How Should Skeptics Approach Pseudoscience?

If you have been following my blog for the past few months, then you know that one of my favorite YouTubers is Progressive Christian Brenda Marie Davies. I feel like I’m talking about how great her channel is in every other post. So you can imagine that when she posted a podcast episode this week all about astrology—interviewing full-time “astrologer” Aliza Kelly—that I was frustrated because belief in the pseudoscience of astrology is my #1 pet peeve.

There was a while when seeing someone I liked talking about astrology would piss me off to the point I would consider unfollowing them, whether it was a social media influencer or a friend. I’ve since been working on not having such a negative knee-jerk response when seeing pseudoscience pop up on my feeds. As I’ve said in the past, many people are pretty logical in most aspects of life, but somehow astrology slips past their radar and they still enjoy dabbling in it. I still think this is silly and inconsistent, but instead of unsubscribing from one of my favorite YouTubers, I was going to just ignore the podcast and tune back in next week.

Then something interesting happened, and Brenda and Aliza really made me think. Brenda shared a pinned comment on the YouTube video on her Instagram story. It said:

Hi beautiful people!

I spent 15+ years as an evangelical, told what I was allowed to think & who I was permitted to speak to.

Therefore, I will not apologize for having this conversation. There are far greater problems in the world than worrying about some[one] else’s beliefs or career & I will continue to challenge myself & the God is Grey community to consider ideologies or practices important to others.

Lastly, many of the comments I’m seeing are addressing things we openly discussed in this video – like the demonization of astrology, why Aliza loves it & how to not take advantage of people’s weaknesses when “telling the future” – which is also something Aliza acknowledges she does not do.

Please watch the video before commenting, or continue on with your day, lovers! Xoxoxo

Brenda Marie Davies

I thought, “Ugh, I guess. Fair enough.” And I was about to take her suggestion to just continue on with my day and ignore it. Then Aliza added her thoughts to the above comment on her Instagram story, which Brenda shared on hers:

So interesting experiencing the reaction from the @godisgrey community and adjacent followers—lots of love and respect and also lots of… the opposite. I was raised in a secular household, so the concept that even *learning* about a subject can be a form of blasphemy is quite unfamiliar. Either way, swipe up to watch our conversation and please feel free to leave some love… if the spirit moves you

Aliza Kelly (emphasis mine)

This is when the switch flipped and the lightbulb came on. I was no longer ignoring this video: yes, I was going to watch it, and yes, I was going to make a blog post dedicated to it. Specifically, I was inspired by the sentence I’ve highlighted in bold: should a secular household have concepts that are blasphemous, that are forbidden to be talked about?

Before I get into that, I want to share some context about the video and what made the women feel the need to make these two comments.

I watched the video for two reasons: I was interested in how they approached the demonization of astrology like Brenda mentioned, and I wanted to confirm (not just assume) that everything they talked about was mere baloney. Something about Aliza saying that people are treating it like blasphemy felt like a challenge to me. How would I know if it was blasphemy if I didn’t watch the whole thing?

For the most part, the video is exactly what I expected. A lot of pseudoscience and woo-woo, mostly focused on astrology, but also featuring some talk of Tarot, manifestation, psychic abilities, and spell work. Not my thing. I thought most of it was goofy, like talking about how the weather in March is strange because it’s Pisces season, or how your late twenties are a tumultuous time because Saturn has made one orbit since you were born. There were also some things that were flat out misinformation, like stating that the Moon controls the water in our bodies (this is not true).

I was surprised (because this was a conversation about pseudoscience) but also not surprised (because I know Brenda is typically a logical and skeptical person) that they did have some useful information as well. Probably my favorite thing was that Aliza repeatedly emphasized that astrology and her “services” are not for everyone or every situation. She thinks it helps people understand themselves and their place in the universe, but she explained that it is not a replacement for therapy. She said she doesn’t let people use her services when they are clearly going through very stressful times: she knows astrology will not help in place of real therapists and counselors.

I smiled when Aliza corrected Brenda that Mercury is not in retrograde, but rather it is retrograde. I appreciated that she explained the scientific phenomenon for what happens in the period when Mercury appears to be moving backward and how it is nothing more than an optical illusion. I was also really impressed when she rattled off the orbit lengths of each planet off the top of her head. It is a little bit sad to me that someone who is clearly smart, and who is so passionate about the Cosmos and our Solar System, uses her talents for astrology and not for astronomy. I think she could have been good at it.

I digress. I had finished the video and it was time for me to see all these comments that had upset the two ladies so much. I had actually expected it to be a lot of skeptics saying that astrology was BS, but there were probably more people mad that they were promoting something that is forbidden many times in the bible. I’m not sure why, as much of what Brenda teaches goes against the horror of the Old Testament. Wouldn’t her viewers expect that?

Realizing that a lot of her criticism was from more biblically literal Christians put Brenda’s pinned comment into better context. The two women had mentioned in the beginning of the video that many people see astrology as a sin and that they were not going to defend it against those people in this video.

I can’t comment on the people thinking it’s a sin against God. One of the nice things about being an atheist is that what is and isn’t a biblically defined sin isn’t my problem. But is talking about astrology also a secular sin? … Do those exist?

I’m currently reading an absolutely beautiful book by Sasha Sagan which talks about her upbringing with famously skeptical and science-minded parents. It’s interesting to learn about who Carl Sagan was not just as a public figure and science communicator but as a father. Well, I suppose as a father he was still operating as a science communicator; he was teaching his thoughtful and evidence-based view to his daughter. We know from books like Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World that Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan are against astrology. So at the risk of being cheeky, I’ll ask: what would Carl do? Does a household like that have a no-bullshit rule? Or do you let your kids explore things you know have been proven wrong as part of promoting open-mindedness?

Astrology and young-earth creationism are some examples of beliefs that do not pass Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection test. We know this. One of their most notable characteristics is that they take on a veneer of being scientific, using scientific-sounding language, being adjacent to real fields of science, but at the same time not standing up to scrutiny of the scientific method. This is the true reason why I dislike astrology so much. It mimics science so much that someone unfamiliar might not know the difference between it and astronomy, and it is misleading. The same goes for creationism. Way too many people think creationism and evolution are equally viable explanations for life, because creationists use scientific language to make themselves sound legitimate when they are not.

Carl Sagan, Sasha Sagan, and Ann Druyan

If I were to argue that no, skeptics should not shy away from pseudoscientific topics, it would be because these things are flatly untrue. If you apply that Baloney Detection Kit to astrology, astrology will fail. If everyone was a true, hard skeptic, then the case would be closed and astrology would be no more. So would be young-earth creationism. If you’re like me and you spend forty hours researching a blog post debunking the claims of creationists, then you will find that everything they say is a lie.

This is the argument that secular people use against creationists who forbid you to question their logic or their half-facts. We say, “If you’re so sure that evolution is false, then you wouldn’t have a problem with me researching those claims to find whether they are true.” It’s why it is so annoying for us to hear things like “Evolution is an anti-God religion!” because it’s their way of sticking their fingers in their ears when we actually brings facts and evidence to them.

You might argue that we can treat evolution and astrology the same way here. If evolution is true, the research will show that, and vice versa for astrology. If it’s false, why hide it?

Suppose you have never heard of either of them. Evolution or astrology (or both or neither) could be true; you don’t know yet. You Google “evidence for evolution,” and you Google “evidence for astrology.” I just did, and most of the first page search results for both said yes, this is true. So that’s what happens when you’re set free to come to your own conclusions. If I did this and stumbled upon creationist sites, there’s no guarantee that I will also find the many posts and videos by people refuting their claims, and I probably won’t spend the time researching to refute them myself. (This is why people like Answers in Genesis make their posts—actually, their entire blog—so convoluted; they make so many false claims, mixing in half-truths, that it would be impossible to go through and respond to every last one.)

Back to reality, where evolution is true and astrology is not. If skeptics want their children (or their peers) to think critically, then telling them to just be entirely open-minded to anything (especially anything scientific-sounding) won’t really help them. We also don’t want people to think we are afraid of learning about things like astrology, the same way that creationists seem to be afraid of people learning about evolution. Being afraid to learn about pseudosciences like astrology give them more credibility than they deserve. If you look at them in a truly skeptical and scientific way, you will find that they are empirically false. The key to skepticism is… well, skepticism.

But seriously, that Baloney Detection Kit from The Demon-Haunted World is key here. That, and Google. If you are perusing a page that argues that something like creationism or astrology is true, and you are prepared to really use the critical thinking of the scientific method—and fact check their claims with a quick search—then you will be able to use your own skepticism and resources to find what’s true.

If, and only if, you are prepared to think critically and skeptically will you see something like a podcast about astrology and come out the other side knowing it was certainly interesting, but not scientific. When Brenda and Aliza said that the Moon affects the water in our bodies, my Baloney Alarm (also known as the Woo-Woo Alarm) started blaring. I knew from physics and astronomy that the Moon affects the ocean tides specifically because they are large open bodies of water that are pulled by its gravity. Being aware of things that sound wrong is the first step. The second step for me was Googling, “Does the Moon have an effect on the water in our bodies?” That article I linked to from Scientific American earlier that said no it doesn’t was the very first result.

Teaching your children to think for themselves includes one of the values I have seen in many atheist parents, which is teaching their children objectively about all of the world’s religions without favoring one in particular. They also teach them to question everything. If it’s backed up by evidence, it will pass the test of their skepticism. Perhaps astrology and other pseudosciences can be taught the same way. We don’t have to hide them from one another; we can explain what they are and what people believe about them as long as we equip each other with the tools to detect baloney.

4 thoughts on “How Should Skeptics Approach Pseudoscience?

  • Some 40 years ago, I attended a meeting in a backroom at an astrologists store. I don’t remember what the meeting was about, but it had nothing to do with astrology. I was actually surprised that there were such things as astrology stores.

    As best I could tell, the astrologist was making a modest income selling trinkets and providing services that some people wanted and were willing to pay for. And she was making back rooms available, perhaps for a fee, for community groups to meet.

    Yes, I take astrology to be nonsense. But I could not find any reason to be offended at the existence of this store.

    Liked by 1 person

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