The Skeptical Scientist

Ever hear of the Mars Effect? I first heard about it in 1978, reading an article in Sky and Telescope. It seems like there is a correlation between a person’s athletic abilities and the position of the planet Mars in the sky at the moment the person is born. “But wait!”, you say. “Isn’t that astrology?” Sure ’nuff is. And that’s a problem. You see, the correlation – a measurable, repeatable, testable (and therefore, verifiable) effect isn’t supposed to be there. That’s what science tells us. That’s what scientists believe. Yet, it is there, and this poses a problem for some.

What’s surprising is the ‘some’ for whom this poses a problem.

In 1976 Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, calling themselves ‘chronobiologists’, published their paper in The Humanist, claiming their discovery of the Mars Effect. Not many paid attention, but a Harvard biologist and statistician named Marvin Zelen did. That’s not remarkable, but both Zelen and his collaborator, one George Abell from UCLA (yes, the famous astronomer whose book was the classic astronomy text for over 25 years), formed, in 1977, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Well, they didn’t form CSICOP only to answer the Gauquelin claim, but it was their first big task. I used to subscribe to their journal, The Skeptical Inquirer.

Richard Kammann was part of that group, and spent four years attempting to replicate and debunk the Mars Effect. In his words:

In Part 1 of this two-part paper I shall show that Abell, along with Professor Paul Kurtz, the Chairman of CSICOP and former editor of The Humanist, and Professor Marvin Zelen, statistician at Harvard University and Fellow of CSICOP, have persisted in offering to the public a set of demonstrably false statistical arguments against the Mars effect in spite of four years of continuous and steadily mounting criticism of their illogic.

Oh, I forgot to mention that CSICOP has a fifty member council, and some of the names on that council from those days may sound familiar… like B.F. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan…

(For a detailed chronology, try here). So Kammann publishes his paper in 1982, essentially saying that Kurtz, Abell have intentionally misrepresented data and results to fit preconceived notions. There is no more damning accusation in the world of science and academia.

People at The Skeptical Inquirer have their own side of the story, of course:

The hypothesis states that Mars occupies certain positions in the sky more often at the births of sports champions than at the births of ordinary individuals. However, in-depth analysis of the Mars effect hypothesis reveals massive bias in the data collected by Gauquelin…
The so-called Mars effect has haunted science for forty years now, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It most likely has been an illusion after all.

The problem is that a man named Rawlins had in 1981 effectively debunked the supposed science (um… read that in scare quotes) done by Abell and Kurtz when he proposed an experiment that showed the bias referred to by above was not actually there. He showed it can’t be. That experiment was done by Kammann. His results, and the reaction by the SCICOPS community, can be found here.

Sigh. If you’ve with me so far, you may be wondering why people like Abell and Kurtz, instead of responding to Rawlins with something like “Then there’s something about the data we do not yet understand.” decide to get all defensive and refer to him only as “that amateur astronomer” (in actuality, Rawlins may have been an amateur astronomer, but he was not an amateur statistician. Orbits, he could handle).

Now Kurtz and George Abell are not fools, and I doubt that they are (or, were) really malicious people. Abell in particular was an established scientist with a long history of major contributions to both science and the public, and he had nothing to prove (and clearly, much to loose) in this kind of squabble. But he and Kurtz were human, and certainly stubborn in their beliefs, especially those beliefs that had brought them great success in life.

I think that the skeptics were not skeptical of their own skepticism. That’s a mental disorder to which scientists, as humans, are prone (as are we all), akin to the problem self-described progressives have with tolerance (they are not tolerant of intolerant people).

This ugliness comes up in other places, most recently, a bruhaha over string theory. Some say string theory has the potential to solve one of the greatest problems facing physics today, the unification of the four fundamental forces in nature. Others say it’s so off the mark that it’s “not even wrong”. Hum… Richard Feynman was saying the same thing about quantum mechanics in the 1980s.

More reading.

Explore posts in the same categories: Astronomy, Science

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