sTARBABY

sTARBABY

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The “sTARBABY” incident was a scandal in which the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) inserted nonrandom, biased astrological data into a statistical test of astrological influence. The effect of the extra data was to transform test results that verified a particular astrological relationship into test results that appeared to negate the relationship. The unusual name sTARBABY, which was the title of the principal article exposing the fraud, alludes to the Uncle Remus children’s tale in which Br’er Rabbit tries to force the Tarbaby to release him—only to become more deeply entrapped.

In the mid-1970s, Paul Kurtz, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, collected 186 scientists’ signatures in support of an antiastrology statement. This document, “Objections to Astrology,” was published in the September-October 1975 issue of the Humanist magazine, of which Kurtz was the editor. The tone of the statement was harsh: It portrayed astrology as irrational superstition and called astrologers charlatans. “Objections to Astrology” was also released to the press, and it received widespread publicity. This unexpected publicity encouraged Kurtz and others to found CSICOP, an organization dedicated to debunking “pseudoscience.”

“Objections to Astrology” was published in the same issue in which Lawrence E. Jerome’s “Astrology: Magic or Science?” appeared. This article attacked, among others, the highly respected French scientists Michel and Françoise Gauquelin. The Gauquelins had undertaken sophisticated statistical tests of astrological claims. These tests largely failed to support traditional astrology, but they also uncovered a few statistically significant correlations. These correlations formed the basis for further studies, and eventually the Gauquelins concluded that they had discovered certain astrological relationships. Michel Gauquelin refuted Jerome’s article and intimated possible legal action against the Humanist for misrepresenting his views. The Gauquelins’s response in combination with the publicity generated by “Objections to Astrology” prompted CSICOP to undertake an empirical refutation of astrology—a refutation that focused on the work of the Gauquelins.

Of the various correlations uncovered by the Gauquelins, the strongest was the so-called Mars effect, the correlation between athletic achievement and the position of Mars—a planet traditionally associated with physical energy—in certain influential sectors of the sky (e.g., close to the eastern horizon and near the zenith) at the time of birth. Confident that any genuine test of astrological influence would disconfirm such correlations, the Humanist issued a challenge to the Gauquelins to subject their original findings on the Mars effect to an empirical test. The original research had compared the birth data of athletes against statistical probabilities; the Humanist challenged the Gauquelins to test their findings against the actual birth data of nonathletes. Contrary to the expectations of skeptical critics, the Zelen Test (after Marvin Zelen, who carried out the test) confirmed the Gauquelins’s original findings. Reluctant to admit defeat, Zelen, Kurtz, and their colleagues quickly changed direction and began questioning the validity of the Gauquelins’s original sample of athletes. This disagreement eventually led the Gauquelins to agree to a new test of the Mars effect, which was to be conducted by CSICOP with a sample of American athletes.

Dennis Rawlins, one of the founders of CSICOP and a planetary motion specialist, oversaw the calculations. Anxious to have a “sneak peak” at the preliminary findings of the new test, Kurtz called Rawlins, only to be told that the early results seemed to confirm the Mars effect. According to Rawlins, in an article in the October 1981 issue of Fate, a popular magazine on the paranormal, Kurtz responded to the news with a groan and spoke “in a pained voice, as someone cursed with a demon that would not go away.” Kurtz then supplied Rawlins with additional samples of athletes. The last sample supplied to Rawlins contained athletes with an extremely low Mars effect—so low as to effectively cancel the Mars effect of the original sample. Rawlins became convinced that the last group of athletes was not a random sample (i.e., that the sample had been intentionally designed to negate the Mars effect).

Rawlins initially attempted to correct what he saw as a cover-up by appealing to other people within CSICOP. That group’s leadership responded by ejecting him from the organization. Meanwhile, Kurtz published the results of the “test,” claiming that the Mars effect had been decisively disproved. Rawlins, however, soon published his “sTARBABY” exposé in Fate. Rawlins’s accusations were reinforced by Patrick Curry’s article “Research on the Mars Effect,” which appeared in the Zetetic Scholar soon after the publication of “sTARBABY.” The ensuing uproar eventually forced Kurtz and the other CSICOP personnel involved with the test to issue a partial confession. This “reappraisal” acknowledged many weaknesses in the test without admitting either that the data had been manipulated or that the Mars effect might possibly be the result of astrological influences.

To most astrologers, the “sTARBABY” incident has come to epitomize the attitude of would-be debunkers. While many skeptics are far more reasonable than CSICOP, the individuals behind the “sTARBABY” cover-up were clearly more interested in defending a rather narrow interpretation of scientific orthodoxy than in empirical truth. Its image tarnished by the incident, CSICOP has since avoided active experimentation.

Sources:

Abell, George O., Paul Kurtz, and Marvin Zelen. “The Abell-Kurtz-Zelen ‘Mars Effect’ Experiments: A Reappraisal.” The Skeptical Inquirer 7, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 77–82.
Bok, Bart J., Lawrence E. Jerome, and Paul Kurtz. “Objections to Astrology: A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists.” The Humanist 35, no. 5 (September/October 1975): 4–6.
Curry, Patrick. “Research on the Mars Effect.” Zetetic Scholar 9 (March 1982): 34–53.
Forrest, Steven. “Exploring the Fear of Astrology Among the Educated.” Paper delivered at the Cycles and Symbols conference, San Francisco, California, July 26–29, 1990.
Jerome, Lawrence E. “Astrology: Magic or Science?” The Humanist 35, no. 5 (September/October 1975): 10–16.
Melton, J. Gordon, Jerome Clark, and Aidan A. Kelly. New Age Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.
Pinch, T. J., and H. M. Collins. “Private Science and Public Knowledge: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal and Its Use of the Literature.” Social Studies of Science 14 (1984): 521–46.
Rawlins, Dennis. “sTARBABY.” Fate 34, no. 10 (October 1981): 67–98.
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