out that they seem to not be able to get their information from the horoscope but social norms and cues. It will obviously humor skeptics when you tell them the story, but it also may strike a blow to the astrologer, but I doubt even that would convince them astrology is wrong.
Honestly, when it comes to “true believers”, there may be almost nothing to fix the problem, at least on your own. It often takes other, emotional routes for one to change their position on something deeply believed. But if skeptical voices become heard more often, it requires more cognitive dissonance, and that is an unstable state of mind. That can slowly change minds just my being the skeptic and making valid points while not also being a terrible human being.
So, there is my advice column for the day. 🙂 I hope it was better than what’s in most papers and their crap daily horoscopes.
You can also see my YouTube look at astrology.