Scientific Awesomeness

I saw this over at Eurekalert: Charting our Health by the Stars.

This is a press release about new research into Horoscopes’ prediction of health conditions. Or, Not.

“We did this study to prove a larger point – the more we look for patterns, the more likely we are to find them, particularly when we don’t begin with a particular question.”

Using medical records of millions of Canadians, the researchers basically threw it all in a statistical pot with star signs and stirred it up to find correlations. Indeed, there were definite patterns–apparently Virgos have nasty problems with morning sickness, for example.

Except–correlation is the weakest of statistical relationships. And we’ve all heard “correlation is not causation.” If indeed there were real predictive relationships between horoscope and health, it should work on new population samples.

However, even though each astrological sign appeared to have its own unique disorders, the results were not reproduced when they were tested in a second population. There was no predictive value, and there was no relationship.

Because the author said it so nicely, I’ll quote him:
“Scientists take pains to make sure their clinical studies are conducted accurately,” says Austin, “but sometimes erroneous conclusions will be obtained solely due to chance.” Statistical chance means that 5 per cent of the time, scientists will incorrectly conclude that an association exists, when in reality no such association exists in the population that the scientists are studying.
One way to reduce the chances of drawing a wrong conclusion is to try and reproduce unexpected results in further studies.
“There is a danger in basing scientific decisions on the results of one study, particularly if the results were unanticipated or the association was one that we did not initially decide to examine,” says Austin. “But when several studies all arrive at similar conclusions, we reduce the risk of arriving at an incorrect outcome.”

One of the other ways to make your conclusions stronger, statistically and inference wise, is to have lots and lots of observations. Observations on just a few people are just anecdotal evidence. (“I put the crystal on my head and it healed me!”)

The fact that the authors used millions of people to try to find relationships pretty conclusively establishes there is NO relationship between horoscope and…well, anything, really.

Starting without a hypothesis or specific relationship between your variables is just fishing. It’s really just not good science. And these authors have proven that with a very nice piece of science work indeed!

One other news release from AAAS: Run for Science! Since Rebecca urged you to write Oprah, I thought I would urge you to run for office.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Awesome find, bug_girl! These guys were awfully clever. Their result shows how easily you can get false results from "sciency" methods. The scientific method developed over thousands of years by culling failed approaches from successful ones — there's clearly something to it, and woomeisters ignore that success at their peril.

  2. Nice. The next step, of course, is to repeat this study on a different population and see if there is a similar correlation between being a Virgo and experiencing morning sickness…


  3. Psamathos, I think you might have missed this sentence: "However, even though each astrological sign appeared to have its own unique disorders, the results were not reproduced when they were tested in a second population."

  4. Umm,bug_girl..

    I know you like me much,and I hate to be the

    one to break it to you,however your conclusion

    is premature and based on irrelevant information..

    Please allow me to explain..


    1. a diagram of the heavens, showing the relative

    position of planets and the signs of the zodiac, for

    use in calculating births, foretelling events in a person's

    life, etc.

    2. a prediction of future events or advice for future

    behavior based on such a diagram.

    In astrology, a horoscope is a chart or diagram representing the positions of the planets, other celestial bodies, and sensitive angles at the time of any event, such as the moment of a person's birth. The word "horoscope" is derived from Greek words meaning "a look at the hours" (horoskopos, pl. horoskopoi, or "marker(s) of the hour.") Other commonly used names for the horoscope in English include astrological chart, birth chart, astro-chart, celestial map, sky-map, star-chart, cosmogram, vitasphere, radical chart, radix or simply chart, among Unabridged (v 1.1)

    Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House,

    Inc. 2006.

    So please explain for me my friend,where did it ever suggest

    that a horoscope could detect physical ailments,sickness and disease?

    But more importantly you said:"The fact that the authors used

    millions of people to try to find relationships pretty conclusively

    establishes there is NO relationship between horoscope and…well, anything, really."

    So you're saying that If I were a ship captain lost at sea,

    the end of the handle of the Little Dipper,couldn't

    lead me home? It holds no relevance?

    How did the Dinosaurs die again?Are you sure the study

    conclusively suggest that stars in our horoscopes "has no

    relationship to anything"?

    How do are plants grow my friend?

    Why do we have skin cancer?

    why would an ozone depletion effect our health?

    What does nocturnal creatures mean?

    where did the term lunatic come from?

    Why do we have high and low tides?

    I fail to reach your conclusion giving the many variables

    effected by our stars/heaven alignments and positioning.

    However I will entertain a cartoon scenario you invented:

    what would happen tomorrow,if we took out the sun,today?

    I would submit,Everything would be effected….

    Devils' Advocate M.Dmon

    Ps I have to give your post an F-

    Due to its lack of creativity and failure to reach

    an honest (skeptical)conclusion..

  5. And they were tested in a HUGE sample. If there was anything there, they would have found it.

    Buck Fuddy, are you skeptical of the science? Hmmm. Maybe I need to rewrite this–people are missing the point. :(

  6. Buck Fuddy, are you skeptical of the science?

    No, I meant skeptical of astrology. I actually read a horoscope once that said I was supposed to be skeptical, so I thought, well, I guess that means this is bullshit, except that would include the skepticism, which means I'm not really skeptical, which means… Okay, lame joke.

    Regarding the science, I think what they've discovered is that random distributions are lumpy, which we've known for a while. It only seems counterintuitive because we have this naive expectation of homogeneity because we're not good at thinking randomly. PZ Myers (Pharyngula) posted a nice example of this last week where someone asked people to think of a number between 1 and 20, and there was a very strong bias towards selecting 17, followed in frequency by several other numbers. The distribution was anything but random.

  7. This study is another one showing you occasionally get misleading correlation. It's called "Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial", and here's the money shot:

    What this study adds

    Remote intercessory prayer said for a group of patients is associated with a shorter hospital stay and shorter duration of fever in patients with a bloodstream infection, even when the intervention is performed 4-10 years after the infection

  8. I will say only one thing, and this is the LAST thing I will ever say to you M. Dimon.

    Over time, watching your posts, I have come to believe that:

    A. You are mentally ill

    B. Responding to you is the equivalent of giving you an electronic hand job, by providing the attention and persecution you so desperately crave.

    Someone who believes in astrology isn't necessarily ill, or stupid. Gullible, maybe. :)

    I'm not implying that astrology or the other goofy things you believe in are why I think you're not well.

    You have shown yourself to be incapable of responding to questions, have fragmented thought processes, and disordered thinking and writing.

    If a student in my class displayed this much tangential speech, I'd send them to our clinic.

    I urge you to consider taking your meds.

  9. bug_girl

    I appreciate the Mature decision to no longer speak with me,

    considering you can't control yourself from making personal attacks..

    Had you been a guest or fellow layman,I wouldn't expect better

    of you,however you are a moderator and should conduct yourself like

    an adult,even when it hurts…

    Devils' Advocate M.Dmon

    Ps but again,if you're not able to do your job

    please feel free to set down..

  10. I don't know, MD. Apparently you find it easier to criticize people who are working on a voluntary basis than I do. Besides, she is trying to do you a favor. If you're in possession of all your faculties, you're at least having a hard time expressing yourself. The only reason I've never replied to any of your posts until now is that I really can't figure out what you're trying to say.

  11. Wow, what a load of hooey from Mikal.

    I have only a few points in response to his first post:

    Point 1:

    Astrology is NOT the same as astronomy. One is total bunk, the other has been guiding ship's captains across vast oceans for several thousand years and preventing them from getting lost.

    PErhaps you're right, the ship's captain who put his trust in astrology is bound to find himself lost pretty much as soon as he can't see the shore any more.

    Point 2:

    While the research was not particularly about predicting sickness in virgo's, but rather, about the danger of accepting any correlation as meaningful, it seems like if you're able to make any predictions after that research, it would be that virgo's are much more likely to experience morning sickness. Is that not a prediction of the future?

    The point of the research is of course, that we can't make that prediction, because in a subsequent test, this correlation didn't exist.

    Point 3:

    Lots of questions/statements tangentially related to the "sun" and the "moon".

    Mikal, I can only say one thing, the gravitational effect *I* have on the cup of coffee in front of me is larger than the gravitational effect the moon has on it. You don't have to believe me if you don't want to, but if you would do the math, you could only come to the same conclusion.

    I fear I can only come to the same conclusion as Bug_Girl. There's something seriously misaligned in Mikal's head. His thinking is chaotic and his replies show a considerable lack of understanding. Assuming of course, that his posts actually make sense to him and it's not just a problem with the English language.

  12. Ugh. missed a tag (and the underline tag doesn't seem to work).

    Could someone fix this please? The italic should close after "preventing".

  13. Dear Bucky

    I don't agree that your friend is doing me any favors,

    by calling me crazy,maroon etc..

    I believe its a warped and twisted thinking to even suggest

    such an obvious blatant lie!(did that read clear?)

    I expect Moderators to treat everyone fairly,

    and mediate,not instigate and I believe your friend

    abused her privilages..Who will police the police?

    (did that read well?)

    Furthermore,I don't appreciate you butting in,

    as if you can relate to my repeated public floggings

    to tell me,that doesn't hurt..

    Pardon me,If I'm used to a civilized society,

    rather than some subculture such as this..

    I hope you read this well..

    Take care my friend M.Dmon

  14. Exarch, I have many, many students for whom English is not their first language.

    They may miss a few verb tenses and words now and then, and their sentence structure can be …creative :) ….but they don't make these random jumps from point to point.

    That's a classic sign. (Read the "disordered thinking" description above and then look at one of M's posts). :(

  15. MD,

    bug_girl and I aren't friends. We don't know each other.

    She is doing you a favor by suggesting you may have a treatable condition, and if you seek help you will be happier.

    If you don't like the way you're being treated here, you have the right not to read this blog anymore.

  16. Well, all any of us here can say is: you reap what you sow..
    Nobody is out of line with their reaction, with the exception of one individual, you don’t need me to point out that this individual is not bug_girl …

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