Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Fear talk and bad decisions

I've always been curious about why politicians spend so much time trying to make their constituencies afraid.

A scared person, you would think, is likely to behave unpredictably.  Faced with a raging tiger, some of us would run, some fight back, some piss their pants and faint.  (I suspect I'd be in the last-mentioned group.)  But the point is, you'd think that as a political strategy, making people fearful would backfire as often as not.

But it seems to be all you hear these days.  "Obama is coming for your guns, to leave you defenseless."  "The illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs."  "The economy is going to crash."  "Public schools are failing."  "The terrorists are winning."

A study released last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may give us a perspective on why that is.  In a paper called "Power Decreases Trust in Social Exchanges," by Oliver Schilke, Martin Reimann, and Karen S. Cook (the first two from the University of Arizona, the last from Stanford University), we find out that being low in the power structure makes people more willing to trust authority:
How does lacking vs. possessing power in a social exchange affect people’s trust in their exchange partner?  An answer to this question has broad implications for a number of exchange settings in which dependence plays an important role...  Over a variety of different experimental paradigms and measures, we find that more powerful actors place less trust in others than less powerful actors do.  Our results contradict predictions by rational actor models, which assume that low-power individuals are able to anticipate that a more powerful exchange partner will place little value on the relationship with them, thus tends to behave opportunistically, and consequently cannot be trusted.  Conversely, our results support predictions by motivated cognition theory, which posits that low-power individuals want their exchange partner to be trustworthy and then act according to that desire.  Mediation analyses show that, consistent with the motivated cognition account, having low power increases individuals’ hope and, in turn, their perceptions of their exchange partners’ benevolence, which ultimately leads them to trust.
Scary result, isn't it?  The politicians have a vested interest in making us fearful not only to push a particular political agenda; they make us more likely to blindly trust whoever is saying, "... and I have a solution."

And look what it does to our ability to process facts.  We are told that social programs (read: welfare cheats) are bankrupting the United States, and the way to balance the budget is to end what opponents like to call "entitlements," when the actual situation looks like this:

I'd like someone to explain to me how we can balance the budget by eliminating social services, when social services account for only around 13% of overall expenditures.  In fact, you could argue that our disproportionate military spending -- 718 billion dollars, 20% of the federal budget, accounting for 41% of the military spending worldwide, and four times higher than the country in second place (China) -- is also motivated by fear and a perception of being in a precarious position in the power structure.

It's amazing how blind you become to reality when you're motivated by fear and anxiety.  Remember the idiotic thing that was going around last year, about how we should balance the budget by eliminating salaries for the president, vice president, and members of congress?   Apparently scared people also really don't understand math, because I fail to see how stopping the paychecks of 537 people is going to offset a $426 billion budget deficit.

So if fear accomplishes one other thing besides making you trust whoever you believe to be an authority, it makes you ignore all the evidence to the contrary.  Consider the conviction with which the pro-gun faction believes that gun ownership makes you safer -- while a Boston University study found two years ago that there is a "robust correlation" between the rate of (legal) gun ownership in a state and the rate of violence.

But instead of reasoned debate on the topic, just about all we see is inflammatory rhetoric.  Since when is "Passing laws restricting gun ownership is stupid, because criminals don't obey laws" a logical argument?  No one is suggesting that we make rape and murder legal, because after all, "rapists and murderers don't obey laws."  These sorts of statements aren't meant to engage your brain; they're meant to grab you by the fear centers and swing you around.  "I'm being left defenseless against the criminals" is a powerful motivator.

And as the study by Schilke et al. shows, once we're in a state of fear, we're more likely to trust whoever it is that claims to have a solution.

Look, it's not like I have all the answers myself.  My difficulty with politics is that I find most of the problems they wrestle with so complicated and multi-faceted that I can't imagine how anyone could find a solution that works.  But succumbing to fear certainly doesn't make you more likely to make good decisions, either about what to do or about who should lead us.

As Dave Barry said, "When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command.  Very often, that individual is crazy."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Comprehensive Field Guide to Aliens

That people believe all sorts of weird things without any hard evidence is so obvious as to barely merit saying.  What never fails to astound me, however, is how complex some of these beliefs are.

Witness the website that a loyal reader of Skeptophilia was kind enough to send me, which gives information about all of the different alien races that are currently visiting Earth.  Me, I thought there were only a couple -- the bug-eyed gray guys featured on various historical documentaries (for example, The X Files and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and the shapeshifting reptilian dudes called the Annunaki that are the favorites of conspiracy theorists.  These last have supposedly infiltrated world governments, and many prominent human leaders have been replaced by heartless, cold-blooded scaly extraterrestrials, bent on world domination.  Apparently the trained eye can still recognize which are the real humans, and which are the Annunaki replacements.  Personally, I'm suspicious about Arne Duncan.  Doesn't he look a little like someone who has only recently learned the rule, "when you smile, raise your lips and expose your teeth," and still can't quite manage to make it look authentic?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commona]

In any case, imagine my surprise when I learned that the bug-eyed gray aliens and the Annunaki are only two of a whole petting zoo's worth of different alien species.  And I'm not talking about your typical Star Trek type alien, who looks like a guy speaking in a fake Russian accent while wearing a rubber alien nose.  I'm talking some serious non-humans here.

For example, consider the Arcturians.  These guys are only three feet tall, but are super-powerful, telekinetic aliens with turquoise skin, enormous almond-shaped eyes that are entirely glossy black, and only three fingers per hand.  Visiting Earth is rough for the Arcturians because "Earth's vibrational energy is harmful to their fifth-dimensional frequency."  Whatever the fuck that means.  But that's apparently why you see so few of them around.

Then, there are the Dracos, who hail from, amazingly enough, the constellation Draco.  Even more coincidentally, they look kind of like dragons.  While I was reading this, I started talking to my computer.  "You... you can't be... from a CONSTELLATION!" I yelled, waking up my IQ-challenged hound, Lena, who gave me a head-tilt to communicate the one coherent thought she is capable of, namely, "Derp?"  "A constellation is a random assemblage of stars!  And Draco only looks vaguely like a dragon if you see it from this vantage point!  From somewhere else in space, it would look ENTIRELY DIFFERENT!"  Then I had to go get a cup of coffee and calm down for a while, and give Lena time for her lone functioning brain cell to go back to sleep.  So perhaps we should just move on.

Then there are the Els, or Anakim, which is a race of giant red-haired humanoids, who "ran the Garden of Eden" and built the pyramids.   And when I say "giant," I do mean seriously height-enhanced.  Some of them, this website claims, were 250 feet tall.  The description of the history of the Els on this website runs to several pages, and I won't even attempt to summarize it, except to mention that it involves Scotland, the Jews, the Templars, the Merovingians, L. Ron Hubbard, the Masons, J. R. R. Tolkien, the Three Wise Men, and clams.  It's worth reading.  I recommend doing it while drinking single-malt scotch, which would have the effect of making it a lot funnier if not substantially more sensible.

Then we have the Ikels, which are like little hairy humans with cloven feet.  The Ciakars, or Mothmen, one of whom was featured in the historical documentary Godzilla vs. Mothra.  The Pleaidians.  The Hyadeans.  The Cetians.  The Orions.  The Lyrans.   The Weasel-People of Wahoonie-3.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But really... it's no weirder than their actual claims.  The people who wrote this website obviously believe it all; it has none of the hallmarks of a spoof.  It's full of links to pages describing how various malevolent aliens are plotting to take over Earth, with intricate details of which alien races are in league with which, who might tentatively be on our side, which ones have already established bases on Earth, and so on.  You have to wonder if the people responsible for this are simply paranoid and delusional -- which, as a mental illness, I can have some sympathy for -- or if they are making the whole thing up to see how many people they can bamboozle.  (Speaking of L. Ron Hubbard...)

Sad to say, I've known people who actually believed in alien conspiracies, so the idea of someone falling for this nonsense is not as outlandish as it may seem.  And as I've commented before, once you've accepted that there's a Big Scary Evil Conspiracy, everything afterwards is seen through that lens.  My attempts to convince the alien believers that what they were claiming was complete horse waste were met with very little success.  In fact, afterwards, I sort of sensed that they acted a little suspicious of me -- as if my arguing with them just proved that I was in alliance with the aliens.

Or maybe... that I am an alien.  My AP Biology students are certainly suspicious in this regard, given that the summer reading assignment this year had to do with the possibility of life on other planets.  More than one of them speculated that I'd given the assignment only because I had a lot of knowledge base to work from, being an extraterrestrial myself.

I wonder which kind I am?   I don't want to be a little turquoise guy, and the reptilians are becoming a little passé, frankly.  Maybe I could be a Horlock, which are sort of like the Men in Black.  I look good in black.  Besides, they can disappear at will, and alter people's memories, which seem like pretty damn cool superpowers to have.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Anti-vaxx backfire

For people with an axe to grind, there's a problem with the scientific method; it can't be swayed by bribes or specious arguments.  Followed correctly, it will give you answers -- even if those answers aren't the ones you'd hoped for.

Now, this doesn't mean that unscrupulous people can't cherry-pick the data afterwards and claim they've been vindicated.  But the method itself doesn't care what your political leanings are, what your biases are, what religion (if any) you belong to...

... or whether you believe in pseudoscience.  Which is a lesson that anti-vaxx organization SafeMinds should have learned before they spent $250,000 only to end up proving that they're wrong.

SafeMinds states their stance clearly, right on their "About Us" page:
The vast majority of new autism cases are due to worrisome changes in our environment – growing chemical exposures, poor nutrition, alterations in our biome, expansion of medical interventions, indoor lifestyles.  These changes are modifiable.  The autism epidemic can be reversed by accelerating environmental research and demanding reform in public health policies.
The problem is, the data doesn't support that conclusion.  The best research recently has shown that there is a strong link between autism and genetics -- including a study showing that the correlation for autism between monozygotic (identical) twins is 76% -- while it is only 34% between same-sex dizygotic (fraternal) twins, and 18% for dizygotic male/female twins.

How do you explain that if autism is caused by environmental factors alone?

But as we've seen, once you've decided you're right about something, even arguments and hard evidence won't change your mind.  In fact, as baffling as this is, it appears that it might make your erroneous convictions stronger.

Which is why SafeMinds pitched in $250,000 to fund a study of the effect of vaccines on the brains of baby macaque monkeys.  Okay, study after study has shown that there is no connection between vaccination and anything except becoming immune to deadly childhood diseases -- but maybe this time they'd have the smoking gun in hand.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Predictably, it didn't quite work out that way.  Science writer David Gorski, over at Science-Based Medicine, describes it this way:
Between 2003 and 2013, SafeMinds provided scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, the University of Washington, the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development and other research institutions with approximately $250,000 to conduct a long-term investigation evaluating behavioral and brain changes of baby rhesus macaques that were administered a standard course of childhood vaccines.  (The National Autism Association, another organization that has questioned vaccine safety, also provided financial support for this research.)  The latest paper in the multiyear project was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  In it, the researchers concluded that vaccines did not cause any brain or behavioral changes in the primates.
Oops.  Kind of backfired, wouldn't you say?

The whole thing would make me guffaw except for the fact that millions of dollars have been wasted trying to prove the safety and efficacy of vaccines to people who are bound and determined to ignore every bit of scientific evidence generated -- money that could be better spent trying to find the actual causes of autism, and perhaps a way to treat it more effectively.  At some point, we need to stop treating the anti-vaxxers as if they have any legitimacy.  We don't spend research grant money year after year investigating astrology; why do so for any other pseudoscientific beliefs, regardless of whether the True Believers try to couch their nonsense in scientific terms?

Time to say, "Case closed."  You had your chance to prove your contention.  Turns out you were wrong.  Move on, nothing to see here.

Because that's the beauty of science, isn't it?  It will give you answers -- although they may not be the ones you anticipated.  But as eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

Monday, October 5, 2015

Wrath dodging

As a further indication of how completely unhinged our country is becoming, there is a resolution before the county commission in Blount County, Tennessee -- authored by Commissioner Karen Miller herself -- asking god's wrath to pass them by.

Here's the text of the resolution:
With a firm reliance upon the providence of Almighty God WE the BLOUNT COUNTY LEGISLATURE call upon all of the Officers of the State of Tennessee, the Governor, the Attorney General, and the members of the Tennessee Legislature, to join US, and utilize all authority within their power to protect Natural Marriage, from lawless court opinions, AND THE financial schemes of the enemies of righteousness wherever the source AND defend the Moral Standards of Tennessee. 
WE adopt this Resolution before God that He pass us by in His Coming Wrath and not destroy our County as He did Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring cities.  As the Passover Lamb was a means of salvation to the ancient Children of Israel, so we stand upon the safety of the Lamb of God to save us.  WE adopt this Resolution begging His favor in light of the fact that we have been forced to comply and recognize that the State of Tennessee, like so many other God-fearing States, MAY have fallen prey to a lawless judiciary in legalizing what God and the Bible expressly forbids.
The number of features in this resolution that are eyebrow-raising is impressive, given that it's only two paragraphs long.  First, there's the whole separation of church and state thing, which Miller apparently thinks is an optional clause in the Constitution.

But consider also the "financial schemes of the enemies of righteousness."  I'm no biblical scholar, but my impression is that Capitalist Jesus is a fairly recent invention.  My memory is more that there were dozens of biblical prohibitions against usury (lending money at interest) -- it's called an "abomination" more than once, and in fact has a good many more mentions in the bible than homosexuality does.  Deuteronomy 23:19 is especially unequivocal: "You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent. "

Then there's Leviticus 19:34: "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God."  Oh, and the thing Jesus said about the money-changers in the temple, the poor inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it's easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for rich man to enter paradise.

Jesus sounds more like a socialist than a Republican, frankly.

Then there's the attitude that the all-loving and all-seeing god would smite the shit out of the people in Blount County because of something the Supreme Court did in Washington D.C.  Is it just me, or does Commissioner Miller not have much faith in the aim of the almighty?  It's something that has struck me before -- the way natural disasters are blamed on god's wrath, when in fact hurricanes and floods and wildfires and earthquakes don't discriminate much between the righteous and the unrighteous.  They more have to do with whether the geographical area in question was already prone to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, or earthquakes.

It's almost as if god wasn't choosing where to send natural disasters, that they're being directed by climate and plate tectonics.  Funny thing, that.

Besides, what kind of deity would hold Commissioner Miller, who is presumably a god-fearing Christian herself, guilty having anything to do with same-sex marriage?  She isn't a Supreme Court justice, and presumably has neither voted for legalization of same-sex marriage nor is in such a marriage herself.  So why would she need to "beg for favor?"  And why would Blount County, which according to a demographic survey is nearly 50% evangelical protestant, be singled out to be treated like "Sodom and Gomorrah?"

Seems to me that a god that smites whole counties, pretty much at random, is kind of an asshole, and not really all that worthy of worship.

But that is the sort of deity that Ms. Miller apparently believes in.  It'll be interesting to see if the commission approves her resolution tomorrow.  You have to wonder if there'll be any commission members who will be willing to vote against it, and go on record as saying, "No, I'd prefer to pass on the providence of the Almighty God.  I'm standing with the Lawless Judiciary and the Enemies of Righteousness."

I know that's what I'd do.  In fact, I'd not only vote against the resolution, but I'd devise a resolution of my own suggesting that Ms. Miller is unfit for public office in a secular democracy.  After all, I've already established that I'm deserving of God's Coming Wrath, so I'm pretty much screwed anyway.  At this point, it's Go Big or Go Home.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Live cells and zoonotic disease

I understand that there's a lot about our health care system that is downright awful.

There's price-gouging for medications.  There's the molasses-in-January-slow process for getting approval for drugs that desperately unhealthy people need now.  There's the terrible inequity between health care availability and quality for the rich and the poor.

But for all of that, there is a reason that regulations and bureaucracy exist.  No, it doesn't work all of the time.  It could certainly do with an overhaul.  But when people circumvent the rules that are set up to protect them from the effects of their own stupidity and gullibility, bad stuff happens.

Take, for example the five New York State residents who traveled to Germany to receive something called "live cell therapy" -- a dubious "alternative medicine" treatment wherein people are given live cell infusions from non-human animals (e.g. sheep) in order to...

... well, I dunno.  Given that it doesn't work, it's hard to tell what exactly they were trying to accomplish.  Proponents of "live cell therapy" tout its benefits, claiming that it treats everything from cancer to autoimmune diseases to aging symptoms.  Of course, the downside is obvious to anyone who received a passing grade in high school introductory biology; given that the cells you are receiving are not human, your immune system will certainly recognize them as foreign and set up a reaction against them.  The result at best would be redness and swelling, and at worst allergy and anaphylaxis.

Or, as the five New Yorkers found out, a zoonotic disease.  Zoonotic diseases are pathogens carried by other species but transmissible to humans -- rabies being a particularly well-known example.  There are lots of others, however, including various parasitic worms, cat scratch fever, giardia, toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, and the bubonic plague.

And, apparently, Q fever.  Q fever is a contagious disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii, and causes flu-like symptoms.  Possible complications are liver enlargement, endocarditis, and pneumonia.  Apparently the injections of live sheep cells that were given to the New Yorkers in Germany were contaminated with the bacteria, and all five of them became ill.

Coxiella burnetii, the causative agent of Q fever [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

All seem to be recovering, but like Lyme disease, it can leave behind a latent infection that can cause problems months are years later.  It is definitely a disease I wouldn't want to trifle with.

Okay, I know that the FDA is often depicted as a bunch of stodgy traditionalists, unwilling to gamble anything or anybody on new therapies that might carry risks.  I also agree with the fact that if I were dying of an incurable disease, I would certainly want to take my chances with a promising but untested drug, given that my only other option was an early death.  But there are a lot of therapies that are unapproved for a reason -- because they are worthless.

And "live cell therapy" is one of those treatments that is downright dangerous.

All of this brings back to mind Tim Minchin's trenchant line, from his performance piece Storm (which, if you haven't seen it, you must watch immediately): "There's a name for alternative medicine that works.  It's called... medicine."

Friday, October 2, 2015

The tour guide in CrazyTown

I'm being driven to the conclusion that Ben Carson is insane.

This has very little to do with his stance on actual issues.  From what I've heard, when he sticks to talking about policy, there's not much to distinguish him from the other candidates for the Republican nomination.  But as soon as he veers off script, Carson very quickly ends up leading us on a guided tour of CrazyTown.

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

Let's start with his comment earlier this year that there's no such thing as a war crime. "There is no such thing as a politically correct war," Carson said, in an interview on Fox News.  "We need to grow up, we need to mature.  If you’re gonna have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says no war.  Other than that, we have to win."

You have to wonder if he thinks the Nuremberg Trials were justified.  After all, the Nazis didn't have to fight a politically correct war, right?  They were just trying to win.

Then we have his dire claims about Obamacare, which ring a little hollow after a Rand Corporation study done earlier this year that found that 17 million more Americans have health insurance since the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

But no reason to let a little thing like facts get in the way.  Obamacare is the "worst thing since slavery" (direct quote, there), Carson told us on one occasion.  On another, he said that the ACA "has been even more damaging to the United States than the terrorist attacks of 9/11."  When the aghast interviewer asked him to elaborate, Carson said, "Things that are isolated issues as opposed to things that fundamentally change the United States of America and shift power from the people to the government.  That is a huge shift.”

Then we have his comments that the events that occurred in Nazi Germany could happen right here in the United States -- which is actually sensible until you put it in juxtaposition with some of his other statements.  At a campaign event in New Hampshire, Carson said that some people believed that the rise of something like Nazism would never happen in the USA.

"I beg to differ," Carson said.  "If you go back and look at the history of the world, tyranny and despotism and how it starts, it has a lot to do with control of thought and control of speech...  If people don't speak up for what they believe, then other people will change things without them having a voice.  Hitler changed things there and nobody protested.  Nobody provided any opposition to him."

Hitler also swayed a lot of Germans by convincing them that they were at risk of losing their cultural identity from such threats as the Jews.  Kind of curious, then, that Carson is employing the same kinds of tactics, but aimed instead at gays -- whom he said were responsible for the fall of Rome:
I believe God loves homosexuals as much as he loves everyone, but if we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.
Of course, he may not be all that sure of his own facts, because he said at another time that political correctness was what destroyed the Roman Empire:
You know, there is no society that can long survive without values and principles.  And if we get so caught up in political correctness, that nothing is right and nothing is wrong, then we go the same route as Ancient Rome.  They did exactly the same thing.  And they forgot who they were.  They stood for nothing and they fell for everything and they went right down the tubes.
So the fall of Rome couldn't have had anything to do with mismanagement by crazy leaders and their being attacked by a shitload of barbarians?

I can understand why Carson wouldn't want to draw attention to the former, at least.

The whole thing may be a moot point anyhow, because Carson went on record as saying that there "may be so much anarchy going on" in 2016 that the elections will be cancelled.

I'm willing to believe that a lot of the candidates, on both sides of the aisle, are pandering to their voter base, and saying whatever it takes to get elected.  When you look at campaign statements, and then what the victors actually do once they're in office, it becomes pretty clear that there's often a pretty big disconnect between the stump-speech rhetoric and the reality of policymaking.

Carson, though... when he speaks, in that soft, patient, utterly reasonable tone of his... I think he honestly believes everything he's saying.

Which makes his position as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination absolutely terrifying.  If this man gets the nod, and has even a prayer of a chance of winning the presidency...  well, let me just say that there are precedents in world history for insane but charismatic ideologues taking control of a country -- and none of them end well.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The meaning of "Two dignified spinsters sitting in silence"

A loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me an email a couple of days ago with a link and the following message: "Okay, I know about the Tarot and all, but what the hell do you make of this?  I think we may have found something that is even weirder than the Tarot.  Astrology x Tarot = WHEEEEE!  Have fun."

Below was attached a link to a website called, "The Degrees and Meanings of the Sabian Symbols."

For those of you who would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells even opening this link, allow me to explain that the Sabian Symbols are mystical images, one for each of the 360 degrees of the zodiac. Another site, simply called "Sabian Symbols," describes them as follows:
Renowned worldwide as both an uncanny divination system and an insightful tool for astrologers, the Sabian Symbols were channeled in San Diego in 1925 by Marc Edmund Jones, a well reknowned [sic] and respected astrologer, and Elsie Wheeler, a spiritualist medium.  They consist of 360 word images corresponding to the 360 degrees of the zodiac (each zodiac sign comprising of 30 degrees)...  The Sabian Symbols are extraordinary for insight, revelation and guidance.  Miracles, big and small, happen in your life when you tap into their field... (it is) an "ancient mind matrix."
Well. Alrighty, then. Let's just take a look, shall we?  Here are a few selected Sabian Symbols from various degrees of the zodiac.  Let me know of any insight, revelation, or guidance you got from them, okay?
  • Aries, 7-8 degrees: A large woman's hat with streamers blown by the east wind.
  • Taurus, 15-16 degrees: An old teacher fails to interest his pupils in traditional knowledge.
  • Leo, 1-2 degrees: An epidemic of mumps.
  • Virgo, 15-16 degrees: In the zoo, children are brought face-to-face with an orangutan.
  • Sagittarius, 20-21 degrees: A child and a dog wearing borrowed eyeglasses.
  • Capricorn, 16-17 degrees: A repressed woman finds psychological release in nudism.
  • Aquarius, 22-23 degrees: A big bear sitting down and waving all of its paws.
Okay, so that gives you an idea.  And no, I didn't make any of these up.  All I can say is: whatever drugs Marc Edmund Jones was on when he came up with these, can I have some?

Of course, the people who believe in this stuff don't think that it was drugs.  They think that Jones was really channeling a mystical presence.  Once again, quoting from "Sabian Symbols:"
The Sabian Symbol story is embedded in the ancient cultures of the Middle East. Marc Edmund Jones felt that there was an "unseen agency" - an external, esoteric mind-set at work in the birthing of the Sabian Symbols . Connection was made through a 'Brother', a member of the ancient Mesopotamian brotherhood, the Sabian Brotherhood.  He believed that they were the 'voices' that were spiritually behind Elsie Wheeler, delivering the messages that became the Symbols...  As we move out of the Piscean age and into the Aquarian age, we are transmuting in many ways, with the vibration of our spiritual and intellectual minds moving into higher gears as we evolve.  In such hectic times, we hunger for meaning and guidance, but often don't have the time or the patience to pause and reflect deeply on our situation.  The Sabian Oracle opens the doorway between our inner feelings and intentions and our conscious mind.  They do this by helping to put what is within us into words.  Being provided with possibilities enables us to act positively and confidently, and think rationally. 
My general response to all of that is that if you were thinking rationally you wouldn't be relying on astrology in the first place.  And, of course, the usual problem with symbolic fortunetelling occurs here, just as it does with the Tarot, the I Ching, runes, and so on; the symbols are so weird and open to interpretation that you can make just about anything out of them that you want. 

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Suppose that for some reason, the "oracle" told me that my symbol for today was Libra, 29-30 degrees ("Three mounds of knowledge on a philosopher's head.")  My first response would be that I didn't know that knowledge came in mounds.  But after that, what does it mean?  Is it saying that I'm smart?  Or that I'm not smart enough and should go study some more mounds of knowledge?  Or that today would be good for philosophical contemplation?  Or that I should be looking for guidance from three different sources?  Or that I could find answers in books by philosophers?

This is why the "Sabian Symbols" site offers "professional Sabian astrology consultations" -- for a hefty fee, of course -- because slobs like me just aren't qualified to interpret what "A butterfly with a third wing on its left side" (Libra, 23-24 degrees) means.

The take-home lesson here, I suppose, is that there is no realm of woo-woo so goofy that someone can't elaborate on it in such a fashion as to make it way goofier.  Wondering whether there might be anything else I could learn from all the time I spent reading this stuff, I clicked on the link that said "Clear your mind and click on this picture of a galaxy" to get wisdom from the oracle.  I got Scorpio, 16-17 degrees, which is "A woman, fecundated with her own spirit, is the father of her own child." Which, I think, was a symbolic way for the oracle to tell me to go fuck myself.

Oracles can be so hostile, sometimes.