The Ole Debate

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We like to think of ourselves as rigorous thinkers, and so we enjoy it when academics apply reason and science to astrology (fun abstracts: 1,2,3,4).

Far riskier, though, is when academics use statistics to demonstrate a point that might be missed by the not-so-educated. For instance, these researchers have a clever, high-minded goal that could easily be misinterpreted:

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grantee Peter Austin and three other researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto have just completed a survey of hospital visits in Ontario, showing that, compared to people born under other astrological signs, Virgos have an increased risk of vomiting during pregnancy, Pisces have an increased risk of heart failure, and Libras have an increased risk of fracturing their pelvises. In fact, each of the 12 astrological signs had at least two medical disorders associated with them, thus placing people born under a given sign at increased risk compared to those born under different signs.

The study, which used data from 10,000,000 Ontario residents in 2000, was conducted with tongue firmly in cheek.

“Replace astrological signs with another characteristic such as gender or age, and immediately your mind starts to form explanations for the observed associations,” says Austin. “Then we leap to conclusions, constructing reasons for why we saw the results we did. 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.”

Indeed, a similar study last year by an online insurance company led to a variety of credulous interpretations, one of which led to the jaw-dropping research excerpted below:

I was surprised to find other studies looking at this same question — although their results were quite contradictory. Nancy Fenn at Tarot.com refers to a study conducted by Suncorp Metway, Ltd., an Australian financial service. Apparently Suncorp reviewed 160,000 accident claims over a three-year period, and found that Gemini were the worst drivers, followed by Taurus and Pisces. Meanwhile, she found, Capricorns are the best drivers, followed by Sagittarians and Scorpios.The debate doesn’t stop there. The Web site for Norwich Union, a British insurance company, has reprinted an article from June 2005 claiming that “fast and furious Leos reported the highest number of accidental damage claims,” and that, along with Cancers (I have never had a claim, by the way), are “twice as likely to submit claims” as Geminis, Pisces and Sagittarians.

…There is an explanation for the differing views on astrological signs and the driving records and tendencies of the twelve groups. Carol Allen, one of the most respected astrologers in the country and the astrologer of choice to Hollywood’s movers and shakers, explains that in astrology, the month of your birth may be less important than the position of the planets at a given time.

Thank goodness we have a respected astrologer clear up this confusing matter with more gobbledygook. We’ll stick with the conclusions of Austin’s team: Correlation is not causation — when retrospective studies identify an association, you’ve got to prospectively validated them. When Austin’s group tried this, the associations between astrological sign and disease vanished.

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~ by nancyfenn on December 11, 2007.

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