Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Astrology, Wikipedia and Jimmy Wales' Objectivism

A year or two back I cancelled my donation to Wikipedia because of what it said in the introduction to its Astrology entry. It said this:

While astrology may bear a superficial resemblance to science, it is a pseudoscience because it makes little attempt to develop solutions to its problems, shows no concern for the evaluation of competing theories, and is selective in considering confirmations and dis-confirmations.


It was those words “it is a pseudoscience” that pissed me off. Not “some consider it to be a pseudoscience” which is fair enough, because some people do consider it as that, that is a fact that needs to be in the article. No, it IS a pseudoscience.

It would never occur to me to attempt to evaluate astrology ‘scientifically’. Why would I apply that very particular means of acquiring knowledge to a craft that works in a very different way? It would be like calling novel-writing pseudoscience, because the novelist in his/her presentation of psychological truths “shows no concern for the evaluation of competing theories, and is selective in considering confirmations and dis-confirmations.” It would be ludicrous. Positively Procrustean. Why haven't I thought of that before? The story of Procrustes has become a guiding myth for science at its worst.

Anyway, I objected, and others had objected before me, but there seemed to be nothing to be done. I was quickly banned from editing the page. Control of the astrology page was in the hands of non-astrologers.

Then I noticed recently that the entry had been changed to:

Astrology has been rejected by the scientific community as having no validity or explanatory power for describing the universe (see pseudoscience)….”

It drones on after that, but the essential point is that astrology no longer IS a pseudoscience, it is just seen as such by the scientific community, which is fair enough. So I was very pleased to see that change had been made.

I don’t know what brought this development about, but it comes down to editorial integrity. Presenting one point of view as fact and ignoring others shows a lack of editorial integrity, and it should never have happened.

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I think it shows the extent to which in our culture the scientific point of view has come to be seen as the only possible point of view, that its findings are the objective reality. But the fact that the entry was changed also shows that there are counter-currents in our culture that are listened to. It gives me hope that we are not entirely in the hands of the zealots, that there is still room for liberal thinking.

In a way, the intro to the astrology entry has become quite balanced. As I want to emphasise, these criticisms of astrology by science do need to be in the article, as a matter of editorial integrity, because there are people who make such criticisms. It is simply reporting the facts about the various viewpoints, which is the job of an encyclopaedia. Rather than to take sides.


Which, if Wikipedia were to be consistent, should also apply to the entry on Evolution. In the US, for example, there are many Creationists who do not agree that evolution has occurred, and as a matter of integrity this needs to be stated in the intro to the article. An important cultural current has been forced out by the editors into what is almost a footnote at the end, and subject to a stream of counter-argument. And there is no mention of scientific criticisms in the main article, such as the gaps in the fossil record and the evidence for Lamarckianism.

So you can see the broader cultural battle that is reflected in the pages of Wikipedia. It is not, to emphasise, about the validity of science. It is about the attempt by science to forcibly exclude any viewpoints other than the ones accepted by its own establishment. Which I am sure many Creationists would also do given half a chance. There are probably astrologers who would as well! There will always be groups of people in any culture attempting to do that. In my view, the extent to which a culture is able to resist those pressures is a measure of how civilised it is.

Jimmy Wales, the founder or co-founder of Wikipedia (depending on whose viewpoint you take!) is philosophically a staunch ‘Objectivist’. He claims that he does not push his philosophy onto others or onto Wikipedia. And maybe he doesn’t. His stroke of genius was to create an encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. Up to a point, as I found. Who would have thought it could succeed to any half-way decent standard? The joke goes that the problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. Rather like Astrology.

Objectivism is a philosophy created by Ayn Rand which maintains that “reality exists independent of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness (or rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism….”

Ayn Rand elsewhere describes reason as an absolute.

I disagree with, or at least would strongly qualify, all of the above. (In fact I think it's nuts and I don't know where to start unpicking it, but that in itself isn't an argument!)

So Objectivism seems to provide the philosophical backing for one-sided rationalism, fundamentalist science and capitalism at its worst. What is in many ways the modern status quo. And Jimmy Wales has further said that his personal philosophy is firmly rooted in reason and he is a complete non-believer. His beliefs are central to him.

So to my mind it is as if Wikipedia has been set up by, say, a firm Catholic who does his best to keep his views out of the project.

 
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Wales has a Mars-Jupiter conjunction in Cancer in the 3rd. So his beliefs (Jupiter) are outwardly rationally based (3rd house) but inwardly emotionally held (Cancer) and pursued assertively (Mars). Jupiter rules his 8th House of shared endeavour, which is Wikipedia. So it is a forum for his beliefs, whatever he says.

However much Wales maintains he does not push his beliefs on Wikipedia, the attitude we find when it comes to science vs the non-rational arts and crafts speaks otherwise. What happened to astrology was pretty extreme and had no place in what was supposed to be an encyclopaedia, and it was exactly what you would expect from someone who holds to rationalism as a religion.

Of course, Wales didn’t write the article or probably even read it or even know about it. But it is not going to be his first priority to ensure that subjects for which he probably has little respect get a fair hearing. And if he doesn’t know about the Evolution article and its absence of critical perspectives, I would call that culpable. It’s too big to ignore.

So even though I choose to believe him when he says he doesn’t push his philosophy on others – and it is part of his philosophy not to do so – it is psychologically na├»ve of him to think that it doesn’t influence Wikipedia. Even if it is just through what he ignores.

Wales’ one-sided rationalism is part of a one-sided rationalism in the wider culture. So I expect to see that sort of bias in Wikipedia. In the case of Evolution, it is not just the religious crowd who are left out. It is also scientists who do not agree with the mainstream views: they are shunted off to another article altogether, ‘Objections to Evolution.’ And that is a very conservative thing to do.


So Wikipedia is intellectually conservative and one-sidedly rationalist, even though as a project the editing process is wonderfully radical, and gives hope for the standards that collectives are capable of. What has happened to astrology on Wikipedia is paradigmatic of the bias within the project and within the wider culture. But the intolerance with which it was being treated has softened, and that is also grounds for optimism.

6 comments:

Robert said...

I have always found it interesting that astrology is judged most negatively by those who know nothing about it. Grant Lewi gave excellent rebuttals to several rationalistic arguments against it in "Astrology for the Millions." A strict rationalist arguing against something they know nothing about seems to turn "rationalism" on its head, since there's nothing rational about arguing a view based upon nothing related to the subject matter.

Christina said...

What a fabulous chart for the founder of Wikipedia though -- so apt!

Sara said...

Astrology has no connection to science or reality? Has Wiki never heard of Babylonian astrologers whose entire job was sidereal astrology, which is based on direct observation of the night sky and the movements of planets and comets and the apparent movement of the sun? These ancient astrologers were the founders of astronomy. Where is the nod to that? While there may be no empirical evidence, I think it's FAIR to say that astrology / early astronomy became the basis for mathematics. How can you calculate the movements of 'wandering stars' and planets and coordinate those with known events without some sort of math system?
Robert Hand has found a direct correspondence, as did Carl Jung, between the movement of the winter solstice at 0 Capricorn, in the night sky, and historical events. The winter solstice moved out of Sagittarius in 1914, ending the Age of the Caesars.
In 1945, it moved into Ophiuchus, the Serpentary. That was the year of the first controlled nuclear chairn reaction. The winter solstice moves 1 degree every 72 years. So we have until 2017 to resolve our relationship with Nature (Gaia?), give or take a couple of years. He did not speculate on the consequence of NOT resolving this relationship.
However, if you run the charts for the time period 2015 to 2019, it's quite plain that we are on the razor's edge right now.
If astrology were based on something in the real world - mathematics and observation - then the ephemerides could not written up as tables and programmed into a computer.

Sara said...

If astrology were based on something in the real world -- Typo!
Sorry, that should read thus: "If astrology were NOT based on something in the real world"

Anonymous said...

Really interesting BG, thanks!

In something of an irony, take a look at some recent recent about Wikipedia and other crowd-based phenomena. Thoughts?

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193115

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2324637

Kenna J said...


What sense does it make to have a non-astrologer write an entry about astrology? Would a chemist write the entry for anthropology?