Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Apophenia, Astrology, and Intelligent Design

Tom Chase, has a background in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, he writes for Welcome to Planet Earth, an astrology magazine, and he has a theory about the ValueJet airliner that crashed into the Everglades near Miami in 1996.

Using astrology and New Age techniques to analyze the disaster, Chase has concluded there is an astrological connection between the fire that brought down the Valujet airliner, and the fire that burned down the Atlanta home of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind.

The asteroid Vesta, writes Chase, is connected with fire, and Vesta was trine (120 degrees) to the moon on May 11, although, he is careful to note, not at the same time of day as the crash. The fire at the Mitchell house occurred on May 12, but let's not go into that, either.

And, that's not all. There are other connections, as well. A suspected cause of the fire was the transport of unlabeled oxygen canisters in the jet's cargo hold. And, as Chase points out, one of the names of Satan is "Prince of Power of the Air" and oxygen generators, are a kind of "power of the air."

Chase also sees a connection to secret codes written in the Bible:

… [O]ne way to analyze numbers is to consider that in the languages of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, each letter is also a number. Totalling (sic) these numbers, you can associate each word with a number. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, "Jesus" totals to 888, which is interesting because the "number of the Beast" (a Satanic number) in Revelation 13 of the Bible is 666. If you multiply 888 x .666= 591.4 or about 592, the flight number. The Beast is supposed to be a Satanic imitation of Christ that rises out of the sea ("sea of world politics") -- a beast from the sea, like an alligator in the Everglades.
The real power of Tom Chase's astrological and New Age analytical techniques, it seems, is that they allow us to understand that Satan can be both a "power of the air" and a "beast from the sea" all at the same time.

There is a name for this condition. It is apophenia, the perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, an internationally known figure in the field of neuropsychology and psychopathology at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, who died in 1961. Conrad defined apophenia as the unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by a specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.

Why is all this a matter of interest to the readers of Red State Rabble who come here chiefly, we assume, out of concern about attacks on science education by creationists and intelligent design advocates?

Well, because a review of The Fated Sky: Astrology in History in the Sunday New York Times Book Review by Dick Teresi claims that, "… superstring theorists insist they will reconcile the lumpy, acausal quatum world with the smooth determinism of relativity; and neo-Darwinists emphasize natural selection, a god-like mechanism that sorts through mutations and chooses only the optimal one. To them, every feather, fetlock and pubic hair bristles with meaning."

Teresi, the author of Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science – From the Babylonians to the Maya and a former editor of Omni magazine, claims, in other words, that "neo-Darwinists" suffer from apophenia.

In statistics, apophenia is characterized as a Type 1 error: seeing patterns in meaningless data. And, Teresi makes a explicit connection between Type 1 errors and string theory, neo-Darwinism, cosmology, economics, and God.

What Teresi does not make explicit is his own attraction to intelligent design. In an article written for In Character, a publication of the Templeton Foundation, he wrote:
… some sciences defy falsification. Cosmology and evolutionary biology are but two. You can’t recreate a big bang or evolve a new species in the lab. Here in the modern age, we are supposed to construct a firewall between science and religion. In my search for purpose in science, however, I found myself drawn to purpose in religion as well. For most of human history, religion and science have been inextricably bound, and, in fact, science and math were actually subservient to religion.

In the same article, Teresi goes on to laud intelligent design proponent Michael Behe:

… Behe is straightforward about his own purpose: “I am a Roman Catholic. There is an overarching purpose to human life – to be in communion with God, to live a moral life, and to go to heaven and be with God forever.”He is a proponent of ID, intelligent design, which holds that the universe was built by an intelligent designer, probably God. Like many other IDers, he doesn’t think the world was built in a week, and he believes that evolution took place and that natural selection probably played a role, but that natural selection can’t explain everything.

I’ve seen Behe debate Darwinists and neo-Darwinists, and he more than holds his ground.

To make the argument that it is the neo-Darwinists, and not intelligent design activists, who suffer from apophenia, Teresi has to ignore Behe's recent – and rather inconvenient – connection to the science of astrology in testimony at the Dover intelligent design trial.

Question: And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

Answer: Yes.

Q: Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

A: Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well.

Q: The ether theory of light has been discarded, correct?

A: That is correct.

Q: But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct?

A: Yes, that's correct…

There are other links between intelligent design and astrology, as well. Read for example Ed Brayton's recent posts on his Dispatches from the Culture Wars blog. Brayton recounts, in hilarious fashion, the mysterious appearance and rather sudden disappearance and subsequent reappearance of an Indian Astrologer on Uncommon Descent, the blog of intelligent design theorist William Dembski.

Teresi must also skip over the connection between intelligent design activists Phillip Johnson and William Dembski and the bible code hoax -- which holds such deep meaning for our friend Tom Chase -- of a few years back.

In the late 90s, a series of books claimed to have used statistical methods to detect hidden messages planted by God in the Bible. The bible code hoax remains a fascinating study in human credulity, but, as this post is already far too long, RSR will simply refer readers who want to learn more to these excellent resources:

Hidden Messages and The Bible Code by Dave Thomas in the Skeptical Inquirer

Scientific Refutation of the Bible codes by Brendan McCay

Mathematicians Statement on the Bible Codes

Both Johnson and Dembski wrote favorable reviews of Cracking the Bible Code, a book touting the existence of a hidden code concealed in the Bible, by Jeffrey Satinover. In a 1998 review written for First Things, Dembski wrote:

At the same time that research in the Bible Code has taken off, research in a seemingly unrelated field has taken off as well, namely, biological design. These two fields are in fact closely related. Indeed, the same highly improbable, independently given patterns that appear as the equidistant letter sequences in the Bible Code appear in biology as functionally integrated ("irreducibly complex") biological systems, of the sort Michael Behe discussed in Darwin’s Black Box.

The relevant statistical methodology is identical for both fields. As a result, the two fields stand to profit from each other.

After recommending Satinover's book in a 1997 review, also published in First Things, Johnson first laid out the case now taken up by Teresi:

Evolutionary biology, whether practiced by strict materialists, theists, or Aristotelian teleologists, bears a striking resemblance to alchemy.

Teresi's assertion that evolution is not falsifiable is wrong. All it would take to falsify evolution, is the discovery of a rock strata containing the fossilized remains of both humans and dinosaurs – or any combination of species that the theory explains as being separated by millions of years of evolution. This has yet to happen.

Evolution might also be falsified by the discovery of an island, such as the one envisioned in King Kong, where the 99.9 percent of species now extinct might still be found alive.

If believers Behe, Johnson, and Dembski are correct about the role of God and the Bible, evolution might also be falsified if Jesus, bearing a flaming silver sword in his right hand, rode a snow-white stallion across the sky. God was immanent then, why not now?

Of course RSR, condemned as always to play the skeptic, will insist the event be witnessed by believers and non-believers alike. Tortillas or grilled cheese sandwiches bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary just won't get it.

The fact is, there is a direct link between astrology, the bible codes, and intelligent design, and it can be found equally in the perception of meaning in the relationship of the stars, the belief in a hidden code in the Bible, and the inference of design in the structure of DNA. All appeal to the credulous, the gullible, and to those who want more than anything else, to believe that some outside force – God or the stars -- must give meaning and purpose to their lives.

The curious and the courageous among us will have to make do with evidence-based science. It may not be as flashy, but it appeals to those who understand that the real means of investing our lives with meaning and purpose are to be found, not in the heavens above, but right down here on the ground, in the human heart and mind.


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