Don't be an arsetrologer

Thu, 28 Nov 2013 | norman

There we were. It was a lovely evening. We were at my friend Chuck's company end of year everyone-come-round-and-drink-our-free-homemade-craft-beer-and-eat-burgers-and-listen-to-live-music function. It was everything you would expect from throwing together sublime beer, accidentally bumping into old school buddies you haven't seen in twenty years, delicious food and great live music.

And then Chuck's wife Debra asked me whether I was a Scorpio. Actually I think she said Scorpion, but English is not her first language, and I forgave her her diction.

What I couldn't stomach, though, was the idea that I might be categorised by my birthday.

I explained, and perhaps I should not have explained. Perhaps I should have asked. Nicely. But I explained how even race, and religion and language and gender, have statistical correlations with demographics; you actually can make prejudiced judgements of people based on whether they are a [insert slur here] with a little accuracy. Not much, but a little.

I am a straight white male in my thirties, raised in South Africa in an English-speaking middle class Protestant home. Go on. Box me. You might be right.

But to box me based on my birthday?! Why, in the twenty-first century, is this bullshit, squarely based on the most stubborn ignorance, and backed by millenia of confirmation bias, still pervasive? Oh, right, I just answered my own question.

But Debra! She's smart! I expected better from her.

She said that Scorpio was just a "frame of reference". I asked what she meant by that, but she didn't go for it. Because she must have known that her answer would just be even more bullshit.

She asked what was so offensive to me.

Apart from the obvious fact that star signs are simply a form of prejudice that is more socially acceptable than prejudice based on race or gender, there is an even more important principal here:

I told her it was the terrible idea that one can base belief on mystery.

Somehow I didn't get any further. I didn't get to the crucial point:

Mystery is what you don't know.

That's what it means. Basing belief on it is lying to yourself that you simply don't know. It's living your life as if you do.

I didn't get a chance to tell her because by that point her ears had disconnected, and her brain was entirely occupied by her mouth.

Her mouth was telling me that I don't know everything. Her mouth was saying that I live in a black-and-white world, and that reality has grey areas. Her mouth continued that she couldn't stand to talk to me anymore. And then her brain engaged her legs, and she hurried off to her husband, presumably to mouth off about me and the terrible things I'd said.

OK. But she missed my response. Of course she missed my response. Stubborn ignorance protects itself aggressively.

I wanted to respond that I agree with what she's getting at. I don't know everything! I could not agree more. The point, the whole point, the reason you cannot base belief on mystery, is that doing so hides from you the fact that you don't know everything. When you stop basing belief on mystery you actually have a chance to discover what it is that you don't know.

Until you do that, how will you know what to try to find out? I guess that's not a concern when you're doing your best not to change your mind. But I would like to believe that Debra is not like that. I want to think that Debra is the kind of person who, when she identifies gaps in her own knowledge, will try to fill them. Debra, if you've read this far, please, show me evidence to support this.

Because the result of admitting to yourself what you don't know is that the world really does become more grey. Black-and-white is what you get when you do base belief on mystery. Grey is what happens when you admit to yourself that you don't know.

What is a Scorpio? By definition a Scorpio is someone whose birthday falls between 24 October and 21 November. What can we tell about Scorpios? That their birthday falls between 24 October and 21 November. Anything else?


Of course not. If you are unsure about that, please Google "confirmation bias".

For what it's worth, my birthday does not fall between 24 October and 21 November. My astrological personality profile is whichever one includes deep repugnance for astrology.

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